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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway-Book Notes
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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

BOOK II

CHAPTER XVII

This is the first of two climactic chapters.

Brett is off with Romero. Jake, Bill, Mike, and Bill's pick-up, Edna, bluster drunkenly until Cohn shows up. Where's Brett? he wants to know. Jake lies and says he doesn't know. Finally Mike tells him she's with Romero.

Cohn calls Jake a pimp for "selling" Brett to Romero. Jake throws a punch; Cohn easily ducks. The fight that's been building between these two grownup schoolboys erupts but ends almost as quickly as it began. All Cohn has to do is hit Jake once, and Jake falls down; Cohn hits him again, and the fight is over. Cohn easily knocks Mike down, too, and then departs. When their code of manliness is finally put to the test, everybody fails.

NOTE:

That the characters fail, that they fall far short of their self-imposed code, is what makes the book complex and not a simple adventure story with essentially two-dimensional characters. The novel, in fact, can be read as a modern tragedy in which good people are destroyed by fate (the war) and by tragic flaws (personal shortcomings). Each character responds to the postwar world in his own way; whether each is a victim of circumstance or is personally responsible for his fate is something you have to decide for yourself.

Jake is physically shaken. Having acted despicably and then been beaten up by a man he despises, he has obviously lost a good deal of self-esteem. Pay close attention to the paragraph in which he trudges across the plaza, for it is a turning point in the book.


Everything looks "new and changed" to him. "It was all different," he says. If you can remember a time when you received bad news and suddenly felt that you were in a new world, you know how Jake feels. He remembers, as a boy, coming home from an out-of-town football game where he had been kicked in the head, and he remembers dragging a suitcase home from the game, a symbol of his humiliation. Now he's dragging a "phantom suitcase." Now, as then, his whole idea of himself has changed.

Jake tells us he needs a "deep, hot bath, to lie back in." This should remind you of Brett's obsession with bathing as a way of washing away her guilt, and restoring the purity she has lost.

Cohn, meanwhile, is crying, wracked with guilt. He keeps apologizing to Jake, begging Jake to forgive him, and finally Jake relents.

NOTE:

Robert Cohn has been enduring a terrible rite of passage, as one by one his romantic illusions are stripped from him. "I just couldn't stand it about Brett," he explains. "I've been through hell, Jake.... When I met her down here Brett treated me as though I were a perfect
stranger."

Cohn, the idealist, believed that Brett shared his ideas of romance. As the reader you've known all along how blind he was, but Cohn is only now beginning to understand. The truth is a rude awakening for him, as it would be for anyone whose dreams have been shattered. Before he can pick up the pieces he goes from believing everything to believing nothing. "I guess it isn't any use," he says. "What?" Jake asks. "Everything," Cohn replies.

At this moment Cohn gives up his illusions. He has nothing to believe in now; he has finally become one of the wastelanders. And yet has he? One has the suspicion that he'll never fit into this postwar world, but will go on either believing in the impossible, or lamenting its loss.

Jake finally finds a bathtub, but when he turns on the tap there's no water. Symbolically, the comfort he needs is not to be found. This is the low point for Jake; he can escape only into an exhausted sleep.

When he wakes up he has a headache, but still hurries to the bullring. It's the last day of the fiesta. The bulls are being run through the streets again, chasing the fleeing crowds. A bull catches a man in the back and lifts him into the air, goring him mercilessly.

NOTE:

Men are helpless before the bulls, just as the characters in the novel are helpless before the brute force of the world. The man, whose name was Vicente Girones, tempted fate and lost. He had no experience with bulls, unlike Pedro Romero, who had the grace and skill to play with death and survive.

What was the point of Girones' death? Was his heroism cheap and meaningless in the same way the heroism of the soldiers who won medals for their bravery was meaningless to Mike? True glory has left the world, to be replaced by brutal games. "All for fun," the waiter says, implying that this waiter, who lacks aficion, sees bullfighting as pointless and foolish.

An important question raised by The Sun Also Rises is whether bullfighting represents a true and worthwhile test of one's manhood or whether it is just an empty ritual. The waiter thinks it's stupid, but in terms of the book he voices a dissenting opinion. Both Jake, who has aficion, and Hemingway, who loved bullfights and wrote a book about them called Death in the Afternoon, believed, at least superficially, that bullfighting had value. For in risking death, men seem to find some meaning in a fallen world. As you've seen, bullfighting is a true test for Pedro Romero-it proves him a hero. Perhaps Hemingway is saying that if you view bullfighting (or the world itself) with aficion, it can be beautiful and valuable. But if you lack aficion, like the waiter or Brett, then bullfighting (or life itself) is just an entertaining but worthless game.

Meaningless or not, Girones' death does win him a moment of glory as his coffin is drawn through the streets to the train that will take it back to his village. That same day Pedro Romero fights the bull that killed Girones. Because it was a good fight, the crowd tells him to cut off the bull's ear. He does so, and gives it to his new love, Brett. But what does Brett do with it? She leaves it "shoved far back in the drawer of the bed-table that stood beside her bed in the Hotel Montoya, in Pamplona." Brett's interest in bullfighting extends only as far as Romero; the rest is a meaningless, even worthless ritual.

Bill and Mike return to Jake's room at the hotel and tell him what he missed when the bulls entered the stadium. How long did it take the steers to quiet the bulls? Bill says one hour; Mike says fifteen minutes.

NOTE:

Time, it seems, is relative to how we experience it; it is difficult to judge time accurately in any exciting situation, in the bullring as in the war. What's important here is that bullfighting and the war are seen as similar experiences: both silly and tragic in their way, yet both offering an opportunity for action and heroism otherwise lacking in the modern world.

From Mike we learn what happened to Cohn the night before, after his fight. Cohn had charged off to Romero's room, found Brett there with him, and beat him up badly. In yet another romantic gesture, Cohn tried to take Brett away and "make an honest woman of her." He then felt guilty and tried to shake Romero's hand, just as he succeeded in shaking Jake's hand after beating him up. Romero, however, refused to give in.

NOTE:

Here we see a difference between Jake and Romero. Jake, perhaps because he doesn't feel very deeply, or because he has no beliefs, is quick to put differences behind him. Romero, the true hero, keeps fighting. Even when his face is bloody, Romero tells Cohn that he'll kill him if he doesn't leave town. Like a hero in an old-time western movie, Romero never gives up. Cohn, who really wants only to be loved, tries to make up and again Romero slugs him. "That's quite a kid," Bill says. To the end, Romero acts the hero.

It's easy to criticize Brett's behavior, but when we learn about her past we have to sympathize with her, too. Ashley, her husband, wouldn't sleep on a bed, only the floor. He threatened to kill her, and each night she had to empty the shells from his gun before going to sleep. "She hasn't had an absolutely happy life," Mike says.

Brett once had illusions about romance and a meaningful love-remember the story about her true love during the war-but her dreams died in the face of reality. Although psychologically wounded, she struggled, like Jake, to improve herself. The two of them should be contrasted to Mike and Bill, who don't try to live serious lives at all.

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