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The Theme of PTSD in The Sun Also Rises and in Hemingway’s Life

Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience. She holds degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

“You were happy a minute ago” becomes a theme for all who lived through the horror of World War I (Hemingway, 20). Happiness becomes an allusive dream that is always chased away by fear as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) reveals itself as a major theme in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The main characters in the book, as well as Hemingway himself, reflect textbook symptoms of PTSD after their experiences in The Great War. The ‘Lost Generation’ embodied PTSD and lost themselves in alcohol, sex, and parties and came through in their literature.

The Lost Generation

Writers emerging after World War I (WWI) were labeled the ‘Lost Generation’. This new generation of writers reflected the image of how the war had “destroyed the idea that if you acted virtuously, good things would happen” with the result being “many good, young men went to war and died, or returned home either physically or mentally wounded (for most, both)…” as noted by They found themselves lost and unsure of where they belonged. They had left their homeland bound for the glories of war only to find the glory replaced with gory and seeing how war is an ugly affair. Innocence had been lost and the understanding of the world around them along with it. The result was mental illnesses and emotional trauma not completely understood during the time. The illness prompts them to look for ways to hide their own feelings including a variety of self-destructive methods. Today, many leaving the horrors of war would have been diagnosed with PTSD which is defined by as “an emotional illness that is classified as an anxiety disorder and usually develops as a result of a terribly frightening, life-threatening, or otherwise highly unsafe experience”. Those with PTSD try to avoid feelings that bring up the trauma and find themselves self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, sex, or other addictive actions where they hope to lose themselves.



WWI produced many cases of PTSD including Hemingway who saw death in a whole new light and looked for outlets to release the images and feelings bottled up within. The war resulted in “around 9 million men [losing] their lives in one of the greatest acts of barbarity and futility the world has ever seen” reported by Research has shown an increase in the number of PTSD cases in the wars since WWI and the manic actions of those suffering from it. When Hemingway wrote his ‘Lost Generation’ works, he only knew that there was mental as well as physical anguish that was being addressed through self-destructive acts. It was not pretty, but the world would not accept that yet.


Hemingway's Personal Experience

Hemingway’s own experience in WWI set the foundation of The Sun Also Rises. He had arrived on the front and “after barely a month in the war zone, young Hemingway was blown up by an Austrian trench mortar” (Wagner-Martin 23). The romanticism of war faded quickly as the harsh reality set in. Months of rehab were spent regaining the full use of his legs. It was not easy for the nineteen year old to find himself no longer the glorified soldier but a helpless invalid. Surgery was needed as they “picked many pieces of shrapnel from his legs, and thanks largely to his drinking, he was hit with a case of jaundice” (Stewart 202). The entire experience was hard for a young man barely classified an adult to face.

As a young man, he still sought that picture of glory and tried to make sense of the hell he saw. Men are to be heroes. They are to be strong in any situation. This means that he could have done what many soldiers have done over the years after seeing the ugly side of battle by taking upon himself “the uncomplaining, kidding stoicism expected” as it was the “manly thing, the adult thing, the heroic thing” by not letting others know of the pain, the sorrow, and the horror that was seen (Stewart 201). He had lost his innocence but could protect others from losing theirs. He tried to keep the glory of war in the minds of those who had not been exposed to it while keeping the horror bottled up inside.

Coping Mechanisms

In adopting this nonchalant attitude, Hemingway turned to “a variety of defense mechanisms, including self-medication with alcohol, a lifestyle of aggressive, risk-taking sportsmanship, and writing” (Martin 351). He buried his feelings deeply and took them out through self-destructive acts. In doing so, he found the perfect birth for his writing work.

Hemingway uses alcohol as the main PTSD drug of choice in The Sun Also Rises. It is the “alcohol tendencies of the characters [that] seem to be a result of the dissolution and desolation of the post-World War I period” (Schwarz). One could summarize the book into a story of drinking, partying, and physical relationships. Each of these is used to forget the present, the past, and the future. Hemingway applies these actions to his characters: Cohan, Brett, Jake, and Matt. In the aftermath of the war, “they seek refuge in broken relationships, in changes of scene, in drunkenness and the illusion that, however meager, they can find some pleasure in their brief interludes of time and place” (Djos 66). There is an intense desire to handle what they had seen and felt. They chose ways that would continue to hurt them as they only knew the pain and not the healing that could have been applied.

Character: Robert Cohn

Robert Cohn is a very restless character. Being satisfied where he is in the situation he lives in is something he cannot and will not accept. He wants to move from one country to another. He cannot seem to remain in one place without a sense of going stir-crazy rising up to consume him. Cohn goes to America seeking fame only to return and ask Jake, “Would you like to go to South America, Jake?” (Hemingway 17) Staying in Paris is not satisfactory for Cohn. He only wants “to go back in the country in South America” (18). Leaving where he finds unhappiness is his only answer. It does not take long for Cohn to shift from a conversation about moving from one country to another to falling madly in love with a woman who is not his wife. Lady Ashley, Brett, becomes his next focus in life and change of scenery. His restlessness of the places he calls home extends to relationships and has him abandoning parts of his life to lose himself within these relationships. Jake notices how serious Cohn is in losing himself in Brett as he notices how much Cohn “loved to win at tennis….When he fell in love with Brett his tennis game went all to pieces” (52). He jumps from one relationship to another as smooth as he wants to move from one country to another. It means nothing to him to leave a wife and three children to roam the world (12). It means nothing to watch his second wife rationalize his actions and explain away what will be. She sees him leaving her and tries to make light of it. She knows that Cohn cannot find satisfaction and will move on in a desperate search for it. It is just a part of life that has to be dealt with. Cohn moves on seeking what the other women failed to give him. He is trying to find peace within a woman only to find dissatisfaction and more traumas.

Cohn is also a very emotional man. As Mike, Brett’s fiancé, baits him at one point, all Cohn can respond is, “Shut up….Shut up, Mike….Shut up. You’re drunk….Go to hell, Mike” (146-147). To have his coping mechanisms exposed is something Cohn cannot handle. He has to pretend they are normal and work well for him. To have the man who is where he longs to be try to expose his weaknesses is too much for a man in Cohn’s state to accept.

Cohn cannot stand on his own feet and live in his own world. He makes the world he lives in, yet he cannot accept it. He sees stability in Jake and gravitates toward it. Cohn cannot see Jake’s self-destructive nature or the pain that eats at his soul. Cohn just sees that he has to be around Jake even if it means doing nothing: “Do you mind if I come up and sit around the office?” (20) He just needs to be around Jake. Matts Djos sums Cohn character up with “his insufferable emotionalism, his addiction to self-pity, and his codependent proximity to Jake’s retinue…” (69) is important in Cohn’s survival. Jake is his compass and helps direct him after he veers off course.

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Character: Lady Ashley

Lady Ashley, Brett, is one of the most unique characters in the book. Hemingway has created a very deep and multi-faceted character within this woman. While she “personifies the generic female alcoholic”, she also has the uncanny ability to target “the emotions of any man who will have anything to do with her, hopeful that he will somehow restore the integrity of her womanhood” (Djos 68). She uses men to restore herself. This is ironic as she could point out how it was men who destroyed her. Her PTSD is one of the most intricate.

She has seen so much during the war she has become psychologically damaged on many levels. Charles Nolan defined the source of her PTSD as stemming from her time as a V.A.D. where she “witnessed the horror of that terrible time, including what happened to Jake, whom she met in the hospital where he was recovering”. It was during that same time period that she lost her fiancée to dysentery and married Lord Ashley on the rebound though she did not love him. She found herself in love with Jake but married to someone who was also suffering horribly from PTSD. Lord Ashley was a sailor who could not adjust to civilian life after the war was over:

When he came home he wouldn’t sleep in a bed. Always made Brett sleep on the floor. Finally, when he got really bad, he used to tell her he’d kill her. Always slept with a loaded service revolver. Brett used to take the shells out when he’d gone to sleep. She hasn’t had an absolutely happy life, Bret. Damned shame, too. She enjoys things so (Hemingway 207).

The only thing she could turn to was to self-medicate herself with alcohol and various relationships. She truly loves Jake but cannot have an intimate relationship with him due to his injuries from the war. He sees the reality of it as “there’s not a damn thing we could do” about it and suggests they should stay away from each other (34). Alcohol becomes one of her closest friends as she cannot have the happiness she so desires. Even years after the war has ended, it continues to rip happiness away from her and keep it just out of reach.

When Brett has given into the alcohol induced relief, she is a very different person that the Lady Ashley everyone sees when she is sober. Jake’s landlady describes the two sides of her perfectly: “Last night I found her not so gentile. Last night I formed another idea of her. But listen to what I tell you. She is tres, tres, gentille. She is of very good family. It is a thing you can see” (57). When sober, she shows herself as what she once was before the war. This is what the world wants to see. When she is drunk, she lets the Brett out that wants to express itself and tell the truth but has to be quieted and bottled up again. This means that alcohol is not always the right medication for her needs. Finding the alcohol lacking in an Eden for her, she turns to sex to fill the void.

Her new fiancée is not enough. She sneaks away to meet with Cohn in San Sebastian before meeting up with Mike. Even that is not enough for her. She is drawn into the excitement of the bullfighter she sees and runs off with him. She cannot settle down on any one particular person. Not even the bullfighter satisfies her. She says to Jake, “I made him go….He shouldn’t be living with any one. I realized that right away” (245). With the bullfighter gone, she announces she will go back to Mike but her heart is still with Jake as she says to him, “Oh, Jake…we could have had such a damned good time together” (251). Peace cannot be found anywhere for Brett.


Character: Mike

Mike looks to alcohol as his escape as well as putting up a front of being tough. When the opportunity arises, “he will attack anyone weaker than himself, a typical enough behavior of any fear-ridden alcoholic” (Djos 68). Brett is a crutch in this because she brings in the conflict with other men such as Cohn. Her escapades feed his attack. All Mike needs then is a few drinks, and he is ready to fight. He wants to pick on those that he considers weaker and at the same time competition.

“Don’t you think so?” Mike said. “I would have thought you’d loved being a steer, Robert.”

“What do you mean, Mike?”

“They lead such a quiet life. They never say anything and they’re always hanging about so.” (146)

He wants to fight Cohn. He cannot let it rest. He continues pushing Cohn’s buttons: “Why don’t you say something, Robert? Don’t sit there looking like a bloody funeral. What if Brett did sleep with you? She’s slept with lots of better people than you” (146). The war has not ended for him. It continues through all those he has contact with. The war in Europe becomes a war of words and then returns to the physical that he is more familiar with.

Character: Jake

Just as Brett is so deep, Jake is the magnet that brings them all together. He is not immune to what happened in the war, but he does not seem to be as volatile. Alcohol is a very close friend of his, but the PTSD comes out more through his moods. Feelings that swing from one extreme to another can be a clue into the psychological trauma one suffers. Jake feels anger at one moment and depression hours later: “…I wanted to swing on one, any one, anything to shatter that superior, simpering composure” (Hemingway 28) is felt watching Brett with other men to “…thinking about Brett… Then all of a sudden I started to cry” (39). He appears strong to all around him, but the trauma from war causes him to drink and release his emotions when he is alone. He hides much of feelings from his war wounds by denying them. He tells Brett, “Besides, what happened to me is supposed to be funny. I never think about it” (34). Yet, when he is undressing later that night, he looks at himself in the mirror and notes “of all the ways to be wounded. I suppose it was funny” (38).

Most men have emotional problems with impotence. Add that to the fact that it is caused from a war injury, and the emotional wound is too great for a man to deal with on his own. Jack keeps his problems buried further than most while trying to remain strong on the outside. He does not really look at it as impotence. Jack sees it more as “I just had an accident” (120). Facing the facts is still hard for him. The fear of facing it is too much. He adopts that nonchalant attitude and pretends all is right. There is no worry of him exposing the ugliness of the war to anyone else. He knows the pain of lost innocence; he adds more locks to the mental door on it and allows it to grow stronger and stronger. He even admits that he puts on an act: “I guess, I try and play it along and just not make trouble for anyone” (39). The noble warrior is what he tries to be at all times.

Character Interactions

The interaction between the characters can appear stiff at times as they focus inward to hold back the tide of emotion. For example, Jake and Brett are in love with us each and know they cannot take the love to fruition. One would think their love would be dripping from every word that passes between instead of the stiff words that almost sound as if they have just met.

“We’d better get cleaned up for supper.”

“Yes. That will be a pleasant meal.”

“Won’t it?” (150)

Indifferent words can be replaced with bluntly rude words that are used with no concern as to how they are received: “This drunkard is Mike Campbell. Mr. Campbell is in undischarged bankrupt” (85) These are oddly rude words to be come forth from the object of Mike’s love. Yet, when Brett finds herself messing up her love life again, she allows a chink to appear in her emotional armor for just a moment. She lets her guard down.

“I’m going back to Mike.” I could feel her crying as I held her close. “He’s so damned nice and he’s so awful. He’s my sort of thing.”…”I won’t be one of those bitches,” she said. “But, oh, Jake, please let’s never talk about it.” (247)

She sees how she is. Once the emotion is tossed out there to the only person she can be vulnerable to and still remain safe, she closes the door and makes sure that the one holding the key for her knows to keep the door locked.

The characters are a mix of long-time friends who know each other enough to get behind the fake masks presented to the world to new acquaintances that could have been with them all along in their similar pains and methods of dealing with them. They love and hate each other just as they love and hate themselves. The feelings of love clash with the hate while other times has the two feelings creating an odd partnership in an effort to keep the psychological wall intact and strong against all attacks including their own self-destructive ones.


Analysis of The Sun Also Rises reveals “a great deal of fear here, fear of self-understanding, fear of emotional and physical inadequacy, and – very important – fear of each other” (Djos 66). The war changed so much in the lives of the generation who fought it. The innocence was lost in the death and blood that piled up around them. These characters turn to alcohol and other vices to help them live day to day just as many soldiers returning from the front did. With no understanding of what they had experienced and their own reactions, there was nothing waiting for them back home to heal their pain. Instead they refuse to return home. They run away around the world including calling the very places that claimed the blood of so many home while drowning themselves slowly with each drink. What they do not realize is that the “liquor can fuel the appetites and rebellious instincts, but it cannot defuse fear” (69). The one thing they ran from the most was the one thing they could not hide from. PTSD made fear a daily part of their lives. The result was “on the morning of July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway slipped two shells into his favorite shotgun and quite deliberately blew the top of his head away (Wagner-Martin 16). He could not completely escape the fear that dwelled inside him.

Works Cited

Djos, Matts. “The Sun Also Rises: A Wine and Roses Perspective on the Lost Generation”. The Hemingway Review. Web. 21 Dec. 2011. < /Novels/Sun Also Rises Critiques>.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 2003. Print.

Martin, C.D. “Ernest Hemingway: A psychological autopsy of a suicide”. Psychiatry. Proquest Research Library. Web. 20 Dec. 2011.

Nolan, Charles J. Jr. “A Little Crazy: Psychiatric Diagnoses of Three Hemingway Woman Characters”. The Hemingway Review. Web. 20 Dec. 2011. < 28.2.nolan.html>.

“Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)”. Medicinenet. Web. 21 Dec. 2011. < porttraumatic _stress_disorderarticle.htm> .

Schwarz, Jeffrey A. “The saloon must go, and I will take it with me”: American prohibition, nationalism, and expatriates. Studies in the Novel; Summer 2011; 33,2. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 20 Dec 2011.

Steward, Matthew C. “Ernest Hemingway and World War I: Combatting Recent Psychobiographical Reassments, Restoring the War”. Papers on Language & Liberty 36.2 (2000): 198. Academic Search Primer. Web. 23 Dec. 2011.

“Stress Injury to Health Trauma, PTSD”. Bullyonline. Web. 20 Dec. 2011. <>.

“The Lost Generation: American Writers of the 1920s”. Web. 20 Dec. 2011.


Wagner-Martin, Linda ed. Historical Guide to Ernest Hemingway. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, 2000. ebrary. Web. 20 Dec. 2011.


CJ Kelly from the PNW on April 01, 2016:

Love the picture of Hemingway and Col. Lanham (4th ID). Great points. We don't know how much his service as an ambulance driver affected him later in life. Also, I always felt you had to read the books a couple of times to get it. Read him in high school and did not entirely get it. Shared.

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