In the real world, Ernest Hemmingway’s relationship with the fairer sex was contentious at best. From an early age, Hemmingway associated feminine influence with the painful constraints of civilized society. He professed to hate his mother, who he resented for forcing him to learn the cello. His first adult relationship was with Agnes von Kruowsky, a Red Cross nurse who unexpectedly left him for an Italian officer, a painful experience which Hemmingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers claims was the formative influence on Hemmingway’s later pattern in romantic relationships of avoiding emotional entanglements, and leaving women before they had a chance to abandon him.
The women of The Sun Also Rises are microcosmic literary expressions of what is evidently Hemmingway’s powerfully internalized misogyny. They are fickle and narcissistic, using men for their money, social position, or for affirmation of their own sexual power. There is no exchange of love, no possibility of a relationship between equals, because the women of the sun also rises aren’t really women at all. They are the voiceless reification of Hemmingway’s fundamental fear of women, and the power of female sexuality.
Lady Brett Ashley is, in many ways, the perfect example of Hemmingway’s paranoid conception of what it is to be a twenty first century woman. She uses men the way Hemmingway uses women, for inspiration and confirmation of her own sexual appeal, tossing them aside when they’ve served their purpose. Her relationship with Jake is special not because she feels differently or more strongly towards him, but because they are physically unable to consummate their relationship, or, at least, are unable to have the sort of traditional, penetrative sex that would force Brett to confront her own basic femininity, at least temporarily. Jake’s injury keeps their relationship in a sort of limbo, where Jake is called upon to act as Brett’s “wife” surrendering all agency to be at her beck and call, only to be abandoned by her again and again for more virile, masculine men. Brett also seems to be explicitly modeled Agnes, as Jake tells Cohen they met when, “She was a V.A.D. in a hospital I was in during the war.”
Although she is a minor character, Frances is equally emblematic of Hemmingway’s anxiety towards women. Jake says of Frances, “…When (Frances) saw magazine was not going to rise…she decided she might as well get what there was to get while there was still something available.” While Frances is more pathetic and unsuccessful in her machinations than Brett is (her failure seems to be a question of age and seriousness rather than intrinsic appeal), she has similar motivations in her relationship with Robert. Frances, like Brett, is a soulless automaton, determined to exploit the men in her life for all they’re worth. Again, there is no question of emotional involvement beyond Frances’ fear of her own diminishing sexual power.
Hemmingway’s one nod to feminism’s emerging consciousness of the problems women face is a highly ironic exchange between Brett and Jake, just before Brett goes off with Pedro Romero. Brett is behaving badly, in a stereotypically masculine fashion, leaving all the men who love her to chase after a piece of young tail with no regard to the consequences. She has a moment of clarity, telling Jake, “I do feel such a bitch,” but seems more concerned with her reputation than the effect her behavior is having on Jake. In this context, Brett’s “My God!…The things a woman goes through!” is a parody of the traditional idea of feminine distress, rather than any sort of acknowledgement of the problems women really were facing in Paris after the Great War.
While it is practically impossible to tell how much of The Sun Also Rises is autobiographical, Hemmingway was a highly personal author, who drew much of his fiction’s content from experience. Through a personalized reading, it is obvious that the women in The Sun Also Rises are an expression of a deep-seated insecurity about shifting gender roles felt both by Hemmingway, and an entire generation of young men after the Great War. Lady Ashley’s antics are no longer the narcissistic ditherings of an individual, but a projection of the anxieties of a generation of disenfranchised men.