Though seldom mentioned, World War I hangs like a shadow over the characters in The Sun Also Rises. The war devastated Europe, wiping away empires and long-standing governments. Similarly, its brutal trench warfare and machine-driven killing made clear to all of its participants that the long-standing ideals of honor, courage, and stoicism were hollow and meaningless, as were the national identities that drove the countries of Europe to war in the first place. In short, the war changed all those who experienced it, and those who came of age during the war became known as "the lost generation." Through Jake and his friends and acquaintances, The Sun Also Rises depicts members of this lost generation.
Jake and his friends believe in very little. While in some ways this is liberating, it is also depicted as a loss. In losing their belief in the ideals, structures, and nationalism that drove self-identity in the time before the WWI, they seem to have lost some core of themselves. The characters are always restless, always wandering, looking for a constant change of scenery, as if looking for an escape. They would prefer to live in America than Europe, but for some reason they don't leave. The characters have made themselves expatriates, disconnected from their home, sampling the cultures of Europe without ever joining them. There is a sense that Jake and his generation don't belong anywhere. Though many of Jake's friends have occupations, in writing and editing, these jobs don't seem to have regular hours and none of them are accountable to any boss or location. The characters spend their time socializing, drinking, dancing, and playing games. Though these activities are usually seen as youthful pursuits, in such endless repetition they become empty and wearying, and part of a vicious cycle in which the characters are always thinking of the next escape. Of all the characters, only Cohn seems to not fit this description of a lost generation. He has an identity forced on him: he's Jewish. And he has ideals—romantic, perhaps silly ideals—but still ideals. It's not a coincidence that he is the only male character in the novel not to have experienced the war first hand. Yet in the course of the novel even Cohn betrays his ideals, suggesting that while the loss of belief in the old systems is a terrible personal loss, it also just may be a more accurate view of the world.
The Lost Generation ThemeTracker
The Lost Generation Quotes in The Sun Also Rises
"Nobody ever lives life all the way up except bull-fighters"
– Cohn and Jake
"Yes," I said; "something doing all the time."
"You wouldn't believe it. It's like a wonderful nightmare."
"Sure," I said. "I'd believe anything. Including nightmares."
– Bill and Jake
"Yes," I said. "Isn't it pretty to think so?"