While rereading Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for a literature class last semester, I kept coming back to a puzzling question: What is so important about bulls? Bullfighting seems to be the focal point of the characters’ time in Pamplona, Spain, which makes sense considering the culture and setting of the time. The unusual part is the great importance and emphasis they all place on this dangerous sport, as though it is so much more than entertainment or a way to make a living. For these characters, bullfighting seems to be a lifestyle, a persona, an image.
The significance of bulls and bullfighting came up in our class discussion of The Sun Also Rises, and fortunately some light was shed on this fascinating topic. Contrary to my prior belief, these bulls aren’t solely representative of male dominance; rather, the characters compare themselves to bulls in order to assess their own masculinity and sexual identities.
That’s a lot of meaning behind a simple bull!
For the sake of keeping this discussion focused, I’m going to concentrate on Jake Barnes, the main protagonist. While fighting in World War I, Jake was wounded in an unfortunate way: to be frank, he was castrated. We know this from closely reading the scene when Jake looks at himself in the mirror of a hotel room. He alludes to his injury almost nonchalantly, slipping in some telling remarks amidst thoughts of French furniture. Jake says:
“Undressing, I looked at myself in the mirror of the big armoire beside the bed. That was a typically French way to furnish a room. Practical, too, I suppose. Of all of the ways to be wounded. I suppose it was funny.” (p. 38)
The fact that Jake is looking at his naked body in the mirror certainly hints at the nature of his injury. The mixture of comments about both furniture and his wound suggests that he is attempting to fill the apparent absence of a phallus with something else– in this case, descriptions of furniture. (A bit strange, but I won’t judge.) Jake is insecure about his masculinity because he no longer possesses a physical representation of it.
The bulls used for bullfighting are physically aggressive, harming others by penetrating them with their horns Yes, you read that implication correctly: the horns of a bull are representative of a phallus. Likewise, a bull’s less masculine counterpart is a steer (literally a bull who has been castrated). Steers are not associated with the intense passion, excitement, and danger of bullfighting, thus suggesting that castrated men cannot participate in masculine or sexual acts.
This is the part that clearly bothers Jake, the question he struggles to answer: Has the war made him a bull or a steer?
Physically, Jake is a steer– but what about his personal identity? Such an internal conflict is one of the driving forces of the narrative as Jake endeavors to understand his own masculinity.
It’s the link between bulls and Jake’s specific injury that I did not recognize until discussing it in class. Connections, interpretations, and revelations like this one are one of the many reasons why I love studying literature. Even though I didn’t enjoy The Sun Also Rises as much as I had initially hoped to, I can’t deny that this novel makes for some fascinating close reading.
What are your thoughts on this discussion or about The Sun Also Rises in general? Let me know in the comments section below!