Who is the Gored Steer


You probably don't care much about my reading, but it seemed good to share some of these thoughts about the book along the way. This passage may be one of the most evocative and sad of the entire book, and may give us a key to understanding much of what goes on. Then again, my reflections on it may simply be overwrought.

from The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway

The steer was down now, his neck stretched out, his head twisted, he lay the way he had fallen. Suddenly the bull left off and made for the other steer which had been standing at the far end, his head swinging, watching it all. The steer ran awkwardly and the bull caught him, hooked him lightly in the flank, and then turned away and looked up at the crowd on the walls, his crest of muscle rising. The steer came up to him and made as though to nose at him and the bull hooked perfunctorily. The next time he nosed at the steer and then the two of them trotted over to the other bull.

When the next bull came out, all three, the two bulls and the steer, stood together, their heads side by side, their horns against the newcomer. In a few minutes the steer picked the new bull up, quieted him down, and made him one of the herd. When the last two bulls had been unloaded the herd were all together.

The steer who had been gored had gotten to his feet and stood against the stone wall. None of the bulls came near him, and he did not attempt to join the herd.

This passage is followed near on by a fairly aggressive verbal attack by Mike (Brett Ashley's present husband) against Robert Cohn (her one-time pickup) in which Mike uses the following line:

"Tell me, Robert. Why do you follow Brett around like a poor bloody steer?"

So, an obvious and overt reference. However, the passage above has stronger and more lingering resonances within the work as a whole. Jake Barnes has suffered a wound during the war which makes it impossible for him to consummate his relationship with Brett. Thus he is the physical steer of the group. It is also possible that his animus toward Robert Cohn is a result not of his jealousy of Brett, but of his jealousy of and confused thoughts about Robert. This is more tentative, and only gotten at by straining against some of the borders of the text. However, it is provocative that the chief sign here is that of the gored or penetrated steer. This same steer is excluded from the crowd in a way that both Robert and Jake are excluded. But Robert continually makes feeble attempts to join the herd, and Jake while more accepted does see himself standing outside.

Another point that this attraction (if it exists) might help to explain is the reference, quoted in the passage yesterday to being a bad Catholic and possibly never being a good one. If the matter were merely Brett Ashley, it is possible that Jake could think of himself that way--especially as the passion is adulterous. But the hope of being a good Catholic is not forlorn, knowing that Brett is fickle and likely to run through another husband or two in time. But if there a mixed and uncertain feelings about Robert as well, that would clinch the deal.

I won't push this as an understanding of the book, merely as a possibility suggested by this key passage. Obviously other parts of the work would need to be brought forward to support the thesis. It may not sustain close scrutiny, but the thought that Jake may entertain thoughts, perhaps not overtly homosexual, but perhaps a certain attraction to Cohn for looks, character, and ability, does help to explain why he ultimately betrays Cohn by presenting Brett to Romero (also attacking at the same time the obnoxious Mike, who, as noted in the passage above, attacks Robert). It's complex, but it isn't out of the question. The question is, will a close reading of the rest of the book support it. If not, it is at least an interesting speculation arising from the close juxtaposition of passages and symbols.

Oh, and it is an interesting coincidence of no meaning whatsoever, that the gored steer stands against the stone wall (Stonewall). (What other sort of wall would there be in Pamplona in the late 20s early 30s--but still, amusing if one wishes to force a reading on the text--Hemingway as prophet.)

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 22, 2009 6:30 AM.

Some of the Longest Sentences You're Ever Likely to See was the previous entry in this blog.

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