Jake Barnes: Secular Father Confessor in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises


by Sam Bluefarb (December 2013)

If the 12th and 13th centuries are now seen as the pinnacle of an age of faith, and the 18th, an age of reason, the consensus (at this time) appears to be that the 20th Century was a secular age. As for the 19th Century—that transitional age of relative peace—its world did not end in 1900, but in 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War; a war in which a generation of young men died, and those who survived were physically and emotionally scarred forever. That is now a largely accepted consensus. But if Jake Barnes was a member of that (“lost”) generation, given the nature of his wound (chronic impotence), his is the most traumatized of his circle of spiritually empty friends—Mike Campbell, Brett Ashley, Robert Cohn. A discussion of Barnes as a secular father-confessor in a secular age must take those particulars into account.

Although Jake has been affected by the war and the spiritual and moral waste it left behind, Barnes, a lapsed Catholic, still hangs onto a shred of faith; he can still appreciate the power and the beauty and the authority of its ritual. This is not so much a matter of choice as of something that affects his way of looking at himself and the world around him. If Jake is heir to a secular age, he also subscribes to its profane values (“moral is what you feel good after”),1 even though the moral support he provides his friends has religious and psychotherapeutic undertones. He has not actively sought the role of secular father confessor; it has fallen to him by default–that wound that has rendered him sexually impotent, and makes him an ideal sounding board for the problems of others.

A prerequisite of the traditional father confessor is that he should be a good listener; and Jake Barnes is a good listener, though there are times when that virtue is severely tried. I have described Jake as a “lapsed” Catholic rather than the more familiar “fallen-away,” since the latter comes closer to one who has cut himself off from the Church, or even become its enemy. By contrast, a “lapsed” or “not a good” Catholic suggests one who still believes in the authority of the Church, though he may not be especially observant in following its sacraments or rituals.

The auricular act between a sinner and a pardoner takes place in the privacy and confidentiality of the confessional where confession is rendered, penance exacted, and absolution granted. But Jake, though a good—and frequently sympathetic—listener cannot give his “supplicants” the exculpatory absolution a priest is granted. Other than Brett Ashley, Jake is not emotionally involved with any of the novel's characters. Like priest and psychotherapist, he must stay aloof, remote from their largely self-inflicted spiritual and psychological miseries. But there are a few occasions when Jake's emotions either spin out of control or threaten to: There is the incident in his room when the reality of his impotence hits him hard and he breaks down and cries. There is the occasion when he is overcome with anger at the sight of Brett's entrance into a bal musette with a crowd of homosexuals. That resentment is not so much directed at her as at her escorts, whose mincing ways sicken him. Apart from his hatred of homosexuals and growing dislike for Robert Cohn for his maudlin behavior (and a later violent confrontation between the two), the mood that most expresses Jake's role as secular father confessor is one of non-judgment and detachment. Given that disconnect, Jake must be “neutral,” an attitude that mirrors his genital condition. Like a priest, he may pity sinners in the abstract, but must be detached from them in practice. 

The three prime “confessors”2 who go to Jake for advice and sympathy are, in order of their appearance, Frances Clyne, Robert Cohn, and Lady Brett Ashley. The first two regard Jake as a friend and confidant; but Brett, who  loves him, cannot help seeing him as a “truncated,” i.e., unattainable, lover. Like a priest who is sworn to secrecy, Jake will not divulge what ails his three friends nor will he judge them. But the most dramatic occasion when Jake loses his cool takes place outside the Café Suizo in Pamplona. He has taken a swing at Cohn for calling him a pimp (the punch doesn't land); but Cohn, that Princeton boxing champion, dodges the punch and knocks Jake down. Still, because of the provocations Cohn, the Jew, has suffered at the hands of the anti-Semite Mike Campbell and the sarcasms Jake himself has aimed at him, his reaction may be understandable, if not acceptable. Later, after conscience kicks in, Cohn asks Jake to forgive him, to “shake hands.” He even offers to shake hands with bullfighter Pedro Romero after he has beaten Romero to a bloody pulp—a proper chivalrous act that Cohn, with his Marquis of Queensberry rule book, sees as making things right.

As a lay Catholic, Jake can hardly ask his “supplicants” for their confessions; nor can he pardon and exact penance. Still, if he does not explicitly judge his confessors, he has his impressions; but they remain sealed inside his head. As a not-very-good Catholic, he will not criticize them, for there are aspects in them he sees in himself—the “lostness,” the disillusionment, and—with the exception of Robert Cohn–the cynicism. And while he feels closer to Brett, the distance between them is due of course to his inability to consummate their relationship.

Soon after Jake and Bill Gorton arrive in Pamplona from Paris, Jake stops by at a cathedral  and goes inside:

I knelt and started to pray and prayed for everybody. I thought of Brett and Mike and Bill and Robert Cohn and myself, and all the bull-fighters. . .then I prayed for myself again. . . I wondered if there was anything else I might pray for, and I thought I would like to have some money, so I prayed that I would make a lot of money, and then I started to think how I would make [money], and. . .I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic. . .3

But even as a “rotten Catholic,” Jake, at one time or another in his life, has likely gone to confession, which would have given him some insight and understanding into its spiritual and therapeutic value. Although Jake's judgments of his friends largely remain within the confines of his own mind, the one occasion when he weakens is when he himself acknowledges his dislike of Robert Cohn. But this is not a seething fixation with him; rather, it is a surrender to an angry outburst when his impatience with Cohn—his gimcrack romanticism. his mooning infatuation with Brett–has reached its breaking point.


*       *      *

The idea of Jake Barnes as secular father-confessor may be supported by those who go to him for solace and advice, if not absolution. Among these are: Frances Clyne, Cohn's mistress; Cohn himself; Lady Brett Ashley, who of course, is not only “chief (among that band) of sinners,” but the one most in need of Barnes' “therapy.” Although not a confessor, Mike Campbell sees in Barnes a fellow-sufferer who would understand, if not proactively defend his behavior. For like the others, he has his resentments and his inadequacies (he is a bankrupt, financially analogous to Jake's impotence), and his burdens may be more agonizing for the position he finds himself in: a future husband who sees Brett, his prospective wife, making a cuckold of him before the fact. But Brett is the one most in need of Jake's solace. More about that presently.

Frances Clyne is the first, if not the most significant, of the confessors who come to Jake for comfort and advice. In her way, she chases a will o'-the-wisp as much as Cohn and the others do: each yearns for something unattainable: Frances for Robert Cohn; Robert Cohn for Brett; Brett for Jake; and Jake for the impossible  Brett.4 Mike wants to marry Brett, and this is to take place, presumably, in some indefinite future. But given Brett's promiscuity, her guilts and neuroses, that's a shaky prospect.5

Early on, when Frances tells Jake she wants to talk to him, her confession (wanting to marry Cohn and his refusal to commit) prefigures the form it will take with the others–a sequence of short dialogues, with Jake the passive, priest-like listener, and Frances the “supplicant” in need of some sort of advice, if not comfort. And while confession—religious or secular—may offer some degree of therapy and catharsis, it is never completely successful for Frances or her friends: the problem remains, because of Robert Cohn’s reluctance to marry her.

She and Cohn and Jake have been sitting at the Select, the popular café for expatriates on the Left Bank’s Boulevard Montparnasse, and after some brief exchanges with Cohn, Frances turns to Barnes: “Look, Jake, I want to talk to you. Would you come over with me to the Dome? [another café well patronized by expatriates] You'll stay here, won't you, Robert?'” Cohn's response is a sullen silence. They go across to the café, where Jake asks, “'What's the matter, Frances?” Her answer is short and to the point. “He [Cohn] wants to leave me.” Then follows a string of grievances Frances holds against Cohn (for not marrying her) and Jake's laconic responses and a pro-forma sympathy: “It's rotten luck.” Finally, Jake asks, “Want to go back to the café?” “Yes. Come on.” Which ends her confession—for  what it’s worth!. (53-55)

Robert Cohn's is the flip side of Frances Clyne's confession. It takes place in Cohn's room at the Hotel Montoya toward the end of the week-long Fiesta San Fermin to celebrate the annual running of the bulls. Cohn is lying face down on his bed, crying. He tearfully apologizes for knocking Jake down in a moment of uncontrolled anger.

“I'm sorry, Jake. Please forgive me.”

“Forgive you, hell.” (198)

Jake as secular father confessor is hardly in the position of a duly ordained Catholic priest to forgive. Unlike a priest, he cannot give absolution. But Cohn still cannot accept Jake's angry retort and again begs, “Please forgive me, Jake.” Yet, even here, Jake's  dismissive response lacks any suggestion of a need to “get even:” “I did not say anything. I just stood there by the door.” But now Cohn desperately attempts to excuse his behavior by using the universal defense of the criminally insane: “I was crazy. . . .” And Jake comes back, “Oh, that's all right,” his earlier anger beginning to soften under the assault of Cohn's persistent pleadings. But Cohn, wishing further reassurance, rationalizes: “I couldn't stand it about Brett.” Jake, in his own defense, replies, “You called me a pimp,” said not in anger but as a statement of fact. Although he is in no immediate mood to forgive Cohn—in the non-theological sense—he must give some reason for his hurt feelings, which suggests that his anger is weakening. It is not so much the blow of a fist that hurts but the greater hurt in the word pimp! Still unconvinced, Cohn again begs, “Please say you forgive me, Jake.” And, again, Barnes comforts: “Sure. . .it's all right.”(198) All that's needed in this sorry parody of a sinner's contrition is for Jake to tack on some small penance (no tennis for a month—they are occasional opponents on the tennis court), and mutter a “Go and sin no more.”  


*       *       *

Of all the novel's characters, Brett Ashley is most in need of unburdening herself. The major source of her guilt lies in her seduction (and near ruin) of Pedro Romero, the bull fighter. Ironically, she, like the others, chooses Barnes as her father confessor even as she is also in love with him. To reiterate, although Jake is a good listener, willy-nilly, he is involved with Brett's self-lacerations when she confesses how, against cooler judgment, she has become infatuated with Pedro Romero. In the exchange that follows, he offers Brett more than disinterested advice. Given their tortured love, his concern for her welfare is a more personal, more involved  luxury a priest or a therapist cannot afford:

“I'm a goner. [says Brett] I'm mad about the. . .boy. I'm in love with him, I think.”

“I wouldn't be if I were you.'

“I can't help it. . . . It's tearing me all up inside.'

“Don't do it.” (187)

Much later, after the end of the fiesta, Jake goes off to San Sebastian for a few days of swimming and relaxation. There he receives a telegram from Brett pleading for him to come to Madrid because she is “in trouble” (broke), and he books a berth on the Sud Express. On his arrival in Madrid, Brett confesses that she has sent Pedro away, and purges herself with the exculpatory “[I]t makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch. . . .It's sort of what we have instead of God.”

But Jake won't let her off the hook, and bluntly comes back, “Some people have God. . . . ” But when Brett replies, “He's never worked very well with me,” Jake's response is “Should we have another Martini?” (249) It appears that although Jake cannot condone her behavior, neither is he in a position to forgive her; he can only hear her out, and offer her some slight—but ineffectual—advice.

Earlier, back in Pamplona, after the fracas at the Café Suizo, and before Romero is scheduled to go into the bull-ring. Brett asks Jake if he minds if they might drop into a chapel to pray for the bullfighter, and to pray for the wind to drop so that he will have more control of the cape. But she finds that trying to pray “makes [her] damned nervous.” (212) Brett confesses that she has never got anything out of prayer, and asks Jake, had he ever benefited from it. Jake's answer is, again, a forthright. “Oh, yes.” (213) But that is only partly true. It might apply to prayer, but not to that other pre-marital obligation of a good Catholic–abstinence: “The Catholic Church had an awfully good way of handling all that. [he tells himself] Good advice. . . . [don't] think about it. Oh, it was swell advice. Try and take it sometime. Try and take it.” (39) Thus, while Jake finds he has been cast in the role of secular father confessor, and can even offer his friends some small comfort, he cannot find any for himself.


[1] Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster. 1996) 4.

[2] Quotation marks have been dropped from all subsequent uses of this word, since context clearly determines its non-theological implications.

[3] Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926; New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954) 102-103. All further citations from this work will appear in parentheses within the body of the text.

[4] In this nexus of tormented relationships, Hemingway anticipated Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (1946) by almost twenty years. In the play each of the three major characters yearns for the unattainable other—in a cycle of mutual laceration and torment for all eternity. (“hell is–other people!”), No Exit (1946; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976) 45.

[5] Made all the more shaky by Brett's wavering indecisiveness: In that final confessional scene in Madrid, in a burst of despair, she tells Jake: “I can't even marry Mike.” (246)  Then further along: “I'm going back to Mike. . . .He's my sort of thing.” (247)


Sam Bluefarb is Prof. Emeritus, Los Angeles Harbor College.

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