The Sun Also Rises

Common themes of alienation and detachment and their effects on the Lost and Beat Generations

An essay on The Sun Also Rises by Albert Kwan

For many people in America, the years immediately following World War I and World War II were characterized by anger, discontent, and disillusionment. Society had been devastated by a global conflict that resulted in unprecedented death, destruction and resentment. Survivors who came of age during these eras — termed the Lost Generation after WWI and the Beat Generation after WWII — were left disjointed and alienated from both the world before and the new world that emerged after. Unable to identify with either pre- or postwar values, both of which, after the war, seemed deceptive and perverted, these social exiles were abandoned by their country and left to rediscover and redefine themselves in a world that had stifled their hopes, dreams and beliefs.

It was during these times that literature emerged in an attempt to capture the attitudes, emotions and opinions of their generations. The works of the most successful writers literally became bibles to those who thought they had lost their identity but had rediscovered themselves in these books. To such people, these novels became their defining elements, and by resurrecting their individualism, they had found a point of departure from which they could finally rebuild their lives. In each of the periods following the world wars, one novel emerged as the dominant literary work that best captured the disorder felt by the common man. Both are semi-autobiographical, written by two individuals who felt as disillusioned and abandoned by society as the rest of their generations did. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (1957) have been considered the essential prose of the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation because their common theme of alienation and detachment reflected the attitudes of their respective times.

The term “Lost Generation” was originally coined in conversation by Gertrude Stein, a member of the expatriate circle in 1920’s Paris. While spontaneous and meaningless when first spoken, the expression would unwittingly go on to become the label for the expatriates from the United States and England who had rejected traditional American and British conventions for the more appealing lifestyle of Left Bank, Paris. Congregating in cafés located along the Boulevard Montparnasse to drink, talk and watch the crowds pass by, the Lost Generation was comprised of exiles who had spurned the pre-war values of love, romanticism, optimism, prosperity and hope that they had grown up believing in, all shattered by the war, as well as the glitter and potential of the Great Boom of the 1920’s, which they now saw as American-based, and therefore corrupt and insincere. Unable to reconcile themselves with their past beliefs, and unwilling to accept those of their present mainstream society, the Lost Generation was left morally bankrupt and spiritually sterile, with only the fleeting pleasures of alcohol and sexual promiscuity as comfort. Many Americans in Paris became bohemian writers and artists as a reactionary protest to the business- and consumer-based culture in the United States, their days spent lounging in cafés and their nights hopping from one meaningless relationship to the next. For the Lost Generation, love, hope and religion were foreign concepts after WWI, replaced by a world of sexual liberty and moral indifference.

Hemingway with shotgunIn 1926, Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, a semiautobiography based on his adventures in France and Spain in 1924-25. Despite having already received moderate critical acclaim for his prior works, it would be this novel that would gain him international success and make him the leader of the so-called Lost Generation. Focusing on the events that took place between a group of American and English expatriates traveling from Paris to Pamplona, The Sun Also Rises was an immediate success and almost instantly became a bible for many disillusioned individuals after it was published because it was the first piece of fictional literature that had fully captured the feelings of moral decay and social alienation shared by the Lost Generation: “You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil … Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You’re an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés.”

The satirical portrayal of the Robert Cohn, the last chivalric hero and defender of an outworn faith, and his absurd willingness to endure public humiliation for Lady Brett Ashley’s unforthcoming affection, served only to reinforce the Lost Generation’s belief that love had died in WWI, as did all the other prewar values that Cohn unwaveringly stood for. While tragic in that the source of Cohn’s persecution came exclusively from those who simply could not understand his obstinately idealistic outlook, the fact that his mere existence was nonetheless a painful reminder to the expatriates of America’s betrayal was enough to justify their racist and spiteful actions.

It was also the universal quality of Hemingway’s other characters, which reflected every type of individual in the Lost Generation from the defeated exiles who had accepted their empty, meaningless lives to the expatriates who had acknowledged the moral and spiritual decline of society but were unwilling to surrender themselves to the hollow existence that it offered, and the actions of these individuals that made The Sun Also Rises so appealing to its audience. While some readers found themselves in the characters of Bill Gorton, Mike Campbell and Count Mippipopolous, who had resigned their lives to ethical stagnancy and the superficial pleasures of cynical humor, casual indifference and expensive wine, many others associated with the characters of Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes, the American expatriate whom Hemingway had originally based on himself. Jake’s quest to rediscover his moral bearings through his pilgrimage to Burguete and Pamplona, as well as Brett’s moral redemption in the final act at Madrid, were echoed by the thousands of expatriates in Europe who were desperate to find their lost hope and values. Furthermore, unlike his passive companions, Jake’s unwillingness to accept his disconnection from God (“I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic, but realized there was nothing I could do about it, at least for a while … I only wished I felt religious and maybe I would the next time.”) and his inability to love (“Oh, Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together.” “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so?”), was a source of inspiration for Hemingway’s generation, a sign that there was a possibility of salvation for a group that seemed destined to be lost forever.

Just as WWI had created an irreconcilable gap between society and the Lost Generation, WWII produced a similar effect on those who came of age during its time — the group that would later become known as the Beat Generation. However, there was a key difference in the latter era that contributed to their distaste of traditional societal standards. Unlike the Lost Generation, the Beats were not raised in an optimistic, flourishing environment like that of the Roaring Twenties. Far from the financial boom of the early twentieth century, the decade prior to WWII had been monopolized by the Great Depression, which had suffocated America and had left the nation with its spirit drained and its morale broken. The years following the war were no better in offering any atonement to the individuals who would later identify with the preachings of the Beat Generation. Postwar society, although freed from the shackles of the Depression, was obsessed with commercialism and demanded that its public adhere to the model of either the clean-cut soldier or the mild-mannered businessman. The Beat Generation was unwilling to conform to either. Like the Lost Generation before them, the Beats felt abandoned by orthodox American society, especially after having come of age during the Great Depression, a time when every citizen felt deserted by their nation. The sudden postwar emphasis on consumption and production did little to warm their hearts to the United States, and if anything, served to alienate them even further from the complacent mainstream. As a term used initially to label a small group of avant-garde, bohemian writers including William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, and Jack Kerouac, but later applied to any disillusioned and alienated individual in 1950’s America, the Beat Generation referred to characters of a special spirituality who were dedicated to finding valid beliefs and creating a new vision of art and life through bebop jazz, sex, experimental drugs and spontaneity. Having existed without inspiration throughout their dispirited lives, which had only been marked thus far by the worst financial and social depression in the history of the United States followed by the most destructive war in the history of the world, the Beats emerged as a movement determined to find a new set of values, meanings and truths that had eluded them throughout their lives: “…they stand uncertainly underneath immense skies, and everything about them is drowned. Where go? what do? what for? — sleep. But this foolish gang was bending onward.”

Jack Kerouac’s novel, On The Road, was written over a span of twenty drug-filled days in 1949, as a single paragraph on a roll of paper one-hundred-and-twenty feet long. If nothing else, the method in which he produced the book was a manifestation of the generation — impulsive, spontaneous and narcotic-filled. Not published until eight years later, but having already achieved cult status long before that, the semi-autobiographical travelogue of four cross-country trips by Kerouac and his friend, Neal Cassidy, under the names Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, offered its disillusioned readers little in terms of traditional literary devices, such as symbolism and character development. Where On The Road appealed to the Beat Generation was in its description of the spontaneous and reckless adventures of Sal and Dean, which captured the essence of what the Beats attempted to achieve–spiritual enlightenment through the complete abandonment to instinct and impulse. The entire novel itself was an exercise in spontaneity, from its run-on sentences and rambling, digressive prose style to its errant, drifting plotline. Like the Beats, Sal and Dean could not remain in one place for an extended period of time before boredom settled in and forced them to roar off once again, with no particular direction or destination, in a continual search of greater truth and spiritual illumination. Prior to Sal’s first hitchhiking expedition across the country in Part One of the novel, he complained about the “staleness” of New York and praised the “Promised Land” of the West and the “greater vision” of San Francisco, the headquarters of the Beat movement. However, soon after arriving in California, he quickly grew tired of the surroundings and decided to return home, introducing a pattern that would be repeated throughout each trip across the country: “I thought all the wilderness of America was in the West till the Ghost of the Susquehanna showed me different. No, there was a wilderness in the East … ” Constantly on the move, and unable to settle down and accept society’s so-called “traditional” responsibilities of holding a steady job and raising a family, the Beats were on a continual quest for what they believed to be “the remembrance of some lost bliss.” In part, Sal and Dean’s trips across the expanse of the United States were taken in an attempt to escape from the consumerism that permeated any location that they remained in for an extended period of time, whether it be the bustling metropolis of New York or the cotton plantations of California. Moreso, however, the pair’s cross-country adventures provided what the Beat Generation strove to reach — an opportunity to discover a new vision of their surroundings that was free of the complacent, mundane and empty lifestyle that society attempted to force upon them. Even while recounting a spiritual revelation during a drug-induced hallucination on the streets of San Francisco, Sal seems to be addressing the entire Beat Generation moreso than simply narrating the events:

And for just a moment I had reached the point
of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which
was the complete step across chronological time
into timeless shadows … the potent and
inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind
Essence … I felt sweet,swinging bliss, like a
big shot of heroin in the mainline vein … I
thought I was going to die the very next moment.

Dean’s character also epitomizes “beatness” with his erratic, unpredictable demeanor and his rantings about the spirituality of life: “God exists without qualms. As we roll along this way I am positive beyond doubt that everything will be taken care of for us–that even as you drive, fearful of the wheel … the thing will go along of itself and you won’t go off the road and I can sleep.” It was this unorthodox, seemingly irrational behavior that resulted in Sal and Dean — and on a greater scale, the Beat Generation — being alienated by the more conservative society around them: “I sensed some kind of conspiracy in the air, and this conspiracy lined up two groups in the gang: it was Chad King and Tim Gray and Roland Major, together with the Rawlinses, generally agreeing to ignore Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx.” Unlike the Lost Generation, who were alienated because their degradation of morals conflicted with the standards of post-WWI America, the Beat Generation became detached from society because they were unwilling to conform to the complacent consumer values prevalent at the time, and instead, chose to view the world in a new, experimental light and discover a new system of morals that they could believe in.

Unlike any other books of their times, The Sun Also Rises and On The Road became the bibles of their respective generations due to their ability to connect with their readers’ deepest emotions and beliefs. They captured the hearts of their readers, not through engaging characters or enticing plot devices, but through the honest portrayal of the themes prevalent at the time. For the Lost Generation, who, after the First World War, had suffered a seemingly irrecoverable plunge in their moral and spiritual gauges, The Sun Also Rises was a beacon in the darkness, a source of direction and inspiration from which they could resurrect their condemned lives. For the Beats, On The Road was more than a travelogue; it was a road map that directed them along a spontaneous, inspired path towards the truth and enlightenment that they desperately sought after enduring through the Great Depression and WWII. These books became essential to the expatriates and the Beats because they were the first to deal with the generations’ alienation and detachment from the rest of society and more importantly, because they offered the people something that had been taken away by the horrors of the world wars: direction and hope in a corrupt, disillusioned world.


  • Primary Sources
    • Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1993.
    • Kerouac, Jack. On The Road. New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1976.
  • Secondary Sources
    • Asher, Levi. “Lost, Beat and Hip.” Online. Internet. 4 January 1998.
    • —. “Stereotype vs. True Purpose of the Beats.” Online. Internet. 4 January 1998.
    • Bloom, Harold. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
    • Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
    • French, Warren. Jack Kerouac: Novelist of the Beat Generation. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.
    • Groliers Multimedia Encyclopedia, The [CD-ROM]. 1996 version. Connecticut: Groliers Electronic Publishing, Inc., 1995.
    • Holmes, John C. “This Is The Beat Generation.” The New York Times Magazine. [New York] 16 November 1952. Cited in Asher, Levi.
    • “This Is The Beat Generation.” Online. Internet. 4 January 1998.
    • Knight, Arthur and Kit. Kerouac and the Beats: A Primary Sourcebook. New York: Paragon House, 1988.
    • McNally, Dennis. Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America. New York: Random House, 1979.
    • Noble, Donald R. Hemingway: A Revaluation. New York: The Whitston Publishing Company, 1983.
    • Svoboda, Frederic J. Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises: The Crafting of a Style. Kansas: The University Press of Kansas, 1983.
    • Young, Philip. “Ernest Hemingway.” Encyclopedia International. v. 8, p.388-389. 1982 ed.
The Sun Also Rises

This post is part of The Hemingway Collection, an archive of essays, images, and hyperlinks to interesting articles about the great American author.

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There are 9 comments on this post

  1. do u have anything concerning jake barnes and a project or a collage on him, please send it soon

  2. love the name

  3. I don’t know that there’s anything to explain. It appears that someone stole the essay published here (almost fifteen years ago) and is now attempting to sell it. It’s clearly a copyright violation and plagiarism.

  4. someone maybe stole it from you?

  5. You can contact that website if you’d like I read their terms and if it’s a violation then maybe good for you somehow? That’s pretty upsetting someone would steal this.

  6. great essay btw

  7. Lol they took it down I’m glad I discovered that, kudos to an awesome blog, cheers!

  8. I emailed them and they removed it almost immediately. That’s surprising and fantastic.
    Thanks for the tip!

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What Is This? is the personal weblog of me, David Vincent Gagne. I've been publishing here since 1999, which makes this one of the oldest continuously-updated websites on the Internet.

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You can read dozens of essays and articles and find hundreds of links to other sites with stories and information about Ernest Hemingway in The Hemingway Collection.