Robert M. Slabey stated in his article “The Structure of ‘In Our Time” that Hemingway’s lead characters deal with a fundamental moral problem throughout his novels: how to live in the world, and how to die well (73).  In the case of The Sun Also Rises, the fundamental problem is how to live in a world devoid of God, and invested instead with the hallowed reminders of mankind’s former communion and current isolation from all aspects of divinity. Jacob Barnes grapples within this religious vacuum, knowing that he cannot contact God, and so searches for the way to live a meaningful life without Him. It is because he admits that God has abandoned the human race in Twentieth Century life that Jake succeeds in his search, mainly through the instruction of what can be called Hemingway’s cult of masculinity. Simplified, this cult is the collection of male characters who populate Hemingway’s novels, and who hold certain beliefs by which they live. These beliefs are the “Hemingway Code,” which is often discussed as the basis of his writing.

Avoiding a deviation from accepted interpretations, I propose that The Sun Also Rises is another “Code” novel, wherein the ideal of manhood embodied by the cult of masculinity is part of Hemingway’s solution to living in a Godless world.

The degree of Hemingway’s skill as an author is shown by investing a seemingly loosely constructed novel “about a few drunks” (Djos 2) with symbolic and allegoric meaning. Hemingway was no stranger to questions of faith. Part of his strength as an author derives from his “iceberg” style of writing, wherein there is more to his fiction than his simple style would at first suggest. Indeed, in most criticism of Hemingway’s fiction, there are a wealth of theories which abound, some of which are fairly insightful, and some, such as Robert Solotaroff’s assertion of Hemingway’s own confused sexual identity, border on the bizarre. However, most critics become so enamored by these peculiarities of certain passages and aspects of his work that they fail to consider the main thrust of the text they are discussing. What lies beneath the surface of these icebergs is not suppressed sexual longings, but rather, a discussion of God and His relation to humanity. Oddly, this is a topic most critics choose to ignore. Some, however, do look beyond the sensationalism in Hemingway studies to see the truth. One such was H.R. Stoneback, who stated: “that much of Hemingway’s audience has never wanted to hear, to see, what he has had to tell us about the soul, about matters of the spirit, about the primary religious questions consistently addressed by his fiction” (39).

Take, for example, the emasculation of Jacob Barnes. On the surface, this character trait seems merely to be a device that propels the plot — the disastrous love affair between a man incapable of sexual relations and a promiscuous woman. What about the love affair? Because Jake is incapable of sexual relations, yet still in love with Brett Ashley, he is consumed by remorse and depression. To some, Jake’s emasculation would be a kind of indication of some problem on Hemingway’s part in regards to sexuality, and Brett’s promiscuity would indicate his mistrust of women, most likely produced by his relationship with his mother.

This sort of analysis is trivial and better suited to tabloids than academic journals. They may be well-grounded, documented, and may provide an insight into the personality of Hemingway the man, but they fail to address Hemingway the author and what he has to say. A more accurate interpretation may be that the sexual wounding of Jake serves a higher purpose, in that it symbolizes the state of Twentieth Century man’s relationship with God. Jake cannot share himself intimately with another human being, and this symbolizes the inability of modern man, whom Jake represents, to share himself intimately with God.

This lack of communion, or more fitting, this desertion by the Creator, is historically most evident in the First World War, and its defilement of an entire generation. This is the war wherein Jake, “flying on a joke front like the Italian,” gave “more than his life” to the cruel machines of conflict. The phrase “gave more than his life” indicates more than just the apparent loss of manhood; it points towards a loss of faith, something of greater value than the physical body, or of life itself. He can still feel the same emotions as other men, his testicles being intact, yet Jake is deprived of the ability to act upon those emotions. Symbolically, this represents Jake’s being able to perceive the power and might of God in the world about him, yet is incapable of touching or interacting with that power. He is alone, despairing, and depressed. It is for this reason, this alienation from Providence, that Jake makes the disastrous voyage to Pamplona, not as it seems to enjoy the festival, but to find a way to live without God’s influence.  It is there that Jake discovers exactly what he is seeking. He does so through the guidance of three men, namely Pedro Romero, Bill Gorton, and the aged bullfighter, Belmonte. Pedro advocates living by the ideal of manhood, living by the “code” of the cult of masculinity; Bill advocates acting as if there is a God in human life; Belmonte, finally, advocates that the pain of life can and must be lived through.

The Cult of Masculinity, which is best represented by Pedro Romero, is a group that shares, participates in, upholds or personifies the virtues of men and manhood. These virtues are courage, strength, discipline, and grace under pressure. The vices to be avoided, those that are contrary to the ideal of manhood, are sloth, avoidance, and fear.  This cult need not be a rigidly organized or exclusive group, or even be known to themselves as a group, but can simply be a circle of friends who share the same feelings towards these qualities. The Sun Also Rises presents both the positive and negative groups of this “cult.�  Both groups, or sects, and the ideals they represent, attempting, throughout the novel, to gain prominence in the heart of the narrator. One of the major struggles in Jake’s quest for living without God is this internal battle regarding with which group he should side. The positive group is represented here by the Bullfighters (most especially Pedro Romero), and the negative by the circle of friends (especially Mike and Robert) who accompany Jake to Pamplona. Throughout the novel, Jake drifts between the two sects, exhibiting both virtues and vices, yet never appearing to belong to either group.

In regard to the “Code” of this Cult of Masculinity, it is merely a way of living in the world.  One lives on his own terms, as opposed to having those terms imposed upon him. Robert M. Slabey defines this “code” as:

Be(ing) self-reliant, adhere(ing) to the “rules” and play(ing) the “game” (life) skillfully. The capital sin is cowardice; the greatest fear is of fear itself. The code provides an image of what a man can achieve, of how he can be defeated, but only on his own terms. In learning the code, a posture of manhood is replaced by humanity; manhood is not a pose but becomes a fact. Those not living by the code – the “herd” – are easily identified by their lack of discipline, fortitude, and honor (71).

This definition is a good way to delineate between the two opposite sects of the Cult of Masculinity.  Those groups that adhere to this definition and follow the “code” may be considered positive, and those who deviate from it habitually may be considered negative.

Looking first to the positive group, one finds the bullfighters, richly adorned in their ritual dress.  It is this sect that upholds the virtues of fortitude, discipline, honor, and grace under pressure.  The young Pedro Romero best exemplifies them.  After receiving a brutal beating at the hands of Robert Cohn, Romero performs perfectly on the final day of the bullfights, despite his injuries and the dangerous deficiency of the first bull.  He displays the fortitude required by the “Code” when performing regardless of his injury; the courage by entering the ring against a dangerously nearsighted bull; the discipline in his elegantly executed movements; the honor in fighting to the best of his ability; the grace under pressure in his calm perfection of style (217-218).  In regard to Romero and his role in this sect, Michael S. Reynolds states: ” He (Romero) is their representative…the one character who’s values sustain him in the face of death…He is a professional whose pride will not let him perform at less than his best. He remains undefeated by Cohn, by fear, by death in the ring” (37). Romero embodies qualities which none of the other characters, save Jake, possesses. Indeed, at the beginning of the novel, there is a sense that the virtues Romero displays in the ring are lost forever to the world, replaced by drinking, promiscuity, and avoidance.  In the spectacle of Romero fighting the bulls, the proof of the existence of these virtues is given.  The author presents him as a figure, or an ideal to be applauded, or as Mr. Reynolds says, “He is an example that all is not lost” (38).

All is not lost, for the reader sees, in the person of Jake Barnes, the potential for such qualities as Romero exhibits. Early on, the reader sees the qualities of the positive sect alive and thriving within Jake, most noticeably discipline and fortitude, though to a limited degree.  Jake is the only character with a clearly definable occupation; he is a journalist who is concerned about his work, and also about the money he has earned. His discipline is reflected in his concern to meet his deadlines, and also the careful examination of his bank statement. The fortitude he displays is shown in the resiliency of his character; he is wounded and incapable of sexual relations, yet he persists in his love for Brett. Unfortunately, Jake Barnes lacks the qualities of honor and grace under pressure, as well as discipline in his personal life. These deficiencies of character are strengthened, and to some degree applauded, by the circle of friends with whom he travels to Pamplona.  These friends are the negative group, which personify the vices of manhood.

Mike and Robert are perhaps the best that the negative group has to offer.  In this is meant that these three are the best examples of the negative mentality.  They exemplify the false code of sloth, avoidance and, more importantly, fear: fear of the world, fear of their lives and fear of themselves.  Indeed, these three characters change little, if at all, throughout the course of the novel, winding up at the close exactly where they began, albeit a little lonelier; that is, if they even realize their loneliness.

In the article “Alcoholism in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises,”  the author, Mattos Djos, provides an appropriate description of this group and their lifestyle, saying that “…they seek refuge in broken relationships, in changes of scene, in drunkenness and the illusion that, however meager, they can find some pleasure in their brief interludes of time and place” (3). The negative sect is presented as a group of full-fledged alcoholics (save Robert Cohn, who is merely a “dry drunk,” displaying all the character traits of an alcoholic while never touching a drink until the festival at Pamplona), who attempt at every turn to escape that which they fear and cannot control. Oddly, control is the one feeling that this group seeks most of all, yet it is the very quality that eludes them the most.

Neither Mike nor Robert can, in any way, answer the question of faith with which Jake is faced, mostly because their answers are all escapist. They cannot even know that there is a question, living as they do. Mike spends most of his time inebriated, while Robert is mired in his obsession for Brett. Both are useless to Jake in teaching him how to live a meaningful life. “Mike and Cohn provide in their various ways clearly negative examples: ultimately, Jake is unable to take any of them seriously as living a satisfactory life” (Baskett 100).

Jake’s third companion, Bill Gorton, however, does offer promise in regards to teaching him a useful substitute for divinity. Disguising his advice in humor and silly conversation, Bill takes it upon himself to fill the void within his friend�s life, becoming, in a sense, a spiritual taxidermist. Sam Baskett surmises this particular theory of living best when he said,

�his [Bill’s] advice may be collected under four major precept which are the basis of his life, the life he is urging on his best friend: Utilize a little; Never be Daunted; Show Irony and Pity; Do not Question. The reason for his instruction is obvious. For clearly Jake is not fully utilizing; he is often daunted; instead of showing irony and pity when he’s “feeling” he is only “hard-boiled” in the daytime and self-pitying at night; and he continues to be “pretty religious”(101).

Whether in a mock religious ritual while fishing, persistently urging the purchase of a stuffed dog, or engaging in annoying breakfast conversation, Bill is continuously barraging Jake with his philosophy, attempting to convert him by the sheer repetition of the ideas. What Jake is lacking in himself is the sense of control over his universe, for what man can feel in control when he simultaneously feels spiritually alone? He has trodden the ways of Cohn in his desperate love of Brett, and he has trodden the ways of Mike in excessive drinking. Neither response has eased his pain.

It is Jake’s pain that is the final factor of his education. Pedro Romero showed him the ideal of manhood in all its glory, yet while he could appreciate the ideal as an “aficionado,” “its values have little real or workable impact on Jake, except in the role of a spectator – and spectatorship automatically excludes involvement. For Romero, the ring may demand grace, self-mastery, and control; his actions may be a pretty thing to watch” (Djos 7). Jake is incapable of internalizing this lesson and making it his own. The same is true for the advice of Bill for, though he understands his friend�s intentions and ideas (“he’s a taxidermist”), once again he cannot bring the lessons into play and make them his own. The advice of Mike and Cohn is discarded intellectually, mainly because it represents his current state of existence, albeit to a far greater degree.

Finally, it is the concept of pain that brings together the teachings of Pedro and Bill, revealing to Jake the way for him to live. Oddly enough, this finishing touch to the “education of Jake Barnes” comes, not from young Romero, but from the once great bullfighter, Belmonte. Being now old and fairly infirm, he can no longer elicit the same reactions from the crowd his younger counterparts can. Nevertheless, he continues performing in the ring, despite the pain his infirmity causes him.

�and always the pain that any movement produced grew stronger and stronger, until finally his yellow face was the parchment color… he passed through into the callejon and leaned on the barrera below us, his head on his arms not seeing, not hearing anything, only going through his pain. When he looked up, finally, he asked for a drink of water. He swallowed a little… took his cape, and went back into the ring (214-215; Baskett, 105-106).

This personal heroism is the deciding element of Jake’s education. He sees a man who continues to fight, although all hope of a good performance has been lost; he is a man who desperately continues to live, indeed to fight, though his body is racked with pain. Here, finally, is an ideal with which Jake can identify and which he can assimilate as his own. He has now gained a sense of tragedy in his life, an acknowledgment of Pain that one must continually “go through”. The ideal proposed by Romero becomes the way to act in the world, although as Baskett states,

Jake recognizes that there are unlikely to be any “great moments” for him, that his life is to be in considerable part his going through his pain that will never be completely alleviated by pleasure, God, love or by any other opiate, reality or value. This recognition of himself and his world has not exhilarated him, but it has transformed him, even more dramatically than Robert Cohn’s blows. Strengthened by this tragic perception of his life, as he must live it, he is now able to rejoin Bill soberly, and start living his life as best he can, at the end of his line (106).

This insight is now accessible to Jake, mainly because he can now understand the tragedy of failing to reach Romero’s ideal yet never losing sight of it. With this knowledge now in hand, he is capable of adopting Bill’s advice and live a meaningful life.

Throughout Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes struggles to find a way of living a life that is imbued with meaning. His quest is guided by the positive influences of the bullfighters Pedro Romero and Belmonte, and his friend Bill, as well as the negative influences of Robert Cohn and Mike, all of whom, in their way, constitute a so called Cult of Masculinity. Being another “code” novel, The Sun Also Risesproposes a way of living in the world on one’s own terms and, as the title suggests, offers a ray of hope for a world devoid of God and apparent Divine influence. This is a novel filled with deep perception and thorough care, written with a definite purpose, and not a haphazard abandon. Perhaps more attention should be paid to what Hemingway has to say, rather than to why he says it. Maybe then, when the novel and the rest of his works are reevaluated, the meaning intended by one of America’s greatest novelists will be revealed, and the label of “modernist” be reexamined.

Works Cited

Baskett, Sam. S. “An Image to Dance Around: Brett and Her Lovers in The Sun Also RisesThe Centennial Review. Vol. 22, No. 1 (Winter 1978), pp 45-69.

Djos, Mattos. “Alcoholism in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises” March 1995. Hemingway Review; Spring 95, Vol. 14 Issue 2, p64.

Reynolds, Michael S. The Sun Also Rises: A Novel of the Twenties. Twayne Publishers, Boston. 1988.

Slabey, Robert M. “The Structure of In Our Time.” South Dakota Review (1965).

Solotaroff, Robert. “Sexual Identity in A Farewell to Arms.” Hemingway Review 9.1 (1989): 2-17.

Stoneback, H.R. Hemingway Review 6.1 (1986).


“Hemingway’s Cult of Masculinity: The Search for the Divine”
by R.M. Garino
First published: 2002, Spectral Web, Inc.


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