The title of this book is taken from Ecclesiastes 1:5, where the Preacher (Solomon) delivers a long and famous soliloquy on the emptiness, futility and meaninglessness of life. This is certainly exemplified by all the major characters of the story, who drift from one bar or night club to another, consume endless quantities of alcohol, and engage in drunken brawls; and whose relationships with each other are at best superficial and as short as their attention spans. They are like petulant, immature children, incapable of genuine feeling or emotion, who drift from one entertainment to another but all too soon are seeking some new thrill.
Even the “running of the bulls” in Pamplona is seen in this context, as they comment on the handsomeness of the toreros, the beauty of their “suits of light” (costumes), the fine points of their technique, the money they earn, and how “good” the bulls they face are, with nary a thought or observation about the danger, the bloodthirstiness of the crowds, or the absolute brutality and cruelty of this “sport”, if it can be called that. (Aside: in Arthur Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” one of the first decrees issued by the Overlords when they come to earth is one which bans bullfighting altogether. Good for them, and him!)
The superficiality of the characters and the total lack of a meaningful plot made this a very tedious and pleasureless read, and I am at a loss as to why it is regarded as Hemingway’s finest book (“For Whom the Bell Tolls” is much better), let alone as one of the “foundational pillars” of modern American literature. I cannot recommend a book where the author fails in any way to make the reader care about the protagonists. If in describing the generation that emerged from the Great War as the “lost generation” Gertrude Stein meant that they lacked any sense of meaning or purpose, self-control, or a moral compass in their lives, then this group is certainly exemplary of it; but it is difficult to believe that they were characteristic of the entire American expatriate community in the 1920’s, and it is appalling to think that Hemingway could have been suggesting that it was a virtue to live this sort of lifestyle. Perhaps some did live this way, but I think the majority who emerged from the Great War dug in their heels, raised their families through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, imparted positive values about hard work, thriftiness and moral accountability, and produced the Greatest Generation which saw the United States through the most extreme trial it was ever called upon to face.
Sadly, the lifestyle of the characters in this book mirrors in some respects the way Hemingway lived much of his own life, which ended with his suicide in Idaho in 1961 (four other family members, including his father, also took their own lives); and if any writer’s life could be described as “An American Tragedy” it was his. He produced many fine stories and novels, but if one is searching for writers of the 1920’s and 1930’s who will paint a vivid picture of American life, engage the mind, and uplift the spirit, then one is much better off with Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, or, best of all, John Steinbeck.