A Provocative Essay on Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises by Joe Canuck

Ernest Hemingway at the Bullfights

I wrote this essay in the summer of 1981 when I was 21-years-old and taking my first English course at the University of British Columbia. This is the first of three essays that I had to write for an American literature course focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. I am particularly fond of these essays because they bring back good memories. I actually prefer these essays much more than my academic papers, for I believe these essays were creative essays that are as fresh today as they were 33 years ago. It would be, well, “academic,” to reprint some of my academic papers; no one would be interested in reading them. I, myself, haven’t the inclination to read my own academic papers from university — all really dry and boring stuff. But this essay is special. All three essays I wrote for this course weren’t just critiques per se but attempted to be works of art in themselves.

That summer, the summer of 1981, for some reason, remains vivid, maybe because I had been trying to be a writer and I nearly found my voice and style that summer with these three essays. The style and the diction of these essays are closest to my writing style and diction today. Ironically, my subsequent years at university were strictly about fitting in and speaking in the collective and institutional voice. University was not about searching for my personal identity and speaking in my own individual voice. I also remember vividly reading my essays out loud in class, as did everyone else taking the course. It was an unusual approach taken by the Professor and the result was that it brought the class closer together and created a camaraderie that to this day I still remember with great nostalgia.

The name of my Professor was Bickford Sylvester, a truly unforgettable name and remarkable man, though I did not know it at the time. I did a search for him on the Internet and discovered that he is living in Bellingham, which is just south of the Canada/US border, about a 45-minutes drive from my apartment in Surrey. The article I found is dated June 16, 2013, from “The Bellingham Herald.” The newspaper article is entitled, “37 years after contest win, Bellingham man says his dad is still Father of the Year,” and is really more about his son, John Sylvester, and why he thinks his dad (Bickford) is the best dad in the world. It’s a rather sweet and sentimental story that was published for Father’s Day in 2013.

Bickford Sylvester is a well-known and respected Ernest Hemingway scholar and expert. The other two essays that I wrote for him that summer in 1981, incidentally, was on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I hadn’t seen or really thought about Bickford Sylvester in all these years. I am happy to see that one year ago at 87-years-of-age he still looks healthy and alert, though in the photo he has a walking cane. I assume and hope that nothing has changed from a year ago and that he is healthy and alert as before and still, without a doubt and hands down, the best Hemingway expert alive.

Surrey, June 12, 2014

Update: November 26, 2015

Just learned that Bickford Sylvester passed away in 2 summers ago aged 89 in August 2014, just 2-months after I first posted this essay on my Joe Canuck art website.

Poster of 1957 film adaptation of the novel

Ernest Hemingway, as we all know or ought to know, was a mucho macho man. Of course, we all know about his big-game hunting expeditions in Africa, his deep-sea fishing off the coast of Cuba. And all of us, or most of us, at any rate, know he volunteered and served as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross during World War I. Hemingway certainly crafted an ultra-masculine persona of himself for his adoring fans and public. But do you suppose such a manly man could be impotent?

On a superficial level, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is about a bunch of rich boozers romping around France and Spain sometime during the 1920s. Nothing really exciting ever happens to them until they hit Pamplona, where it is Fiesta time. At the bullfights, and like a cheap Mexican TV soap opera, jealousy and passion cause fistfights to break out between the men vying for the love of Lady Brett, the main female protagonist of the novel. In the end, however, nobody wins because in literature no man ever gets to win the heart of the femme fatale. That’s the novel in a nutshell. But is there anything deeper to this novel than just your boy-meets-girl and boy-gets-girl and then boy-gets-dumped-by-girl story? We shall find out soon enough.

Lady Brett is indeed a femme fatale, if she is not your average slut. She changes men as often as I change underwear. At one time or another, she has had affairs with four of the five major characters in the novel. She has had affairs with Jake, with Mike, with Robert and with Pedro. I wonder how having had so many men, how she doesn’t also have syphilis? Femme fatale, rich bitch, Euro-trash, or whatever you wish to call Lady Brett, she certainly has Jake, the central male protagonist of the novel, wrapped around her fingers. All she has to do is call and Jake comes running like an obedient dog, as this is precisely what he does when Lady Brett wires him to come and fetch her only a few days after she dumped the young matador, Pedro Romero. Incidentally, this scenario of a small clique of young men aimlessly romping and sleeping and whoring around Europe during the post-war years of the 1920s sums up Hemingway’s generation or the so-called Lost Generation to a tee.

At 34-years-of-age, Lady Brett is too old to be a mother, really. In fact, her best years to have a baby have long passed. Whatever Jake sees in Lady Brett, it certainly isn’t the quality of motherhood. However, Jake isn’t thinking of Lady Brett as the future mother of his children. No, Jake isn’t going to fool himself or be a fool; rather, he wants to be fooling around. Fooling around is really fun, but when you’ve got an old war wound that makes you impotent, fooling around can make you look very foolish, indeed. So rather than risk being found out in bed with Lady Brett, Jake tries to be the strong and silent type and feigns aloofness. Actually, what Jake really wants is to be young and virile and 18-years-old again, just like Pedro, the dashing young matador whom Jake secretly admires, even though Pedro is his main rival for Lady Brett’s affections and sexual favors.

But then again, I guess Jake wanting to be a naïve 18-year-old boy who believes he will turn a 34-year-old slut into an honest woman by marrying her is not so ridiculous if the same naïve 18-year-old boy pleases the woman you cannot please because you just can’t get it up anymore. What exactly do I mean by this? Here’s an old Hollywood joke circa the late-1960s that will hopefully make my point more clear and more memorable: Young Warren Beatty in a motel room with a beautiful starlet is speaking on the telephone to the old and aged George Raft: “George,” says Warren, “your erection is ready.”

To be precise, Jake lost his testicles on the battlefields of the Great War (1914-1918). I kid you not. When Jake was wounded in the war, he lost that thing, the thing, which brings not only the most enjoyable sexual satisfaction to a man, but also the most enjoyable sexual satisfaction to a woman. Whether we are honest enough to admit it or not, a man’s ability to attract the opposite sex depends greatly on his ability to make love and reproduce. How can a man feel good about himself if he can’t even get it up? What use was Jake to a sexually voracious woman like Lady Brett if he couldn’t even get an erection? Jake never had a chance with this femme fatale, with this ball-buster, to use the more descriptive vernacular.

Jake was literally ‘damaged goods.’ Thankfully, I personally do not have this problem and so cannot speak from first hand experience, but I would imagine that any man who did have Jake’s problem would really hate life, or himself; or both. No wonder Jake is bitter. If I were in Jake’s shoes, I would be bitter as hell. Of course, there is nothing funny at all about getting your balls blown off. Getting your balls blown off is the kind of thing that makes grown men cry:

“I lay awake thinking and my mind jumping around. Then I couldn’t keep away from it, and I started to think about Brett and all of the rest went away. I was thinking about Brett and my mind stopped jumping around and started to go in a sort of smooth waves. Then all of a sudden I started to cry.” [1]

OK, admittedly, the above passage does not prove that Jake got his balls blown off. I am guilty of being provocative. But then again, if there was nothing physically wrong with Jake, what the heck was really wrong with him? What could explain his self-absorption and maladjustment and misery?

If Jake’s personality was like that of the proverbial shell-shocked war veteran, no doubt it was because he had seen too much shit and was traumatized by it. The ‘shit’ I am referring to is the death and destruction of World War I. Jake was indeed very lucky to have come through that bloodbath alive. But having come through it (minus one or both testicles?) you can never ever be the same. Nor are you ever going to be the same after you’ve seen your buddy’s head explode as the bullet makes impact.

Poor disillusioned Jake. Poor disillusioned Hemingway? Did he have illusions of glory and chivalry in The War To End All Wars? Did he not know that war is about killing and maiming people? But if Jake is disillusioned, he is not the only one. Tens of thousands of young men eagerly volunteered and poured their manhood and blood into the battlefields and trenches of the First World War. And so, like the Vietnam veteran who today suffers from Post War Traumatic Syndrome, Jake also can’t get over the fact that the enemy shot back. Or am I being too harsh on Jake? Am I being too harsh on Hemingway?

Hemingway evidently paid a high price for his volunteerism, if not adventurism in the Great War. Even if he came out of that horrible war with his balls intact, he acted as if they had been blown off. The remainder of his rather long life was engaged in all manner of high-risk activities and any kind of sports that involved killing and maiming animals. He simply and sadly overcompensated. He had a death wish for both himself and others. But in those days people saw it differently and Hemingway was thought of as just being manly and living life to the fullest — that is until that fateful day in 1961 when he blasted his head off with a 12-guage shotgun. Were there any warning signs that he would do such a terrible and bloody thing? It was everywhere and nowhere. The clue is both here and not here in this passage, representative of both Hemingway’s deadpan prose style and deadpan attitude towards life:

“That winter Robert Cohn went over to America with his novel, and it was accepted by a fairly good publisher. His going made a row I heard, and I think that was where Frances lost him, because several women were nice to him in New York, and when he came back he was quite changed. He was more enthusiastic about America than ever, and he was not so simple, and he was not so nice.” [2]

Reading Hemingway’s deadpan if not lifeless dead prose like the above passage, the reader feels that the narrator (Hemingway) can’t get excited about life anymore; and that’s an understatement. Furthermore, the reader suspects something is not quite right in Paris, the famous city of lights and love, when it is described like this:

“It was a warm spring night and I sat at the table on the terrace of the Napolitain after Robert had gone, watching it get dark and the electric signs come on, and the red and green stop-and-go traffic signal, and the crowd going by, and the horse-cabs clipperty clopping along the edge of the solid taxi traffic, and the poules [prostitutes] going by, singly and in pairs, looking for the evening meal.” [3]

Incidentally, Pedro Romero was more than just a pretty boy in the novel. Pedro represents a masculinity that is foreign and therefore exotic and attractive to Jake (Hemingway) the American. But Pedro’s masculinity is more symbolic than practical, more stylized than spontaneous, more fake than real in other words. In Pedro Romero we have an intoxicating cocktail of eroticism and exoticism, of high drama and real danger, of both glory and gory in the spilling of blood, sweat, and tears in the bullring. Some may disagree and say that the stylized movements and mannerism of the matador are more feminine than masculine, but that’s for another essay entirely. Moreover, the ritualized slaughter and sacrifice of bulls (the bull is a phallic symbol) further complicates an already complicated and complex issue.

In the end, nothing ever seems to satisfactorily explain Jake and what it is he is searching for, if he is indeed searching for anything. They called Hemingway’s generation the Lost Generation, and here it is on splendid display and totally and truly LOST! To say that Jake got his balls blown off is probably too simple and simplistic. Whatever it was that Jake feels he has lost and why he, himself, is lost, adrift and rudderless in life, as it were, we will never know. Jake may or may not have had his balls blown off, we do not know for sure; but we do know with certainty that Hemingway didn’t. The proof is in the fact that Hemingway sired a rather large brood of descendants. He was prolific in life as well as in make-believe fiction and produced a voluminous body of work. By any standard, he was not impotent but very potent. There, I’ve answered my own question and I’m sorry to have led you on, if you had expected an answer in the affirmative.


[1] Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, New York). Page 31.

[2] Ibid., Page 8.

[3] Ibid., Page 14.


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