A notorious man’s man, the American novelist and war journalist Ernest Hemingway has gone down in literary history for his penchant for violence and alcohol in his own life as well as his fiction (See: The Art of Manliness). His novels of men boxing, bullfighting, hunting giant fish, and battling each other in war have perpetuated the concept of masculinity as an ideal that must be achieved through trial and tribulation, rather than exist as an inherent trait. Although several theories have been developed as to what makes a man, the concept of masculinity as being earned proves problematic when the expectations laid out by society are volatile, restrictive, or impossible to meet.
The post-World War I era in which Hemingway sets The Sun Also Rises illuminates a disillusionment towards rapid social changes, diverting from traditional institutions of Western civilization. Populated by veterans struggling with a sense of alienation and purposelessness, Hemingway’s novel illustrates how toxic masculinity was so exacerbated in the mid-1920s. This was an era when psychological trauma was equated with weakness, the growth of the modern urban world and feminism, and the increasing inability to reaffirm masculinity through male-female relations.
The issue of war and psychological trauma is never directly addressed by any of the war veterans in The Sun Also Rises. Instead, the topic is largely avoided despite how the trauma influences their present lifestyle of aimlessness and alcoholism. In a 2005 article published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, Dr. Terry Kupers delves into the toxic impact of masculinity on mental health. Kupers explains that toxic masculinity is more than an amalgam of socially constructed male traits such as the need for domination and wanton violence. It also involves a refusal to acknowledge psychological imbalance, stemming from an association of mental illness with weakness of character (714). Similarly, shell shock and other psychological traumas during World War I were viewed as a kind of hysteria exclusive to women. Many authorities even feared that soldiers might use the excuse of shell shock to escape war service. This formed an association of psychological trauma with cowardice.
Hemingway’s protagonist, Jake Barnes, exhibits an unwillingness to confess to the strain of war. He highlights an “ignored tension” and the use of wine to cope with repressed feelings (Hemingway 117). Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder during a time when “the desire of First World War psychologists [was] to restore soldiers to self-control and manly ‘character’” (Loughran 250), Barnes embodies the destructive effects of idealized machismo. In a world where masculinity meant resilience, dominance, and sexual aggression there was no room for men who were traumatized by battle in such a constructed gender dichotomy.
The social stigma against mental illness was not the only way in which men, especially soldiers, were left behind post-war. These men were also victims of a modernizing world. In The Sun Also Rises, there are clear distinctions between how modern, urban spaces and the natural world affect the characters. It’s in the modern spaces that the characters find themselves the most restless and despondent because the city serves as an agent of post-war modernity’s destructive impact on the male psyche. World War I, considered to be the first modern war, changed the landscape of how men lived and fought with new technology, such as machine guns and indirect fire artillery, rendering soldiers passive and impotent. Gone were the days of direct enemy engagement where the outcome was determined by skill and physical strength; now men were forced to crouch helpless in the trenches amidst bullets and dropping bombs.
When the characters are removed from the urban space, the ramifications of toxic masculinity are mitigated. Barnes and Bill experience their first and only moment of tranquility in the novel by being immersed in nature during a fishing trip. The change in the characters reflects one of the ideas put forth by Robert Bly, a poet and leader of the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement. Bly said “that modernization, urbanization, industrialization, and the feminist movement have distanced men from their earthy, rough, natural masculinity” and argued it was necessary for “men to come together in nature, alone, in the absence of women and civilization” (Gross 14). The discrepancy between the degeneracy of modern warfare versus the purity of traditional battles is further explored through the motif of bullfighting. In his book on the technological sublime in American novels, Zoltan Simon remarks on the divide:
Technological violence in the trenches–being blown up while eating cheese in A Farewell to Arms or suffering an ‘unreasonable wound’ causing the loss of male virility in a literal and figurative sense alike, as in The Sun Also Rises (1926)–is not comparable to the violence of fishing, big game hunting, or bullfighting. (60)
Unlike the industrialized and ignoble violence of the war, Hemingway depicts hunting and bullfighting as a purer, more natural form of violence. It recalls an earlier era of brute force, divorced from technology-driven combat.
However, Barnes’ respite from the harrows of urban modernity are short lived. As implied by Bly, Barnes’ reconnection with his inherent masculinity is disrupted by a woman, Lady Brett Ashley. Many interpretations of A Sun Also Rises label Ashley as a femme fatale, whose proximity exerts a destructive force on the men around her. The underlying source of turmoil, however, is not Ashley, but rather what she represents: the post-war deterioration of traditional gender dichotomy, which unfolds during a time when the national male ego needs it most.
When masculinity faces a potential threat, specifically in wartime periods, men might look to women as a vehicle for the reaffirmation of their manhood. However, World War I had brought about major shifts in the social positions of women. With men gone from their homes, women began to fill the void of jobs traditionally held by men, and many were reluctant to surrender their newfound autonomy after the war ended. Men returned home to find that, in their absence, women were becoming more independent (Vernon 45). Ashley is a paradigm of this new breed of female, now liberated sexually, socially, and economically.
Despite sex being a social taboo, Ashley is open about her promiscuity and sexual appetite. One of her boyfriends, Mike Campbell, remarks that “Brett’s had affairs with men before…She tells me all about everything” (Hemingway 124). Ashley consistently flouts convention throughout the narrative, unlike her peer, Francis, who desires marriage, monogamy, and is dependent on a man to sustain her lifestyle. Ashley sports tight sweaters that show off her curves, neglects stockings, and startles her male companions at being unphased by the violence and gore of the bullfights. Aggressively and unapologetically independent, Ashley engages freely in physical and emotional relationships with several men and displays no desire or need for marriage. She belongs to a new generation of women taking on autonomous roles in what had once been an exclusively male world.
Like Barnes and the rest of Hemingway’s former soldiers, men in the 1920s struggled to meet traditional criteria – resilience, aggression, and sexual dominance – when both the soldiers and society had been so drastically altered by war. In the novel’s final scene, Barnes responds skeptically to Brett’s wistful contemplation of what they might have had under different circumstances.
This exchange underscores the central problem of toxic masculinity in the post-war world: the divide between an idealized image and reality.
Even in our current society, gender continues to be constructed in a rigid dichotomy that insists on particular performance in order to earn one’s identity. Mass media and social convention constantly continue to urge men to prove that they are, in fact, men. Masculinity is a fragile state that can be destroyed by simple statements such as “he cried like a girl.” From their earliest developmental stages, men are compelled to mitigate their emotions, hide their weaknesses, and deny that they have an abundance of either or else risk losing their manhood. The result is a recipe for self-destruction, particularly for men who are placed in positions where they cannot act out their performative masculinity in the ways society demands, like the motley crew in The Sun Also Rises. In our current society where stripping someone of their dignity is as easy as posting a picture on Instagram, traditional ideas of masculinity are even more fragile and toxic than ever. After all, the most destructive words someone can say to a young boy are “be a man.”
By Brittany Reid
Brittany is majoring in Advertisement Marketing and Communications at Baruch College. She wrote this essay for ENG 2150 with Professor Carolyn Cooper. An advocate for feminism, she used the assigned essay on Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” as an opportunity to highlight how traditionally constrictive gender roles are harmful for men as well as women.