“Let’s get two bottles,” I said. The bottle came. I poured a little in my glass, then a glass for Brett, then filled my glass. We touched glasses.
“Bung-o!” Brett said. I drank my glass and poured out another. Brett put her hand on my arm.
“Don’t get drunk, Jake,” she said. “You don’t have to.”
“How do you know?”
“Don’t” she said. “You’ll be all right.”
The literary scholar will recognize the snippet above as part of The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. One of my commitments for 2008 has been to submerge myself into some of the classics which I have never read before. So far this year, I have tackled Madame Bovary, Tom Sawyer and now The Sun Also Rises. On the shelf, I have other classics waiting for me, books by Jane Austen, Jack London and Charles Dickens.
Though I have read other Hemingway novels—The Old Man And The Sea and To Have And Have Not—this was the first time to read this classic story. Since it is widely considered his best, I chose it ahead of For Whom The Bell Tolls and A Farwell To Arms, both of which are also on my shelf. For me, Hemingway’s style is too choppy. I personally like sentences that flow like a smooth river, gentle to the mind, relaxing to the soul. Laura Lippman’s prose comes to mind. Jonathan King and James Lee Burke are other writers whose style agrees with my eyes. But this is not to trash Hemingway. In his book, I found characters so deep and rich the author never had to specifically tell the reader what the problems were. He let the characters live them out. Furthermore, there was not a single halo in the bunch. Not one. Every character had their flaws. The bankrupt cheapskate, who sponges off of everyone. The love struck man with a false impression of the world and a fiery temper. A woman so hungry for love that she sleeps with just about anyone. And then there is Jake, a man with so much pain that he tries to drink it away.
As writers, we love flawed characters. We don’t want harps and wings or horns and pitchforks. We want characters that have both redemptive and destructive traits. In short we want people who are so brutally written, so honest and pure, that our readers can relate to them. Hemingway gave his readers just that.
The problem though, as one friend put it lately, is how to present a character that is not too flawed, reckless or destructive that people don’t have compassion for them. Honestly, I first thought Hemingway had gone too far with the debauchery. Scene after scene, there was so much wine and booze I was left wondering: Can people really drink like this? And why all the drinking, anyway? By the end of the novel, though, I got it. And in that revelation, I gained the pity and compassion that my friend wants to achieve with her characters.
Looking back on it, I think the answer to the problem—flawed, but not too flawed—lies within the background. The only way for a reader to connect, to understand why, is to show the reader what has happened previously that drives a character to such destructive behavior. In Jake’s case, there’s the war, the inability to love like he wants, the countless imaginings of his friends and their sex lives. All of it works together, and it helped me to understand who Jake is at a deeper level. The other part of the answer lies in the character's redemptive qualities. At the end of the story, Hemingway blew me away with Brett’s comments. She is the one who is closest to Jake. She knows why he drinks so much. And this time, she doesn't want him to be drunk. Even though I think Brett is a slut, she is such a compassionate slut in this last scene that I have pity for her, too.