Hemingway's Existentialism

The Matador as Existentialist Ideal in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

Hemingway had the great feeling for mans’ ability to choose. He was an existentialist – he understood existentialism before Sartre did.    ~Tennessee Williams

It is well known that Albert Camus was influenced by Ernest Hemingway’s prose style when he wrote some of his most seminal works such as The Stranger, yet inadequate attention is paid to Hemingway’s philosophical influences on the Existentialists. In his novel The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway attempts to illuminate the existential urgency of the individual to create meaning, by showing the consequences of an aimless life lived without apparent meaning. In order to accomplish this, the writer contrasts the lives of his main characters with that of the Spanish matador. Hemingway was fond of the Spanish word pundonor, which is representative of honor and integrity, and of ‘the code’ which is prevalent throughout much of his oeuvre. In the figure of the matador, Hemingway symbolizes the existentialist call to confront the reality of existence through the confrontation of one’s death, as well as the persistent need of the individual to live a creative life of courage and authenticity in the face of absurdity and despair.

Hemingway’s oeuvre is rife with existential notions such as free will, the absurd, alienation, and in stories such as A Clean, Well Lighted Place he presents the reader with an eloquent rendering of Nothingness. Yet part of Hemingway’s power was the fact that he was not attempting to write philosophical works. In the book “Irrational Man” – considered an important piece of the existentialist cannon – William Barrett writes:

…Hemingway is valuable here, for he is not an artist inspired by intellectual themes; quite the contrary, he is a reporter and a poet intent on reporting what it is he really sees in experience, and what he has seen and reports to us in [A Clean, Well Lighted Place] is the Nothing that sometimes rises up before the eyes of human beings. (Barrett 62)

In praising American novelists including Hemingway, Sartre himself declared the analytic novel “was no longer anything but an old mechanism badly adapted to the needs of the time… Could it take into account the brutal death of a Jew in Auschwitz, the bombardment of Madrid by the planes of France?” (Lehan 36). The uncertain time after the First World War brought an important wave of defining philosophy as well as art. It is clear that Hemingway’s role in this wave and his role as an artist and an American existentialist cannot be underestimated.

The absurd is a fairly wide-ranging concept in existentialism and can be as broad as man’s unique awareness of his or her own death. However, Camus considered the binary aspect of mortality in rendering our lives meaningless while at the same time allowing the greatest opportunity to create meaning as part of the absurd which should perpetuate action in man as opposed to nihilism He saw this realization that life is meaningless as the most promising way forward as opposed to a dead end. Importantly, the initial step in moving forward can not occur without accepting the absurd.

Although there are ways in which he fails, in The Sun Also Rises the character of Jake Barnes certainly comes closest to an attempt at embracing absurd. Perhaps it is the absurdity of his injury which forces his hand, as he must learn to live with its repercussions or simply give up and give in to loss and despair. In fact, as the novel progresses, he seems to be assimilating the concept of despair actually being one of the keys to unlocking an authentic life. He chooses to face reality much more than those around him. One of the ways Jake fails and lives in Sartre’s bad faith (self-deception) is his choice to take Ecclesiastes’ philosophy too far by using the avoidance tool of alcohol and social activity in order to escape reality.

Hemingway writes about the human tendency to avoid reality when Jake talks about how his life would have been far different if he had not met Brett, “I suppose she only wanted what she couldn’t have. Well, people were that way. To hell with people. The Catholic Church had an awfully good way of handling all that. Good advice, anyway. Not to think about it. Oh, it was swell advice. Try and take it sometime. Try and take it.” (Hemingway 31). Notably, Jake attends mass several times in The Sun Also Rises and it is clear that he wishes he could find religious solace, as well as the ability to live within one of the more romantic meta-narratives or ideologies brought down by the bombs of World War One. Wayne Holcombe writes, “Sartre would agree with Jake Barnes’ sardonic assessment of the “not to think about it” dictum: “Try and take it.” For Sartre, man is condemned to consciousness just as he is condemned to be free, and it is as morally wrong as it is hopeless for him to try and escape either of these” (Holcombe 26). Regardless of the method employed by a man or woman in the quest to avoid thinking about the sometimes futility of existence, Sartre believed it to be bad faith with serious repercussions.

J’aimé L. Sanders explains Hemingway’s idealization of the matador:

For Hemingway, this situation requires that we break all illusions and face the stark realities of life, that every individual be brave in his/her own way, that every individual take responsibility for creating meaning and content for his/her own life as a “whole,” and that every individual face his/her own death in order to live life with clarity, integrity, purpose, and meaning; in short, one must face the reality of death with earnestness or pundonor in order to live life earnestly. (Sanders 168)

In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway talks about the concept of pundonor by saying, “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor. In Spain honor is a very real thing. Called pundonor, it means honor, probity, courage, self respect, and pride in one word” (Death 91). The Spanish matador not only confronts his own death every day in the bullfighting ring, he is courageous in the face of it. He creates in the face of it. He lives within a code of honor in the face of it. He creates meaning in the face of it. The matador takes control of the absurd as opposed to allowing the absurd to control him.

However, from Mike Campbell’s flight into pessimism and Robert Cohn’s attempt to hide from reality in manufactured romanticism, Jake’s circle of friends show few actions (in the present) which could qualify as courageous or honorable. They do not exhibit self-respect and their integrity seems to be left in a past made irrelevant by modernity and war. Lehan writes that some of Hemingway’s characters including Barnes, “…can use Romero’s [The Matador’s] life as a model for their own and approximate it in their own way by ordering themselves against the chaos of life, especially the final chaos – death” (Lehan 50). But theses characters that move in and out of Jake Barnes’ orbit do not make the same attempt at “ordering themselves” as Jake. They are constantly running and shifting away from anything which may force them into a confrontation with the absurd. They are not facing reality or living authentically, and they seem to be absent of the courage to move their existence beyond being into be-ing.

This is especially true of Lady Brett Ashley, who is a sad character, but one that does not elicit sympathy because she clearly has the ability to change her life and yet does not. In a letter Hemingway wrote of his novel, “It contains much garbage but no smut and what I hoped to do was contrast the people, most of who were pretty lousy, with the country which was pretty fine. I tried to give the destruction of character in the woman Brett – that was the story and I failed to do it” (Scafalla 111). Perhaps there are many who agree with the author and think of The Sun Also Rises as a failure, but there are others who judge it to be a critical link in the development of modernism.

Another way of expressing a similar idea to pundonor is in Montoya’s use of the word “aficionado”. Montoya tells Jake that he is an aficionado. He says aficion means passion, and people who are passionate about the bullfight are aficionados. Jake finds this meaningful because he seems to need Montoya’s approval in an almost paternalistic way. Hemingway writes, “Montoya could forgive anything of a bull-fighter who had aficion. He could forgive attacks of nerves, panic, bad unexplainable actions, all sorts of lapses. For who had aficion he could forgive anything” (137). In part, this is at the core of what is causing problems for Jake and his friends. They are unable to forgive themselves, and much of that has to do with the heaviness of the burden and the collective guilt which the war placed on human consciousness.

Jake’s injury which renders him impotent is also symbolic of the larger impotence felt by the Lost Generation. This generation had their foundation pulled out from underneath them as all of their beliefs about humanity were challenged by the sheer brutality and carnage it had shown itself to be capable of inflicting. Another member of this group, F. Scott Fitzgerald, stated they had “grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken” (Cotkin 24). Fitzgerald perfectly describes the dilemma the characters face in The Sun Also Rises. As Richard Lehan writes regarding this same loss of beliefs in “God, history, society, and the rational self…,” it was “Meaning lost to madness, fixity giving way to displacement, man striving to define himself in a world growing more inimical to the individual – all of these element s are part of the existential view of man” (Lehan xviii). This is certainly the existential view Hemingway puts forward in The Sun Also Rises, and in particular in the character of Jake Barnes.

In describing the modern period, Barrett quotes Hemingway from the novel A Farewell to Arms, “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” Barrett then goes on to state, “For a whole generation that was the great statement of protest against the butchery of the First World War,” and concludes Hemingway was breaking through “empty abstractions of whatever kind, to destroy sentimentality even if the real feelings exposed should appear humble and impoverished…even if stripping himself naked the artist seems to be left with Nothing” (Barrett 45). He further compares modern art and specifically the Dada movement with Hemingway saying they, “…must now be regarded as one of the valid eruptions of the irrational in this century. The generation of the First World War could hardly be expected to view Western culture as sacrosanct, since they perceived – and rightly – that it was bound up with the civilization that had ended in that ghastly butchery” (Barrett 46). The existentialist considers this revolt to be the correct course of action. As opposed to attempting to pick up the pieces of shattered meaning, Hemingway stands directly in the middle of the shards and points to them through his art.

However, Hemingway found in the matador a tangible symbol of something which had not been shattered. The matador remained a constant symbol of virility. He did not lose his pundonor, his aficion, or his willingness to continue finding the cause to fight. Importantly, the cause to fight which Jake does not find when he is attacked by Robert Cohn, a man who continually causes him to seethe with contempt. In many ways, the matador is Hemingway’s surrogate for Jake. He is the man Jake aspires to be, but cannot live up to either sexually or in character and spirit. This is why Jake facilitates Romero and Brett in their relationship. Romero is a stand-in of sorts for Jake. He has pundonor and courage, as opposed to Jake who is able to recognize these characteristics in others, yet never quite able to fully possess them himself. Much in the same way he must endure other men becoming sexually involved with Brett while he watches from a distance forced upon him by his injury, or more importantly by Brett’s inability to deal with his injury because she is incapable of any intimacy or relationship beyond one that is purely sexual and superficial.

Sartre talked about man being condemned to freedom. Hemingway condemns his characters in The Sun Also Rises to freedom. He uses their lives to show how they fail to overcome their sentence. He uses the matador’s life and the cultural life of Spain in order to contrast that failure, and what he saw as his own country’s loss of individuality as people began to drown in conformity, to give their lives over to capitalist values and ideologies, and to trade their authenticity for a social mask in order to hide the reality of their individual existence. The novel ends with Brett dreamily speculating that she and Jake could have been happy with each other, and in the novels final line Jake replies, “Isn’t it pretty to think so” (251). Hemingway felt it was time to dispense with this kind of romantic notion – thinking pretty thoughts – which did nothing to facilitate answering the important questions of existence in a world shattered by war. But he found hope in the idea that if the individual lives as the matador lives, facing life and death with pundonor, the individual could begin to address the most important questions in human existence.

Works Cited

Barrett, William. Irrational Man a Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1990. Print.

Cotkin, George. Existential America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. Death in the afternoon. New York: Scribner, 1900. Print.

—.The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 1954. Print.
Holcombe, Wayne C. “The Motive of the Motif: Some Thoughts on Hemingway’s Existentialism”. Hemingway Review (Fall 83): 3-1 18-27. Web.

Lehan, Richard Daniel. Dangerous crossing French literary existentialism and the modern American novel. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1973. Print.

Sanders, J’aimé L. “The Art of Existentialism: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and the American Existential Tradition”. Diss. University of South Florida, 2007. Web.

Scafalla, Frank. “The Sun Also Rises: Owen Wister’s ‘Garbage Pail,’ Hemingway’s Passage of the ‘Human Soul’”. Hemingway Review (Fall 86): 6 -1. 101 -111 Web.

2 thoughts on “Hemingway's Existentialism

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    It’s my favorite Hemingway novel, and his short stories have always been among my favorite things in the world. I’ve never read his biography though, so forgive me if I’m ignorant, but reading this makes me wonder if he committed suicide because he couldn’t handle age and decay – the loss of his own virility. Hemingway is so animalistic, so physical. It sounds cold, but I don’t disagree with it. I don’t want to live past the point of not being able to move about and take care of myself. Suicide can be noble. I just don’t know if this pertains to Hemingway.

  2. Lou Post author

    I believe you are exactly right. I’m always hesitant to psychoanalyze dead people, especially artists, but it is hard not to draw that conclusion about Hemingway. Of course his alcoholism and depression must be mentioned, because he wasn’t an ‘old’ man. Interestingly, if you re-read the Tennessee Williams quote at the beginning of the essay, these are the exact words that followed:

    “Hemingway did the brave and right thing, the dignified thing I believe. Because what could the end of his life had been, you know, but a thing that reduced him from crying– people become almost deprived of their will at the end of their lives. They must’nt allow themselves to reach that point.”

    Now I will add that Williams died by choking on a bottle of artificial tears.

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