Monday, January 19, 2009

Anti-Semitism in The Sun Also Rises

I just finished The Sun Also Rises, again, although it was so long since I first read it that this might have been the first time. Re-reading something good is like meeting up with an old friend and realizing that you didn’t really know them.
One thing I had forgotten was that Anti-Semitism is a character in the story, as important as any other. It was directed at Robert Cohn by all -- Jake, Brett, Bill and Michael. “The Jew,” “the morose Jew,” “the damned Jew,” “doesn’t he know he’s not wanted,” “don’t you know that you’re not wanted,” “don’t you know that Brett doesn’t want you here,” “why don’t you just get the hell out of here and leave us” – over and over again like a drum beat so regular that you forget about the headache it gives.
But Jake, while he succumbs to the rant at times, hates Cohn not for being Jewish but for having been with Brett. I could not help feeling that Hemingway was drawing the picture of Anti-Semitism as an odious character, and Cohn as a sad but heroic person. Certainly, it is not anti-Semitic that Cohn was a boxing champion at Princeton and then have Cohn thrash Jake and Michael (together) when he could no longer bear their insults, and go on to beat Romero, the bull fighter, to a bloody pulp when he finds him and Brett together.
Cohn is treated with contempt by Jake's friends with some justification. Yet I found myself recoiling from the anti-Semitism that supported their contempt and finding it repulsive in these otherwise exceptional and amusing characters. I give Hemingway too much credit to believe that my revulsion at their anti-Semitism was unintended. Hemingway’s own distaste is revealed when Michael, a Scotsman and Brett’s fiancĂ©, tells Jake that the Jews take their interest up-front when they advance to Brett her allowance each month, and then Michael says, “They are not really Jews, they’re actually Scots -- we just call them Jews.”
Perhaps I identify with Cohn because our names are Robert, we are Jews, we boxed at Ivy League colleges, we hung-out with people more interesting than ourselves and we could be humiliated by a beautiful woman who cared nothing for us. Nevertheless, I take comfort in my view that Hemingway preferred Cohn to Anti-Semitism. (We take comfort where we can find it.)


Mark S. said...

Interesting! Whether the anti-semitism in the novel was an intentional literary device or not, it certainly presents a stumbling block for modern readers (when did you last hear someone use the word "kike"?). Still, it shouldn't reduce the value of the novel or dissuade anyone from reading it; if anything, it adds another layer of commentary on the common sentiments of the time.

Anonymous said...

Perfectly worded, exactly what I was thinking. I identified with Cohn the most,more than the main character Barnes, who was somewhat static/flat. Cohn was my favorite character. I think it is because he was an outsider and he seemed to be a more of a main character than the actually main character. He was constantly faced with adversity and I was a bit disappointed when that was never really resolved.

Marylouise said...

I love your comparison to re-reading The Sun Also Rises to meeting an old friend and realising you don't really know them. I just finished reading after 25 years or so. The anti-semitism is breath-taking. But so is alot of the other behavior. The writing is powerful and casts such a spell. Robert pulls at your heart. But like a lot of romantics, he just doesn't get it. I remember boys like this. Hemingway talks about how Robert is still a boy and wears his college "polos". Brett is looking for a man. Not someone who is full of illusions about who she is. Or about what the world is. There are many places in the book where Jake makes it clear that he doesn't hate Robert because he is a Jew, but because he just doesn't get it.