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The Sun Also Rises | Themes

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Effects of War and Disillusionment

Jake's generation—veterans and civilians alike—struggle to find meaning after the devastating events of World War I. Jake, Brett, and Mike were actively involved in the war and emerged disillusioned from their experiences. Many young people joined the war as an act of patriotism, believing their sacrifices would mean something. Their experience was the opposite; they braved the battlefield only to be slaughtered by machine guns or killed by poison gas. Most of those who made it home did not keep their idealism intact. The war destroyed many people's notions of morality and religion, forcing them to look elsewhere for guidance. Many in this lost generation turned to carnal desires—food, sex, alcohol—to fill the void inside.

Jake returns home from the war with an injury that leaves him impotent; like many of the other characters in The Sun Also Rises he feels empty, emotionally restless, and aimless.

Masculinity

World War I left many men feeling emasculated. In the face of the war's indiscriminate violence, strength, courage, and grit counted for little. Men could not "prove" themselves against machine guns or explosives as they could in the hand-to-hand combat of previous wars. Surviving the war was not a sign of heroism or strength; it was simply a matter of luck.

Jake bears this emasculation physically as well as emotionally. His war injury makes sex—and thereby a full-fledged relationship with Brett—an impossibility. Although Jake claims not to be bothered too much by the injury, his heavy drinking and obsession with masculine sports such as boxing and bullfighting suggest otherwise. Jake's friends similarly hide their insecurities and hurt egos by drinking heavily, chasing sex, and watching violent sports. Each is emasculated in his own way; Mike is broke, Bill may be gay, and Cohn is lovesick and Jewish—which the other men view as a mark of inferiority. The most traditionally masculine character in the novel is Pedro Romero, the 19-year-old bullfighter. Brett, though a woman, also exemplifies masculinity in the way she dresses and as she uses and throws away the men in her life.

Escapism

To cope with or cover up their disillusionment after the war, the characters escape—both literally and figuratively. They all live as expatriates, having left their home countries to search for meaning elsewhere. Paris is now their home base, but they also travel to Spain; neither place seems to bring them much pleasure. They escape through alcohol, too; Jake, Mike, Brett, and Bill all drink excessively, which often leads to blackouts or fights. No one wants to speak openly about what they feel, so they bury their emotions at the bottom of a bottle. Yet the characters are most likely to reveal their true feelings when drunk: Jake desperately asks for Brett's love, and Mike condemns Cohn's lovesick behavior.

Brett uses romantic relationships to escape, too. She is regularly swept into romantic images of a relationship with Jake, Mike, Cohn, and Romero, moving from man to man as she desires. As soon as reality sets in, however, Brett leaves. She has no interest in committing to anyone, which Jake realizes at the end of the novel. In this way the theme of escapism divides between genders. The male characters escape the horrors of war as well as the gender expectation of heroism. Likewise Brett escapes the gender expectation of diffidence and domestic bliss.

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