A novel based on the lost generation of the 1920’s, Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises subtly depicts the solidarity of patriarchal rule under the allusion of the flexibility of gender roles. The way the male characters seem to carry a feminine quality, while Lady Brett Ashley is often interpreted as having a masculine façade, is simply the evolution of the manifestation of gender roles within a new era of change. In addition, a Marxist lens reveals that the adaptation of gender roles in Hemmingway’s piece can largely be attributed to the roles that the characters also play in a Capitalist society.
First, before identifying the gender roles and relationships of Hemmingway’s characters, we must understand the ideas indicated by the institution of “gender”. Judith Butler considers homosexuality, asking: “Is drag the imitation of gender, or does it dramatize the signifying gestures through which gender itself is established?” (Butler 2541) If a man can dress in women’s clothing, wear his hair the way a woman should, walk, talk, and create the act of being a woman, then what does it really mean to “be a woman”? Aren’t these topical appearances merely a form of semiotics, based on an arbitrary relationship between the behavior and one’s sex? As Simone de Beauvoir puts it: “One is not born, but becomes a woman” (Wittig 1907). Gender is the accumulation of habitual acts taught and reinforced by cultural norms, whereas sex is defined biologically based on anatomical differences. In analyzing the gender roles of Hemingway’s characters, we are looking at the way they are presented through the narrative lens of Jake Barnes, the way they act and interact with one another, and how they fit into the larger society as a whole.
None of the three notable female characters within the novel fit the classic mold of feminine compliance as dictated within the male hierarchy. Although each slightly deviate from the submission and silence that is demanded by the patriarch, ultimately the female is unable to find happiness in her gender and place in society. Georgette may speak boldly on certain subjects, such as her assertion that, “I detest Flamands” (Hemmingway 24) and she certainly doesn’t seem timid as she flings Jake’s sarcasm back at him saying, “Little girl yourself” (22). Yet, as noted earlier in regards to the definition of femininity, Georgette’s use of language is based on an arbitrary relationship between the attitude she is portraying and the vulnerability she actually possesses. While the power of her language may create a temporary veil, the purposeful exploitation of her body as a prostitute fundamentally identifies her as the downfall of a matriarchy. This undoing is what radical lesbian theorist Monique Wittig describes as “the idea that the capacity to give birth (biology) is what defines a woman” (1907). Brett references the fact that Georgette is defined by her sexuality, referring to her as an object of sex and anatomy rather than a person, when she asks Jake, “Where did you get it?” (Hemmingway 30) Georgette’s language and the signified she wishes to embody cannot counteract the fact that as a prostitute, her self-definition relies on the biological difference of men and women, which leads to the “natural” (1907) assumption that men are biologically superior to women.
Frances, the mistress of Robert Cohn, initially appears to possess a high level of control over Cohn. As Cohn kicks Jake under the table to silence him, it is evident that Cohn follows a system of behavior and language as dictated by Frances. Jake’s narration of Frances is tainted with disgust for her assertiveness as he notes, “evidently she led him quite a life” (Hemmingway 15) and “[s]he was very forceful, and Cohn never had a chance of not being taken in hand” (13). Yet, when Cohn obtains some success as a writer he realizes, “the fact of a woman caring for him and wanting to live with him was not simply a divine miracle” (16). As feminist Simone De Beauvoir points out: “while normally a woman finds numerous advantages in her relations with a man, his relations with a woman are profitable to a man only in so far as he loves her” (1269). Frances loses what control she once had over him. His realization of the dialectic between them, that she is nothing without him, is what defines his gain in masculinity and the establishment of her dependence on him. Frances becomes desperate for the stability of marriage, which Cohn refuses to give her, and verbally assails Cohn in front of an audience. She continually berates him, “talking on him” (58) and attempts to strip him of his masculinity saying things like, “you can’t have scenes without crying” (57). What power Frances has over Cohn lies solely in her use of language against him, a manipulative power, which as with Georgette is based on a semiotic façade that is easily penetrated and dissolved to the inferior relationship woman has with man.
Many interpretations have been given for Lady Ashley, but among them she is “an intriguing mix of femininity and masculinity, strength and vulnerability, morality and dissolution,” (Fulton 61) providing one of the most complex characters in the book. In contrast to Frances and Georgette, Brett is able to hold her own with the men she associates with, playing something of an equivalent while also becoming the central object of desire. With a masculine first name like Brett she also embodies other masculine qualities: a short haircut, a high alcohol tolerance, an air of entitlement to the things she wants, a loose moral conduct, and often refers to herself as one of the “chaps” (Hemmingway 29). Brett seems to have an unnerving level of control over the men around her. Robert Cohn claims that “she turns men into swine” (148) and she is described as being involved with various men throughout the novel, none of which have the ability to hold her interest for very long. Although her actions are somewhat definitive of a prostitute, she is able to tread lightly on the border between indecent and classy. Brett takes the definition of what it means to be a woman, the accepted gender role for her sex, and tangles it with the unacceptable defiance of a social outcast. It seems she has confronted the master/slave dialectic, unconsciously realizing that if she maintains an attitude of unattached and cold disinterest towards men, they will no longer possess that same power over her. Brett does seem to fall into the category of mysterious or misunderstood by men, the “myth of woman” (Beavoir 1271). Beavoir describes this myth as “a luxury” (1271) and claims that, “rich America, and the male, are on the Master side and that Mystery belong to the slave” (1270). Instead of seeking to understand Woman and the conflicted life she lives in the hierarchy of men, males, “project into the myth adopted the institutions and values to which they adhere” (1267). Yet this mystery simply does not exist, it is merely the accumulation of experiences, which are “impenetrable” (1268) to men. Because this myth is a nonexistent yet socially adopted belief it is impossible to portray in literature. While Hemmingway has created a very complicated and complex character, the mystery he attempts to attach to Brett fails to adhere. As Beavoir explains, “[female characters] can appear only at the beginning of a novel as strange, enigmatic figures…they give up their secret in the end and they are simply consistent and transparent persons” (1270). Originally visualized as the goddess of the party, Brett is revealed consistently noncommittal to men and in constant pursuit for a happiness that will never be granted to her.
While many critics have endowed Brett with an untouchable air, she is still in many ways confined by her femininity. She looks for happiness from affairs with men, she takes on a motherly quality by often “looking after” (206) these same men, and is ultimately proven weak and therefore subject to her womanhood when she “pass[es] out on the train” (131). Women have traditionally been depicted as hysteric and faint of heart, as “patriarchal socialization literally makes women sick” (Gilbert and Gubar 1932). Susan Bordo specifies the fact that, “the term hysterical itself became almost interchangeable with the term feminine in the literature of the [nineteenth century] period,” (Bordo 2244). Feminists Gilbert and Gubar raise the pertinent question that: “Implying ruthless self-suppression, does the “eternal feminine” necessarily imply illness?” (1934) Hemmingway includes these stereotypical generalizations of the women in the novel, and especially of Brett in order to avoid letting her escape her place in society.
Within the novel, Brett seems to defy patriarchal reality and is unable to be clearly defined in a “society where women are warned that if they do not behave like angels they must be monsters” (Gilbert and Gubar (1932). Each of these three women, although subversive towards male authority in their own way, cannot evade their feminine fate, although much of their success, or lack of, in using language and physical signifiers to diffuse their lack of power can be explained through a Marxist lens. While Georgette and Frances use their disguises in pursuit of money, Brett does not give money the same significance. She turns down the money the count offers her to travel with him and didn’t want Romero to pay her bill, although he did so anyways. In a society, especially during the 1920’s, where women are financially dependent on men, where there were little to no opportunities for women to provide for themselves financially, women are further bound to their gender roles by need for survival, which in a capitalist world is the equivalent to money. One’s value in the capitalist world is based on how much one can produce, or for women, reproduce. Capitalism has made the woman a commodity, stripped her down to her exchange value, which even then is limited. Brett, although still inferior as a woman, refuses to be a commodity, which raises her status among the other women while distorting her gender role.
If we can dissolve the pretense of female power that is merely a façade of semiotics bound to the capitalist superstructure, then clearly the struggle or lack of masculinity that critics often point to in The Sun Also Rises is equally as unstable. Masculinity is literally taken from Jake in World War I with a wound to his genitalia and his inability to consummate his feelings for Brett, which clearly inhibits his happiness throughout the novel. While he remains emotionally disconnected throughout his dialogue with the other characters, even without reaction while watching Brett with other men, he cries when alone in his bed. Cohn, as earlier mentioned, has difficulty taking assertion with women, is not a war veteran, and is emotionally charged throughout the novel. Crying and emotion are considered feminine traits, and therefore a weakness, especially in men. Both men look to establish an appearance of masculinity: Jake through financial means, and Cohn through a career in boxing. If women are bound by capitalism to there roles as submissive and docile beings by an inability to reach financial success unless utilizing their bodies or relying on men, then men are similarly bound.
Capitalism reinforces the image of men as providers and identifies then as the superior in the rich/poor, bourgeois/proletariat relationship. Cohn was not able to gain leverage over Frances until he found financial success, which deemed him an object worth pursuit by other women. Yet, as Cohn becomes a successful producer, he also becomes a commodity, and something to be used by women. Karl Marx explains this phenomenon declaring, “the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities; that the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production” (652). According to this lens, Cohn cannot lose his masculinity simply because he has the ability to produce. Comparably, in a capitalist society, Jake maintains his manhood in his ability to produce financially, and Jakes relationship with money is directly related to his lack of sexual power. As Jacob Leland illuminates, “Jake Barnes’s sexuality, then, is a commodity, with exchange-value but not use-value” (43). This is reflected in the way Jake spends his money. He in not interested in accumulating things of material or use-value. Jake is primarily concerned with spending his money in order to define his relationship with other people, whether it is tipping a waiter, or buying alcohol in a social setting, or paying a prostitute in order to preserve his dignity. Jake ultimately realizes that in the larger scheme of things, he can never produce enough, as the bar of capitalism is always being raised, “I though 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 got something else” (152).
The Sun Also Rises has been a popular example of how time, and especially war, changes the definitions of masculinity. Yet, this view merely upholds the false ideas of gender roles. For example, if a functional penis makes one masculine, then bearing children makes one feminine. It is the reliance on biological differences that lead us to uphold that our roles as male or female are “natural,” (Wittig 1907) which they clearly are not. Gender roles and the ideas of masculinity and femininity are founded on the same meaningless relationship as the language used to describe these ideals, as well as the language used to hide the underlying system of patriarchy, as reinforced by capitalism, that is stained into our way of life. While the female characters of the novel may be able to appear deviant to their role as women in society, those appearances are just as false as the roles they ultimately subscribe to. Similarly, the male characters may react to what seems an altered state of gender, but are still superior to women, even if castrated, as long as they have the capital to prove it.
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Butler, Judith. “From Gender Trouble: From Preface.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed, Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. W.W. Norton & Company Inc.: New York, 2001. 2540-53. Print.
Fulton, Lorie Watkins. “Reading Around Jake’s Narration: Brett Ashley and The Sun Also Rises.” The Hemmingway Review 24.1 (2004): 61-78. Project MUSE. Web. 13 August 2010.
Gilbert Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “From The Madwoman in the Attic.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed, Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York, 2001. 1926-38. Print.
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Leland, Jacob Michael. “Yes, That is a Roll of Bills in My Pocket: The Economy of Masculinity in The Sun Also Rises.” The Hemmingway Review 23.2 (2004): 37-46. Project MUSE. Web. 13 August 2010.
Marx Karl, and Friedrich Engels. “From Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed, Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York, 2001. 651-55. Print.
Wittig, Monique. “One Is Not Born a Woman.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed, Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. W.W. Norton & Company Inc.: New York, 2001. 1906-13. Print.