The Sun Also Rises

Ernest Hemingway

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises.

The Sun Also Rises | Symbols



Bullfighting dominates the second half of the novel and symbolizes the fraught relationships among the men—Cohn, Jake, Mike, and Romero—and Brett. Throughout the novel Brett antagonizes the men into fighting for her affection, much in the same way the bullfighters flaunt the red flag to antagonize the bulls into a fight. If Brett is the bullfighter, the men are bulls, with emasculated Jake acting as a steer (a castrated bull). In bullfighting the steers herd the bulls together after the run. In much the same way Jake, who cannot have sex with Brett, works to keep the group of friends together—he is always at Brett's beck and call, making travel plans and inviting men who are competing for Brett's attention to join them. Perhaps because Jake cannot have sex he cares about forming friendships and keeping everyone happy, even if it means swallowing his emotions and sacrificing his own happiness.

After the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Jake and his friends assess the bulls' strength and aggressiveness, two traditionally masculine characteristics. In the same way Jake assesses each of Brett's suitors to judge whether they are "worthy" of her affection. According to Jake, Cohn is unworthy of Brett; this fuels Jake's anger toward Cohn. Jake deems the count and Mike both passably masculine, perhaps because they are both veterans. But the only man truly "worthy" of Brett is the bullfighter Romero, whom Jake helps Brett attract. In and out of the ring Romero is the most masculine of the bunch. He is handsome, full of youth and vitality, honorable, and talented. But in the end Romero is heartbroken; just as even the strongest and most aggressive bull is killed by a skilled bullfighter in the end, Romero falls to Brett.


For the characters in The Sun Also Rises water symbolizes purification, both physical and emotional. Jake, bitter and hopeless after the war, spends his days searching for distraction in small pleasures. The only time he truly feels at peace is in nature—specifically in or near water. He fishes in Burguete with Bill, and this minivacation is the happiest in the novel. It's the only time Jake sleeps peacefully: "Once in the night I woke and heard the wind blowing. It felt good to be warm and in bed." Jake and Bill spend their days in the sun and in the stream; he spends far more time describing the landscape than he does describing Brett. Similarly after leaving the stress of Pamplona, Jake is eager to get back to the purifying water in San Sebastian: "The water was buoyant and cold. It felt as though you could never sink." In the water Jake is at peace; nothing, not even his injury or his heartbreak over Brett, can weigh him down.

For Brett water equals purification as well, as evidenced by her frequent bathing. Brett often uses bathing as an excuse to escape social situations or to explain why she perpetually runs late. Her bathing sessions frequently follow romantic liaisons. For example, when she returns from San Sebastian where she had an affair with Cohn, she says she can't meet with Jake: "Haven't bathed [yet]. Michael comes in tonight ... Must clean myself." Brett's perpetual bathing signals remorse over her promiscuous behavior; she needs to wash away her guilty feelings.

Questions for Symbols

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