Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Is The Sun Also Rises antisemitc?....some preliminary thoughts

One of my all-time favorite novels is Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. But one of the main characters of the novel, Robert Cohn, is built around an antisemitic stereotype, and most of the other characters indulge in antisemitic assaults against Cohn. (Hollywood's version politely excised most of the antisemitic references.) For a cataloguing of the antisemitic instances, see this website (it's not comprehensive, but it at least gives an overview).

Is it accurate to call this novel "antisemitic"? I really don't have a firm answer.

It seems to me that the antisemitism of the novel is more than just incidental. In other words, I think the story depends on the antisemitic tropes and that the characters' antisemitism is integral to who they are. The story wouldn't be the same story without the antisemitism. (In contrast, there is a little bit of anti-black racism as well. The narrator and main character, Jake Barnes, uses the "n" word several times to describe black people. In my view, those instances could probably be excised from the book without changing the main flow of the story while excising all the antisemitic references would substantially change the story.)

One of the arguments against calling the novel antisemitic--and an argument which I've read somewhere, but cannot right now find the citation for--is that Hemingway was merely detailing a group of wasp-ish people for whom antisemitism was a matter of course. By this argument, the antisemitism of the novel would be comparable to the racism in any novel about racists. If an author's characters are racist, he or she has to portray them saying racist things. And, of course, The Sun Also Rises is written in the first person, so it's hard, if not impossible to tease the racism of the narrator (Jake Barnes) from the racist message, if any, of the novel.

Still, I have a sneaking suspicion that the antisemitism in the novel is more than just a character representation. I, however, cannot put my finger on it.


Laura(southernxyl) said...

Have not read that - I am not a Hemingway sort of person.

But I do wonder about things like that in novels that were written before enlightenment, so to speak. I asked the question once, on a blog frequented by many black women, how they responded when they came across the n-word in vintage literature. Did they overlook it? Throw the book across the room? Make allowances, but also not recommend the book to anyone? Should those words be changed, if they are really jarring, i.e., coming from a character who is not racist and would not say such a thing today? All said that they would overlook it, and that no, the words should not be changed. But I'm still not sure.

theolderepublicke said...

Thanks for the comment, Laura.

I guess my concern with the Sun Also Rises is that the antisemitic references appear not to be merely incidental, but integral to the story, so that excising the words would change the story dramatically.

It's all compounded by the fact that Sun is one of my favorite novels.