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.


Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea: An Appreciation by Joe Canuck

EH 1306N
July 1934 Ernest Hemingway with marlin. Havana Harbor, Cuba. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.

This essay was originally written 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 last essay of three essays that I had to write for an American literature course focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The Professor was Bickford Sylvester. The first essay I wrote for him was on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night, followed by an essay on Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and then this third and last essay for him on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

The first two essays were very rebellious essays. I was 21-years-old, after all, and the hormones were still raging. I was also a very angry young man. I was angry that my parents had recently divorced, angry that I wasn’t cut out to be a major league baseball player, angry that I had no clue what I wanted to do with the rest of life, really. I was the proverbial rebel without a cause. I was, in retrospect, like the wild marlin in The Old Man and the Sea. Much to his credit, Bickford Sylvester understood me. And he showed impeccable style and grace, too, which I can now fully appreciate as a mature man. I am 54-years-old or about the same age he was when I first met him in 1981.

Bickford Slyester
Bickford Sylvester

As a matter of fact, not only did he tolerate my arrogance, he was gracious enough to play the part of the old man to my part of the marlin in our little classroom tug-of-war. I somehow understood this at the time, and understand it even more profoundly today, 33 years later. In the end, I submitted to the master and showed him my respect and turned in this essay, my least provocative and most respectful one as a peace offering to him. I am indebted to him for pointing out the symbolism of the old man’s circular journey and the allusions to Christ at Calvary, which were incorporated into my essay and duly accredited to him in the footnotes.

Surrey, June 13, 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.


There is no room for the meek and weak in The Old Man and the Sea. It is a hash world, indeed, where only the toughest and fittest survive, and this suits Santiago just fine. Santiago, the old fisherman of this sublime final novel by Ernest Hemingway, is probably the toughest guy I’ve ever known. They don’t come any tougher than Santiago. They certainly don’t make men like Hemingway’s Santiago any more — that’s for sure. If nothing else, Santiago’s stoicism sets him apart from the rest of the men in his small Cuban fishing village.

For Santiago, each day is a struggle and each fish caught is a battle and a small victory. In order to scrape by a subsistence living, Santiago must fish every day, alone and in his tiny skiff. But for 84 days in a row he hasn’t caught anything of substance that would give him any sustained sustenance. Beyond merely existing, he hasn’t been put to the real test. He hasn’t been physically or mentally challenged. He hasn’t known what it feels like to be alive, really alive, hyper-alive, for 84 days now. On the 85th day he sets out again, but this time it will be a voyage like no other. His voyage will be a condensed 72-hour version of Homer’s epic Odyssey. Insofar as Santiago’s solo fishing expedition seems more fantastical than believable, more myth than reality, he could very well be the Ulysses of our times.

There is no doubt in my mind that Santiago is a modern day warrior. He is not afraid to go way, way out into the Gulf Stream in search of the big prize, not even during the height of the hurricane season. He will go to the far corners of the earth if he has to. He must! The man is fearless. All he has with him when he goes to do battle with the giants is his pathetically tiny skiff and the bare basics, such as a harpoon and finishing lines. He tempts the Gods too much and on the 85th day the Gods humor him: the grand prize, the big fish he has searched for is found, and for the next 48 hours, he will literally be engaged in a tug-of-war with the biggest marlin he has ever encountered. He will be engaged in the biggest existential threat and toughest battle of his life, too.

The old man gives it his all, and before 48 grueling and bloody hours have passed by, Santiago will single-handedly kill a dolphin, a Mako shark, and two or more Shovel-nosed sharks who got in the way of this epic battle of wills and strength between himself and the big marlin. But really, and fundamentally, the battle is between Man and Mother Nature. Santiago’s trial and tribulations are worthy of sainthood. It was a marathon test of strength and endurance that would have humbled much younger and much stronger men. The triumph of Santiago’s will over physical pain and fatigue is truly transcendental, if not Christ-like.

Santiago is like Jesus Christ in one obvious respect: he, too, is an outcast. He is a prophet among sheep. Santiago’s contemporaries pity him while the younger fishermen do not understand him. His only fan and loyal companion is the young boy named Manolin. It is not clear if they are related or who adopted whom, but the young boy seems to be as devoted to Santiago as much as Santiago is devoted to him. Santiago is like a father to the boy. But more important than this father/son relationship is the master/pupil relationship. Santiago is a mentor to the boy. Santiago is a good teacher and Manolin is an eager pupil. What the boy learns from the old man, no one else can teach him. No one else is cut from the same cloth.

What is Santiago’s philosophy of life? Just what exactly is the boy learning from the old man? Santiago is an individualist: he likes to do things his own way. Santiago is resolute: he will not be dissuaded from doing what he knows he must do. Santiago is a realist: he does not want to kill the marlin, but he knows he must in order to survive. Santiago is steadfast: he suffers from physical aches and ailments, but he does not complain nor will he ever shirk his duty. The boy is in good hands. Manolin will grow up to be a good man.

Although it is true that Santiago does not want to kill the marlin, he knows he has no other choice. (The marlin really ought to get equal billing beside Santiago as the other central protagonist in this novel.) It is either kill the marlin or be killed by it. Life cannot exist without death. This, of course, is a paradox. The tragic tones of this paradox are underlined by the fact that Santiago calls the marlin his brother. Is it not indeed tragic and cruel to kill our “true brothers” to survive? [1]  Another paradox that this short and lovely novel deals with is this: It is through pain and suffering that we truly experience our beings to the utmost degree of intensity. This is why Santiago believes “fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive.” [2] The old man’s fight with the marlin is terribly painful, but he would not want it any other way.

Furthermore, Santiago believes that “pain does not matter to a man.” [3]  Hence, manliness is measured by how much pain you can endure, for necessary purposes and for the right reasons, of course: Santiago is neither a sadist nor masochist. For men like Santiago, there is an unwritten law that says you do not give in to your pain under any circumstances. Sigmund Freud said suppression leads to neurosis. Perhaps this is why in insane asylums men out number women. In any event, one thing is for certain, Santiago is not insane. However, he doesn’t fit into mainstream society neither. He is wise but his wisdom is ignored. Mainstream society has no room for wise men. Mainstream society is full of men who scorn Santiago. Mainstream men do not wish to labor and sweat like an ox when modern devices and gas-motored boats will make their work and lives easier. Mainstream men see Santiago as an anachronism, as a dinosaur. Mainstream men are lame.

Though small in numbers, Santiago has his admirers. He is called El Campeón (The Champion) or numero uno (number one) by those who appreciate the old man and the old ways and can remember when Santiago walked tall and proud in the village. Soft-minded and soft-bodied fishermen who use buoys rather than sticking to traditional ways and ‘good ol’ fashioned elbow-grease’ don’t get half the respect that Santiago gets, even if that respect is unspoken. But the narrator does not have this problem: he wants us to know that in a world full of common folk, Santiago is singularly uncommon, if not the ideal. Hence, scavenger sharks like the Shovel-nosed are “hateful” and “bad smelling”[4]  but Makos are all right because like Santiago, Makos have “no fear at all and would do exactly what [they] wished.” [5]  If Santiago could be reincarnated, he would probably wish to come back as a Great White Shark, the most feared and fearless top predator of all the oceans. In other words, Santiago is at the very top of the food chain. He is the majestic white king of the deep blue seas.

Of course, men do not want to be weak or to be perceived as weak, especially men like Santiago. I think Santiago would rather die than be weak or be perceived as weak. Nor should real men fear death. The old man is not afraid at all to die, but he will. He is very close to the end of his life and he knows it. This marlin, or what remains of it after the sharks were finished eating it, will be Santiago’s last. Against what’s fair and just — The Gods are cruel — he has brought back the 18-foot-long skeletal remains of the once mighty marlin back to his shack on the beach. Santiago may have won the battle but he has lost the war. He knows this all too well but he does not want our pity. Manolin will be his comfort and legacy. When Santiago dies, he knows that Manolin will take his place. And when it is Manolin’s turn and time to die, you can be sure someone else will take his place, too. So long as men and women procreate, life will be eternal. Death is inevitable; so is life. You cannot stop either death or life. Neither should be feared.

When Santiago dies, the world will continue to turn as always. This is the law of the Universe. Animals sense this intuitively even if they don’t know it intellectually. This is why the marlin makes “a very big circle” just before it dies. [6]  This is also why Santiago’s voyage is circular. Is the old man an archetype? More precisely, is Santiago our redeemer? It was not for no reason that Santiago’s humble fishing trip has miraculous and biblical overtones that allude to Christ at Calvary. [7]  This is sublime stuff. Hemingway is at his very best and spiritual here. He saved the best for last, in this, his final novel and his most mature work of literature. Knowing that the young Manolin will carry on after he is gone, the old man can die in peace. The circle is complete. [8]  The novel ends with Santiago lying down to sleep the eternal sleep. Totally spent from his 72-hour ordeal and odyssey, Santiago quickly fades away dreaming of the magnificent lions he once saw in Africa. Alone and in quiet solitude, he is finally at peace with himself and the cosmos.


[1] Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, New York., p. 75.

[2] Ibid. p. 106.

[3] Ibid. p. 84.

[4] Ibid. pp. 107-108.

[5] Ibid. p.101.

[6] Ibid. p. 86.

[7] Ibid. p. 121.

[8] The circular theme and or circular scheme of Hemingway’s novel is well articulated by Bickford Sylvester in his essay, “Hemingway’s Extended Vision: The Old Man and The Sea” by Bickford Sylvester (Publication of the Modern-Language Association of America, New York, N.Y. 10003, March 1966). p. 132.