Cleansing the Trauma of the Lost Generation: Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

© Georgia O’Keeffe, Sun Water Maine, oil on canvas, 1922

Ernest Hemingway’s first published novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), set in the 1920s, is about the polyamorous affairs between a group of lost young souls. The aimless drifting actions of the characters in the Fiesta in Spain metaphorically echoes with the traumatic sense of being lost in the post-WWI society. Suffering from unfulfilled political promises, the lost generation had a tendency to abandon their dreams, which is symbolised by the heavy emphasis on drunkenness and inconclusiveness of sexual relationships in the novel. As one of the most influential modernist writers, Hemingway puts his characters in the search for a way to cleanse their trauma in a fragmented post-war society. Throughout the journey, water acts as a motif to signify the attempt to heal the society from broken promises.


© Vintage Classics

Centring around the ambiguous relationship between Jake and Brett, their cravings for water in the novel imply the helpless search for a dim hope in the twenties. Brett constantly messes around with different men and makes them fight for her, which makes her seem to be possessing control over people. However, after all her short flings, she often claims that she “needs a bath desperately.” In this sense, it can be interpreted that Brett is trying to get rid of her seemingly loose nature. Instead of wandering aimlessly, she actually hopes to look for a reason to stay. As for Jake, after he fights with Cohn, he keeps yearning for a hot bath in deep water but finds “the water in the stone tub not running.” He finds himself stuck in his relationship with Brett, realising he can never get a hold of what he desires. Both their failures in seeking thorough cleanse lead them to a visit to the Pamplona church, and Brett says the church makes her “nervy and does her no good,” their uneasiness signifies that even ritual cleansing with baptismal water cannot heal the trauma of the lost generation – the holy water fails to purify their souls, the sins they committed in the war and the things they lost have left irreversible scars on their hearts.


In the end of the novel, when all the characters drift to different directions, Jake headed to San Sebastian for the sea. He eventually dives deep into the water but “the sea cannot wash away the week in Pamplona.” A sense of defeat rises in his heart and he once again goes back to Brett. Realising that they cannot stay together, they have a short time wandering in Madrid together consuming alcohol again. The drunkenness and drifting actions remain until the end of the novel, which means the lost generation cannot seek any hopes in the political systems they are living in. Reading the ending in a modernist notion, as Hemingway’s characters are unable to fit in any societies, he hints that the lost generation must search for their own ways and rebuild the social system. Despite the sense of hopelessness that lingers between the lines, the final realisation of Jake leaves the reader to seek his own way out, echoing the title of the novel and giving the lost generation a hope to heal themselves from post-war trauma.

By Chan Tsz Yan Audrey

Categories: Books, Modernism and Postmodernism

Tags: , , , , , ,

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