Emphasis in the considerable body of criticism in print on The Sun Also Rises rests with the cynicism and world-weariness to be found in the novel. Although Lionel Trilling in 1939 afforded his readers a salutary, corrective view, most commentators have found the meaning inherent in the pattern of the work despairing. Perhaps most outspoken is E. M. Halliday, who sees Jake Barnes as adopting "a kind of desperate caution" as his modus vivendi. Halliday concludes that the movement of the novel is a movement of progressive "emotional insularity" and that the novel's theme is one of "moral atrophy." ["Hemingway's Narrative Perspective," in Sewanee Review, 1952.] In his "The Death of Love in The Sun Also Rises," Mark Spilka finds a similarly negative meaning in the novel. Thus Spilka arrives at the position that in naming "the abiding earth" as the hero of the novel, Hemingway was "perhaps wrong... or at least misleading." [ Twelve Original Essays on Great American Novels, 1958.]
But if Hemingway was misleading in so identifying the novel's hero, he was misleading in a fashion consistent with his "misleading" choice of epigraph from Ecclesiastes and consistent with the "misleading" pattern he incorporated in the text of his novel. Far from indicating insularity and moral atrophy, the novel evidences circularity and moral retrenching. Much Hemingway criticismalways excepting Trilling'sdemonstrates the reaction of conventional wisdom to healthy subversion of that brand of wisdom. Hence the often truly sad gulf which Trilling laments between the pronouncements of Hemingway "the man" and the artistically indirect achievement of Hemingway "the artist" ["Hemingway and His Critics," Partisan Review, 1939.] Jake Barnes, to deal with the central character of but one of Hemingway's novels, is far more than the "desperately cautious" mover through life which Halliday calls him. Like the Biblical Preacher, Jake is a worldly wise accepter of the nature of the human condition. That condition is, to be sure, a predicament, for as Hemingway more than once baldly stated, life is tragic. But recognition of the tragic nature of life is by no means necessarily a cause for despair. If any readers of The Sun Also Rises become misdirected, they are certainly not misled by Hemingway.
The opening verses of the Book of Ecclesiastes are ambiguous, and the individual reader's responses to these and subsequent verses are varied. One must assume that Hemingway found the dominant tone of Ecclesiastes right for his artistic purposes, but one hastens to recognize the distinct possibility that that overall tone is not one of world-weariness (although the temptation to think so is great at many junctures) but of worldly wisdom. In reading the epigraph from Ecclesiastes which Hemingway provides, one is struck by the omission of all occurrences of "Vanity of Vanities." Most Hemingway critics appear to regard these omissions as ironically absent, as evidence, that is, of Hemingway's application of his celebrated "iceberg" principlein this instance of a knowledge shared between the author and reader of the bulk of the iceberg which floats beneath the surface. But is it not just as likely that the omissions are made not in the service of irony, but quite simply in the service of exclusion? The so-called "Hemingway Code" is designed, I suggest, not to provide a means of survival in a life which is a vain endeavor to discover meaning, but rather to provide a means of survival which itself is meaning. This I take to be the import of that passage in the novel, so readily identified as important, but so potentially "misleading," in which Jake thinks,
You paid some way for everything that was any good. I paid my way into enough things that I like, so that I had a good time. Either you...