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Spring Edition
Volume 100, Number 4

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Donovan Roberts Witmer '97

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Expatriates’ pilgrimage

The Lost Generation struggles with timeless questions 


I got hooked on Ernest Hemingway after reading The Sun Also Rises in college. Published in 1926, this novel is an exploration of the American literary expatriate culture that existed in Europe after World War I. Hemingway captures the aimless lifestyle of the members of this disillusioned “Lost Generation” who have cast aside traditional values and drift in a seemingly plotless but gripping novel that begins in Paris and culminates at a bullfight in Spain. The central character, Jake Barnes, is an American journalist who has sustained a crippling wartime injury. Through Jake’s eyes, we are introduced to his motley crew of expatriate friends. We tag along, observing this lot’s café- and bar-hopping, philandering, and vacationing. These are anti-heroes, driven by boredom and hopelessness.

What attracted me to Hemingway as a young adult was his fearless and succinct writing style. Hemingway refuses to whitewash the text and refrains from moralizing, forcing us to come face-to-face with reality. We have to read between the lines of his lean sentences and crisp dialogue. While some criticized the author for his novel’s vulgarity (keep in mind that it was written during Prohibition), Hemingway was not condoning or glorifying the behavior of the Lost Generation. He simply held up a magnifying glass to these ghosts of war who were seeking hedonistic pleasures in order to buffer their despair.

Early on in the novel, Hemingway draws a comparison between Jake and the biblical Jacob. In the same way that this Old Testament figure wrestled with an angel of God, the Lost Generation was struggling to make sense of their post-war lives. The Sun Also Rises raises timeless questions concerning how we are supposed to live. Where does our faith lie when our ideals have been shattered, our innocence has been eradicated, and forces beyond our control leave us powerless? Such questions are as poignant today as they were in the Roaring Twenties.

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