Failed Relationships in Hemingway`s The Sun Also Rises: Defending the New Woman

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

19 Pages, Grade: 1.3




I. The New Woman
I.1. The New Woman in a historical, social and cultural context
I.2. Brett Ashley as a New Woman

II. Failed relationships of the New Woman
II.1. Brett Ashley and Robert Cohn
II.2. Brett Ashley and Pedro Romero
II.3. Brett Ashley and Jake Barne

III. Conclusion

IV. Bibliography


'But when men no longer command respect , and women replace their natural warmth with masculine freedom and mobility, there can be no serious love.'1

It is all too easy to dismiss Brett Ashley, the leading female character in Hemingway`s first novel The Sun Also Rises, as a neurotic, promiscuous and 'hard-boiled' man-eater and to blame her for the failure of all man-woman relationships in the novel. (And indeed, Brett has been called many things, from 'a woman devoid of womanhood' over 'an exclusive destructive force' even to 'a compulsive bitch'2 ). If so, it probably tells more about the critic than the person who is being criticized. A short-sighted, and rather reactionary statement as the one above does not do justice to the complex relationships between the New Woman Brett Ashley and Robert Cohn, Pedro Romero and Jake Barnes. This paper therefore aims to explain in a more elaborate manner why Brett Ashley´s relationships fail. It tries to show that not only can the reasons be found in Brett´s capacity as an independent, self-confident and often troubled New Woman but also in the shortcomings of the male characters or in conditions which are beyond the characters´ control.

What exactly constitutes a New Woman at the beginning of the 20th century is the concern of the first section of this paper. It also shows in what regard Brett Ashley exemplifies this concept and serves as a general introduction to the character. The second section then focuses on the respective interpersonal relationships between Brett and the writer Robert Cohn, Brett and the bullfighter Pedro Romero and Brett and the (narrating) protagonist Jake Barnes. 'How did they get to know each other?', 'What was their relationship like?' and 'Why did it fail in the end?' are the leading questions in the framework of the argumentation.

1 Spilka, 29 2 cf. Martin, 69

I. The New Woman

I.1. The New Woman in a historical, social and cultural context

The term New Woman is said to have been coined by Sarah Grand in 1894 in the North American Review and labels the 'manifestation of changing gender norms at the fin de siècle'. The term is both applied to female authors and fictional characters.1

From the second half of the 19th century onwards a 'redefinition of masculinity and femininity' gradually shifted 'the ground on which the edifice of Victorian sexual identity was built.'2 The 'Cult of Domesticity', ascribed to women in the Victorian era, was more and more being challenged by supporters of the New Woman movement. They propagated women´s liberation from male domination and wanted women to lead an independent life, unrestricted in their pursuit of happiness and self-realization. A New Woman was supposed to have received an adequate primary, secondary or even tertiary education and to participate in political discussion. She ought to earn money and thus be financially independent from men. She should decide herself, if when and whom she wants to marry and how many children she would have. Her defying of existing social conventions and norms should also be signalled by wearing more comfortable and more fashionable clothes. There was general consent that the Victorian double standards of morality had to be abandoned. The concept of free love, however, was a decisive issue among the supporters of the New Woman movement.3

Leaving the claustrophobic and protected space of the private home and increasingly entering male public space also meant an increased vulnerability for the New Woman. The avid individualist in pursuit of new experiences was often met with suspicion, if not contempt by conservative forces. The interlopers were often seen as fair game, undeserving of respect or safety. 4

World War I and its butchering of eight million soldiers in the trenches of Western Europe further expedited the redefinition of gender concepts. Manliness, glory, honour and heroism became 'either suspect or a mockery' for a generation of men who had to face random and impersonal violence. The battlefield lost its function as the proving ground for male courage and war itself lost its romantic quality: 'There are no heroes in this war... All the heroes are dead', as a desillusioned Hemingway stated himself. This postwar sensibility of severe loss, emasculation and impotence is well exemplified by the character Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises. 5

1 cf. Dietrich, Introduction 2 Martin, 65f 3 cf. Wikipedia 4 cf. Martin, 67 5 cf. Martin, 66

Simultaneously, World War I demanded for a new role of women in society. A formerly housebound, 'passive, [and] private creature' took over new tasks in public and economic life by taking on jobs and supporting the troops at the home front. But women also served effectively in nursing or agriculture corps and proved that their work was valuable. The achievements of the feminists were consolidated in the postwar decade of the roaring twenties and the Jazz Age (which brought an extraordinary flourishing of the economy, art and numerous technological innovations to the Western countries) as universal suffrage was achieved in most of the European countries and Great Britain.1

I.2. Brett Ashley as a New Woman

Before briefly characterizing Brett Ashley and discussing to what extent she can be seen as a typical representative of a New Woman, I consider it worth mentioning that, according to Sarason, some of the characters in The Sun Also Rises were heavily inspired from real persons. (This gave the novel a roman à clef - quality and opened the door for the wildest Freudian speculations not only about the author´s but also some of his friends` personalities). Brett Ashley`s real life counterpart is supposed to have been Duff Twysden, whose 'natural habitat' was 'either the bedroom or the bar'. And in fact, several witnesses are cited to having seen her at places like the Dome or the Select in Paris, working hard on her reputation for being 'alcoholic' and promiscuous. Numerous, sometimes maliciously exaggerated stories could be told here. It only remains to say that the fictional Brett Ashley herself became the 'ideal for Smith college girls whom she inspired to be depressed, and for whom she became the model for dissipation' on both sides of the Atlantic. The cycle was complete. 2

Brett Ashley is a 34-year old English aristocrat living in Paris. She stays there with her current partner Mike Campbell while awaiting her divorce from Lord Ashley, an alcoholic war veteran who abused her. Brett is introduced when she enters a bar together with a group of homosexuals:

'Brett was damned good-looking. She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy`s. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey' (p.19).

1 cf. Martin, 68 2 cf. Sarason, 231f

Reading this short extract, we can already identify several features of the New Woman. Brett´s haircut and clothes defy traditional Victorian fashion and are considered to be trendsetting. The fact that she enjoys the nightlife of Paris not with one single male beside her but together with a group of homosexuals reveals a liberal and independent attitude -unlike Jake Barnes who knows that he 'should be tolerant' but cannot help getting angry when he sees them (p.17). Furthermore, Brett self-consciously leads the way when she gets bored with a place and men follow her (cf.p.20). She smokes and drinks in public (cf.p.65, 24). She wears men`s clothes without losing her female attractiveness (cf.p.24,117). She blurs the difference of gender roles by calling herself a 'chap' (p.28). She is estranged from major traditional institutions such as religion (cf.p.183) and marriage, which she either considers to stand in the way of her 'career' (p.54) -which probably is meant to be a joke as she currently does not have a job- or to rob her of her freedom (cf.p.214). Refusing to become 'a bitch that ruins children' (p.215), she reserves her right on reproductive freedom.

We find that Brett exerts great power over the men around her and that she knows how to use it in her interest (cf.p.48), although she sometimes is weary of her influence on men (cf.p.19,23). Although she travels with her future husband Mike Campbell she has affairs with Robert Cohn and Pedro Romero. She is promiscuous and seems to be uncapable to commit to her relationship with Mike.

At the same time, Brett shows almost maternal traits when she comforts Jake in his apartment (cf.p.48) or fears that it 'would be rough' (p.73) on Cohn to travel with the group to Pamplona after she had slept with him. 1

When it comes to financial independence, however, Brett Ashley does not quite meet the New Woman conditions. She largely depends on men to pay for her drinks and travel expenses as she only has an annual income of 500 Dollars of which she has to pay 350 Dollars in interest (cf.p.203). When she finally ends up in a cheap hotel, she has to call Jake for help and her former lover Pedro Romero pays her bill. Her financial dependence on men troubles her as it questions her independence (cf.p.214). She sometimes suspects herself of being in the unwanted role of a prostitute who exchanges sexual and psychological attention for financial favours and protection. However, she always refuses to submit to the authority of men and manages to remain in control of her 'female eros.'2


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Failed Relationships in Hemingway`s The Sun Also Rises: Defending the New Woman
University of Freiburg  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
HS Literatur: 'History of Love in the American Novel'
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ISBN (Book)
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Failed, Relationships, Hemingway`s, Also, Rises, Defending, Woman, Literatur, History, Love, American, Novel
Quote paper
Robert Mattes (Author), 2006, Failed Relationships in Hemingway`s The Sun Also Rises: Defending the New Woman, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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