Hemingway, Qoheleth And Searching For The Meaning Of Life


Hemingway picked up on this, even though he may not have been religious. In his famous book “The Sun Also Rises,” he understood that the pursuit of meaning in life is frustrating and intricate. The book’s prologue opens with two remarks from historical figures. The first is Hemingway’s contemporary, Gertrude Stein, who told him, “You are all a lost generation,” referring to the group of American expatriates in Paris at the time, including other notable authors like Scott Fitzgerald.

The second remark comes from Qoheleth, or the Preacher, of Ecclesiastes. Hemingway quotes a chunk of text from Ecclesiastes 1:2-7, which speaks about nature running its course and generations appearing and then fading away. 

Hemingway framed the entire novel under these two remarks. However, the religious reader may notice that he seems favored towards the imagery and language of Qoheleth. The Preacher claims and argues that many things in life, such as wealth, honor, self-indulgence and work, are all “vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). While English translations use “vanity” or “meaningless,” commentator Craig Bartholomew prefers the word “enigmatic,” while the original Hebrew word, “hebel,” means “vapor” on its own.

In fact, both Qoheleth and Hemingway seem to warn against throwing God out of the window. For example, one of Qoheleth’s claims is not that life is necessarily meaningless — but that its meaning is incredibly difficult to discern given that much of what human beings do and enjoy seems to be devoid of long-lasting meaning or satisfaction. This is what Hemingway brilliantly illustrates in “The Sun Also Rises.” His characters, especially Jake, Brett and Cohn, seem to be running around aimlessly between parties, cafes and bars in Spain and France — yet consistently retain forms of frustration or anger. They are never satisfied with what they do. This imagery echoes the Preacher’s refrain throughout Ecclesiastes that everything is hebel. 

For example, in Chapter 2, Robert Cohn approaches Jake Barnes (also the narrator), proposing an excursion to South America. A worried Cohn tells Jake how he doesn’t think he’s taking advantage of his life. In Cohn’s own words, he asks Jake: “Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you’ve lived nearly half the time you have to live already?”

Jake sternly replies: “Listen Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.”

This seems to parallel Qoheleth’s claim that God “put eternity into man’s heart” (3:11) or at least that man has a deeper purpose and end than Cohn is suggesting. This is also exemplified, perhaps most explicitly, through the character of Brett Ashley, Jake and Cohn’s love interest. In two instances, both after dancing at cafes or bars, Brett tells Jake, “Darling … (I’m) so miserable.”

Brett, who is engaged to Michael in the novel, deliberately engages romantically with Jake and Cohn and has an affair with a bullfighter later on in the novel. Yet despite her romantic life in addition to all the parties, cafes and travel, she seems to be one of the most miserable characters in the book. 

Jake grapples with the meaning of life, which is one of the central themes in Hemingway’s book. Some of the secondary characters seem to have a better understanding on the topic than Jake and most of his friends. When Jake and his friend Bill go out to the town of Burguete to fish, Bill tells him over breakfast what’s amiss.

“You’re an expatriate,” he says. “You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.”

The part of Ecclesiastes which Hemingway cites foreshadows what Bill explicitly tells Jake in chapter 12 and what the author tugs at throughout the story. In 1:8, Qoheleth notes that all things are “full of weariness,” and that “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.”

Bartholomew notes that the earth experiences permanence, but mankind does not: “A generation comes, and a generation goes,” yet nothing permanent seems to be achieved or acquired by mankind (1:4). 

“Amid this circularity nothing final seems to be achieved,” Bartholomew writes. “Although the streams flow into the sea, it is never full, and the process is endless. So too it is with human experience; as much as the eye can observe and the ear take in, there seem to be no final answers from these sources of seeing and listening to the programmatic question. Hence Qohelet’s conclusion at the outset of verse 8.”

While Hemingway and Qoheleth use different language, it seems like they are drawing the same conclusion in that if one’s view of life is temporal, then all one’s endeavors will have an undertone of emptiness. Despite all the exciting things Jake and his friends do, life still seems monotonous, and things that seem new get old very quickly. One may live for pleasure, for work or for the weekend, but they all come to an end. Monday always rolls back around.

Jake, Cohn, Brett and their friends spend a week at the Fiesta de San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain, and this embodies this message. Unless the reader pays careful attention, it’s easy to forget that the characters are at a world-renowned fiesta and not strolling about the streets of Paris. Their activities remain largely the same, and so do the tension, frustration and aimlessness of the group. 

Jake begins to realize this toward the end of the novel, while laying drunk on his bed. He notes that “outside in the square the fiesta was going on. It did not mean anything.” 

Hemingway’s blunt language in the opening of the following chapter reflects this and Qoheleth’s words concerning the endless, monotonous cycle of human affairs.

“In the morning it was all over,” he begins, talking about the fiesta. “This fiesta was finished. … The square was empty and there were no people on the streets. A few children were picking up rocket-sticks in the square. The cafes were just opening and the waiters were carrying out the comfortable white wicker chairs and arranging them around the marble topped tables. … They were sweeping the streets and sprinkling them with a hose.”

Pamplona had returned exactly to how it was before the fiesta. Someone who walked into the town would have never guessed that a week-long party had just taken place. Hemingway could rephrase Ecclesiastes 1:4 into his own words, perhaps saying, “A fiesta goes, and a fiesta comes, but Pamplona remains the same regardless.”

Later, at the very end of the novel, Brett remarks to Jake that they would have been much happier had they been together the whole time.

Jake replies, “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so?”

In saying this, Jake seems to accept that this mildly comforting conjecture is far removed from the reality he’s experienced in the book. Brett would no more solve the problem he’s seeing than going to South America. 

“The Sun Also Rises” subtly, yet brilliantly, reflects the inherent human desire and search for lasting meaning and satisfaction, which was explicitly examined by Qoheleth thousands of years before.

Hemingway seems to recontextualize Qoheleth’s claims into the early 20th century. Just as the cyclic fiestas of Pamplona leave the town unchanged, so too human endeavors, when viewed under a materialistic and temporal lens, lead to a sense of emptiness.

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