The Sun Also Rises begins with some fairly unflattering depictions of Robert Cohn by the first person narrator, Jake Barnes. This is where Hemingway dabbles in some antisemitism, at least by way of his fictional characters. Jake’s criticisms of Cohn explicitly take into account Cohn’s Jewishness. Cohn is referred to as a “Jew” on the first page (in the context that Cohn might have felt discriminated against at Princeton, and how that might have affected his character). Jake even discusses Cohn’s nose, stating that having it flattened by boxing, “certainly improved his nose” (3).
How does The Sun Also Rises survive scrutiny in a time in which academia is preoccupied with “Whiteness studies”? Not well. It is declared “unadulterated antisemitism” (Dudley). The antisemitism was always apparent to literary critics, though in earlier times they were perhaps not so preoccupied with this element of The Sun Also Rises. In fact, one literary critic from the ‘60s described Cohn as an “aggrieved adolescent with a gnawing inferiority complex” (Gurko 64).
Jake Barnes and Robert Cohn
As the novel progresses, Jake backtracks a bit, suspecting that he might have done an injustice to Robert Cohn. Yet Cohn’s girlfriend and would-be fiance, Frances, mercilessly harranges Cohn. The narrator wonders:
“His face was white. Why did he sit there? Why did he keep on taking it like that?” (51).
Cohn, then, is also a wimp who doesn’t know how to handle his woman. He’s weak and rudderless. It is in stark contrast to the cool and self-controlled narrator, Jake.
There’s something about Cohn that rubs people the wrong way, including Jake’s friend Bill. Bill comments:
“Well, let him not get superior and Jewish” (96).
Bill is annoyed that Cohn presumes to have info about when Brett and her fiance, Michael, will arrive in Spain. Cohn is off-putting to his friends, and they both frankly attribute this to his Jewishness.
Both Bill and Jake kind of hate Cohn–yet they also like him. They have to admit he’s not such a bad guy. Cohn just greatly irritates them, though they seem to know it’s unjust:
“And as for this Robert Cohn, Bill said, he makes me sick, and he can go to hell, and I’m damn glad he’s staying here so we won’t have him fishing with us” (102).
Part of Jake’s resentment against Cohn is for Brett, whom Cohn had an affair with in a trip to Spain. Jake only learned of this after the fact, and it was bitter for him indeed. Jake admits to his garrulous and slightly mad friend Bill that he had in fact loved Brett :
“Off and on for a hell of a long time” (123).
Bill commiserates with Jake and the situation, as they are about to nap after fishing. Jake and Cohn love the same woman, despite that Brett is now engaged to Michael. Given this, Jake comports himself relatively charitably towards Cohn.
Mike also takes issue with Cohn, who after all had an affair with his fiance. Cohn then saw fit to follow them around in Spain and continues to be an annoying presence to almost everyone, with his lugubrious staring at Brett. Mike also sees something nefarious in Cohn’s Jewishness:
“No, listen, Jake. Brett’s gone off with men. But they weren’t ever Jews, and they didn’t come and hang around afterward” (143).
Mike loses his patience with Cohn soon enough:
“Do you think you amount to something, Cohn? Do you think you belong here among us? People who are out to have a good time? For God’s sake don’t be so noisy, Cohn!” (177).
It’s not clear what Mike means by “noisy.” Maybe it’s a typo because “nosey” would make more sense, seeing as that Cohn is nosing in on the affairs of other people, or at least imposing his presence on other people. Jake sympathizes with Mike’s attitude towards Cohn; naturally Mike doesn’t want Cohn hanging around.
Meanwhile, all three men are in love with Brett, and she doesn’t know quite what to do with them. In Spain, she actually takes a shine to the bullfighter, Romero. Brett is the embodiment of feminine whimsy. She does whatever she wants, whatever occurs to her in that moment, with little regard to her prior commitments. Such is her sex appeal that she causes chaos, brawls, or at least bad feelings between the men around her. At the end of the novel, the best she can do is resolve not to be a bitch (her word).
When Cohn punches out both Jake and Mike in a fit of rage and jealousy, it seems to confirm their worst judgements on him. Though Cohn expressed remorse, he crossed a line with his friends out of his jealous love and feeling of possessiveness for Brett. Meanwhile, Mike chalks all these problems up to Brett taking up with “Jews and bullfighters,” as though that were self-explanatory.
Even by standards of the mid 20th century The Sun Also Rises was considered fairly anti semitic, not to mention racist. It does contain the n-word several times, through the character Bill. Other Hemingway works also use this racist terminology, such as his Nick Adams stories. Apparently this is something that Hemingway felt that he wanted to include in his fiction.
Cohn’s Real Life Model
The Sun Also Rises is at least partially autobiographical, seeing as that it reflects Paris in the 1920s with characters similar to Hemingway’s friend group at that time. Jake Barnes, likewise, is a “Hemingwayesque narrator” (Grossman 2018). Indeed, Hemingway seems to have imbued Barnes with his own sensibilities, minus the war wound to the groin.
Robert Cohn, meanwhile, was based on real life Hemingway friend Harold Loeb. Loeb was deeply offended by Hemingway’s depiction of him as Robert Cohn, naturally. After all, there isn’t much to like about Robert Cohn. As Tablet magazine puts it, Cohn is portrayed as “toxically awkward.” Like Cohn, Loeb was from one of the wealthiest families in New York. Loeb was in Paris in the ‘20s (the setting for the first half of The Sun Also Rises). There he rubbed elbows with many great artists, including Hemingway, whom Loeb admired for his virility and his “dedication to writing” (Grossman 2018). Loeb did have an affair with the aristocratic, aloof woman who inspired the character Brett (Duff Twysden). According to Loeb, Hemingway on one occasion even uttered an anti-Jewish slur (the k-word). Based on Loeb’s published memoir, it seems that Hemingway’s portrayal of him via Cohn was fairly accurate.
The Transaction Basis of Life
Throughout The Sun Also Rises, the narrator notes how much he pays for various things (wine, food, hotel, etc.) and evaluates whether it was a good deal. Jake is animated by a spirit of generosity. Yet he keeps a sharp eye on what he pays and the value that he receives:
‘I thought I had paid for everything. Not like the woman pays and pays and pays. No idea of retribution or punishment. Just exchange of values. You gave up something and got something else. Or you worked for something. You paid some way for everything that was any good. I paid my way into enough things that I liked, so that I had a good time. Either you paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money. Enjoy living was learning to get your money’s worth and knowing when you had it. You could get your money’s worth. The world was a good place to buy in. It seemed like a fine philosophy.” (148)
Near the novel’s conclusion, the narrator tells us, “The whiskeys were twelve francs apiece” (229). It’s not just a nice detail; rather, this constant tallying of prices takes on a more philosophical meaning in The Sun Also Rises.
Jake is also eager to pay for drinks, or to give strangers gifts, such as when he gives the waiter an extra ticket to the bullfighting event. How Jake interacts with the community, especially as a foreigner, is with this attitude of humility and generosity (while noting what he pays for various services, as per his philosophy).
Robert Cohn, on the other hand, does not have this spirit of generosity. No one accuses him of being cheap. But he is noted for his arrogance. He predicts that he will be “bored” by the bullfight. He likewise oppresses other people with his presence, along with his unwelcome desire for Brett. Insofar as life is a transaction, Cohn mostly aspires to take rather than give.
Life is a game, so goes the saying. Paying for something, receiving something, enjoying life, but not paying too much. Maybe a hangover is a type of price for the “fun” of drinking. Tipping waiters extravagantly buys “friendship.” It’s cynical, but it’s also logical. At least in France one knows where one stands, Jake explains:
“No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason” (233).
To view life through a lens of remuneration strikes one as a masculine perspective. It isn’t romantic, but it’s practical. Enjoy something, pay for it, enjoy something, pay for it. This is unmistakably the pattern of the novel. In this regard, The Sun Also Rises communicates Hemingway’s “particular vision for human existence” (Gurko 72).
When Jake (and we assume Hemingway himself) explicates his philosophy on paying/ receiving, it isn’t strictly a monetary basis. It is, as he describes, also a matter of working and experiencing and enjoying life. This philosophy is one of arriving at a balance with life. Cohn, conversely, seems to be out of balance, too ruled by his desires and his own ego.
Strangely, on Jake’s stay at Hotel Montana with Brett (not to say in the same room), the bill is paid when he attempts to settle up with the clerk. He finally got something for nothing. They have lunch in which Jake drinks entirely too much wine, which hints that the alcohol is a problem, if that weren’t clear from the rest of the novel. Brett pleads with him, “Don’t get drunk, Jake.”
The Focus on Bullfighting
The setting of the book shifts from Paris to Spain. In Paris they are mostly drinking and eating, whereas in Spain their activities center on the fiesta of the bullfight. That Hemingway loves bullfighting is clear enough from The Sun Also Rises; he wrote about bullfighting extensively in other works too. How can an American reader who knows little and cares less about bullfighting emerse themself in the novel’s setting then? Literary critic James A. Michener puts it this way:
“To those, and they are legion and of good sense, who will protest that Hemingway should have wasted so much attention on a brutal affair like bullfighting [...] I can only say that many Americans, Englishmen, and Europeans generally have found in the bullfight something worthy of attention. That one of our premier artists chose to elucidate it both in his youth and in his older age is worthy of note [...]” (138)
The focus on bullfighting is indeed challenging for a modern reader. Yet Hemingway’s enthusiasm (or narrator Jake’s enthusiasm) is infectious. I wouldn’t necessarily want to read much more about bullfighting beyond what I’ve encountered from Hemingway. But Hemingway does succeed in describing bullfighting within the context of the novel in a way that makes one understand at least his enthusiasm. Romero puts his sword between the bull’s shoulder blades:
“...as the sword went in, and for just an instant he and the bull were one…” (218).
One can appreciate that there is a certain artistry to bullfighting.
The fact that Jake is impotent makes for some interesting literary analysis and symbolism. Odd though that it is only alluded to a few times in the novel. Why then include this element in the novel?
Jake’s impotence allows him to act as a passive observer on the events around him; in particular, the various affairs of Brett. He is interested insofar as he is also in love with Brett, yet he is disinterested insofar as they both know he can’t really do anything about it. In the final scene, Brett and Jake discuss what could have been between them, as a police man raises his baton, directing traffic.
Reading Hemingway is like eating a hearty meal, or going for a brisk walk outside. Somehow his writing connects our spirit to what is essential in being human, or more specifically, in being a man. His writing isn’t lurid or sensational. A century later, the appeal of his writing is not necessarily self-evident, as I’m sure many high school students and college freshman will attest. Perhaps one must accumulate the hard-earned scars of life to appreciate Hemingway’s work. The Sun Also Rises can be placed in this category of Hemingway’s work which is salubrious to the soul;, which is to say, it does that for us.
- Dudley, Marc K. “Hemingway, Race and Ethnicity.” PBS
- Grossman, Dan. “Hemingway’s Schlemiel.” Tablet. July 19, 2018.
- Gurko, Leo. Ernest Hemingway and the Pursuit of Heroism. NY: Thomas Cromwell Company, 1968.
- Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. NY: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1970.
- Michener, James A. Literary Reflections. Austin: State House Press, 1993.