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Writing About Fiction: A Critical Essay on Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"


Writing About Fiction: A Critical Essay on Hemingway's

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

In this short critical essay (approximately 1,000 words) about Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises (titled Fiesta in Great Britain), the author demonstrates how minor characters shed light on some of the conflicts experienced by the protagonist, Jake Barnes. The title of the essay offers an allusion to the last line of John Milton's sonnet "On His Blindness": "They also serve who only stand and wait." Notice that the essay is based on a close reading of the novel and does not rely on secondary sources.

"They Also Serve . . .": The Waiter in The Sun Also Rises

A Sample Critical Essay on a Novel

To keep Jake Barnes drunk, fed, clean, mobile, and distracted in The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway employs a large retinue of minor functionaries: maids, cab drivers, bartenders, porters, tailors, bootblacks, barbers, policemen, and one village idiot. But of all the retainers seen working quietly in the background of the novel, the most familiar figure by far is the waiter. In cafés from Paris to Madrid, from one sunrise to the next, over two dozen waiters deliver drinks and relay messages to Barnes and his compatriots. As frequently in attendance and as indistinguishable from one another as they are, these various waiters seem to merge into a single emblematic figure as the novel progresses. A detached observer of human vanity, this figure does more than serve food and drink: he serves to illuminate the character of Jake Barnes.

On a number of occasions, Jakes expresses a sympathetic awareness of the waiters around him. For instance, after dining with Brett and the count at the restaurant in the Bois, Jake recognizes that the two waiters standing by the door "wanted to go home" (61). Likewise, on the French train crowded with pilgrims, Jake discourages Bill from teasing the overworked waiter, saying, "No. He's too tired" (88). It is fitting that Jake should identify, at least implicitly, with waiters. Like them, he is a reticent and passive observer, carrying out routines with emotional detachment. For the waiters, of course, such detachment is merely professional decorum. For Jake, however, emotional detachment is a means of protection, a method for coping with life.

One way that Jake maintains his composure is to substitute objective observations for emotional responses. His ritualistic descriptions of waiters doing their work often serves this purpose, as in the conclusion to the scene in the Bar Milano. Ignoring the warnings of Montoya, Jake has set Brett up with Pedro Romero:

When I came back and looked in the café, twenty minutes later, Brett and Romero were gone. The coffee-glasses and our three empty cognac-glasses were on the table. A waiter came with a cloth and picked up the glasses and mopped off the table. (187)
By focusing on this image of cleansing and reordering--of a waiter clearing up the mess made by others--Jake displaces whatever feelings of remorse, shame, and envy he may have.

On occasion, however, a waiter may be seen to dramatize rather than displace Jake's feelings. After leaving the Bar Milano, Jake goes to the Café Suizo, where he is knocked out cold by Robert Cohn. After being revived, he again offers a parting view: "I looked back at them and at the empty tables. There was a waiter sitting at one of the tables with his head in his hands" (192). As an image of weariness, this is hardly unusual: it's late and the waiter is tired. But the image of head in hands may suggest something more, particularly as observed by a man whose own head is "a little wobbly" (192). It may be seen as a tableau dramatizing Jake's own exhaustion, pain, shame, and despair.

Concluded on page two

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