In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway chronicles the lives of several expatriates and their lives in Paris and Spain. Their movement through the city is inextricably linked to Susan Stanford Freidman’s theory of the modern character as one who “emerg[es] from the paralysis of absolute despair to an active search for meaning” (Friedman, Psyche Reborn : The Emergence of H.D. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1981, 97). Though Hemingway sticks to his typically sparse and simple sentences, his characters’ complex psyche’s can be literally followed as they explore the city. Hemminyway uses his characters’ (particularly Jake’s) adventures on the winding streets of Paris as a tool by which to express their “active search for meaning.”
After a failed date with Brett, Jake spends half a page talking about his inexplicable hatred for the Boulevard Raspail. He acknowledges “there are other streets as ugly as it,” but hates it all the same (48/49). His feeling of being “bored and dead and dull” until he is past the Blvd Raspail can be read as directly reminiscent of his dull frustration with his relationship with Brett; with his lack of health; with his “paralysis of absolute despair” (48, Susan Stanford).
Consciously or unconsciously, Hemingway’s characters also associate a change of pace with a change in attitude/mood. Robert Cohn, in a moment of possibly ill-advised existentialism, asks Jake if “[he] ever gets the feeling that all [his] life is going by and [he’s] not taking advantage of it” (19). Robert wants to go to South America, presumably to feel more like he is taking advantage of his quickly evaporating life. Jake replies, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another” (19). This reply is rather surprising, given Jake’s own obsessive movement through Paris, but makes it even more clear that space and mental state are intertwined and interconnected in this novel. Robert’s desire to leave for somewhere almost across the world from Paris illustrates the “active search for meaning” perfectly.
Even within Paris, Jake and his compatriate’s movements illustrate the strange limbo of being almost at home in a foreign land, unsure of yourself in a new world. In a moment of arguably meta-fictional genius, Hemingway describes in detail his character’s routes through Paris. In one page, he mentions the Seine, Notre Dame, Quai de Bethune, Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, Place Contrescarpe, and Rue du Pot de Fer (83). Because neither Hemingway, Jake, Bill, or presumably, the English-speaking reader is a native Parisian, this litanous travel-log serves mostly to disorient the reader, as well as highlight the foreign-ness not only of the character, but Hemingway himself. Jake’s list of places can be interpreted as his own desperate search for a place to hold on; a place he belongs; a place he doesn’t have to know the name of to call his own.
In this surprisingly disorienting list, Hemingway calls into question the very nature of order in a “fragmented” world. Because the reader can relate to Jake’s sense of oriented disorientation (for lack of a better phrase), one does not have to rely on covert symbolism and speculation to divine the character’s intentions. The characters in this story seem to be victims, in a sense, of their own subconscious intentions – the city itself, in all its perfect, imperfect, and ultimately absolutely physical glory, serves as an almost overwhelmingly obvious symbolic route by which Hemingway’s characters are expressed.