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The Sun Also Rises: the Portrayal of Alcohol Consumption

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The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway is a novel set in the 1920s and it is a story about a group of American expatriates and their bohemian life in Paris during the prohibition era. The main character is a young man named Jake Barnes and he surrounds himself with characters like his close friends Bill Gorton and Robert Cohn, the beautiful British socialite Lady Brett Ashley and her soon-to-be husband Mike Campbell. Throughout the novel, the characters drink heavily and although drinking is a returning topic in most of Hemingway’s works, many scholars (e.g. Djos, 1995; Moradi, 2013) agree that The Sun Also Rises is the Hemingway novel in which alcohol plays the most central role. However, there are some gaps in previous research concerning what Hemingway´s portrayal of alcohol and drinking symbolises in connection to the political and social situation in which the novel was written.

Therefore, this essay will analyse how Hemingway uses the portrayal of alcohol consumption as a touchstone by which he measures the moral merit of his characters and also as a medium to reflect attitudes towards the social and political situation of the 1920s contribute to this gap, this essay will offer a close study of the symbolism of alcohol in connection to post-WWI America, expatriation, disillusion and the values of “the Hemingway Hero.” The essay argues that the portrayal of alcohol is a key factor in understanding the underlying values and ideas of the novel and the aim of this essay is to identify and analyse the connection between the supposed ideals and attitudes of Hemingway and the portrayal of alcohol and drinking in The Sun Also Rises. More concretely, the research questions that this essay will intend to answer are:

  • How is alcohol used as a tool to reflect attitudes concerning the political and social context of the novel?
  • How does the portrayal of alcohol consumption serve as a tool to measure the moral and social merit of the characters in the novel?

This essay uses a variety of approaches to offer a nuanced response to these questions. First of all, to approach the first research question it makes sense to turn to a historical approach to connect the constant presence of alcohol in the novel with the controversial position of alcohol in the time that it is set and written. Books and memoirs about the war and its effects on American society and the Lost Generation have contributed insight about the society that The Sun Also Rises depicts and criticises. A book that has been especially helpful in this regard is David M Kennedy’s Over Here: The First World War and American Society. Kennedy’s chronicle of the years leading up to the war, the conditions during the war and the effects of the war gave this essay an understanding of the context of The Sun Also Rises necessary for its analysis of 1920s post-war America and the society of expatriates portrayed in the novel. Secondly, as the second research question concerns the inner life of the characters but also the supposed attitudes of the author, the essay will apply the concept of “the Hemingway Hero” to the close reading of the characters. This concept will be explained further but one can say that the Hemingway Hero is defined by a set of characteristics that most of Hemingway’s male main characters have in common. These characteristics are constructed around a code that is based on Hemingway’s idea of what makes an ideal man and they are reflected in Jake’s relationship to alcohol. By taking an historical approach and by applying the concept of “the Hemingway hero” to the reading of the novel, this essay will contribute to previous research and offer a multifaceted analysis of how alcohol is used as a tool for social and political commentary and to reflect Hemingway’s idea of what makes a good man.

The essay approaches the research questions in three different sections. The first section focuses on the historical context of the novel and highlights the underlying political symbolism behind the portrayal of alcohol. The second section analyses how alcohol is used in the novel to unify and separate different social, political and economic groups. Finally, the third section explores the concepts of the “Hemingway Hero” and investigates how the morality and integrity of the characters in the novel is measured by why and how they use alcohol.

To analyse the portrayal and the importance of alcohol in The Sun Also Rises it is crucial to first understand the political and social context and the controversial position of alcohol in the 1920s. Before World War One, America’s economy was in recession and the Progressive Movement was pushing to address the social and economic issues of the country. The Progressive Movement had begun in 1890 and its goal was to, with the help of the government, address the problem with corruption, regulate big businesses and make the working and living conditions better for the American people. Some progressives also argued that alcohol was one of the biggest reasons for America’s social problems and pro-prohibition groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League were given room in the political debate. In 1917, America entered World War One and this would lead to a shift in American values as well as changes in the economy. As the war took place on European soil, the factories and homes of America were reasonably untouched by the war compared to the devastation of many big cities in Europe. As a result of this, America entered a period of high production during the war and experienced an economic upswing by selling goods to war-torn Europe. To save grain for bread production in an effort to aid the war, the production and importation of distilled liquor had been put on hold and banned. The temperance movement, in an effort to encourage moderation in the consumption of alcohol, grew strong during the war as the sober and moral soldier was presented as a crusader for democracy whilst the European soldier was presented as undemocratic and liquor loving. This created a wave of a puritan patriotism and contributed to the idea that alcohol was the root of America’s problems. Although the drive for prohibition had started many years before the war, the banning of alcohol during the war and the connection between soberness and morality gave the temperance movement a last push in their battle for prohibition and in 1920 prohibition was passed. World War One also meant the end of the Progressive era and the focus that before the war had been on stopping corruption, controlling big companies and bettering the conditions for workers now shifted towards mass production and economic and financial priorities. As an effect of the shift of priorities in the political environment and the boosted economy, America entered a new period called the Roaring Twenties where patriotism, constraint and materialism replaced the values of the Progress.

Although the wealthy people in America enjoyed the economic boom, inflation was high and big companies were forced to reduce wages and lay off employees, which led to social instability, strikes and competition for employment. To add further to the social tension in postwar America, a new American nationalism was born that “favoured the white, Protestant, AngloSaxon, middle-class and excluded what they considered the unsavoury immigrant element in their society” (Schwartz 180-182). Many young Americans did not identify with this new Americanism that was pushed by the older generation and the disillusionment with the effect od the war combined with this new Americanism where racism, consumerism, patriotism and prohibition were in focus left many young Americans with the feeling of disconnection to their home country. The main reasons as to why many of them felt alienated in post-war society were the “American dullness” (M. Cowley 240), the rise of commercialism and the social and cultural restrictions that built on the values of the temperance movement. In his memoir, Malcolm Cowley notes: “life in this country is joyless and colorless, universally standardized, tawdry, uncreative, given over to the worship of wealth and machinery” (77). Furthermore, he suggests that “there seemed to be no reason why the whole process of making, selling, servicing and discarding could not continue indefinitely at an always increasing speed” (216).

Many young writers in America also reacted to the disappointment with the effects of the war and the shift in American values and post-war literature clearly shows a “conflict between generations over the war’s significance” (D. Kennedy 221). For the older generation of writers, participation in World War One is often connected to pride, honour and courage and the moral of their literature is often aimed against the naivety of America before World War One. Moreover, the characters in the stories often go through a transformation in attitude toward the war “from apathy to affirmation” and “from indifference to commitment” (D. Kennedy 221). The younger writers, however, wrote about the feelings toward the war from an opposite angle by focusing on “the devolution of soldiers from a kind of parentally instilled enthusiasm and idealism to bitter disillusionment” (D. Kennedy 221). The disillusion of the young generation in post-war America and the disconnection that American soldiers felt toward the country that they had fought for are central themes in The Sun Also Rises and many other texts produced by young writers after World War One. In his memoir Exile’s return, for example, Malcolm Cowley describes the perplexed emotions of the young men who fought in the war and survived: When we first heard of the Armistice we all got drunk. We had come through, we were still alive, and nobody at all would be killed tomorrow. The composite fatherland for which we had fought and in which some of us still believed […] had triumphed.

[…] But slowly, as the days went by, the intoxication passed, and the tears of joy: it appeared that our composite fatherland was dissolving into quarrelling statesmen and oil and steel magnates. Our own nation had passed the Prohibition Amendment as if to publish a bill of separation between itself and ourselves; it wasn’t our country any longer. (M. Cowley 46-47) A marine in When Johnny Comes Marching Home by Dixon Wecter expresses a similar feeling of disconnection from post-war America: “I know how we all cried to get back to the States… But now that we are here, I must admit for myself at least that I am lost and somehow strangely lonesome. These our own United States are truly artificial and bare. There is no romance or color here, nothing to suffer for and laugh at.” (Wecter 320)

What both these men have in common is the feeling of disillusion and disconnection from the country that they had been willing to sacrifice their lives for. The young American soldiers had experienced a war that people back home were very sheltered from and when they returned to America, the focus on consumption, money and morality felt unimportant, hypocritical and unworthy. At the same time, Europe was presented as the opposite of the puritan and constrained lifestyle of the Prohibition era and promised a life full of adventure including “drinking, dancing, and other behaviour unencumbered by puritan values” (Field 30). As an effect of this, a big number of ex-soldiers and young people that felt alienated by the new America decided to leave their home country behind and go to Europe where they hoped to live a carefree life and forget about the disappointments of the war.

The Americans that expatriated to Europe after the war are now known as “The Lost Generation,” a term coined by Gertrude Stein and made famous in the preface to The Sun Also Rises. The term could be used to describe the whole generation that was left disillusioned by the World War One but refers especially to the group of American writers that expatriated to Paris such as Ezra Pound, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. As a young man Hemingway himself joined the Red Cross as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War One and was wounded in the field. He later expatriated from America and spent many years in Paris as one of the front figures of the Lost Generation. The Sun Also Rises follows the bohemian lives of the expatriate Jack Barnes and his friends as it depicts the lifestyle of The Lost Generation. Jake Barnes is the perfect representation of the young and disillusioned ex-soldier of post-war America and this connects the novel with the social, historical and political environment of the 1920s. Whilst talking about the novel as a documentation of an era, Hannah S that The Sun Also Rises is “perhaps the most demonstrative of the grapple with post-war society and expatriation” (17).

As Skahill suggests, post-war society and expatriation are two central themes in The Sun Also Rises and alcohol is portrayed in connection with both these themes. The novel portrays Europe as a place where one can drown sorrows in alcohol and where it is possible to access a life that is no longer available in America. It also works as a kind of anti-thesis of the post war America that the expatriates left behind. When one looks at The Sun Also Rises as a political text and a social commentary rather than one of the many fictional and non-fictional bohemian tales of the Lost Generation, it can be argued that the portrayal of alcohol serves as a tool to express certain critical attitudes and views. There are two main reasons that the characters in the novel drink: to cope with disillusion and to protest against the prohibition era. Jake and his friends drink to seek refuge and relief and to cope with their feeling of disillusion and post-war gloominess.

Whilst discussing alcohol as a cure for disillusion, Schwartz suggests that “Jake is either constantly drinking or discussing drinking throughout the novel, revealing […] his desire to escape from the effects of the war through alcohol” (188). Jake is portrayed as a man who sees the world for what it is and who finds no joy in romanticizing the world around him. The war has left him with a war wound that has made him impotent. Drinking is used in the novel as the cure towards his feeling of hopelessness and frustration. Furthermore, he and the other characters use alcohol to numb the disappointment felt with America, the ugly memories of the war or their personal losses or struggles. At one point in the novel, Brett is struggling with how to best handle a personal dilemma concerning how she should handle her drama with Cohn and Mike. She says: ‘I can’t just stay tight all the time” (160), showing that staying drunk is normally how she copes with situations that she does not feel comfortable with. Furthermore, Jake’s meeting with Harvey Stone outside of “The Select” is a tragic example of one character who has completely given in to the comforts of alcohol:

“Sit down,’ said Harvey, “I’ve been looking for you.”

“What’s the matter?” […]

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“What do you hear from the states?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

“What’s the matter?”

“I don’t know. I’m through with them. I’m absolutely through with them.”

He leaned forward and looked me in the eye.

“Do you want to know something, Jake?”


“I haven’t had anything to eat in five days.” […]

“Come on. Let’s go eat.”

“There is no hurry. Have a drink.”

“Better eat.”

“No. When I get like this I don’t care whether I eat or not.”

We had a drink. Harvey added my saucer to his own pile. (Hemingway 37)

To indulge in drinking, bars and drunkenness in Paris gives the expatriates in the novel a mental escape from their inner struggles, the disappointment with their homeland and the effects of the war on top of the geographical escape that they have already committed to.

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The Sun Also Rises: the Portrayal of Alcohol Consumption. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 5, 2023, from
“The Sun Also Rises: the Portrayal of Alcohol Consumption.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
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