Modern readers sometimes don’t get this novel. I’ll try to explain what the buzz is about.

Published in 1926, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises has been hailed as a masterpiece for nearly a century. Consequently, many people come to it expecting to have their minds blown, and then come away disappointed, after discovering that its characters are nothing but directionless and entitled twenty- or thirty-somethings engaged in nothing but killing time and brain cells.

The book is all but plotless. A loose-knit group of pals, hanging out in Paris in the aftermath of World War I, go on a drunken holiday in Spain. At the center of it all is a well-built but confused tart named Brett, whom the narrator, Jake, has a steamy history with, and for whom Jake still carries a torch, even if the fire is doused. The reserved, ironic tone of the book comes from, or is augmented by, the fact that Jake had his genitals blown off, or at all events was rendered impotent, by some unnamed mishap during his days fighting in the Great War.

Besides Jake and Brett, the other memorable character is Robert Cohn, a Jew who is conscious of being an outsider and equipped with a permanent shoulder-chip as a result. Hemingway manages to paint a somewhat unflattering picture of Cohn while giving the man his due, and while avoiding betraying any personal dislike of Jews. When he matter-of-factly refers to Cohn’s “Jewish stubbornness,” it is value-neutral; an observation of something that just is (in his mind), and that doesn’t merit further discussion.

In fact, the cold-blooded approach taken with Cohn is the key to the novel’s power in a more general sense.

It’s not exactly a novel…

The characters in The Sun Also Rises aren’t imaginary, or even composites. I read somewhere that Hemingway would run home after visiting with his fellow expats in a cafe, and write their conversations down word-for-word. And, in fact, a quick search tells us that this seemingly plotless book is based on real events. The result is that much of the dialogue and characterization can seem uncannily authentic, and give the reader a sensation almost like eavesdropping.

If we were to invent a category for it, we could call it a documentary in written form. Hemingway’s almost machine-like, reportorial prose becomes the unforgiving camera lens, bringing the quirks of the personalites examined into clear focus.

But, then, that isn’t quite accurate, because a documentary is constrained by what actually happens. The Sun Also Rises is probably closer to literary reality-TV.

As with reality TV, what we get is reality heavily edited for effect, and drama created where—in reality—there was probably very little. Hemingway is the creator and director of this show, and things that don’t fit the narrative he has decided to build end up on the cutting room floor, and what is needed for the narrative, if it cannot be purloined from reality, is imagined into existence. An example of this is the narrator, Jake—who of course is Hemingway himself—being a tragic neuter. This fixes Hemingway/Jake in the role of detached observer, and plays perfectly into Heminway’s legendarily terse prose style.

A revision to my categorization: Another search tells me this novel is already in the category of a “roman à clef,” which is a true story with a thin fiction overlay. But this is just independent verification of what I’ve written above, and “roman à clef” may be a less suitable category description than “literary reality-TV.”

But don’t let any of these labels put you off.

Why You Should You Read It, Part 1:

The first reason you should read this book is the literary approach. Although there have been many, many imitators since, Hemingway singlehandedly invented a style of writing that is both stripped down to “just the facts,” and full of stirring implications. The simple descriptions and disconnected, off-hand observations regularly take on great significance, or communicate truths about life and human nature that ten pages of writing might fail to get across. This is a balancing act, and Hemingway knew it. He called it the “iceburg theory of writing,” which obviously refers to the idea that what meets the eye is just a small fraction of what is really going on.

It works so well because, after all, that’s life. We see people doing things, and see the way things are, and while there is important meaning to all of it, there is no narrator to explain what that meaning might be.

The danger of this form of writing is that, without the author having his own sense of the meaning underlying what he is writing, he has nothing but a terse style and some empty and pointless observations. That’s why the vast majority of Hemingway imitators fail. The author in this style has to have the IQ points to infer just what the iceberg is, and just what part of it might break through the surface. Hemingway could do that quite well. Most people can’t.

Why You Should You Read It, Part 2:

The second reason you should read this book is for the experience. I first read The Sun Also Rises when I was 22, and I did have my mind blown, although I didn’t know why at the time. I didn’t know it was based on real events, and I didn’t know Hemingway was demonstrating an innovative approach to storytelling. All I knew was that, when I closed the book, I felt not like I had read a good story, but like I had had an actual, wild experience with a number of foolish but highly memorable people.

Maybe it hit home for me because, at 22, I didn’t know anyone except directionless losers who were far less interesting than Hemingway’s crowd.

For many people, however, it may be necessary to understand that Hemingway was going to call the book “The Lost Generation,” and the lack of plot or purpose is part of the point. The Western world had just been depth-charged by World War I, a level of slaughter never seen before had just taken place, religion and God were out of vogue, and the people in the story, at the point when their parents and grandparents had settled into stable lives, are adrift, childless, unserious about their marriages if they have them, mostly convinced that none of it means anything.

When you read The Sun Also Rises you are being transported to a particular reality, and with an expert tour guide. You are gaining genuine insights into human nature, and genuine understanding of what people do, and how people behave, when order and purpose is lost.

If anything, that is more relevant today than it was in 1926.

By Matthew Louis

Founding editor of Out of the Gutter Magazine and Gutter Books. Author of The Wrong Man and Roots Down to Hell. Short stories published in a few places. Honorable mention in the Year's Best Mystery Stories. Other things...

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J. Vance

Great article. You’ve inspired me to read a little more Hemingway.

Dylan Cooke

What about The Old Man and the Sea? I thought that was Ernest Hemingway’s most important book. I had to read it in school but I thought it was pretty good. Now Ill have to read this one.Thanks for the article.


Interesting look at a classic that is still relevant. People can now read it for free since the copyright expired:


Thanks for sharing. I read many of your blog posts, cool, your blog is very good.

PJ Atwater

I deliberately put off reading this article because The Sun Also Rises was in my pile waiting to be read. I’m now about 3/4 through, it is my first Hemmingway, and I will definitely be reading more. I realize that even without direct exposure to Hemmingway, his iceberg theory has influenced my expectations as a reader and my approach as an author. Truly one of the greats. Great analysis Mr. Louis!

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