Symbolism in "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway

Bullfighting, while being an occasional hobby for the characters in The Sun Also Rises, is a symbolic parallelism for Jake’s steer-like behavior, Pedro’s bull-like personality, and Brett’s matador tendencies. Jake and his friends find bullfights a fun event to watch, but are ironically crafting one themselves because of their roles as bulls, steers, and matadors. Brett is a matador because of her constant leading on of men that can be seen as “bulls”, and because of her tendencies to control the people around her. Pedro Romero is a literal matador, but serves as a bull because of his need to prove his manliness and masculinity. Jake is a steer in the sense that he tries to calm everyone down throughout the story and also is physically like a steer in that he’s “castrated.” These parallel characteristics prove that Jake and his friends are metaphorical bulls and steers who all have to deal with the red flags in life leading them on.

Brett is a matador figure throughout the story because of her constant leading on of the “bulls” that chase after her and because of her tendencies to want to control the people around her. In The Sun Also Rises, Brett is the most popular girl in town. She attracts more men than anyone else, and for this reason has a lot of “bulls” chasing after her with the intention of “catching” or “taming” her. However, bullfights aren’t a simple game of chase. In real bullfights, the matador leads on the bull by waving a red flag, only to make the bull miss the flag and try time and time again. Brett does this same thing when she consistently leads on Jake throughout the novel, until Jake finally “kills” her at the end by ending the chase and realizing they will never be together. Brett starts leading him on right from the beginning in the car ride. “‘Don’t you love me?’” [34] Jake asks Brett. “‘Love you? I simply turn all to jelly when you touch me.’ ‘Isn’t there anything we can do about it?’ She was sitting up now. My arm was around her and she was leaning back against me, and we were quite calm.” [34] Brett is doing nothing but leading Jake on like a bull, she waves a flag of possibly loving him, which he chases after by asking if there’s anything they can do about it. Jake continues to fall for Brett’s matador-like behavior until a similar car ride occurs at the end of the book. In this full circle car ride scene, Brett says “‘Oh, Jake,’ ‘we could have had such a damned good time together.’ […] ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’” [251] Instead of Jake chasing after the red flag of love that Brett still is waving, he finally gives up on the chase and refuses to be led on anymore when he states it would be “pretty to think so.” Brett’s role as a matador to Jake is finally led to a close and she can no longer manipulate Jake into doing what she wants. The bullfight is over, and she is no longer in control of Jake’s emotions.

Pedro Romero is a literal matador in the story, but a bull-like character in his relations to Brett because of his chasing after her and his need to prove his manliness. Pedro is used to fighting bulls himself as a matador, which leads to a bit of irony when readers see him chasing after Brett’s red flags instead of waving them himself. We see him fall for the trap of succumbing to others when Hemingway writes, “Just then Montoya came into the room. He started to smile at me, then he saw Pedro Romero with a big glass of cognac in his hand, sitting laughing between me and a woman with bare shoulders at a table full of drunks. He did not even nod.” [180-181]. Pedro chases after the lifestyle that he sees in Jake, Cohn, Mike, and Brett: a life of drinking, partying, women, and eventually sadness and lostness. He is a bull in that chases after Brett without thinking of the long term effects, and eventually runs away with her because of her tempting him like a matador tempts a bull. Pedro isn’t a main character in the story who we see progress throughout the book, but he is a clear metaphor for a bull who chases after every red flag temptation he sees.

Although Jake is a literal steer in the sense that he is “castrated” because of the war, he is a metaphorical steer in the story because of his constant calming down of everyone around him who also serves as a bull chasing after Brett. Jake is an interesting character because of his dynamic purpose throughout the book. In the first few chapters, Jake is nothing but another bull who chases after the temptations of Brett. However, he later evolves into a steer that tries to calm everyone down by making them drink less, think through their decisions, and try to enjoy life. One example of this is when he brings Brett and Romero together instead of selfishly hoarding her for himself when he knows that he can’t give her what she wants. However, he finally transforms into the role of the matador in the last few chapters of the book when he takes control of his relationship with Brett and tries to slightly tempt her. Jake’s last words in the book are “‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’” [251], which are symbolic for Jake’s taking control of the relationship and defeating the bullfight that is his relationship with Brett.

Although Hemingway does not explicitly state the parallelism between the characters and bullfighting, there are many textual clues that make it easy to determine that the two are very closely related. Brett is constantly seen as a matador because she leads on so many men throughout the novel, Pedro Romero is seen as a bull because of his chasing after things he will never get, and Jake is a combination of a bull, steer, and matador because of his dynamic role throughout the story that changes based on the situation he is involved in and the people he is with. Bullfighting in The Sun Also Rises is more than just an occasional outing for Jake and his friends, it’s a symbolic link that connects all of the characters in the story through temptation, being lost, and trying to take control of relationships.


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