Brett Ashley, Lashing Out Against Pain in "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway
Lady Brett Ashley, the main female character in The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, is often accused of being a bitch. On the surface, her actions seem to back up these accusations. She even calls herself a bitch. Upon closer reading though, one can argue against these accusations. Lady Brett Ashley is in fact not a bitch. She is a mixed up, lost, lonely woman caught in a downward spiral towards destruction.
Brett Ashley is a beautiful woman. The narrator, Jake Barnes, describes her beauty when he says, “Brett was damned good-looking. She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey” (Hemingway 31). All the men that meet her are enamored with her. For example, Robert Cohn looks at her as a “compatriot must have looked when he saw the promised land” (Hemingway 29).
Beauty on the outside...
Her beauty and personality attract many men throughout the story. Brett seems to use these men that she attracts and then seems to throw them away. She acts badly towards all of the men that she is with. She verbally puts them down and casts them aside when she wants to move on to another. She does this to Jake Barnes, Robert Cohn, the count, Mike Campbell, and finally to Pedro Romero. For example, when she is out with the count, she has a sudden desire to go visit Jake. She drags the count across town to Jake’s flat where she proceeds to ignore him. At one point, she even sends him out to get some champagne, as if he were her servant. She brushes Robert Cohn aside when they first meet. He is captivated by Brett, and he wants to dance with her. She brushes him aside saying that she has her dance saved for Jake and then they are leaving. In Pamplona, Brett has an open affair with Romero that she doesn’t even attempt to hide from her fiancé, Mike Campbell. Jake is the man she treats the worst though. She knows that he loves her and will do anything for her. She uses Jake for comfort, support, and to get things that she wants; she uses Jake as a pimp. Over and over, Brett takes men in and then casts them aside.
Towards the end of the novel, Brett refers to herself as a bitch. Many readers respond as Jake does, they don’t correct her self-condemnation. This denunciation of Brett is the easy way out. I believe that the reader needs to look at the situation from Brett’s point of view.
A woman full of pain...
Brett has not had an easy adult life. She served as a nurse in World War I, so she was exposed to the horrors of war. While in service, she lost her true love to the war. She later married Lord Ashley who traumatized her further. As Mike Campbell states,
Ashley, chap she got the title from, was a sailor, you know. Ninth baronet. When he came home he wouldn’t sleep in bed. Always made Brett sleep on the floor. Finally, when he got really bad, he used to tell her he’d kill her. Always slept with a loaded service revolver. Brett used to take the shells out when he’d gone to sleep. She hasn’t had an absolutely happy life (Hemingway 207).
The misfortunes in her life have made Brett into the woman we see in The Sun Also Rises. Her self-abuse is more severe than the hurt she places on others. Her self-destructive behavior has her in a downward spiral heading straight for rock bottom. We see evidence of this in the behaviors she displays throughout the novel. She, like many of the characters, is an alcoholic, and she is a nymphomaniac. She is also constantly bathing, suggesting that she is trying to wash away those things she can’t drown in alcohol or sex.
Don't judge a book by it's cover...
The alcoholism is an escape for Brett from the pain she suffers. She still suffers the pain from her past. She also suffers the pain of loving Jake Barnes. She is in love with him, but because of his wound, she can never have him and love him in the way that she desires. The alcohol isn’t enough for her though. Her numerous sexual encounters show that she is also trying to find love in other places where deep down she knows it doesn’t exist. The constant bathing shows an obsession for Brett to wash away the pain and the guilt she feels for the life she is leading. In his essay, “Bitches and Other Simplistic Assumptions,” Roger Withlow address this point with, “As psychiatrist Eric Berne points out, guilty people feel a compulsion to provide themselves with punishment; they almost always ‘set the stage’ constantly providing themselves with the punishment that their mental states require” (154).
In the end of the novel, Brett leaves Romero. She set her eyes on Romero in Pamplona. She had to have him even though she knew that it wasn’t the right thing to do. She used Jake as a pimp in order to get Romero. Once in Madrid however, she leaves Romero who has offered to marry her. One could look at this situation as another excuse to call her a bitch. However, Withlow suggests, and I agree, that Brett is finally taking the right action in this case. He says,
Brett is better than she wants to think herself, however, for this time she would not be causing discomfort to someone who deserves it (like Cohn and Mike Campbell) or to someone who consistently asks for it (like Jake). To hurt Romero would be a bitch-like act, and she cannot do it (Withlow 155).
Lady Brett Ashley is not a bitch. She is a woman full of pain. Her low self-esteem and guilt have caused her to enter into a self destructive lifestyle where she continually punishes herself. It is true that she hurts many people along the way as she lashes out in pain, but she hurts herself even more.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954.
Withlow, Roger. “Bitches and Other Simplistic Assumptions.” Brett Ashley. Harold Bloom, editor. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991. Pgs. 148 -156.
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© 2012 Donna Hilbrandt