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Symbols of Nihilism in the Hemingway’s “Sun Also Rises” and ”Own Life” Research Paper

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Updated: Jan 8th, 2022

Just like many of his contemporaries, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Carlos Williams, Thornton Wilder, and Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway belonged to the so-called “Lost Generation”, which was a “group of expatriate American writers residing primarily in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s” (Lost Generation). Kevin Alexander Boon, in his book dedicated to Ernest Hemingway and his works, gives a very concise and yet comprehensive description of “Lost Generation”, saying that “it refers to the young men and women who were ‘blasted by the World War’ (World War I)… were disillusioned with the inability of political bodies to insulate the world against war… and rejected traditional forms” (39-40). Thus, it should come as no surprise that Hemingway’s writings are widely considered to be nihilistic. But first of all, before going into the detailed discussion of the manifestations of nihilistic symbolism in The Sun Also Rises, it is necessary to fully understand the concept of nihilism and thus define it. Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary defines nihilism as “a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless” and also as “a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths” (Nihilism). Both of these can be easily found in The Sun Also Rises, which swarms with symbols of nihilism. Thus, Ernest Hemingway makes extensive use of symbolism in order to convey nihilistic themes, because the main hero of The Sun Also Rises is a symbol of nihilism, the main heroine of The Sun Also Rises is a symbol of nihilism, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, Hemingway’s own life was nihilistic.

The protagonist of The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes, is a symbol of nihilism. The very first few lines show him as such: “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it means a lot to Cohn” (Hemingway 11). Thus, he shows his

dislike of conventional value system and wants to distance himself from it. He goes on to say that “I never met any one of his class who remembered him. They did not even remember that he was middleweight champion” (Hemingway 11), thereby implying that no one cared about his title. Then, he goes on to say that he mistrusts “all frank and simple people” (Hemingway 12), clearly going against the widespread norms of morality. In addition to undervaluing other people’s achievements, Jake is also sceptical about their motives. Thus, describing Robert Cohn’s mistress, he says that she “hoped to rise with the magazine,” which Rober Cohn has established, but seeing “that the magazine was not going to rise, she became a little disgusted with Cohn and decided that she might as well get what there was to get” (Hemingway 13). Another facet of Jakes’ personality that qualifies him as nihilist is his biting sarcasm. Thus, when describing the smile of a girl he just met, he says that “she smiled and showed all her bad teeth” (Hemingway 24); then, introducing her to his friends, presenting her as his girlfriend, despite having just met her an hour ago, he says that “Georgette smiled that wonderful smile” (Hemingway 27), thereby showing his biting sarcasm. And since sarcasm is “a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain” (Sarcasm), it is obvious that it serves the author, as well as the narrator, the protagonist, as a way of showcasing his nihilism: even though he is with her and is seen in conjunction with her, definitely having the opinion of his friends about him somewhat influenced by her behavior and appearance, he cannot care less about how she looks, because he is above that: he has his code of honor. This is precisely the kind of Hemingwayesque outlook that Harold Bloom talks about in his critical study of Ernest Hemingway’s works, referring to Hemingway’s characters: “they have maintained, even in the practical defeat, an ideal of themselves… by which they have lived. They represent some notion of a code, some notion of honor, that makes a man a man” (30). This is all the more important considering the fact that Jake Barnes is in many ways a battered man suffering from unhappy past, as it is evident when he, falling asleep, leads a mental dialogue with himself: “I blew out the lamp. Perhaps I would be able to sleep. My head started to work. The old grievance. Well, it was a rotten way to be wounded” (Hemingway 38). Then, after describing some of his memories from the hospital, he dives deeper into himself and we see the colors of his attitude toward those who witnessed him suffer: “probably I never would have had any trouble if I hadn’t run into Brett… I suppose she only wanted what she couldn’t have. Well, people were that way. To hell with people… then all of a sudden I started to cry” (Hemingway 39). Thus, his past haunts him and makes him explicitly admit that it was all useless and futile – a waste of time: “to hell with it”: he just wants to get away from it and thus pictures himself as separate from all that. This gives him unity with himself, though separating him from the conventional morality. Thus, he makes up his own code of honor and lives according to its tenets, no matter how subtle this code of honor is. This was confirmed not only by various critics, but also by Hemingway himself, who has often summed it it up “by his phrase ‘grace under pressure’”, even though many observers have failed “to see that this ‘grace’ is not only physical and aesthetic, but also moral and spiritual” (The Sun Also Rises). Thus, this code of honor, lying at the very core of Hemingway’s fiction, as well serving as the emotional foundation of his characters, in that very particular instance of Jake Barnes, makes Jake’s life more bearable and gives him some comfort, not to mention its great vanity value of being able to distinguish “him from people who merely follow their random impulses and who are, by consequence, ‘messy’ ” (Bloom 30). Another manifestation of Jacob’s nihilism is his inner anger. When he talks about “a crowd of young men”, he says that even though he knew he was supposed to be “tolerant”, he “wanted to swing on one, any one, anything to shatter that superior, simpering composure” (Hemingway 28). “Anything to shatter” are the two key words here, showing not only nihilism but also symbolism in that it is Jacob’s way of saying: “to hell with you all! I am better than you!” While all of the above-mentioned examples may not be substantial enough proof of Jacob’s being a symbol of nihilism, there is yet another aspect of his personality, which, even though having been explored in this paragraph, has not been shown in its fullest form: this is his denial of everything positive. While this is clear from the previous examples, it would also be beneficial to look at the most glaring and raw example of it: “I was a little drunk. Not drunk in any positive sense but just enough to be careless” (Hemingway 29). Therefore, based on all of the above-mentioned examples, it is reasonable to assert that Jake Barnes, the protagonist of The Sun Also Rises, is a wry symbol of nihilism.

The main heroine of The Sun Also Rises, Brett Ashley, is likewise a symbol of nihilism. She has had love affairs with many men, jilted them when she felt like doing it, and does not shun talking about it, telling Jake at one point that she thinks “of the hell I’ve put chaps through” (Hemingway 34). But this facade of feeling guilty about one’s misdeeds should not be mistaken for the good soul, as she later seduces a nineteen-year-old bullfighter, not to mention her brief love affair with Jake’s friend, Robert Cohn. Thus, Xiaoping Yu, in her critical study of Brett’s character published in a scholarly journal, writes that Brett “also challenged patriarchy” (2). She then goes on to give examples of Brett displaying her masculinity, one of which includes Brett watching the bullfight and surprising “everyone by being completely unfazed by the fights” (Yu 2). Thus, it is clear that Brett is a symbol of both feminism and nihilism, as her sexual promiscuity borders on the extreme disregard of human morality.

The final proof of the fact that Hemingway has used symbolism to convey nihilistic themes is that his own life was nihilistic. Thus, according to Encarta Reference Library, “he wondered if the plane crashes and the premature obituaries published in newspapers around the world swayed the committee to award him the Swedish prize (the Nobel Prize in Literature)” (The Snows of Kilimanjaro). Another manifestation of his nihilistic lifestyle was the number of his marriages: four. Yet another, and perhaps the most important, manifestation of his nihilism is the fact that he “after treatment at the Mayo Clinic for major depression… returned to his Idaho home and shot himself on July 2, 1961” (The Snows of Kilimanjaro). This shows that he considered life according to his ideals more imporant than life itself. This fact has saturated his fiction and led many critics to see “his books as holding keys to the writer’s own character” (The Snows of Kilimanjaro). Thus, nihilism in his own life has saturated his fiction and found a reflection of itself in his books as a symbol of inner struggle.

Therefore, since the main hero and heroine of The Sun Also Rises are symbols of nihilism and Hemingway’s own life was also in a way a symbol of nihilism, it can be said that Ernest Hemingway makes an extensive use of symbolism. And even though it might seem unrelated to the main topic of this essay, I would like to end this essay with the words of Hemingway that have moved me the most and that can be in a way considered an extension of his nihilism – if the definition of nihilism be extended to include in itself a creation of new reality separate from the one in which we are living – thus his words are: “For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed” (Ernest Hemingway – Banquet Speech).

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005. Print. Describes Ernest Hemingway both as as individual and as an artist, giving a wealth of facts, some of which have previously been unknown.

Boon, Kevin Alexander. Ernest Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises and Other Works. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2008. Print. Analyzes Hemingway’s most charactristic pieces of fiction, giving a wide picture of his genius, as well as a number of insights into his personal philosophy.

“Ernest Hemingway – Banquet Speech.” Nobelprize.org. 2010. The Nobel Foundation. 2011. Web. Provides the web page visitor with Hemingway’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, both in text and audio formats.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Print. The first published novel of Ernest Hemingway. It describes the life of American expatriate community in Paris, drawing on Hemingway’s own experiences and showing a picture of disillusioned generation – the so-called “Lost Generation”.

“Lost Generation.” Encarta Reference Library. Microsoft Corporation, 2005. DVD. An encyclopedia article describing “Lost Generation” and its main principles.

“Nihilism.” Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary. Merriam-Webster Incorporated, 2003. DVD. Defines nihilism.

“Sarcasm.” Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary. Merriam-Webster Incorporated, 2003. DVD. Defines sarcasm.

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Encarta Reference Library. Microsoft Corporation, 2005. DVD. Provides a short biographical sketch of Hemingway’s life and discusses that story.

“The Sun Also Rises.” Encarta Reference Library. Microsoft Corporation, 2005. DVD. Provides a short biographical sketch of Hemingway’s life and discusses that story.

Yu, Xiaoping. “The New Woman in The Sun Also Rises.” English Language Teaching, Vol. 3, No. 3. 2010. Center of Science and Education 2011. Web. Provides an insightful analysis of Brett Ashley, proving that she was the prototype of The New Woman.

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