There is only one main female character in The Sun Also Rises, and the men circle around Brett like bees to honey, creating an atmosphere of rivalry between the male characters. The competition between the men is won and lost in different, often unpredictable, ways. Sometimes it is physical vigor that wins out, in the case of Romero. But sometimes physical strength is a liability. Robert Cohn strikes out at Mike, Bill and Romero, overpowering them physically, but later is found alone and crying. For men in The Sun Also Rises, to win seems impossible.
In this way, The Sun Also Rises shows how men have been changed by the experience of war, and World War I in particular. Honor, courage, stoicism, glory—none of these traditional masculine traits meant a thing huddled in the trenches as mortars fall from the sky. There was no glorious clash of skill between two warriors. There were just men getting cut down by machine gun fire in a futile effort to move their trench forward another inch. All of the men have been damaged by the war, their sense of selves demolished because none of what they were taught about themselves as men seems to apply any more, and they are all made so insecure by this loss that they can't even discuss it. The cruelty of the men toward Cohn emerges not just because Cohn is so obviously acting in non-manly ways in his desperate pursuit of Brett, but rather because the men know that they themselves, secretly, are just as unmanned. Jake himself is a symbol of all of these dynamics of masculinity and insecurity. He has literally, physically been emasculated by a genital injury in the war, but that injury is never directly mentioned by anyone. Brett's behavior further brings into play the idea or value of manliness. Just as the men display traditionally feminine behavior, Brett, with her short haircut, bantering conversation, and constant desire for sex, is the most traditionally "masculine" character in the novel, and the fact that she comes off as something of a heartless monster raises questions about whether those traditional manly virtues were even virtues at all. And yet, without them, what are the men?
Masculinity and Insecurity ThemeTracker
Masculinity and Insecurity Quotes in The Sun Also Rises
"Nobody ever lives life all the way up except bull-fighters"
– Cohn and Jake