Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | MonkeyNotes
THE CHARACTERS - CHARACTER LIST AND ANALYSIS
• JAKE BARNES
Jake is an American in his mid-20s working as a journalist in Paris after World War I. His disillusionment and unsentimental view of reality are shared by many young Americans who left America to live in Europe. Jake's life in Paris consists of going from cafe to cafe, drinking, eating too much, talking the night away, and watching the sexual antics of his friends.
The most important thing about Jake is the wound around his groin, which he received on the Italian front during the war. Though it's not clear exactly what the wound is, it keeps him from having sexual relations, though he can still feel desire.
The woman he loves is Lady Brett Ashley, and she loves him, but they can't stay together because of his wound. They tried once, but their inability to consummate their love left them both terribly frustrated. Unable to keep the woman he loves, Jake finds himself standing on the sidelines, watching her have affairs with his friends. On one occasion he actually fixes her up with another man, a bullfighter named Pedro Romero.
Jake's given name is Jacob, after the Biblical character who wrestles all night with the angel. Jake wrestles, too, with himself and with his demons, and also with the postwar modern world. Finally he reaches an unsatisfactory peace with his life.
Jake tells us the story of The Sun Also Rises in the first person. It's important to keep in mind that not everything he tells us is necessarily the truth. What we learn from him is colored by his attitudes, his experience, and his wound.
Jake is judgmental. One of his goals is to figure out how to live in the modern world; that is, how to act and how to determine the difference between right and wrong in a world seemingly without meaning or direction. As readers we should always ask whether his judgments are the same as our own.
Although Hemingway never made the comparison, many critics compare Jake to a mythological figure called the Fisher King, whose wellbeing mirrored the well-being of his nation. The Fisher King, like Jake, was impotent, and as a result his land became sterile and incapable of growing food. In the myth the Fisher King is healed, and his land turns bountiful. But Jake is not healed in The Sun Also Rises, and neither is his world.
Jake is an archetypal tough guy hero, a man who doesn't show his feelings. He loves to hunt and fish. He's proud. Though he's a cynical, clearsighted realist, he's soft at the center. When he's alone at night we see him start to fall apart from the strain of being impotent. He can't sleep without a nightlight because he's afraid of the dark.
Jake, like his friends, is empty inside. While others might have religion to fill the void, Jake, though he says he's a Catholic, doesn't really believe in religion any longer. He believes that he should believe, but he can't.
Yet Jake also is a hero. More than his friends, he tries to understand what is good and of lasting value. He wishes he was able to live by these values. He has passion, courage, a blistering honesty, and, no small matter, a gift for friendship. What he doesn't have is love, faith, and purpose. But there is little love, faith, and purpose in the wasteland world of The Sun Also Rises; and so, finally, it's not Jake's failure we must condemn or pity, but the greater failure of the world he lives in.
• LADY BRETT ASHLEY
Lady Brett is a 34-year-old Englishwoman who is beautiful and emotionally scarred. She had an innocent love affair when she was a volunteer nurse in the war, but ever since her young soldier died, she has drifted from one worthless man to another. Her husband, a British Lord from whom she is separated, gave her her title, but also made her sleep on the floor and more than once threatened her with a gun.
Now she runs around Paris with a group of homosexuals. She is engaged to Michael Campbell, a drunk and bankrupt Scot, but she has numerous affairs. She also loves Jake Barnes, but because of his wound, they can't make love; their relationship only frustrates them both. Like Jake, she is a hardboiled realist.
Lady Brett represents everything that offends the prevalent sensibilities of her time. She smokes and drinks too much. She is in the process of a divorce, and is promiscuous. She has no religion and no strong moral beliefs. In short, she is irresponsible and neurotic.
Brett is considered a goddess by the dancers at the Spanish fiesta. She is said to collect men, and indeed at one point all the principal men in the book-Jake, Robert Cohn, Mike, Bill, and Pedro Romero-are in love with her. One character calls her Circe, after the mythical woman who turns men to swine, and many readers see Brett as having an evil magic that emasculates men.
Brett herself is mannish and tries to act like the men she associates with. She has very short hair and often refers to herself as "one of the chaps." Sexual roles are confused in The Sun Also Rises-the hero is impotent and the heroine behaves like a man. This confusion represents the perversion and failure of love Hemingway saw in the postwar world.
Brett is an example of an individual trying to cope in a world that has lost the unquestioned moral order of organized religion.
• ROBERT COHN
Robert Cohn is the most difficult character to understand. Jake, who describes him to us, comes to hate him, and for good reason, since Cohn steals the woman Jake loves. Bill Gorton and Mike Campbell slander Cohn at every turn with vicious anti-Semitic insults. Jake and his friends all subscribe to a hardboiled code of realism and can't tolerate a simple romantic like Cohn. But don't let the other characters sway you in your opinion of Cohn; you have to stand apart from their prejudices and make up your own mind.
Robert Cohn is an outsider, as he has been all his life. He was a Jew at Princeton at a time when almost no Jews attended Ivy League schools. His family is very rich, and he's had a privileged life that others might envy. He's been able to have and to do whatever he wants. He has flirted with the arts, started a small magazine, written a bad novel, and now lives among other American writers in Paris.
Robert Cohn often doesn't know when and where he belongs. He pursues Brett after she has made it clear she doesn't want him. He has little self-knowledge and cannot understand why his more worldly wise friends make fun of him. But is he really so different? Apart from being Jewish and relatively inexperienced, Cohn is an expatriate much like his so-called friends. The "in crowd" keeps him at a distance, however, because he's an effective scapegoat for their own failings.
Cohn's innocent romanticism sharply separates him from the others. He doesn't understand that the war has destroyed innocence, love, and trust. He believes that sleeping with Lady Brett on their trip to San Sebastian means they will love each other forever. For Brett, a collector of men, their romance means very little, but it takes a vicious insult and three fistfights before Cohn understands how little Brett cares.
Jake and his friends have learned about life from life; Cohn has learned what he knows from books. He accepts illusions over realities, and this gets him into trouble. Yet, because he doesn't see the world as completely tarnished, he is not defeated by it. For Cohn, the world is a place of life and hope. He does not see it as a wasteland.
Cohn may remind you of a puppy in his need for love and acceptance. He slavers after the first woman who accepts him and lets her dominate him. He likes to be mothered. There is something pathetic about Cohn, maybe even tragic. He wants so much to belong-simply to be loved and cared for-and yet we know he'll never be accepted.
Yet Cohn also has strengths. At Princeton he was a champion boxer, and when he's finally forced to fight, he does so furiously. He knocks down Jake and Mike, and he attacks Romero, too. This fighting is noble in that it means Cohn will stand up for what he believes in, yet it is also stupid because it gets him nowhere. Cohn doesn't simply fight and walk away; he fights and then feels pathetically guilty about it. His last act is to beg forgiveness from Jake. Jake forgives him, though he knows he shouldn't. Jake also knows as well as we do that Cohn should never have asked to be forgiven.
In some ways Cohn is not that different from Jake. Both are grownup adolescents and both love Lady Brett hopelessly. As much as Jake tries to separate himself from Cohn-there is even a point at which we wonder why they're friends at all-we finally have to believe that they are simply two sides of the same coin. Cohn is a failed comic hero, Jake a failed tragic one.