Ernest Hemingway published one of his best known works of fiction, The Sun Also Rises, in 1926. The novel received mixed reviews early on, but has since come to be considered Hemingway’s greatest work.
The novel concerns thematic elements such as love, jealousy, sexuality, masculinity, femininity, and meaningfulness, and creates a powerful comment on the deeper issues of life. Hemingway developed quick sketches of characters that in some way or fashion revealed those themes and their many nuances.
The title of the book has particular significance, for it is a statement of epithetic truth. Taken from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, “the sun also rises” is a paraphrasing of King Solomon’s heartfelt comment on the vanity of life. Here, the verses that wrap around that momentous line:
“A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. Also, the sun rises and the sun sets, and hastening to its place, it rises there again. Blowing toward the south then turning toward the north, the wind continues swirling along, and on its circular courses the wind returns. All the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again. All things are wearisome. Man is not able to tell it.”
We might ask why Hemingway used this quote to title his most momentous work of literature. One scholar wrote that Hemingway wanted the book to be about morality – an interesting objective from an author who practiced so little morality in his own life. But upon closer inspection it seems that understanding morality’s significance is precisely what Hemingway was after in writing this tale of broken lives tumbling down a path to nowhere. He was searching, as were his characters, to find some meaning in this world of lost dreams, unrequited love, and hopeless pursuits. And he showed, with clarity, that respect, sex, victory, entertainment, and even love, could not measure up to the task. Meaninglessness abounded.
The writer of Ecclesiastes of the Bible, King Solomon, understood this hopelessness of mankind. He understood that humanity desperately searched for something beyond the mere physical and emotional fulfillments that always fell short of satisfying. When he wrote: “Also, the sun rises and the sun sets… ” he used the power of metaphor to communicate the vanity… the emptiness of life in its repetitive, ongoing, never-ceasing attempts to arrive at somewhere permanent and peaceful.
As in the physical world, where objects and conditions are set and ordered, and repeat themselves over and over again, as the sun endlessly rising or the rivers endlessly flowing, so in the human spiritual world, the eternal essence of all people were seeking, again and again and again, to arrive. Somewhere.
The ecclesiastical writer knew there was an answer. He skillfully plodded his way through the maze of life’s sudden turns and paradoxical events in the book of Ecclesiastes by showing us how life forever fails to deliver the goods it promises… but God never fails to do so. He concludes in a poignant statement of truth experienced and lived in his own life: “… fear God and keep His commandments,… ” (Eccl 12:13).
The question posed by Hemingway – Is there any hope or meaning to this life? – is answered in so simple terms. And as the sun continues to rise… and set… so will the answer continue to be, forever:
Fear God and keep His commandments.