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Analyzing Subconscious Themes in Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"

Luke Holm earned bachelor degrees in English and Philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.

WWI: The Pain of Being a Man

During WWI, life in the United States was much different than it is today. Gender roles were changing for the first time in America: women were leaving the home and entering into a male dominated society, and men went from provider to protector. While women were settling quite nicely into their new social statuses and positions, men were faced with more of a unique struggle. Men were seen as men only if they went off to fight like a valiant war hero for their country. Men who did not go oversea to fight became sub-par both on the scale of manhood and in the eyes of the current society.

In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, there is a hint of underlying jealousy for those who had success in the war. At the time, both authors were rejected the opportunity to achieve war hero status. This crushed both men, for according to their society they were no longer deemed worthy to bear the title "man". Both constantly felt the pain of their rejection; it was a constant reminder of their failure to become a hero. In order to cope with their humiliation they had to create an outlet in which they could poetically display their emotional state. As a result to their emotional outlet, they created the two main characters Jake and Nick, who were in a sense their literary voodoo dolls.

As they wrote their novels, Hemingway and Fitzgerald began to project their subconscious fears and desires into their fictional characters. Upon closer inspection, the critic finds that this projection is much like William S. Burroughs' projection of the shadow self in his novel Junky. In all instances, the authors use their literature to cope with war-related struggles; whether the struggle be a sense of failure or the feelings of inadequacy in their manhood.

Ernest Hemingway (1918)


The Truth Behind Jake Barnes and Nick Carraway

In attempts to cope with missing out in the “Big Game,”¹ Hemingway and Fitzgerald created their fictional characters, Jake and Nick, as aspects of their subconscious feelings of inadequacy during the WWI era. Because they felt a constant reminder of inadequacy within society, they had to address their state of emotion in some way that would not be too objective, but at the same time as a means to release all their baggage into. “The misery of that experience becomes almost unspeakable, nearly too humiliating to address directly" (Gandal).

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WWI Makes Hemingway Feel Impotent

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway gives Jake an impossible obstacle to overcome: the love and lust to be with Brett, but the hindrance of his impotency. He is impotent from a direct relation to the war. Hemingway reflects his urge to be a hero when he makes Jake injured from battle. Hemingway worked for the Red Cross canteen service–which was all but heroic in his eyes–and often times fabricated a lie that he was hit by shrapnel. Because Jake can never overcome the nightmare he is placed in, Hemingway achieves a sense of integrity, and minimizes his own humiliation through that of Jake’s.

WWI Makes Fitzgerald Feel Jealous

Likewise, in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald relives his jealousy for those who were able to do well in the war. The main character Nick did go to war, but he did not accomplish anything great. However, next to Nick lives a man in a mansion–Jay Gatsby. This juxtaposition relates Fitzgerald’s sense of inadequacy to those who have accomplished their goals in life.

Nick is in awe of Gatsby’s valor both in and out of the war. He is in such admiration of Gatsby, that the question of a “bromance” comes into play. This reflects Fitzgerald’s emotional trouble with society questioning the masculinity of those who did not achieve greatness in the war verses those who did. A further discovery of Fitzgerald’s jealousy as reflected in Nick’s admiration for Gatsby is how Gatsby was a captain in the war. Fitzgerald never makes it to captain, and in fact is labeled, “The world’s worst 2nd Lieutenant” (Gandal).

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1921)


Expressing the Shadow Self Through Literature

In conclusion, in both novels, it is clearly seen how the authors deal with their heartache through the lives of their fictional characters. By coupling a nonfictional setting with fictional characters, they are able to transfer their humiliation into a real-life scenario while still allowing for their influential framework of the characters. If they are able to achieve any solace in their life it will be through their character’s tragedy, because “tragedy is better than embarrassment” (Gandal).

Works Cited

Gandal, The Gun and Pen, 36.

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