Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

Earlier this year, I wrote a few words about George Orwell’s novel, Down and Out in Paris and London, where I noted the prominent role booze played in the lives of the working underclass in Post-World War I-era Paris.  I turn now to discuss another book – set in Paris at about the same time – that highlights the role of drink in the lives of those at the opposite end of the social spectrum.

The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s novel that first brought him to national prominence as an American fiction writer is, if nothing else, a meditation on perpetual boozing and rambunctious behavior, an ode to drunken arguments and the hurt feelings they cause.

Drinking is imbued throughout Hemingway’s novel with such ferocity and intensity that one may think the novel is a treatise on the subject.  Instead of the frequency, however, I’d like to focus more on the purpose – why the characters are perpetually drinking – especially considering the fact that while in Pamplona Jake and his cohort are nearly always drunk or in the process of becoming so.

Perhaps I focused more on “purpose” because I read this book shortly after finishing Orwell’s.  The bold contrast between the books’ characters – Orwell’s working man living hand to mouth and Hemingway’s group gluttonously misbehaving, carousing, and bickering – stood prominently in my mind.

Early in the novel, Hemingway’s protagonist, Jake Barnes, begins chatting with a Georgette, a “working lady,” while drinking at a Parisian café, shortly before meeting several friends.

“Well, what will you drink?” I asked.
“That’s not good for little girls.”
“Little girl yourself.  Dites garçon, un pernod.”
“A Pernod for me too.”
Pernod is a greenish imitation absinthe. When you add water it turns milky.  It tastes like licorice and has a good uplift, but it drops you just as far.  We sat and drank it, and the girl looked sullen.

Rather than scraping by on meager amounts of food for sustenance and drinking to dull the pain of such a Spartan existence, Jake, Brett, and Robert freely and carelessly spend on food and drink (and women).  This happens so often as to become commonplace and therefore, quite easy to miss.  A brief discussion over where to lunch quickly results in a full table: “How about Wetzel’s?  They’ve got good hor d’œuvres.”  In the restaurant we ordered hor d’œuvres and beer.  The sommelier brought the beer, tall, beaded on the outside of the steins, and cold.  There were a dozen different dishes of hor d’œuvres.

While the amount booze enjoyed by Jake and company in Paris is impressive, it’s nothing compared to the constant state of drunkenness endured while fishing outside Burguete and during the fiesta in Pamplona.  In this latter half of the story, it’s a challenge to find some activity that doesn’t center upon eating or drinking to excess.  The group, now joined by Bill and Mike, continually derides and argues with each other – occasionally coming to blows – all while imbibing endless amounts of beer and wine.  During one particular evening, Jake describes his condition following an evening early during the week of fiesta: “The country became very clear and the feeling of pressure in my head seemed to loosen.  I was very drunk and I did not want to shut my eyes because the room would go round and round.  If I kept on reading that feeling would pass.”

Jake, Brett, Richard, Bill, and Mike all seem to be out for a good time, and nothing else.  My earlier question of purpose seemed to have a simple answer: they drank for fun, because they could; nothing more, nothing less.

Interestingly, Hemingway provides some insight into the drinking philosophy of that day, perhaps tipping his own hand on his thoughts concerning the 18th Amendment’s prohibition of alcohol, in a short conversation between characters during their trip between Paris and Bayonne.

“You know how the ladies are.  If there’s a jug goes along, or a case of beer, they think it’s hell and damnation.”
“That’s the way men are,” his wife said to us.  She smoothed her comfortable lap.  “I voted against prohibition to please him, and because I like a little beer in the house, and then he talks that way.  It’s a wonder they ever find any one to marry them.”


In related news, Maria Popova – Atlantic contributor and creator of Brain Pickings –  recently wrote an excellent summary of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907-1922, “a fascinating new volume that peels away at a young Hemingway different, richer, more tender than the machismo-encrusted persona we’ve come to know through his published works.”


Please visit The Hip Flask’s Recommended Reading page for other books on drinking culture I’ve enjoyed.

Published in: on October 25, 2011 at 11:17 am  Comments (3)  
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