The Sun Also Rises

A Hard Day's Knight: Searching for a Hero in The Sun Also Rises
Unlike many of the books published before the 1920s, in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises there is a distinct lack of the stereotypical nineteenth-century hero figure. In looking for such a hero, the reader expects one character to stand out as the champion of a moral truth or of a standard above mere human existence. Though all of the main characters exhibit the characteristics of a classic noble protagonist at one time or another throughout the narrative, limitations prevent each from exhibiting the consistency innate in the classic hero figure. There isn't one character that stands out enough, or for any significant period of time, to merit the label of "a hero."
Hemingway gives each character a chance at being the champion of the story, but never allows that dream to be realized. By examining each of the four main characters individually, it will become apparent how Hemingway structured the novel so that the hope for a single hero is ever-present, but the reality of such an individual actually existing is an unfortunate impossibility given the personality flaws present in each.
When one speaks of unfortunate impossibilities in this novel, it is Jake's war injury that most often comes to mind first. It is appropriate, though, that this is the case, because in Jake, we find the character most often given the chance at being the hero. Hemingway evokes immediate compassion for Jake at the suggestion of Jake's sexually incapacitating war wound. By appealing to the male reader's sense of machismo (and subsequent fear of sexual inadequacy) and the female reader's sense of sympathy, Jake's plight is given a tragic, but character enhancing, perspective. He can be immediately seen as brave and strong for living a "normal life" despite his serious misfortune. His association with Brett further reinforces this image. Despite his injury, he is able maintain a relationship with a woman who, as Hemingway goes to great lengths to show, loves him. Their exchange on pages 26-27 displays quite clearly how Jake and Brett feel about each other, but given the circumstances, that love is, says Brett, "hell on earth." Instead of abandoning his feelings, however, Jake is shown as heroic enough to live through not only his impairment, but also Brett's sexual escapades.
If such courage were consistently all that Jake displayed, at the end of the novel he would quite clearly merit the hero title. His petty jealousies and sadistic tendencies towards Cohn, however, destroy any possibility of that. Early in the narrative, when he and Cohn are waiting for Brett, Jake comments on Cohn's anxiety by saying, "We walked to the station. I was enjoying Cohn's nervousness." Later, he takes his sadism a step further, saying, in fact, " I liked to see him [Mike] hurt Cohn." These are not the words of a hero. It appears, from these passages, that Jake acquires some evil pleasure in the difficulties that Cohn has in their elite circle of friends, a community in which Jake seems to exist comfortably. By drawing entertainment and strength from the ways by which he feels superior to Cohn, Jake shows personal insecurities and an ego unbecoming of a traditional hero.
Also insecure with her position in life is Brett, a character Hemingway seems to enjoy using to toy with the emotions of the other characters. Brett causes almost every conflict in the story, either directly or indirectly. Given that a hero is supposed to resolve conflict rather than initiate it, Brett does not seem a likely candidate for that role. She is promiscuous, a drunk, and seems utterly unfazed by the difficulties that she causes the rest of the group. She also displays little or no sympathy for Cohn as he attempts to communicate his "crush" on her. This wanton behavior and careless disregard for the feelings of others seems to leave no opportunity for Lady Brett Ashley to assume the part of a hero.
Hemingway asks the reader to disregard this conduct, however, and temporarily elevates Brett's status at the end of the story. By giving Brett the strength to leave Romero at the conclusion, Hemingway places her in a position reminiscent of the ancient Greek, tragic, female hero. Her position as a woman sacrificing her own happiness for a stronger purpose