A Bottomless Pit. Logics of Drinks in Hemingway’s "The Sun Also Rises" and Chandler’s "The Big Sleep"

Seminar Paper, 2014
19 Pages, Grade: A/ 1,0









Given that both authors, Hemingway and Chandler, represent a rather lean and reduced style, a style one can easily call sober, the extraordinary emphasis put on the recounts of buying, mixing, having, spilling and pouring out drinks in both narratives is striking. This phenomenal contrast between the significant role of drink within the narrative and the sobriety of the narration on the level of style renders the depiction of scenes around drinking especially noteworthy. Much has been said about Hemingway being a dedicated and heavy drinker and thus literary criticism was often all too easily tempted to reduce the dominance of the topic of drinking in the novels to “… either the unavoidable … aspect of the Hemingway hero[1] …, or [to a] barely mediated reinscription of the author’s private drinking habits” (Nicholls 2000 (b): 86).[2] Another approach was taken by representatives of medical and sociological studies on the representation of alcoholism in mass media[3] who understand Hemingway’s novel as a depiction of the expatriate scene in 1920s Paris and interpret the text as a promotion of drink as political attitude: “To some extent, drinking had become a ritualized expression of the autonomy of oneself and one's social group against the claims of the state and of official morality” (Room 1984: 543). These approaches, however, attribute a literal meaning to the practice of drinking according to their respective interpretative tradition and do not consider the functional employment of drink and respective rituals as fundamental elements of narrative structure apart from moral and medical connotations. They furthermore assume a highly simplified and homogenous quality of group dynamics on the level of the characters.

This essay follows Nicholls in his interpretation of drink as a “structural tool” (Nicholls 200 (b): 86) and argues against a reading of Hemingway´s novel as using drink to establish a moral evaluative system.[4] Arguing that both Hemingway and Chandler construe drink as a social and physical code drawing on a complex inventory of gestures and discursive patterns,[5] the essay identifies moments of the narratives which show the constant encoding and decoding of drinking as a communicative practice the logic of which serves to establish in- and out-groups according to why, when, what and how to drink.

In addition to shaping character interactions in a social sense, drink as a structural device functions in a physical sense as it serves as a material prompt for the characters to act out their roles. The strong and explicit focus on the portrayal of drinking habits and rituals adds a plasticity to the narratives which becomes significant especially with regard to Chandler and his style being highly influenced by cinematic aesthetics.


As Nicholls remarks, “drinking … may appear to be ubiquitous, but it is never an undifferentiated experience” (Nicholls 2000 (b): 86). Each moment with the characters having a drink together exposes complex interactions driven by their individual understanding of drinking as a code.

One key moment is a get-together of Jake, Brett and the count. In a conversation, Brett and the count implicitly name the stylistic and textual strategy of the book:

“You´re always drinking my dear. Why don´t you just talk? … I should like to hear you really talk my dear. When you talk to me you never finish your sentences at all.” “Leave’ em for you to finish. Let anyone finish them as they like.” “It is a very interesting system, … Still I would like to hear you talk some time” (Hemingway 1926: 65).

Drinking is marked as a discursive system with its own rules as opposed to verbal talk and introduces an approach to drinking as a practice not preventing but rather creating a new kind of discourse.[6] Accordingly, the semiotics of drink can either function or fail as a communicative system depending on whether or not the individual communication parties share the same code constituted around drink.

The interaction between Brett, the count and Jake exposes clearly that each of the characters follows an individual and genuinely different code rendering the interaction complicated both rhetorically and physically. The count represents the connoisseur who knows how to drink and understands this knowledge as part of his cultural capital which, in the Bourdieuian sense, is a marker of distinction and thus power. He takes on a rather patronizing role towards Brett and tries to “teach” her how to approach the excellent champagne, what is in his eyes, correctly. To Brett´s suggestion “How about some of that champagne?”, the count reacts with saying “It isn´t cold, yet.” He thereby indicates his possession of a ritual knowledge that precedes the actual act of drinking. By declaring it a pleasure that requires conscious decisions on how to embed the sensual experience, he turns it into a practice that exceeds mere consumption.

The episode also shows how the code of drinking can be used to demonstrate financial power. It is the count who has brought the champagne. He thus claims and exercises the right to guide the interaction both physically and discursively by deciding on when and how to actually drink the beverage and how to talk about it. Monetary power is turned into social power which, once established, the count tries to maintain. The conversation turns into a discursive battle of contradicting code systems: Brett´s suggestion to drink a toast is rejected by the count: “This wine is too good for toast-drinking, my dear. You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that. You lose the taste.” (Hemingway 1926: 66). His patronizing instruction is immediately followed by the narrative voice´s observation: Brett´s glass was empty (ibid.). Brett opposes the count´s fatherly attempts to teach her how to enjoy the champagne by strictly following her own code, which is drinking for psychological and physical needs.

The count´s attempt to create power through the exhibition of connoisseurship as cultural capital fails with Brett as she does not adapt her code of drink to his. Interestingly, in this way she is more independent and powerful than Jake who admires the count´s status and secretly wishes to be accepted by him as equal partner in the discourse about the wine. Admitting, that it was amazing champagne, Jake indicates that he, contradictory to Brett, thinks he knows what he is drinking and how to enjoy it. However, his appreciative suggestion “You ought to write a book on wines, count,” (hemingway 1926: 66), is discredited with the words, “Mr. Barnes, … all I want out of wines is to enjoy them” (ibid). Brett then consciously uses the count´s words for the satisfaction of her own needs. “Let’s enjoy a little more of this,” (Hemingway 1926: 66). This prompt is again met by the count´s powerful imposing of his attitude to enjoying champagne: Brett pushed her glass forward. The count poured very carefully. “There, my dear. Now you enjoy that slowly, and then you can get drunk” (Hemingway 1926: 66). In addition to the discursive conflict, the passage exposes the physical struggle of the two different codes, i.e. impatient pushing versus careful and conscious pouring. Even though Brett rejects adopting the count´s code of drinking, she does not hesitate to drink his champagne. Her character thus embodies a sense of liberation from rules of symbolic capital rather than from those of Prohibition.


[1] Cf. Davidson, Cathy N. and Arnold E.: “Decoding the Hemingway Hero in The Sun Also Rises.” New Essays on ʻThe Sun Also Risesʼ. Ed. Linda Wagner-Martin. Cambridge et al. CUP, 1987: 83-107.

[2] Cf. also Crowley who argues that the book “subtly affirms sobriety as a means to the sheer drunkenness of the writer’s art” (Crowley 1994: 64). He argues that the novel establishes Jake as a character who is able to drink with control and promotes the art of disciplined drinking as a genuinely male quality, confusing the protagonist with the author. A close reading reveals that if any character, than it is the count who embodies the discipline of drink as a symbolic quality. cf. also Dardis, Tom. The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1989.

[3] Cf. Room, Robin: “A Reference for Strong Drink”: The Lost Generation and the Elevation of Alcohol in American Culture. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 45. 6, 1984. Pp. 540-46 and Grant, Marcus: “The Alcoholic as Hero.” Images of Alcoholism. Eds. Jim Cook and Mike Lewington. London: British Film Institute, 1979: 30-36.

[4] Cf. Crowley 1994: 51: “Hemingway uses drinking … to establish a hierarchy of moral merit for his characters.”

[5] Brett´s often repeated Give a chap a brandy is only one example of the linguistic formula prompted by the practice of drinking.

[6] If drinks are the embodiment of discursive unities, Brett´s quick emptying of glasses takes on an interesting analogy to her verbal discourse and raises questions regarding why she considers verbal interaction dysfunctional.

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A Bottomless Pit. Logics of Drinks in Hemingway’s "The Sun Also Rises" and Chandler’s "The Big Sleep"
New York University  (Department of English)
Seminar: "Transatlantic Modernism"
A/ 1,0
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ISBN (Book)
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Prof. Perry Meisel: "Very excellent work--your command of the bibliography is superb, as is your close and exact reading of Hemingway in particular. Your reading of Chandler is more complex, and you could go much further in the very imaginative direction you stake out regarding what you call the 'cinematic' aspect of drinking that goes beyond, but also takes for granted, what drinking means in Heminway. All in all, though, a very impressive paper."
Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Modernism, drinks, alcohol, communication, social code, cinematic writing, masculinity
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Thérèse Remus (Author), 2014, A Bottomless Pit. Logics of Drinks in Hemingway’s "The Sun Also Rises" and Chandler’s "The Big Sleep", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/275606


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