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Ernest Hemingway. The Sun Also Rise. Entre sens et absence

Agnès Derail-Imbert
Philippe Jaworski

“This is country”

Observation as Imagination in The Sun Also Rises

Fiona Mcmahon

Texte intégral

1What Hemingway learned from journalism and later, in the1920s, from his experiments in short stories is an indication of the tenuous distinction that may be drawn between imagined and lived realities in The Sun Also Rises. It was during these years of apprenticeship that Hemingway earned his place amongst a generation of modernist writers who examined and refashioned some of our traditional assumptions about the relationship between fact and fiction, language and experience. Some might argue that in an era when representational techniques were melding with avant-garde sensibilities, the crossovers between the real and the imaginary in Hemingway’s work were made to appear all the more tenable. They formed part of a contemporary backdrop of experiment in the arts that identified Hemingway as a writer of his time.

  • 1  G. Stein, “Composition as Explanation”, in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, p. 453.

2Hemingway’s aptly entitled early collection of short stories, In Our Time (1925) is a first demonstration of his desire, equally important, to bring to light through the medium of fiction the changes inscribed in the ethos of this period. This examination is closely concerned with the principal themes of The Sun Also Rises. At the same time, it replicates the search amongst writers in the1920s and1930s to arrive at an ideal mode of perception that asserts itself in their art. We can recall Gertrude Stein’s role in this. In 1926, the year Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises, she was to claim: “Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition1”. For Stein, the onus in writing had shifted from what one sees to how one sees, the arrangement of what is perceived becoming the primary goal. Amongst Hemingway’s contemporaries, to name yet another example, the effort to rethink writerly craft in terms of perception is also apparent in the work of John Dos Passos, with his1925 novel, Manhattan Transfer and later in the1930s, with his “Newsreel” and “Camera Eye” techniques.

  • 2  G. Plimpton, “An Interview with Ernest Hemingway”, in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. A Cas (...)

3The development of a fundamentally modern visual aesthetic in literature may help deepen our understanding of the formal complexity of Hemingway’s writing. The distinction that arises is the degree to which narration in The Sun Also Rises is allied with a visual imperative. We are led to consider how the novel brings us face to face with a nominalist canvas revealing places and the shapes and colours that inhabit them. The language gives us pause; it prompts us to consider what is achieved alongside blocks of objective description and laconic dialogues. For if we endeavour to examine the novel’s discourse, we will notice that it contrives to heighten our ability to receive the worlds of Paris, Pamplona and the other expatriate destinations on a sensory level. Retroactively, it is as though the novel were putting into practice Hemingway’s contention (expressed in a1958 interview) that “[I] f a writer stops observing he is finished2”. The public persona wielded by legend and by Hemingway’s own pronouncements suggests a life caught up in a battle of wills to hold onto a certain number of ideals that define his craft. This is one of them. Yet how does Hemingway reconcile his desire to ground his writing in observation with the selective restraint of the narrative stance as it evolves throughout the novel? Full disclosure proves too painful a prospect for Jake Barnes and is thus precisely that which he fails to provide as a narrator. This absence of disclosure may appear contradictory given that the writer’s task is characterized in such uncompromising terms: the writer is to stave off defeat through observation, compiling the materials of his imagination. If we turn to the novel, any occasion for compromise is indeed pictured as though an affliction, in particular through the physical and moral plight endured by Jake. As the novel progresses through the various stages of this struggle, Jake’s position as narrator stands out nevertheless as a poignant illustration of Hemingway’s staunch attachment to the creative modality of observation. This is expressed most clearly perhaps when the narration eases itself into a moving scene of contiguous frames and the eye begins to direct the mind’s path. In The Sun Also Rises, this is where the imagination unfolds a sensory world in which some respite, however fleeting, may be had from gnawing doubts and dashed hopes.

  • 3  E. Hemingway, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, p. 96.
  • 4  G. Plimpton, “An Interview with Ernest Hemingway”, p. 29.
  • 5  Ibid., p. 29.

4Reading The Sun Also Rises requires some degree of acceptance that with the novelist there is a transition underway from thinking to perceiving. In many instances, the reader is directed to ascertain the substance of Jake’s character through the outline provided of the objective world. Observable detail is presented as though the hallmarks of a purportedly realist narrative. We may take the example of Hemingway’s listing of objects, as in the description of the room at the inn in Burguete: “There were two beds, a washstand, a clothes-chest, and a big, framed steel-engraving of Nuestra Señora de Roncesvalles3.” (p. 96) The seemingly photographic realism of such a sketch would suggest that Hemingway is drawing from what he called the “great reserve of things he knows or has seen.4” This is yet another condition he placed upon the writer’s craft: “If a writer stops observing he is finished. But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful. Perhaps that would be true at the beginning. But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen5.”

5The impression that takes hold suggests that we are privy to the process of making fiction from the writer’s personal store of experience. This is particularly riveting when it appears that reams of factual notations, previously recorded, are being imparted to the reader. The linear, detailed depiction of the Madrid train station is one example in Book Three of the novel. Similarly, when the close and careful description of the dancers and singers in the midst of the fiesta in Pamplona intervenes in the plot, Jake’s authority as a narrator suddenly seems to take a new turn:

The covered seats of the bullring had been crowded with people sitting out of the rain watching the concourse of Basque and Navarrais dancers and singers, and afterward the Val Carlos dancers in their costumes danced down the street in the rain, the drums sounding hollow and damp, and the chiefs of the bands riding ahead on their big, heavy-footed horses, and their costumes wet, the horses’ coats wet in the rain. The crowd was in the cafés and dancers came in, too, and sat, their tight-wound white legs under the tables, shaking the water from their belled caps, and spreading their red and purple jackets over the chairs to dry. It was raining hard outside. (p. 148)

6The red, white and purple colours of the dancer’s costumes, wet in the rain in Pamplona appear as though the emblems of Hemingway’s discourse. They lead us to picture the sensory imprint of the scene and thus, to consider what its signification may be for the narrator. These are moments when there is a breach in the indecisiveness associated with identity, with place and with person, conveyed so convincingly through the indefinite pronouns for instance – someone, something, somewhere – that riddle the narration. Jake Barnes is altogether one of the onlookers in the crowd “watching”. No less significantly, these are moments when thanks to a wealth of detail, the ambivalence in which the narration is steeped, as to what is true and untrue appears to be replaced, albeit briefly, by a measure of authority.

7Hemingway’s apprenticeship as a writer demonstrates a keen awareness of the relationship between observation and imagination and more importantly perhaps, the desire to strengthen the ties between the two. In a letter to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, two years prior to the publication of The Sun Also Rises, he dryly touches upon the link between the make-believe and observable detail. In reference to his short story “Big Two-Hearted River”, he exclaims:

  • 6  C. Baker (ed.), Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961, p. 122.

It is about100 pages long and nothing happens and the country is swell, I made it all up, so I see it all and part of it comes out the way it ought to, it is swell about the fish, but isn’t writing a hard job though? It used to be easy before I met you. Certainly it was bad, Gosh, I’m awfully bad now but it’s a different kind of bad6.

8From the vantage point of Paris in1924, Hemingway is writing about a familiar place – the forests and lakes of Michigan where he spent his childhood summers. His feigned naïveté aside, the novelist is deeply concerned with what it “ought to” look like. The imaginable realm is the observable realm: to “make it all up” is to “see it all”. With a slight slip of the pen, the reverse equation would have been true: “to see it all” is “to make it all up”.

9Book One of the novel, as it has often been noted, is replete with descriptive detail that anyone familiar with the context of the Left Bank in the1920s would be hard pressed to contradict. In fact, the world that Hemingway has painted is the world that popular culture remembers. Jake’s walks along the boulevards and taxi rides through the streets of Paris bring to life the itinerant lifestyle of his urban existence. However it is when Jake leaves Paris in Book Two, in the company of Bill Gorton, that a succession of long passages are given over to the description of the landscape, what is subsumed in the novel by the idea of “country”. Here Jake assumes the role of an observer who “watches” the outlying countryside, often from the perspective of a car or a train, looking out of the window. The perceptual stance of the narrator is emphasized through the subsequent chapters, first as a communal activity of witnessing – “We ate the sandwiches and drank the Chablis and watched the country out of the window,” (p. 76) through to the final chapter, once the fiesta has “boiled over”, where Jake is pictured as a solitary observer looking out over the bay of San Sebastian – “I looked around at the bay, the old town, the casino, the line of trees along the promenade, and the big hotels with their white porches and gold-lettered names.” (p. 208)

  • 7  W. Cather, “The Novel Démeublé”, in Willa Cather on Writing, p. 42.
  • 8  W. Morris, “Ernest Hemingway”, in Ernest Hemingway. Seven Decades of Criticism, p. 98.

10Jake’s character comes alive through the rendition of such precise visual tableaux. His experience in this retrospective framework can be pieced together in the mind’s eye as the reader pans over the settings that comprise his itinerary. The reader begins to sense, along with the narrator, what Willa Cather once lauded as “the emotional aura of the fact7.” Another example arises in chapter nine when a sudden intensity is channeled into the narration as Jake conveys his visual memory of the train journey that took him along with Bill Gorton from Paris to Bayonne. Through polysyndeton and monosyllabic language, it is conveyed how sensations became firmly implanted in the land they had so steadily watched since that morning: “We ate the sandwiches and drank the Chablis and watched the country out of the window. [...] About seven-thirty we had dinner and watched the country through the open window in the diner. [...] It got dark and we could feel the country hot and sandy and dark outside of the window, and about nine o’clock we got into Bayonne.” (p. 76-77) Hemingway’s ability to animate his landscapes with symbolic evocativeness, as in this case, can been equated with his ability to write with what has been termed, his “eye of memory8.” This critical stance rests upon the premise that there is a considerable overlap between the style of Hemingway’s nonfiction, where he recounts past experience (Death in the Afternoon) and that of his fictional writing. What the eye remembers in this instance being a combination of the sensory and the emotional “aura” of the lived experience: “It got dark and we could feel the country hot and sandy and dark outside of the window.” (p. 77)

11In a world of disconnections, Jake is not the only character for whom landscapes bear a physical and an emotional imprint. Bill Gorton is portrayed on two separate occasions as possessing a visual sensibility. First, unlike Robert Cohn, a lesser companion for Jake because inwardlooking, Bill implicitly understands the value that lies in the landscape as they cross the Spanish border: “I was up in front with the driver and I turned around. Robert Cohn was asleep, but Bill looked and nodded his head.” (p. 82) Secondly, Bill’s power of observation may take the form of a sudden, unexpected revelation, as when looking out at the Irati Valley, he firmly announces, “This is country.” (p. 102) This is a single locution bounded on either side by lengthy descriptive passages that emphasize the symbolic value of “country”:

It was a beech wood and the trees were very old. Their roots bulked above the ground and the branches were twisted. We walked on the road between the thick trunks of the old beeches and the sunlight came through the leaves in light patches on the grass. The trees were big, and the foliage was thick but it was not gloomy. There was no undergrowth, only the smooth grass, very green and fresh, and the big grey trees well spaced as though it were a park. “This is country”, Bill said.
The road went up a hill and we got into thick woods, and the road kept on climbing. (p. 102)

12The land is “sunny”, “smooth”, “green” and “fresh;” furthermore it is likened to the organized and thus reassuring context of parkland. However, there is no forgetting that such manifestations of desire to articulate meaning-fulness through perceptual experience are undercut in the novel. For it is arguable whether the authenticity that envelops Bill’s character in these instances is sufficiently strong to dispel the picture that has been previously painted of him. For instance, at the very start of Book Two, when Bill returns from his drunken spree in Vienna and Budapest, this very idea of authenticity is hollowed out through the image of the “stuffed animals” (p. 65) with which he promises to reward all his friends: “Going to give all my friends stuffed animals.” (p. 65) Behind the quip that immediately follows this announcement, “I’m a nature-writer” (p. 65) there is a flippant dismissal of a certain strain of realism. This is voiced on one level by Bill, the successful, young New York writer about whom we have no trouble believing he would choose to reject a tradition of Regionalist American literature. At the same time, one can’t help hearing a thinly veiled expression of detachment on the part of Hemingway, who is seeking to distance himself from some of the conventions of realism all while exploring ways to bring his environment into focus. Indeed, if Hemingway were to write in the tradition of the American “novel of the soil” for instance, this would entail some degree of belief in the values embedded in that same “soil”. Here, in the urban European setting of the1920s, Hemingway’s portrait of the drunken and jaded expatriate writer aimlessly traipsing across Europe does little to prepare the reader for the ideal pairing of writerly craft and a redemptive landscape. Nor does it ready us for the entry, in the subsequent chapter, of “country” as a place of beauty, worthy of contemplation.

13At the start of chapter nine, the narrator explains: “Bill and I took the morning train from the Gare d’Orsay. It was a lovely day, not too hot, and the country was beautiful from the start.” (p. 74) There ensues a catalogue of sorts listing the attributes of the country. The narration underscores colours ( “white”, “green”, “brown”), shapes ( “strangely shaped” mountains, high “crests”, deep “valleys”, flat “roads”) and temperatures ( “heat-baked” and “cold” mountains, as Bill remarks when they approach Roncevaux – “It’s cold up here”, p. 95). There are further contrasts that materialize between “barren” (p. 95) and rocky landscapes and those described as “rich and green”. (p. 80)

14As Jake’s journey progresses, what the country “ought to” look like comes to resemble what the country feels like. There is a layering of sensory detail, as Jake and Bill travel by bus to Burguete with the Basques, which offers up of a blend of reality and abstraction falling somewhere between description and evocation:

The bus climbed steadily up the road. The country was barren and rocks stuck up through the clay. There was no grass beside the road. Looking back we could see the country spread out below. Far back the fields were squares of green and brown on the hillsides. Making the horizon were the brown mountains. They were strangely shaped. As we climbed higher the horizon kept changing. (p. 95)

  • 9  W. Morris, “Ernest Hemingway”, p. 98.
  • 10  G. Plimpton, « An Interview with Ernest Hemingway », p. 29.
  • 11  Ibid., p. 29.

15The reader joins in with the narrator in sensing the shapes, colours and feel of this landscape. This is perhaps where, as the critic Wright Morris has suggested, Hemingway’s “style simulates possession9”. Following this line of argument, the reader comes to possess the experience of the narrator most thoroughly when the imagination expands to include a range of sensory impressions. No static photographic detail would suffice to render the fluctuations of this canvas. For the “great reserve of things he [the novelist] knows or has seen10” is called upon to sketch the variable motifs of the narrator’s inward progress as experienced on the road to Burguete. To do so requires that the writer comply with yet another condition laid out by Hemingway according to his ideal of craftsmanship: “anything you know you can eliminate11”.

16Not using “what you know” underwrites the epistemological tension borne out in the novel. The extent to which Jake may show and tell is repeatedly tried and tested. His character emerges as the example of another writer, if only a lowly journalist, as he is made to recall, who is toying with the constructs of language. When the event and the emotion attached to it is couched in silence, Hemingway’s “country”, we might argue, gives shape and breadth to the life of the imagination. The observable “country” is preferred to slippery, unreliable language. We’ll recall Jake warning Brett in the midst of her love affair with Romero: “You’ll lose it if you talk about it.” (p. 214) In other words, what the silence and phatic small talk of Hemingway’s characters tend to cover up is disclosed through the sensory experience of the outer world.

  • 12  E. Muir, Review, For Whom the Bell Tolls, in The Truth of the Imagination, p. 143.

17I would like to conclude with the assessment made by Edwin Muir of another of Hemingway’s novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Writing in1941, Muir touches upon the various silences assumed by the novelist’s discourse: “[...] M. Hemingway’s integrity as an artist seemed to be involved with the inarticulateness: his strength has always been that he leaves unsaid whatever can be left unsaid12.” The same could be said of course for the novel The Sun Also Rises. However, we might suggest in addition that while “inarticulateness” is played out convincingly at the level of enunciation, it also weaves itself into the visual imagination. For the sensory idiom that draws the reader into Hemingway’s “country” is a sparing one. The realist novel has grown to explore an abstract vocabulary with Hemingway; for the reader this is surely enough to see that the horizon, as Jake explains, “kept changing”. (p. 95)


Works cited

Baker, Carlos (ed.), Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961, New York, Scribner’s,1981.

Cather, Willa, “The Novel Démeublé,” in Willa Cather on Writing. With a foreword by Stephen Tennant, New York, Alfred A. Knopf,1962, p. 35-43.

Hemingway, Ernest, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises.1927. London, Arrow Books, 2004, p. 96.

Morris, Wright, “Ernest Hemingway” in Linda Wagner-Martin (ed.), Ernest Hemingway. Seven Decades of Criticism, East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, p. 97-102.

Muir, Edwin, Review. For Whom the Bell Tolls [1941], in P.H. Butter (ed.), The Truth of the Imagination. Some Uncollected Reviews and Essays by Edwin Muir. Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Press,1988, p. 143-144.

Plimpton, George, “An Interview with Ernest Hemingway”, in Linda Wagner-Martin (ed.), Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. A Casebook, New York, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 15-32.

STein, Gertrude, “Composition as Explanation”, in Carl Van Vechten (ed.), Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, New York, Random House,1946, p. 453-461.


1  G. Stein, “Composition as Explanation”, in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, p. 453.

2  G. Plimpton, “An Interview with Ernest Hemingway”, in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. A Casebook, p. 29.

3  E. Hemingway, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, p. 96.

4  G. Plimpton, “An Interview with Ernest Hemingway”, p. 29.

5  Ibid., p. 29.

6  C. Baker (ed.), Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961, p. 122.

7  W. Cather, “The Novel Démeublé”, in Willa Cather on Writing, p. 42.

8  W. Morris, “Ernest Hemingway”, in Ernest Hemingway. Seven Decades of Criticism, p. 98.

9  W. Morris, “Ernest Hemingway”, p. 98.

10  G. Plimpton, « An Interview with Ernest Hemingway », p. 29.

11  Ibid., p. 29.

12  E. Muir, Review, For Whom the Bell Tolls, in The Truth of the Imagination, p. 143.


Est maître de conférences en littérature américaine à l’université de Bourgogne. Ses recherches portent sur le modernisme, l’écriture du témoignage et de l’archive, ainsi que sur les rapports entre littérature et discours visuels. Elle est l’auteur de Charles Reznikoff : une poétique du témoignage (L’Harmattan, 2011) et de nombreux articles sur les poétiques des xxe et xxie siècles.

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