Before Ernest Hemingway opened The Sun Also Rises (1926) with Jake Barnes’s passive observations about Robert Cohn’s college boxing career, he began the text with Lady Brett Ashley: “Lady Ashley was born Elizabeth Brett Murray.”[i] This beginning, while unpublished, suggests Hemingway himself saw that beneath Brett’s cool veneer, a sympathetic, albeit flawed, human being originally named Elizabeth existed. Twentieth-century scholars, however, often criticize Lady Brett Ashley as a “bitch-goddess”[ii]; “metaphorically whore-like”[iii]; and a “nymphomaniac.”[iv] Consequently, they marginalize her and ignore Hemingway’s hints at her harrowing past. Leslie Fiedler and Carlos Baker use Brett’s sexual promiscuity and detachment as ways to support their misogynistic readings. Recently, the conversation has shifted; for instance, Martin presents Brett as a modern woman, who assumes a more empowered role and “refuse[s] to play the role of the ethereal other.”[v] Regardless of where scholarly opinions fall on this subject, they have not yet considered trauma to account for Brett’s behavior. As a nurse during World War I, Brett witnessed gruesome, fatal injuries. During this time, she also lost her true love. Then, she married a man suffering from what can now be labeled as post-traumatic stress disorder. These events convey the underlying trauma from which she suffers. Brett attempts to cope with the trauma when she has casual sex and avoids commitment. Many critics consider these qualities as “unfeminine,” attempting to pigeonhole Brett as either masculine or feminine. However, Brett ignores gender binaries. Witnessing the effects of World War I and living with an abusive husband, Brett experiences traumatic events and loses her sense of self and therefore must adapt afterward. Accordingly, she develops androgynous characteristics in order to salvage her identity, thus changing our understanding of her from a “mannish,” sex-starved “bitch” to a survivor in need of compassion.
In order to read Brett as an androgynous character, I will first establish the domestic abuse she experiences as traumatic. Susan J. Brison defines a traumatic event as “one in which a person feels utterly helpless in the face of a force that is perceived to be life-threatening.”[vi] Brett’s ex-husband, Lord Ashley, continually threatens her life when they are married: as Mike, Brett’s fiancé, tells their friends, the war veteran Lord Ashley, “was a sailor, you know. 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.”[vii] The events that Mike discusses exemplify that Brett has experienced domestic violence, including verbal abuse and most likely physical abuse. Lord Ashley controls where she sleeps, which means that he disregards her autonomy, and he makes her fear for her safety. This violence mars Brett’s ideas about relationships, her self-worth, and her agency. Therefore, after she escapes this harmful situation, Brett must rebuild her identity.
Accordingly, Brett adopts androgynous characteristics in order to protect herself from further danger and the traumatic aftermath that accompanies it. Charles Nolan Jr. diagnoses Brett with “borderline personality disorder, the essential features of which are ‘instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity.’”[viii] However, trauma theory offers another way to view Brett’s behavior. A survivor of rape and attempted murder herself, Brison outlines a victim’s difficulty to live after a traumatic incident occurs: “Not only are one’s memories of an earlier life lost, along with the ability to envision a future, but one’s basic cognitive and emotional capacities are gone, or radically altered, as well. This epistemological crisis leaves the survivor with virtually no bearings by which to navigate.”[ix] Losing her “ability to envision a future” as the woman who suffers from abuse, Brett remakes herself, and part of her transformation includes ignoring gender binaries. When Brett enters the narrative, she adopts both masculine and feminine behavior. She neither looks like a lady nor acts with socially acceptable manners. Jake, Brett’s impotent love interest, notes her appearance: “her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht.”[x] Although her “curves” prove her femininity, her hair, “like a boy’s,” reinforces her masculinity. In addition to a boy’s haircut, she smokes cigarettes, wears hats[xi], and does not wear stockings[xii]—behavior associated with men. Discussing women artists in the early twentieth century, Susan Gubar writes, “cross-dressing becomes a way of ad-dressing and re-dressing the inequities of culturally-defined categories of masculinity and femininity.”[xiii] For Brett, her appearance represents her freedom from “culturally-defined categories” and freedom from men’s control. Jennifer Banach has also remarked upon Brett’s androgyny: “Hemingway is careful to present plenty of examples to show that Brett’s androgyny is genuine and something she has freely chosen.”[xiv] Brett “freely cho[oses]” to reject traditional gender roles. By destabilizing the differences between men and women, Brett makes sure that neither gender has absolute authority over the other, and no one can place her in the position of a victim again.
Seen through Jake’s point of view, the male gaze, Brett appears to reassume her place as an object; however, Brett refuses to accept this position. As stated earlier, at the beginning of the novel, Jake notes, “Brett was damned good-looking . . . She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey.”[xv] Here, Jake comments solely on her appearance, noticing her “curves” and comparing them to “a racing yacht.” He relegates her to the role of sexual object. Brett likewise assumes this authoritative stance, underscoring that this characteristic is not simply a male’s. When she meets men, she turns into the voyeur, objectifying the opposite sex. For instance, when she sees the handsome bullfighter, Pedro Romero, she reveals her sexual attraction for him: “My God! He’s a lovely boy . . . And how I would love to see him get into those clothes.”[xvi] Brett appropriates the male gaze, turning it on Romero and thinking about him undressed. Accordingly, Brett acts with a man’s authority, continuing to break down gender binaries.
Additionally, Brett has many sexual partners. Scholars such as E. Roger Stephenson, as mentioned above, consider Brett “whore-like” because of her gender; however, her sexual promiscuity derives as a response to trauma, instead of the medical condition nymphomania. Having experienced trauma during her marriage, she now keeps relationships casual and short, including her flings with Robert Cohn, one of Jake’s friends, and Romero. Accordingly, Brett assumes control, rather than having a man control her. However, she meets resistance for her behavior. For instance, Robert insinuates that Brett is the whore to Jake’s “pimp,” and Mike calls her relationship with Romero a “honeymoon.”[xvii] Although her behavior seems “whore-like,” she is exercising her sexual autonomy—something socially acceptable for a man to practice, but not a woman. With this notion in mind, I interpret Brett’s actions as a natural response to sexual desire, rather than nymphomania. Moreover, by keeping romantic relationships short, she maintains her safety. When Brett accompanies gay men to a bar, she tells Jake, “And when one’s with the crowd I’m with, one can drink in such safety, too” (30). Here, Brett hints at her traumatic past, understanding men’s inclinations for physical—and perhaps sexual—violence. She actively avoids situations that will place her in danger and thereby takes the necessary measures to stop the past from repeating itself.
Despite reclaiming control of her body, she feels ashamed of her behavior—like many other survivors of abuse feel—and these feelings threaten her new identity. In a study, M. Scheffer Lindgren and B. Renck interviewed women who survived abusive relationships, and “[m]any of the women also said that they blamed themselves for the violence, partly because the men blamed them for causing the violence.”[xviii] These relationships often involve men who reinforce typical gender roles, wherein the men act with dominance and the women assume obedience. Therefore, when these women rebel against their roles, they believe that they provoke their partners’ violence. Similarly, when Brett dwells upon her past actions, she thinks of herself as the victimizer: “When I think of the hell I’ve put chaps through. I’m paying for it all now.”[xix] Although she does not name Lord Ashley specifically, she may include him with the “chaps” she mentions. Brett therefore blames herself for his brutality, when she should recognize that he treated her unjustly. This self-blame occurs again when she calls herself a “bitch.”[xx] Here, she and Jake discuss her romantic feelings for Romero. She conforms to the idea that expressing her sexuality is somehow wrong: “I don’t say it’s right. It is right though for me. God knows, I’ve never felt such a bitch.”[xxi] Brett’s comment reveals how the society in which she lives encourages slut-shaming. The people around her and Brett herself should be more compassionate rather than judgmental. With every new experience, Brett rebuilds the strength she loses due to the trauma that occurs, and rather than blame herself for men’s violence and marginalize herself with the gendered term “bitch,” she should celebrate this feat.
By “blaming the victim,” Brett battles emotional reminders of her trauma; furthermore, she struggles with physiological symptoms of trauma. Whenever she encounters stress, she “freezes,” and she conveys this response in her eyes. When they take a taxi ride, Jake remarks, “Brett looked straight ahead.”[xxii] Brett’s reaction is a common response for trauma survivors, which Bessel A. van der Kolk explains further: “Freezing/numbing responses may serve the function of allowing organisms not to ‘consciously experience’ or not to remember situations of overwhelming stress (which would also keep them from learning from experience).”[xxiii] In the scene mentioned above, Brett has just experienced “overwhelming stress.” Before the taxi ride, Jake criticizes Brett for her promiscuity: “I suppose you like to add [men] up.”[xxiv] Here, Jake distinguishes Brett as a sexual object, albeit one who “add[s] men up.” Once again, a man relegates her to the role of object, the role her husband assigned to her and a common role for women. As a way of coping with Jake’s comment, Brett enters a state of “freezing/numbing.” That way, she does not re-experience the original trauma. Whenever Brett encounters stress, she returns to this response.
Whenever the men around Brett act out, she “freezes,” for they see her as a commodity, rather than a human being. In order to maintain her new identity, she needs to leave these men behind. For instance, when Brett and her friends eat dinner in Pamplona, Mike taunts Robert for following Brett, and Jake remarks that Robert “stood . . . ready to do battle for his lady love.”[xxv] The men prepare to fight one another, until Jake separates them. Although the men do not aim their violence at Brett, their verbal threats and physical actions mirror Lord Ashley’s when he would abuse Brett. After watching the men quarrel, Brett returns to this freezing and numbing response: “Brett was sitting looking straight ahead at nothing.”[xxvi] Once again, Mike and Robert consider Brett as an object to “battle” over—a prize for one of them to win and therefore own. So, Brett shuts down. The last time Jake comments upon Brett’s eyes, Mike lists her last two conquests: “Brett’s got a bullfighter . . . She had a Jew named Cohn, but he turned out badly.”[xxvii] Mike bases Brett’s identity merely on her sexuality—who Brett has “got” and “had.” Additionally, Mike is so drunk that he “tipped the table so that all the beers and the dish of shrimps went over in a crash.”[xxviii] After this fiasco, Brett leaves the café. Again, Mike’s actions reflect Lord Ashely’s when he “got really bad”[xxix]—behaving like a boorish, hegemonic male. At first, however, it appears that Mike’s behavior does not phase Brett, and Jake notes that Brett is “happy.”[xxx] After they go to church and pray, though, Jake “felt Brett stiffen beside [him], and saw she was looking straight ahead.”[xxxi] Based on the previous times Jake mentions Brett’s physical demeanor, Brett is not “happy.” The morning’s events serve as a reminder of Brett’s past. Mike acts just as destructively as Lord Ashley. Once more, Brett “freezes.” Brett must save herself by expelling these negative influences in her life.
In order to retain the progress Brett has made, she and Romero flee to Madrid; however, her recovery is tested. Shortly thereafter, she sends a telegram to Jake and writes that she is “rather in trouble.”[xxxii] By the time Jake arrives, Romero has left. Although Brett appears to no longer face “trouble,” she seems disturbed, and she shares that Romero “shouldn’t be living with any one,” he was “ashamed of [her],” and that she “didn’t know if [she] could make him go.”[xxxiii] These comments are reminiscent of the trauma she faces when she lived with her ex-husband. Sleeping with a gun, Lord Ashley “shouldn’t [have] be[en] living with any one,” either. He controlled Brett: he told her where to sleep, threatened her, and annihilated her agency. In Madrid, Romero acts similarly: “He really wanted to marry me. So I couldn’t go away from him, he said. He wanted to make it sure I could never go away from him. After I’d gotten more womanly, of course.”[xxxiv] If Brett had lived with and married Romero, she would have re-experienced the trauma she faced with Lord Ashley. By growing out her hair and appearing “more womanly,” she would have been labeled as strictly female and returned to the role of victim. Separating from Romero, and anyone else similar to her ex-husband, is pertinent to Brett’s recovery: “Living with the memory of trauma is living with a kind of disability, and whether one is able to function with a disability depends largely on how one’s social and physical environments are set up.”[xxxv] If Brett continues to “function with [her] disability,” she will continue to create her new self and move on from her past.
Scholars often criticize Brett Ashley as an unfeminine sexual creature, but the very characteristics they disapprove of actually facilitate her survival. Although she does not fight in World War I, and she does not have a physical injury that handicaps her, her psychic trauma debilitates her and interrupts her everyday life. This trauma occurs at home, where Brett encounters domestic violence and her ex-husband subjects her to verbal and possibly physical abuse. Brett experiences post-traumatic stress disorder, but scholars and other characters in the novel pigeonhole her as either a nymphomaniac or a prostitute. Instead of looking for another man to satisfy her sexual cravings, however, Brett searches for a way to move on from trauma and reclaim what she lost: her identity. In doing so, Brett deconstructs preconceived notions about gender, adopting an appearance and behaviors that can be considered both feminine and masculine. She transforms from the submissive object into the authoritative subject, turns the male gaze on the men who objectify her, and attains sexual autonomy. As scholars continue to parse Brett’s character in the future, we need to turn the lens away from whether or not she is feminine or masculine and toward her trauma. Brett is not a bitch, but a survivor.
[i] Quoted in Wendy Martin, “Brett Ashley as New Woman in The Sun Also Rises,” in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, ed. Linda Wagner-Martin (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002), 53.
[ii] Leslie A. Fiedler, “The Revenge on Woman: From Lucy to Lolita,” in Love and Death in the American Novel, revised ed. (New York: Stein and Day, 1966), 320.
[iii] E. Roger Stephenson, “Hemingway’s Women: Cats Don’t Live in the Mountains,” in Hemingway in Italy and Other Essays, ed. Robert W. Lewis (New York: Praeger, 1990), 36.
[iv] Carlos Baker, “The Wastelanders,” in Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963), 91.
[v] Wendy Martin, “Brett Ashley as New Woman in The Sun Also Rises,” in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, ed. Linda Wagner-Martin (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002), 50.
[vi] Susan J. Brison, “Outliving Oneself: Trauma, Memory, and Personal Identity,” in Gender Struggles: Practical Approaches to Contemporary Feminism, eds. Constance L. Mui, and Julien S. Murphy (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 138.
[vii] Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (New York: Scribner, 2006), 207.
[viii] Charles J. Nolan Jr., “‘A Little Crazy’: Psychiatric Diagnoses of Three Hemingway Women Characters,” The Hemingway Review 28, no. 2 (2009): 113. Literature Resource Center.
[ix] Brison, “Outliving Oneself,” 146.
[x] Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, 30.
[xi] Ibid., 64.
[xii] Ibid., 84.
[xiii] Susan Gubar, “Blessings in Disguise: Cross-Dressing as Re-Dressing for Female Modernists,” The Massachusetts Review 22, no. 3 (1981): 479. JSTOR.
[xiv] Jennifer Banach, “Gender Identity and the Modern Condition in The Sun Also Rises,” Critical Insights: The Sun Also Rises, (2010): 41. Literary Reference Center.
[xv] Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, 30.
[xvi] Ibid., 181.
[xvii] Ibid., 194.
[xviii] M.S. Lindgren and B. Renck, “‘It is still so deep-seated, the fear’: psychological stress reactions as consequences of intimate partner violence,” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 15, no. 3 (2008): 223, CINAHL Plus.
[xix] Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, 34.
[xx] Ibid., 188.
[xxi] Ibid., 188.
[xxii] Ibid., 35.
[xxiii] Bessel A Van der Kolk, “The Body Keeps the Score: Approaches to the Psychobiology of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” in Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society, eds. Bessel A. van der Kohl, Alexander C. McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth (New York: Guilford, 1996), 227.
[xxiv] Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, 30.
[xxv] Ibid., 182.
[xxvi] Ibid., 182.
[xxvii] Ibid., 210.
[xxviii] Ibid., 211.
[xxix] Ibid., 207.
[xxx] Ibid., 211.
[xxxi] Ibid., 212.
[xxxii] Ibid., 242.
[xxxiii] Ibid., 245-6.
[xxxiv] Ibid., 246.
[xxxv] Brison, “Outliving Oneself,” 154.
Brittany J. Barron graduated from the University of North Georgia, Gainesville (UNG) with a B.A. in English and minor in Gender Studies. At UNG, the Gender Studies Council recognized Brittany’s research on Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina and presented her with the Simone de Beauvoir Award. Her academic research has likewise been recognized by The Edith Wharton Society and Gender Forum. Brittany is now a second-year MFA candidate in poetry at Georgia College and State University, where she serves as co-Assistant Poetry Editor of the national literary journal, Arts & Letters, and teaches freshman composition. Her poetry is forthcoming in Still, a literary journal dedicated to publishing writers from the Southern Appalachian region, and has appeared in Z Publishing’s anthology, Georgia’s Best Emerging Poets.
Baker, Carlos. “The Wastelanders.” In Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, 3rd ed., 75-93. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963.
Banach, Jennifer. “Gender Identity and the Modern Condition in The Sun Also Rises,” Critical Insights: The Sun Also Rises, (2010): 36-48. Literary Reference Center.
Brison, Susan J. “Outliving Oneself: Trauma, Memory, and Personal Identity.” In Gender Struggles: Practical Approaches to Contemporary Feminism, edited by Constance L. Mui, and Julien S. Murphy, 137-165. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
Fiedler, Leslie A. “The Revenge on Woman: From Lucy to Lolita.” In Love and Death in the American Novel, revised ed., 291-336. New York: Stein and Day, 1966.
Gubar, Susan. “Blessings in Disguise: Cross-Dressing as Re-Dressing for Female Modernists,” The Massachusetts Review 22, no. 3 (1981): 477-508. JSTOR.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 2006.
Lindgren, M.S., and B. Renck. “‘It is still so deep-seated, the fear’: psychological stress reactions as consequences of intimate partner violence,” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 15, no. 3 (2008): 219-228. CINAHL Plus.
Martin, Wendy. “Brett Ashley as New Woman in The Sun Also Rises.” In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, edited by Linda Wagner-Martin, 47-62. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.
Nolan Jr., Charles J. “‘A Little Crazy’: Psychiatric Diagnoses of Three Hemingway Women Characters,” The Hemingway Review 28, no. 2 (2009): 105-120. Literature Resource Center.
Stephenson, E. Roger. “Hemingway’s Women: Cats Don’t Live in the Mountains.” In Hemingway in Italy and Other Essays, edited by Robert W. Lewis, 35-46. New York: Praeger, 1990.
Van der Kolk, Bessel A. “The Body Keeps the Score: Approaches to the Psychobiology of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” In Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society, edited by Bessel A. van der Kohl, Alexander C. McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth, 214-241. New York: Guilford, 1996.