Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Whiteness and the Rejected Other in the Sun Also Rises

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Whiteness and the Rejected Other in the Sun Also Rises

Article excerpt

Work in the field of whiteness studies commonly treats white racial identity in terms of its constructed quality and the privileges unfairly rewarded to white people. The prevalent critical standpoint is thus that whites work to protect whiteness. In contrast, this essay will focus on a white literary character--authored, perhaps surprisingly, by Ernest Hemingway--who rejects particular dominant versions of whiteness. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes has often, and rightly, been treated as a conflicted protagonist attempting to strike a balance between pre- and postwar narratives to endure a meaningless world. In this light, he can be read as a figure of hybridity who mixes identities to avoid claiming allegiance to any one totalizing narrative. Ultimately, it is the Basque peasants, situated sufficiently outside and within the center, to whom Hemingway has Jake turn as a viable Other to give his world meaning. But rather than concentrate on how this Spanish Other is represented in the novel, I wish to interrogate those forms of marginality Jake withdraws from, specifically Jews and homosexuals.

Jake is easily read as anti-Semitic and homophobic, but by examining how "whiteness" is used to denote a privileged economic and social class we can move closer to a more nuanced understanding of Hemingway's intentions as subversive, though hardly without paradox. What follows is not necessarily to be taken as an apologia intent on clearing Hemingway, or Jake, of charges of homophobia or racism; however, I do intend to complicate the way Hemingway is today so easily written off in American literary studies--put on exhibit as a fossilized exemplar of all that is wrong with the canon. Hemingway's evaluation and fictional treatment of forms of otherness according to a rejected notion of centered whiteness reveals a complicated critical politics existing simultaneously with prejudice. Jake's convoluted identity quest allows us to see how marginality is deployed by Hemingway, and Jake's refusal of particular othered identities exposes something other than a facile bigotry.

Michael Harper argues that Hemingway has a "preoccupation with characters who exist on the fringes of society ... [and] it is among the outcast and the despised, the incompletely or unsuccessfully `socialized,' that an alternative has the best chance of flourishing."(1) In the relationship Hemingway has with various marginal identities and the enter this idea is both tree and untrue. As a character in transition and exploring options of subjectivity, Jake's beliefs and practices are underpinned by politics. The anti-Semitism voiced in the novel has always been problematic for readers, and recent critical interest in Jake's homophobia has reopened the issue of how forms of otherness--women, Jews, gays, and blacks--are approached by Hemingway. But Robert Stephens' rationale for the plot's exclusion of certain characters calls attention to the fact that white, Christian, heterosexual men and women are equally guilty of breaking the Hemingway code:

   The outsiders are those like Robert Cohn, Mrs. Braddocks, Robert Prentiss,
   the artist Zizi, the bal musette homosexuals, and the Paris and Pamplona
   tourists who are unhaunted by nada, have no real cause for rebellion
   against their societies, and are messy and undisciplined as they imitate
   without comprehension the actions of the insiders.(2)

Of course, these are specific characters with specific narrative functions--to express ideas through word and action--but it is a mistake to disregard how some social types are given more degrading duties than others. The narrative snipes directed at those occupying certain socially marginal subject positions exhibit a bias more attuned to a mindset of the past than any supposed freedom of progressive modern thought. To understand the criterion Jake uses to determine the forms of marginality worth appropriating it is necessary to analyze the groups chosen to portray the negative side of the Lost Generation. …

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