An oddly distinct characteristic of by The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway is the portrayal of gender in each of the main characters. The lines between the sexes are blurred as Lady Brett Ashley takes on a masculine, leading role in her relationships and Jake Barnes is “crippled” into what can be perceived as a weak, female state by his inability to procreate. One of the leading themes in the novel is the way that these characters interact with each other – and that of course is affected by the gender identity. By portraying both men and women as weak and strong, Hemingway is making a statement about gender fluidity and how the sexes aren’t as different as they appear.
During a time in which women were gaining more freedom to change, the leading (and basically sole) female character in Ernest Hemingway’s novel, Lady Brett Ashley, demonstrates this new age femme with her carefree nature. She dresses like a boy, has short hair, and spends most, if not all, her time surrounded by men. She controls the lives of the men around her with her mere presence. Although she is kind of presented as a two-dimensional character who is manipulative and fickle, her past is revealed to be an abusive one in which she was forced to flee from her husband and become a stronger, independent woman. This character makes evident the how multifaceted a person can be by having characteristics associated with both genders.
In contrast to the “mannish” Lady Brett Ashley, the “unmanned” Jake Barnes (Banache 38) is an example of the emasculated victims of World War I. His inability to leave Brett after countless occurrences of her emotional infidelity and Brett’s reason for not staying with him (the consummation of their love being a physical impossibility) are both ways that Hemingway presents Jake as non-traditional male. Jake isn’t the only non-traditional male either – with Robert Cohn there is an even more striking example of femininity in Hemingway’s fictional male. Even though he “cared nothing for boxing,” Cohn dedicates himself to the sport to learn to defend himself from the “emotional injury of being tormented for his Jewish heritage” (Banache 38). By suggesting that gender may be learned or performative, Hemingway questions the very core definitions of male and female.
Despite that it may seem as if the gender roles have switched, they have not completely. There are still traces of both stereotyped genders in every character. Brett is still needy and self-conscious – using Jake for romantic love and financial stability at times. Jake is still jealous and independent, he gets into a physical fight with Robert Cohn in order to prove his masculinity and authority. His superiority-complex shines through when he discusses the life-choices of his comrades – for example, his disdain of Cohn’s romantic idea of South America. Ironically, they are similar; both Cohn and Jake share the characteristic of being masochistic. Their stubborn nature is an example of both masculinity and femininity. Although Robert’s longing for a romantic life is mostly ridiculed by the other men in The Sun Also Rises, Jake is still a romantic character and represents a new kind-of romanticism where intimacy in found not in physical consummation but in sensitivity. His role as narrator gives to Jake a kind of love that he and the characters around him cannot find in a hopeless post-war generation.
What lead Hemingway to write his characters in such a way? His accurate reflections on the reality of gender in society is what made The Sun Also Rises so wildly popular (Unrue). Women had to learn to be strong during the absence of men during World War I and men came back emotionally vulnerable and physically weak. It’s not so much a matter of Hemingway creating the issue of androgyny as much as it was an accurate representation of what the nation and people in the warring countries were going through. Lady Brett Ashley, Robert Cohn, and Jake Barnes are not the only characters that Hemingway utilizes to demonstrate the gender role switch and changes in expectations of the people during this time. Francis Clyne is a confrontational woman who doesn’t want children and Georgette is a prostitute who orders a drink for herself and makes a living for herself as well in a loveless society. Both women are examples of a more fluid definition of their sex. The minor male characters like Michael and Count Mippipopolous perform their sex as if it were a show, masquerading as if they were extremely masculine post-war heroes. They do this in order to hide their insecurities as men in the same loveless society. Since all the characters demonstrate some form of gender fluidity then it is evident that it may be both Hemingway’s statement about gender as well as the actual changes occurring in the mid-1920’s that make these characters so dynamic.
The Sun Also Rises is a book about human nature and its resilience. The characters adapt to change or fall behind; learning that despite the metaphorical stormy night that seems to define their entire lives, the sun also rises, there is still hope. The characters adapting to change is evident in their gender fluidity – adapting to a new generation and doing what they feel that they must, almost to a fault, to find some semblance of happiness. Hemingway seems to be suggesting perhaps a less severe version of what his fictional characters choose to do in order to make it to the next day. He highlights Jake’s good characteristics: a sensitive individual who is cautious and passionate, mainly feminine traits and also highlights Brett’s good characteristics: tenacity and individualism, the strong qualities usually identified in males. The Sun Also Rises suggests that by adapting to both genders’ traits, a person can be more resilient and well-rounded and can increase their chances of a happier outcome in life during a post-war generation that longs for security, prosperity, and romance.