Although much of mainstream academia dismisses Hemingway as anti-Semitic one should consider looking into the the time, culture, and the experiences Hemingway had to understand Hemingway’s motivations behind his portrayal of Jewish people
The Jewish character in the story is Robert Cohn. Cohn is given a mix of positive and negative characteristics. For one, he had an Ivy League education and came from “one of the richest Jewish families in New York.”(Hemingway 3). On the other hand, we are told that he was “married by the first girl that was nice to him.” and that his later partner Frances swas very exploitative and possessive. (Hemingway 4). Cohn is modeled after Harold Loeb, a Jewish colleague and rival of Hemingway. He was doing better financially and had slept with some attractive women. As such, in Hemingway’s eyes he possessed power that he did not have and he was naturally jealous.
Hemingway used Robert Cohn as a character to blow off steam and resentment for the more successful man. Hemingway blends a bit of truth with lies to increase his credibility to reduce the risk of being accused of being jealous. Cohn some amazing things such as beating up Jake (Hemingway 100) and sleeping with Lady Brett (Hemingway 96). Literary Critic, Wolfgang E.H. Rudat asserts that Hemingway’s portrayal of Robert Cohn and creation of the viciously anti-Semitic Jake Barnes is a result of Hemingway wanting to create a dynamic where he could subtly reveal his changing thoughts. Furthermore, it should be noted that Jake Barnes, the narrator is presented as a “complete ass” to the audience possibly to get back at his writing rival Harold Loeb. It could be argued the narrator as smokescreen to dissociate himself from the bigotry in the novel ( Rudat 272). In this way he can let out his deepest and darkest thoughts and prejudices and be able to turn around and blame his character for it.
Readers should note that the Sun Also Rises was written at a time when racist comments were commonplace. Rudat asserts that Hemingway was a “historical result, no better or worse than the Amrica in which he was raised.”(Rudat 1). So, because Zeitgeist was radically different at the time we should not throw Hemingway under the bus for his alleged racism. Back in the day or even today unfortunately, minority groups are scapegoated for the problems of the majority. In the early 20th century Jews were not considered white and as result faced extreme prejudice and bias. In much of his narrative, Hemingway associates Cohn’s negative characteristics as Jewish. For example, Jake comments: ‘He had a hard, Jewish, stubborn streak.’ When Cohn refused to give up the plan to take a trip to South America.
Notice Jake describes Cohn as not just stubborn, but Jewish and Stubborn. Another example of this is when Cohn is told to stop acting “superior and Jewish” when he appears to know more than bill and Jake. The men also describe Cohn as a Jew and once a kike, which is derogatory term for a Jewish person. This labelling creates a us vs them mentality which makes it easier to bully someone without feeling any guilt. We see this recurring theme of where if somebody does not like something about Cohn, they have to relate his negative traits to his ethnicity. Also, a lot of the anti-Semitism in the Sun Also Rises is rooted in the jealousy of the other men for Brett. This could be paralleled to the Jealousy Hemingway experienced when Harold Loeb slept with an attractive socialite (Rudat 265). The men cannot stand the fact that Brett slept with a Jew, someone who they consider an outsider. For example, mike says that there is trouble when Brett dates bad sorts of people, like Jews and bull fighters (Hemingway 107). It’s obvious that Mike hates the bull fighters as Romero is better at courting ladies and Cohn simply because he is a Jew.
Brett could also be described as an anti-Semite but she is generally not as direct as the men. Many would say her attitude is simply xenophobia. Brett complains about having Cohn, a Jew, spend time with her. She didn’t mind the count, Mike, or Jake, but Cohn was different (Hemingway 96). Furthermore, Brett describes her time with Cohn as something that had to be wiped away by another partner. It is as though Cohn left a baggage behind him, and Brett needed to get rid of it. (Hemingway 126). Once Brett got extremely bad and contemptuously called Cohn a “damned Jew.” (Hemingway 96). Almost every character in the Sun Also Rises is anti-Semitic and that may be indicative to the time at which this book was written.
Critics of Hemingway should note that Robert Cohn is not the stereotypical Jew. As such, charges of antisemitic stereotypes should be rendered invalid. Even though he is portrayed as less than masculine, he does have some extremely masculine attributes that make him stand out. He was the middleweight boxing champion at Princeton, slept with an attractive socialite, and beat up Jake Barnes,who constantly belittled Cohn for his masculinity, ironically. When Jakes gets beat up says to himself,. “He hit me and I sat down on the pavement. As I started to get on my feet he hit me twice. I went down backward under a table. I tried to get up and felt I did not have any legs.” (Hemingway 100). Jake bullies Cohn constantly over the story belittling his masculinity and ridiculing him for his background. Eventually, Robert Cohn gets fed up with Jakes treatment of him and knocks him out when he refused to tell him where Brett was. This shows a huge shift in power dynamics. Once a shy and insecure man beats up his bully. This situation goes to show that Hemingway is not conforming to anti-Semitic stereotypes commonly used during his time. His character Robert Cohn is unique and one of a kind.
Furthermore, Cohn possess the ability to pleasure women which his bully, Jake, does not. The author makes a big deal about this and ridicules him at very chance he gets. The point of this is that Robert Cohn is not the only character being bullied in this novel.
Many people would argue that the sun also rises would be a reflection of Hemingway’s thoughts and feelings at the time. He sublimates “his personal resentment through a series of linguistic games.” His narrative reveals a lot about him that he would not like to admit directly. With a few deep readings the reader can figure out or at least guess at what Hemingway is thinking.