The Aspects Of The Lost Generation In The Sun Also Rises

“You are all a lost generation,” Gertrude Stein famously said, coining a term that would come to describe all of the people that reached adulthood during World War One. This group lived through the horrors of the war: they saw friends and fellow soldiers die, what seemed to them, pointless deaths. The widespread impacts of the war made many reject the traditions of the previous generations and lose faith in values such as courage and patriotism. People from this period have been characterized as being disoriented, directionless and aimless. Furthermore, they have been depicted as living decadent and materialistic lives. Many writers of the Lost Generation wrote about this group of people, such as Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, and Ernest Hemingway, the latter writing the novel The Sun Also Rises. In this novel, the protagonist, Jake Barnes, roams the streets of 1920s Paris with his group of friends; later on in the novel, they go to Spain to watch bullfighting. Throughout this novel, the reader can clearly see that none of the characters seem fully happy or satisfied with what they have. The theme of the Lost Generation, namely the nature of people’s dissatisfaction, the way they try to overcome their discontent, and the consequences of doing so. These three aspects of the Lost Generation can analyzed through three characters: Jake Barnes, Lady Ashley, and Robert Cohn.

Firstly, the theme of the Lost Generation can be observed through Jake Barnes, the protagonist of the novel. The reason for his general dissatisfaction comes from his war wounds. During the war, Barnes receives a wound that prevents him from having intercourse as well as emotional wounds. The result of this is that Lady Ashley, the love of his life, rejects any possibility of having a relationship with him. Jake tries to find a way to satisfy his desires, namely his desire to feel loved and wanting to have a purpose, by going to several bars every night with his friends, imbibing an amount of alcohol that, on certain occasions, makes him lose consciousness. He drinks a lot so that he does not have to face his reality and his feeling of discontent is somewhat alleviated. The impact of him trying to fix his dissatisfaction ultimately leads to an even greater feeling of discontent. Barnes is one of the only characters that truly understands the aimlessness of the Lost Generation. It clear in the novel that Barnes does not really have that many goals. Rather, he lives a very irrational life; he goes only where he desires, usually in bars, and travels wherever he pleases. Despite this, and his efforts to fix this, he is unable to get rid of his feeling of discontent. The consequence of this includes him continuously trying to chase an unattainable high; the more he does this, the harder he falls back into his harsh reality, and the more he feels trapped within the Lost Generation. Despite his understanding of the dilemma him and his friends face, he is unable to truly confront it head on; it seems more like something that he knows is true, but denies anyways. A reason for this could be that the reality of his life could be too hard to face, and his denial serves as an ego defense mechanism. His inability to clearly see and understand his problem and the reality of his situation are issues that he has to try and fight throughout the book. His own struggles could be viewed as a representation of the struggles of all of the people part of the Lost Generation. To sum up, the theme of the Lost Generation can be observed through the protagonist of the novel, Jake Barnes.

Secondly, this theme can be seen through Lady Brett Ashley. During World War One, Brett’s one true love died of dysentery, leaving her all alone. In order to try and make sense of her world, she begins to search for men to replace her love. This ultimately leads to her going from man to man, relationship to relationship, trying to find love. She tries to fix her feeling of discontent through multiple short affairs. Throughout the book, Brett flirts with many men, despite being engaged to Mike; near the end of the novel, she breaks off their engagement when running away with bullfighter Pedro Romero, a man she has known for a few days. This affects not only her, but the rest of her friends and partners. Despite all of her efforts to find a man that makes her happy, she complains to Barnes about how miserable she is. One example of this is on pages 70-71, where Brett is having a conversation with Barnes about how she will leave him after she gets married with Mike. “‘Good night, Jake. Good night, darling. I won’t see you again.’ We kissed standing at the door. She pushed me away, We kissed again. ‘Oh, don’t!’ Brett said.” In this quotation, although indirectly, the reader can get a sense of the discontent in Brett’s life. As she is getting ready to say goodbye to Jake forever, she notices that she feels miserable and unhappy, something that she knows she has felt before. Even through her actions, she seems to not want to let Jake go, yet she has a desire to chase after another man, Mike. Despite her portrayal in the novel that makes her seem like a very strong and independent woman that does not need one single man to keep her happy, the reality seems to be contrary. She seems to need to always have someone to date, someone to be by her side, who she will eventually leave and move on to the next person. Some critics of the novel have pointed out that Brett’s search for true love could be a symbol for the entire Lost Generation’s search for the pre-World War One values of romance. Brett is another character that represents the struggle of the Lost Generation.

Last but not least, Robert Cohn is another character that plays a part in representing the theme of the Lost Generation. Robert Cohn is one of the only characters in the novel that has not experienced the impacts of the war firsthand. He is introduced at the very beginning of the novel, and Barnes tells the reader all about his life; his family, his schooling, his dreams, and his failed marriage. Barnes paints him as faint-hearted and weak, most likely because he did not fight in the war. Furthermore, he is the only Jewish person out of their whole group of friends. Both of these pieces alienate him from the rest of the characters. Throughout the novel, Cohn struggles the most with his irrational attraction to Brett and his own feelings of negative self worth, which contrasts with what the reader can see in the other characters. He tries to win Brett’s heart but fails each time; in the end, he ends up being mocked by the rest of the characters because of the foolish ways he tries and gains her affection. Even he partially falls into the trap of the Lost Generation; despite him having a value system, he still leads an aimless life, not knowing how he can find happiness. In Chapter two, during a conversation with Barnes, Cohn says: “‘Listen, Jake,’ he leaned forward on the bar. ‘Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you’ve lived nearly half the time you have to live already?’”. In this quote, Cohn seems to be having something resembling a midlife crisis. This perfectly exemplifies what the majority of the of the Lost Generation felt; however, shortly after this conversation takes place, Cohn’s realization motivates him to pursue his love, Brett, and tries to win her over. He is the only character that actually manages to find a solution and solve, at least partially, the dilemma of the Lost Generation; he finds a purpose in his life, he has a value system, both things that the other characters lack. In this way, he serves as a foil, contrasting his beliefs to the lack of beliefs in the other characters. He seems like one of the only characters that knows what he wants to accomplish in his life; he went to Princeton, started boxing, and ended up becoming a writer. Even after this, he knew that what he wanted to pursue was getting Brett’s love and affection. All of the other characters are stuck chasing an unreachable state of eudaimonia, and ultimately end up being disappointed, falling back into the paradigm of the Lost Generation. Robert Cohn serves as a foil to other characters, and thus helps the portrayal of the Lost Generation.

All in all, the theme of the Lost Generation is evidently central to the novel The Sun Also Rises, and can be observed through the characters Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley, and Robert Cohn, specifically through the nature of their discontent, the way that they attempt to fix their dissatisfaction, and the consequences of doing so. Throughout the entire novel, almost all of the characters fit the description of members of the Lost Generation, most passively living their lives, unable to change their circumstances, and being stuck in their state of discontent. The majority of the other themes in the novel, including insecurity and love, arise from their dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Although this novel is fiction, there were hundreds and thousands of people that lived similar frivolous lifestyles in an attempt to live happy and fulfilling lives. After reading this novel and some of its contemporaries, it may seem as though the Lost Generation was something limited to a specific time period, specifically right after World War One. However, critics have been known to disagree. In the quote written at the very beginning of the novel by Ecclesiates, he seems to be suggesting that the idea of a Lost Generation is not exclusive to the time period of the 1930s; some say that all wars, create Lost Generations. The quote above states “one generation passeth away, and another generation cometh.” Is it possible that, since all generations are ultimately replaced by new ones and forgotten, that all generations are lost? No matter how much people accomplish in the span of their lives, all memory of them will disappear; their successes, their failures, their personal values and beliefs, their mark on the earth, all gone. That is the sad truth about this generation, those that have passed, and those that are to come.

16 August 2021
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