Feminism in "The Sun Also Rises". Lady Brett Ashley as New Woman

Term Paper, 2022

18 Pages, Grade: 2,7



Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Females in the 1920s and the image of the New Woman

3 Lady Brett Ashley as the embodiment of the New Woman
3.1 Brett Ashley’s physical appearance and her behavior
3.2 The control over the men and her dominance over affairs
3.3 Superficiality regarding masculine traits and sexual attraction
3.4 Brett in a masculine sphere

4 A contrast to the other women in the novel

5 Conclusion

6 Works Cited

1 Introduction

Until the 1920s, women were not as independent as they are today. Females had the status of the weaker sex since they were not as included as men in society. Women were mainly forced to stay in the house in order to be occupied with domestic matters. By the 1920s, women faced increasing autonomy not only economically, but also regarding sexual matters (see Freedman 379). With the increasing independence of females, it simultaneously arose the image of the ‘New Woman’. She appeared as a flapper with a short haircut and a noticeable choice in fashion (see Bhuiyan 203).

At this point, it is important to say, that Lady Brett Ashley as one of the main characters in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises contributes to the modern female in many aspects. While reading, we get confronted with that wholly new concept of women through Brett, as she appears as a sexually liberated female, and hence, she shows power over her affairs with males (see West 59 and Hays 239). As a consequence, Brett contributes to a redefinition of gender roles, as she can be regarded as an attempt of changing the old norms into a modern perception of women (see Bhuiyan 222 and Harb and Ismail 212). Especially remarkable is her behavior and her appearance, as she often asserts herself in typical masculine spheres (see Yu 177). Her hairstyle and her choice in fashion resemble the image of the flappers of the 1920s (see Martin 69). Hence, she gets admired by some women in the conventional held society of Pamplona (see Nagel 96). Consequently, Brett can be regarded to be a strong and independent woman, as she appears as dominant and decisive over herself and her affairs. The reading of the novel confirms the thought of Brett as the powerful and dominant female. As some of the authors state, Brett embodies the image of feminism. With her strong character, Hemingway makes clear his concept of the female gender in his work.

This paper will argue that the novel The Sun Also Rises supports the idea of Brett as the embodiment of the ‘New Woman’, as she can be regarded as the dominant and independent female. Before examining to what extent she contributes to that image, it is useful to have a closer look at the historical circumstances and what features contributed to the supposed ‘New Woman’. Following this, the paper will take into account the concept of feminism through Brett regarding her remarkable physical appearance, her power over the men and her affairs, as well as her focus on masculine traits. Moreover, it will demonstrate that Brett finds herself in masculine spheres, a crucial point that contributes to the image of the ‘New Woman’ as well. At least, the paper gives a comparison to the other women in the novel, showing that especially the character of Brett stands for the concept of the modern woman to her time.

2 Females in the 1920s and the image of the New Woman

This chapter will have a closer look at the historical circumstances of the 20th century. It will examine how females gained social and economic power after they have been primarily seen as the weaker sex. Furthermore, this section is an approach for a definition of the ‘New Woman’, as well as for gender roles before and after the 1920s.

The 1920s can be seen as a turning point in history regarding female emancipation, as women were traditionally regarded as being responsible for domestic matters. They were occupied with the household and with raising children. Moreover, they were nothing more than “conveniences”, who had to function for “copulation and pleasure” (Cabell, qtd. in Bhuiyan 206). During the Victorian era, inequalities concerning gender roles existed, as males and females were divided socially. Men were defined as “the patriarch male”, the dominating sex in the society (see Bhuiyan 203). In contrast to that, women were said to be the “domesticated female”, who had to subordinate themselves to males (Bhuiyan 203). As women were mainly occupied with the household, and therefore were regarded as “passive, private creatures”, they did not have the right to embrace themselves beyond domestic spaces (see Martin 67). As soon as a female refused the predetermined roles, she became a different status in society. She was called “disreputable or dangerous” (Martin 67). It was therefore uncommon for a woman to have her rights, as she had to devote herself to the given gender roles. In contrast to that, the male was responsible for economic gains and therefore “the public space” was regarded as his territory (Martin 67). Simultaneously, it was unusual for women to be employed and economically independent. Males saw them as competitors, as they could be interpreted as “economic rivals of the husbands” (Punke, qtd. in West 56). In rare cases, wives were allowed to work for their own income, but their earnings were strictly limited, “as long as their salaries didn’t exceed those of the husbands” (see West 57). With that, the distribution of gender roles was clear: females had to subordinate themselves to the male sex, whereas males were the powerful and dominating gender.

As already indicated at the beginning of this chapter, the 1920s were crucial in the history of feminism. Bhuiyan also states it as the “historic turn” or as “the equation of the gender” (see Bhuiyan 203). World War I also contributed to the new image of women, as gender roles got redefined. After the war, when the males came back home, they were irritated by the “newly capitalized civilization”, as women gained power through the introduction of the 19th Amendment (Woloch, qtd. in Bhuiyan 203). By that, females faced increasing independence and equality in political means, as it caused “a generation gap between the ‘new’ women and the women prior to the twenties” (Woloch, qtd. in Bhuiyan 203). They now had a say in political terms and the right to vote (see Martin 67, 68 and Millett, qtd. in Sanderson 172). Women were no longer responsible for domestic issues, they further faced an increase in “social emancipation” (Woloch, qtd. in Bhuiyan 203). Consequently, females experienced a “transformation” from the submissive sex to an equally treated gender (see Martin 67). With the increasing emancipation in society, she was now able to focus on her personal matters, such as education, making a career, and economic matters. With her “autonomy”, she could distance herself from domestic issues (see Martin 68). The ‘New Women’ defined herself as being independent, as she was no longer submissive to the male. “Patriarchal marriage” was no longer an issue, instead females sought for their own achievements (Martin 68). As a consequence of the increasing independence of women, they were no longer forced to marry. Instead, they had the force to decide over her career choices by herself, as she “can demand whatever terms they wish” (see West 58, 59). That also lead to greater freedom regarding their sexuality as the ‘New Woman’ faced “sexual liberation” (see West 59 and O’Neill, qtd. in Freedman 391, 392). Leuchtenburg sees the factor of “sexual independence” as one of the most crucial changes concerning the new image of the females, as with that, the old image disappeared (Leuchtenburg, qtd. in Freedman 373). The more women gained social power within the society, the more feminists “focused towards the removal of laws that used gender to discriminate against women” (Woloch, qtd. in Bhuiyan 203). Following this, the traditional view on the female gender got redefined to the advantage of women. They gained power in every aspect and consequently, “women had become the social and economic equals of men” (see Freedman 373). That changing image describes Bhuiyan as “historic for the American post war times”, as women were now equally treated in every aspect: in social, economic, and sexual matters (see Bhuiyan 203).

A crucial characteristic of the ‘New Woman’ had also been her exceptional appearance, which differed greatly from the old image of females. Rosenberg attempted to state it as the following:

“In the 1920s, a new woman was born. She smoked, drank, danced, and voted. She cut her hair, wore make-up, and went to petting parties. She was giddy and took risks. She was a flapper” (see Rosenberg, qtd. in Bhuiyan 203).

With the preceding description, Rosenberg sums up the most important traits of the ‘New Woman’. Simultaneously, he mentions the term of the flapper, which can be seen as quite similar to the concept of the ‘New Woman’. In contrast to the old image of women before the 1920s, flappers appeared as “very strong”, as they redefined “all the previously existing Victorian norms and values” (Bhuiyan 203). They were known as being the complete opposite of the submissive female. As Rosenberg already mentioned, it was common for flappers to drink alcohol massively, to smoke cigarettes, to have bobbed-hair, and to “[treat] sex in a casual manner” (Rosenberg, qtd. in Bhuiyan 203). They did not only appear as different through their mannish hairstyle, furthermore, West mentions also the “ways of behavior [...] that men had previously reserved for themselves” (see West 58, 59). It is no longer the male that dominates the relationship, rather the woman can take over the control.

Moreover, flappers used to wear short skirts instead of corsets and for further freedom, they “dropped layers of clothing to increase ease of movement” (Rosenberg, qtd. in Bhuiyan 204). By that, a whole new image of women arose, as they broke through the old norms regarding their appearance. Consequently, the early norms of gender roles have completely changed, as women can now be seen as liberated from the old image. Prior to the 1920s, women were sexually dependent and without any right to decide over whatever matters.

Hence, the image of the ‘New Woman’ has nothing more to do with the historically common “housebound Victorian nurturer” (see Martin 67). She now has her own social and economic status, and as Martin states, “their work was valuable” (see Martin 68). The predominantly submissive female has undergone a change that made her the ‘New Woman’, a self-determined, strong, and independent being.

3 Lady Brett Ashley as the embodiment of the New Woman

As the 1920s were historically highly significant, authors and painters used the new image of the female for their works. Bhuiyan states it as the following: “the women in every aspect of art started to reflect the modern women of the century” (see Bhuiyan 206). Among other authors, Ernest Hemingway also “contributed to this newly emerged portrayal of women in literature” (Bhuiyan 206). As one of the main characters in The Sun Also Rises, Lady Brett Ashley can be regarded as the embodiment of the ‘New Woman’. The novel contributes to the modern perception of the woman in many aspects because Brett Ashley offers many traits of the modern woman and therefore presents “an unlimited supply of feminist inspiration” (see Bhuiyan 223). In this section, it will be analyzed to what extent Brett is similar to this new image of a female. Therefore, it is useful to have a closer look at her appearance and behavior, her dominant character, her superficiality regarding males, and also Brett’s interaction in a masculine domain. Following, it is helpful to compare those aspects of her character to the definition of the ‘New Woman’.

Nagel represents Brett as a powerful and independent character, as he states the following:

“Brett is by no means the first representation of a sexually liberated, free- thinking woman in American literature but rather an embodiment of what became known as the ‘New Woman’ in nineteenth-century fiction” (see Nagel 92)

For the ‘New Woman’, it was common to redefine the rules that have been set regarding gender roles and equality of sex. Bhuiyan sees the “growing transatlantic exchanges” as a source of the steady changing image of the female of the western population (see Bhuiyan 203). Brett Ashley is a good example of a woman, who let the old norms of the Victorian era behind her, as she appears as a female who enjoys freedom and independence. She could probably be seen as the exact image of the ‘New Woman’, as she “transcends the boundaries of sex, marriage, social mobility, scripted gender roles, and other manifold restraints of the Victorian oppression on women” (see Bhuiyan 222). She appears as a modern woman, who lives in France and travels through Spain. Hence, she does not even have one thing in common with the submissive female that is merely occupied with domestic issues and the raising of the children. We will see, that she is - in opposite to the old image - a free woman, who enjoys being independent.

3.1 Brett Ashley’s physical appearance and her behavior

Brett’s appearance, as well as her behavior, can in many ways be seen as typical for the ‘New Woman’. On the one hand, she appears as a flapper through her styling. On the other hand, she behaves like men in some aspects. Even after the first pages of the novel, Brett appears as a modern and independent woman of her time, as Hemingway introduces her with some conspicuous visual traits. Jake, the narrator, describes the young lady as the following: “Brett was damned looking-good. She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. She started all that” (see Hemingway 19). That she wears her hair bobbed, gets clear, when Brett says: “Me, with long hair. I’d look so like hell” (see Hemingway 212). Her boyish hairstyle is as crucial, as this implies her warding off the Victorian norms, as “long hair was a symbol for women” (see Yu 177). As it was rather uncommon for women to wear their hair bobbed, Brett resembles flappers in terms of hairstyle. The fact, that she cut her hair short, shows that she takes on male traits. Moreover, her hairstyle can be understood “as a symbol of the New Woman taking on masculine qualities” (Yu 177). That Brett’s short hair has a great significance to her, can be argued by the fact, that she refuses to get long hair again. When Pedro Romero expects a change regarding her hairstyle, she decides to leave him: “’He wanted me to grow my hair out. Me, with long hair. I’d look so like hell.’ [...] ‘He said it would make me more womanly’” (see Hemingway 212). Puckett also states that the acting of Pedro Romero contributes to a relevant fact: “Making Brett more “womanly” translates [...] to eliminating her sexual promiscuity [...] a flapper of the early 1920s who cuts her hair short like a man” (see Puckett 146). As the physical change of women was especially a phenomenon of western society, Romero attempted to change Brett’s appearance in order to make her a “proper Spanish woman” (see Nagel 99). As a consequence, Brett ends her affair with Romero, as she “made him go” (see Hemingway 211). In other words, Lady Ashley wants to remain an independent and dominant female, that is conscious of her self-worth. No man could ever change her physical appearance, no matter how much she loves him.

Nagel states that the Spanish society can be said to be rather conventional and hence, the society has a rather conservative view on things (see Nagel 96). This could be the reason, why Romero wants to make her “more womanly” in terms of long hair (see Hemingway 212). Traditionally, young women in Spain did not have the right to decide over their lives by themselves and consequently “[they] were chaperoned until marriage” (Saturday Review, qtd. in Nagel 96). In contrast to that, western society already deals with a more independent image of a woman at the same time. When Brett appears in the wholly conventional world of Spain, she draws attention to her physical appearance. In Hemingway’s novel, Brett’s haircut and her choice in fashion “amaze[s] the women of Pamplona” (see Nagel 96). Brett embodies the image of the ‘New Woman’, which is unusual for Spanish women: “[A woman] called to someone in the house and three girls came to the window and stared. They were staring at Brett” (see Hemingway 120). With that, Brett contributes to the concept of the modern woman due to her physical appearance, as her short haircut becomes a symbol of femininity. She shows her “boyish appearance” and this leads to an “antithesis to the previous century’s ideals” (see Sanderson 172). She therefore could be seen as the embodiment of the transformation of old norms during the Victorian age. Bhuiyan expresses this as “pushing boundaries of gender role appropriation”, as Brett changes the “ideology of patriarchy” (see Bhuiyan 222). With her short haircut, Brett is setting a new ideal regarding femininity. Nagel also comments on that, as he is of the opinion that Brett displays the initiator for new trends regarding fashion and hairstyle for many Americans that are at a young age. He especially mentions her significant haircut and her remarkable clothes (see Nagel 87).

Not only her haircut but also her way of dressing evokes the image of the ‘New Woman’. Martin mentions a switch from the “long skirts, bustles, and constricted waists” to the “short skirts and light fabrics” (see Martin 69). He gives an example of a lady in London who caused trouble, because she wore “transparent sleeves” and got therefore arrested, because she “disturb[ed] the peace” (Martin 69). In western society, especially in New York, women faced a whole transformation regarding feminine clothing due to Coco Chanel and consequently, the clothing of the woman changed rapidly (Martin 69). In the novel, we can also find Brett wearing “a black, sleeveless evening dress” (see Hemingway 127). She, therefore, contributes to the new appearance of women through her clothing, as Brett evokes the image of the modern woman. She wears light clothing and that can be shown in the novel, when Jake states: “Brett, who was sitting on a high stool, her legs crossed. She had no stockings on” (see Hemingway 69). That contributes as well to the new fashion trend of the modern woman. As Brett wears no “hosiery”, Nagel interprets her appearance as her “erotic power” (see Nagel 96). Bhuiyan also mentions that the ‘wool jersey’ that Brett is wearing at the beginning of the novel, is “an epitome of the 1920s fashion motivated by Coco Chanel” (see Bhuiyan 223). As Jake mentions that Brett “started all that”, one could argue that she induced the “fashion of the flapper” through her clothing (see Hemingway 19 and Bhuiyan 223).

As already mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, Brett’s behavior contributes to the image of the flappers as well. She enjoys drinking a lot of alcohol, as well as she smokes cigarettes in bars. This can be regarded as a typical masculine behavior (see Harb and Ismail 212). Thereby, she is not submissive and does not adapt to the old view on gender roles, as she “refuses the traditional feminine role with regards to marriage and love” (Harb and Ismail 212). We see her drinking several times throughout the novel, for example when she gets described as “a good drunk” (see Hemingway 129) or when she says: “‘Let’s enjoy a little more of this,’ Brett pushed her glass forward” (see Hemingway 52). We can also notice her smoking: “She was smoking a cigarette and flicking the ashes on the rug” (see Hemingway 50). Drinking alcohol was mainly an activity for males at that time, so Brett tries to “mimic[s] the male behavior” (see Harb and Ismail 212). It is conceivable that her drinking behavior is an attempt to show that not only men are dealing with alcoholism. Harb and Ismail mention, that Brett drinks alcohol because she wants “to prove her ability to drink in order to show acceptance in the all-exclusive male world” (Harb and Ismail 212). As a modern woman, she does not care about the old norms, rather she tries to be an autonomous female who lives without limitations. Her mannish behavior regarding drinking and smoking contributes to the image of the flappers and introduces females in masculine spheres.

We have seen that Brett contributes to the portrayal of the ‘New Woman’ in means of her appearance and her behavior. As it is common for flappers to differ from the old image of females regarding their clothing and their drinking behavior, Brett stands as a good example. With her short hair and her modern choice of fashion, she resembles the image of a flapper in many ways. With Brett’s physical appearance, Hemingway, therefore, relates to the image of the ‘New Woman’ and simultaneously to the concept of feminism.

3.2 The control over the men and her dominance over affairs

It was traditionally uncommon for women to end their marriage, as a divorce “was considered to be a sin” (see Bhuiyan 222). Therefore, it was unlikely for females to end their relationship with their male partner on their own. If she did anyway, she was automatically excluded by society (Bhuiyan 222). Moreover, women were expected to stay in their relationship, once they settled with their husbands. Hence, it was forbidden for them to select another man after they got “pursued” (Martin 70). With the emergence of the ‘New Woman’, females were no longer forced to marry, and hence, they were able to enjoy new experiences regarding sexuality (see West 59). In Hemingway’s novel, Brett does not fit the Victorian norms of being the submissive wive as well. Instead, she is getting a divorce and seeks sexual pleasure with various men (see Bhuiyan 222). She, therefore, contributes to the image of the ‘New Woman’, as she has the power over her affairs and it is she, who decides what men to take. It is Brett, who acts as the initiator and as the terminator of her affairs (see Yu 178). Martin mentions, that she “keeps her options open” (see Martin 70). The more a man fits the idea of a conventional male with traditional ideas of a marriage, the more Brett distances herself from it. Bhuiyan states, that her “traits [...] are non-compliant with strict patriarchal values and concepts” and that she consequently rebels to be “the ethereal other to the man” (see Bhuiyan 222). She, therefore, appears as a modern and independent woman.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Feminism in "The Sun Also Rises". Lady Brett Ashley as New Woman
University of Constance
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ISBN (Book)
Ernest Hemingway, Genderroles, The Sun Also Rises
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2022, Feminism in "The Sun Also Rises". Lady Brett Ashley as New Woman, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1315961


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