“It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.”
After any war in humanity’s history, there seems to appear a period of stunned, quiet disorientation. Before repercussions are fully realized, this confusion permeates culture as well as individual lives. It’s like the pause after an orchestra crescendo, or the darkness falling after the end of a play. This block of time after World War I, for both America and Europe, was the 1920s. God’s “death” in the modern age, coupled with the deaths of tens of millions of humans, shook man’s moral grounding. Other renown novels, such as Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, showcase the moral degradation and personal strife that result from a society that doesn’t know what it is exactly, nor where it’s going. Not only in America did this disorientation take place; the aftermath of World War I also rocked Europe. What social effects did this situation produce in Europe during this decade?
In 1926, Ernest Hemingway published his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.
Following narrator Jake and his expatriate friends—some from Paris, like him, others from America—the story tracks the characters’ journey from Paris to Spain for the fiesta and running of the bulls. The novel is written in a minimal, modern style that leaves quite a lot to inference. In fact, the style is a major reason Hemingway’s piece is notarized. The key thing about such a sparse style—many emotions and details are left out, and the resulting manuscript feels bare and to-the-point—seems to be the permission taken by the author, and given to students of writing, to not elaborate on everything. I found the resulting creation intriguing and original; that being said, I haven’t been exposed to this modern style much, so it’s not my favorite right now. Hemingway’s narrator keeps you wondering just enough that you (mostly) don’t slip into frustration with him; but he definitely straddles that line.
For example, here’s a sample from a chapter almost midway through the book. In it, Jake searches for bait worms near his hotel in Spain:
“Digging at the edge of the damp ground I filled two empty tobacco-tins with worms and sifted dirt onto them. The goats watched me dig.” (Pg. 90).
At least 95% of the story is communicated through this matter-of-fact language. Many scenarios, notably those of drinking and eating meals communally, are seen over and over. Hemingway’s monotony conveys a sense of the meaninglessness inherent in the characters’ current lives. That’s not to say there isn’t meaning in their universe—only that they have not maintained a hold on it. Yet, the ending and some of Hemingway’s omissions leave room for possibility.
The prose style makes a few lines stand out, too. Here are a couple of my favorites:
Pg. 9: “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters.”
Pg. 117: “It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.”
Before Book 1, there are two excerpts; one is from the book of Ecclesiastes, and discusses the circuitous nature of life, death, and creation. It’s not the most uplifting passage, yet it describes much the tone of the novel. This time of year we’re in, the Christmas season, can be difficult for people suffering loss, depression, loneliness, sickness, or any number of things that dim the glow of those Christmas lights. Hemingway’s novel may not be the one to read if you’re feeling down—just a loving heads-up from someone who recently finished it. The Sun Also Rises is a unique piece of art: in the midst of meaninglessness, there is an implied gap. Something of foundational worth is missing. A few times, Jake and the main female character, Brett, mention God, and how they’ve never been able to really connect with Him. Here’s a conversation from near the end:
“I thought you weren’t going to ever talk about it.”
“How can I help it?”
“You’ll lose it if you talk about it.”
“I just talk around it. You know I feel rather damned good, Jake.”
“You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch.”
“It’s sort of what we have instead of God.”
“Some people have God,” I said. “Quite a lot.”
“He never worked very well with me.”
“Should we have another Martini?”
Through little such hints, Hemingway’s implied author points to a source of meaning outside the monotony. This alluded-to hope in relationship with God is suggested to be far better than the hopeless drinking in which his characters are currently engaged.
This holiday season seems an appropriate time to be transparent about the fact that following God (specifically, giving one’s life and heart to Christ) doesn’t mean we don’t get depressed, or lose people and things, or feel disoriented in the wake of a hurtful year. Yet, Jesus offers hope that ultimately transcends the mess; and if you’ve never given Him permission to be your Lord, you’d be surprised how well the God of the universe makes sense of chaos. This is just coming from a 21-year-old literature nerd who’s grappled with depression and anxiety; but on the nights it’s impossible to be “hard-boiled” any longer, reach out to Jesus Christ for help: He is Love itself.