Lady Ashley–Distressed Diva or Dynamite Dame?
There is a common perception among casual readers–who hasn’t heard it voiced?–that Ernest Hemingway was a macho man. That all he cared about was sporting and drinking. And, worst of all, particularly when viewed through today’s much expanded value system regarding the sexes, Hemingway did not respect women. That’s the rap. My intent here is to examine one work in such a way as to challenge these heinous assumptions. Hemingway’s persona will be left alone. What will be examined is the role of one woman, Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, and what if anything, it reveals in the way of settling this account of Hemingway as misogynist.
Brett Ashley enjoys a unique position of power in the novel–in today’s vernacular, she “wears the pants” in all her relationships. The feminist perspective, no doubt, will find this true, but rapidly move to the conclusion that Brett Ashley’s power over men is Hemingway’s means of showing what a bitch she is. I’d like to suggest another possibility. Despite Brett’s many faults, she is worth loving, and Jake Barnes does just that. Again, the feminist may say, yes he loves her, but as an idol, a doll, a figure admired from afar, as if eternally suspended on a pedestal. I consent that Jake is guilty of this habit, yet; he is always there for her, no matter the pain it inflicts on his self-worth.
At the end of the book, when Jake thinks the coast is clear, and he’s gathering himself at San Sabastian after much revelry in Pamplona, Brett sends a telegram:
COULD YOU COME TO HOTEL MONTANA MADRID AM RATHER IN TROUBLE BRETT. (238)
Brett has ditched her intended husband Michael, her lover Robert Cohn, and her number one supporter Jake Barnes, in order to do what? To satisfy herself with a nineteen year old hero of the bull ring. To assuage her fears of aging. For wasn’t it pleasant dear, to be thirty four and still drop jaws? “Rather,” Brett would admit. The point is Jake Barnes loves her. And dare I say it? His love is unconditional.
Mike, nor Robert Cohn, nor the former Lord Ashley loved her unconditionally. They had Brett wrapped in all types of chains. It is against this regressive mind-set that Brett fights. They all want to own her. But, not Jake. And Jake as narrator is Hemingway’s nearest relative. Jake’s voice is hardly distinguishable from Hemingway’s own. Given that, I’d say the author invented an arch-type of modern man in Jake Barnes. Jake is the friend you can count on. He’s the guy, who if he were alive today, would memorize Bly and bang drums in the woods under a full moon. He’s sensitive.
Speaking of sensitive, what is the reader to make of Jake’s faulty machinery? The feminist in me screams, “That’s the only reason Jake acts the way he does, because he’s been neutered in war.” Excuse the graphic nature of this, but Jake is still a man with two hands and a tongue. Having children never enters into the equation. Brett’s no Mommy. In other words, I reject the notion that Jake is less a man for his injury. He is, it fact, a better man.
The Sun Also Rises is a seminal work from a writer at the peak of his skills. Hemingway, like his narrator, Jake Barnes, does the work of a journalist. The novel serves as a field report for the societal changes brought on by the “Great War.” The role of women in the culture was very much on the minds of thinking people. It was on Hemingway’s mind, and he wrote about it eloquently throughout his career.
In Brett Ashley, the reader finds how troubling some of the adjustments to the new “free” life-style can be. Brett values independence more than anything, as she proves over and over by disregarding her inner voice in favor of sensual satisfaction. Hemingway could condemn her for this wayward attitude. He could call her all sorts of bad names. As her inventor, he could have her suffer many more indecencies. Why does he refrain? Because, he admires her. He accepts her basic humanity and forgives her trespass on Jake’s soul.
Robert Cohn does not receive this compassion. He is destroyed. It seems evident that Hemingway wanted to make a statement about the dogged pursuit of women. It’s wrong. That’s Jake’s perspective. Jake’s the narrator, and this theme gets much exercise. Jake goes from liking Cohn to thinking him a cretin. What does it mean, this abuse of Cohn? For one, it means there are anti-Semites in the world (but that’s for another paper). Secondly, it means don’t be led about by your penis.
Robert Cohn calls Jake Barnes a pimp. Is there merit to his accusation? Some. Jake, first is an accomplice to Count Mippipopolous’ self-flattery. Then the existential moment in the cafe in Pamplona when Jake exits quietly in order to allow nature to take her course.
He (Pedro Romero) looked at me. It was a final look to ask if it were understood. It was understood all right. (187)
This was a painful moment. Amplified by Jake’s aficionado status. He was not merely losing Brett to another man, but possibly ruining an innocent young man in the process. A young man who was the key to the entire fiesta. Jake’s laissez-faire approach could be devastating to everyone, not just his close circle of friends.
Yet, Jake did the right thing. He hated to see Robert Cohn be put through the hoops, and he hated to see himself fall victim to the same. Jake, hardened by the war (sorry, that’s not funny), is the quintessential modern man, in that, he knows he has no control over what another person chooses for themselves. That is a revolutionary concept. For Jake Barnes, a Catholic from Kansas City, was reared to believe otherwise. Only experience taught him differently. Paris and the war taught him differently.
There is a passage in the novel, which captures Jake’s struggle perfectly:
Women made such swell friends. Awfully swell. In the first place you had to be in love with a woman to have a basis of friendship. I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came. That was one of the swell things you could count on.
I thought I had paid for everything. Not like the woman pays and pays and pays. No idea of retribution or punishment. Just exchange of values. You gave up something and you got something else. Or you worked for something. You paid someway for everything that was any good. I paid my way into enough things that I liked, so that I had a good time. Either you paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money. Enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth and knowing when you had it. You could get your money’s worth. The world was a good place to buy in. It seemed like a fine philosophy. In five years, I thought, it will seem just as silly as all the other fine philosophies I’ve had. (148)
With that, one must ask, did Jake get his money’s worth with Brett Ashley? He accepts that there is a price. He accepts that he will pay the price, regardless of its loftiness. He knows Brett’s company is worth the high cost she exacts. He’s not bitter about it. It troubles him and makes him think. And that’s the whole point, Jake thinks about what he’s doing, and without scorn or over-riding judgment, goes with the flow. Because that’s all he could do. Cohn and Mike are examples of what happens if you fight it. They are miserable, whereas Jake is content with getting what he can from life.
Brett Ashley exemplifies the modern woman in her struggle for a post-Victorian identity. She knows the difficulties, but finds her rewards in the flesh and the bottle. She knows she’s weak, and therein lies her strength. Like her best buddy, Jake, she wants immediate compensation for life’s harsher realities. And, they both are successful at attaining these small pay-backs. Jake finds his in the comfort of travel with a close friend, Bill Gorton, and the reflective waters of the Irati River. Brett finds hers in the adoration men insist upon when presented with her striking good looks. Life is fleeting, Jake and Brett know it, and respond accordingly.
Hemingway’s gift of these characters says to the reader, “Embrace life.” That message comes from one who loves people, even when they insist on games and head-trips and violence. Jake is a hero because he grabs the bull by the horns (I know, I know). He could be a pitiful mess of a man, but he is not. He is chivalrous, smart, and well-adjusted. He hurts, and has second thoughts, but he is quick to joke about it. The characters in the novel that show signs of male chauvinism are whipped about by events, and are in no way intended to be admired. Hemingway was no sexist. On the contrary, his work championed the woman’s cause, and in Brett Ashley he has given readers a heroine, hell-bent on liberation.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926. Reissued by Collier Books, 1986.