Review: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

20 Books of Summer 2022: Book 7

Much of my affection for Ernest Hemingway’s writing comes from his short fiction. I remember being assigned “Hills Like White Elephants” in college. I read it quickly, too quickly, and was stunned when the in-class conversation turned to abortion. I’d read past the topic discussed by the two main characters—the only thing happening in the story—in my bid to finish my homework as fast as possible. The more we discussed it, the more the story opened up and the sparse, concise language conveyed more than I’d realized. When you come to admire an author for their concision, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ll like their full-length novels. When I picked up The Sun Also Rises, I was intrigued by the idea of more Hemingway. (The Frasier quote comes to mind: “Ah, but if less is more, just think of how much more more will be!)

The Sun Also Rises follows a group of expatriates in Europe shortly after WWI. Then spend their time lunching, drinking, socializing, drinking, dancing, and drinking. It’s hard to emphasize the quantity of booze in this book—the thought of three people sucking down three bottles of champagne only to chug wine, cocktails, and brandy with dinner/dessert makes my liver hurt. But since I read over the whole abortion thing in “Hills Like White Elephants,” I felt obligated to do the barest amount of research into what Hemingway intended with this one. To be completely truthful, if left on my own I find this book tedious, repetitive, and possible to sum up with two quotes:

“Oh, darling,” Brett said, “I’m so miserable.” (56)

And:

It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people. (127)

(Though I’m criticizing this book by saying it can be summed up by only these quotes, I do love the above paragraph. I don’t relate to the war aspect, but I’ve been to dinner parties that might be described this way and the description is perfect.)

The main story, as much as there is one, follows Jake Barnes—a journalist who was injured in the war and is now impotent. I wouldn’t mention this as a key character attribute, but other characters treat it as one, especially Lady Brett Ashley who spends an uncomfortable amount of time telling Jake they could be together if only. Unlike his friends, Jake has a job, but most of the book is spent detailing his social life.

The characters are petty and detached from one another, and I suppose that’s the point. Much has been written that this book captures something of the post-war vibe, and if it has captured something true from its time then it has value as a piece of literature (and as a homework assignment). But as a book that I read from curiosity and for leisure, it offers nothing that Hemingway couldn’t have accomplished in a much shorter piece. I perused a few effusive essays about the value of this book (and they helped me appreciate it!) but I remain unconvinced that this book couldn’t have been a short story. As I look back at it, there are elements that are impressive, but they’re all related to the actual writing and not to the quality of the characters, the plot, the world-building, the mood, etc. “What a nice sentence,” I thought over and over and between moments of boredom.

This is at least the third review I’ve written where I’ve struggled with the question: “If a book about bored people makes me feel bored, can it rightly be called boring, or is it just well written?” I keep coming back to the idea that boring things need not be written in a mundane way, and that books should contain at least some entertaining element. Annoyingly, what livens up the end of this book is that Jake and his booze-soaked acquaintances stagger off to Spain and watch the bullfights. Bullfighting may be a tradition, but I have nothing positive to say about stabbing bulls to death in the ring, no matter how compelling and balletic Hemingway attempts to convey it:

At the end of the pass they were facing each other again. Romero smiled. The bull wanted it again, and Romero’s cape filled again, this time on the other side. Each time he let the bull pass so close that the man and the bull and the cape that filled and pivoted ahead of the bull were all one sharply etched mass. It was all so slow and so controlled. It was as though he were rocking the bull to sleep. He made four veronicas like that, and finished with a half-veronica that turned his back on the bull and came away toward the applause, his hand on his hip, his cape on his arm, and the bull watching his back going away. (188)

The silver lining, and the only thing that makes the book remotely palatable is that by the end it seems Jake is more or less done with this bunch of unlikable people. Or maybe that’s my wishful thinking. After all, like most things by Hemingway, the spare language leaves room for a range of interpretations.

Overall: 3.4 (out of 5.0) My essay reading has convinced me that this book has literary value and I’m glad to have read it. The same themes would have been much more compelling in a shorter work, and I’m sure Hemingway could have accomplished that perfectly.

20 Books of Summer 2022

Previously on

  1. A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie
  2. Dune by Frank Herbert
  3. The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan
  4. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
  5. Sphere by Michael Crichton
  6. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Read, review coming soon

  1. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  2. The Appointment by Herta Müller
  3. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin
  4. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Currently reading

  • Burmese Days by George Orwell
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  • Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
  • Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard

Unread, review coming later

  1. Human Acts by Han Kang
  2. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  3. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  4. The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi
  5. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

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