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Gender identity and masculinity in Sun Also Rises

World War I had a huge impact on peoples lives and a lot of men were killed or had

to live with its consequences their wounds when it was over. Ernest Hemingway, in The Sun

Also Rises, presents the inner struggles encountered by the narrator Jake Barnes, an

American writer who got wounded in the war in a way that affected his masculinity. He lives

in Paris in a time when many American expatriates moved to Paris looking for more freedom.

Back then, America was a place where alcohol was prohibited and there was certain

puritanism when it came to sex. Jake got seriously wounded in the war in a way that affected

his masculinity. Through the depiction of Jakes struggle with his wound and what it causes

to him, Hemingway raises the question of what constitutes being a man. It can be implied in

his novel that sexuality is reduced to being able to perform sexually, through the

representation of gender, identity and masculinity. By contrasting different settings, like Paris

and the nature in Spain, he also reveals the characters ability to get disconnected from his

own drama.

The fishing trip Jake and his friend Bill Gorton took gives a sense of tranquillity that

contrasts with the complexities of Paris. They spend some time in the rural town of

Burguete, before heading to Pamplona, and it is one of the few moments that Jake can be seen

as happy and feeling good. These pastoral moments have not only an impact on him, but also

on Bill. By saying this is the country (102) after going into the woods, Bill expresses this

feeling of appreciation. By connecting to the nature they get connected to themselves, and for

a moment Jake seems not to worry about his wound, accepts things the way they are and

appreciate the moment. They also get connected with each other and Ira Elliot in

Performance of Art: Jake Barnes and Masculine Signification in the Sun Also Rises argues

that this trip is profoundly colored by the homoerotic element(87). Jake and Bill seem to

enjoy each others company and have a lot of pleasure together.


Fishing is a male activity that allows male bonding. Jake and Bill feel free to be who

they are and get even more connected by talking about intimate subjects. Bill starts talking to

Jake about the assumptions other people have in relation to him and ends up telling Jake

about his feelings. The way he approaches Jake by saying Listen. Youre a hell of a good

guy, and Im fonder of you than anybody on earth (Hemingway, 101) shows that he is

opening his heart in a way he has not before, that he feels close enough to Jake to tell him

how he feels. However, it is followed by I couldnt tell you that in New York. Itd mean I

was a faggot (Hemingway,101). Being friends with a man and expressing feelings can be

seen as a sign of lack of masculinity. Men have to constantly reassure themselves and that is

what Bill does. He needs to make it clear to Jake that showing affection to another man does

not make him gay. Elliot confirms that by saying he is not a faggot, Bill defends hilmself

from any potential charge of homosexuality (89). In everyday life, if Jake and Bill spent

too much time alone and shared their feelings with each other in public, it would not be well

seen in society. They feel pleasure by spending time with each other, but it needs to be

surrounded by elements that shows and proves masculinity. Some of these elements are

performing a male activity such as fishing, or telling Bill telling that he is not a faggot for

showing his feelings.

Another fact that can have a deep impact on males identity is the signs of absence of

the male sexual organ. In Hemingways, gender identity and masculinity are represented

through Jakes wound. Even though it is not said exactly how he got hurt, it is known that he

is not able to perform sexually. One could argue that this is what defines a man, being able to

perform sexually, as sex explains it all (Hemingway, 101). This belief makes Jake not fit in

the man category, therefore he does not fall in the heteronormative matrix category. Men

and women are defined by the activities they perform, fishing is for boys and having long

hair is for girls for instance. Being able to penetrate a woman is on the top of this pyramid,
and Jake cannot do it. According to Elliot, this fact has transformed Jake in someone who is

not quite a whole man, but certainly not a woman, and Jake belongs then to the demi-

monde, the world of the outcast (88). Bill brings the subject of his sexual performance by

saying that, rumour has it, Jake is impotent, and Jake tries to explain it by saying that it was

an accident. That is when Bill says never mention that, thats the sort of thing that cant be

spoken of (Hemingway, 101). Jake could be seen as homosexual and homosexuality is

something that cannot be spoken of, that cannot be considered in the mens world.

In a natural world where one can feel at ease, Ernest Hemingways novel present two

characters facing subjects that are not easy to be discussed. By doing a male activity, Jake

and Bill feel relaxed and connected to each other. Jake is implicitly faced with the subject of

his sexuality and being a man, as his war wound does not allow him to perform. Hemingway

raises the question whether mens sexuality is reduced to one thing, being able to penetrate a

woman. This novel demonstrates that in the post-war society, gender was still defined by

what we do, and not by who we are inside. Jake cannot have sexual relations with a woman,

but he still feels desire for them, he is still fond of many of the activities man do. He still feels

like a man, even if he might not be considered as such.