Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
The novel explores the lives and values of the so-called "Lost Generation," chronicling the experiences of Jake Barnes and several acquaintances on their pilgrimage to Pamplona for the annual fiesta and bull fights. Barnes' genitals had been mutilated as the result of an injury incurred during World War I; he is subsequently unable to consummate a sexual relationship with Brett Ashley, though his anatomy still compels him to be attracted to her. The story follows Jake and his various companions across France and Spain. Initially, Jake seeks peace away from Brett by taking a fishing trip to Burguete, deep within the Spanish hills, with companion Bill Gorton, another veteran of the war. The fiesta in Pamplona is the setting for the eventual meeting of all the characters, who play out their various desires and anxieties, alongside a great deal of drinking.
Lady Ashley, or Brett: An extremely attractive woman who is divorced from her husband after World War I, but not during the course of the novel, Brett is the object of lust for most of the male characters of the book. Portrayed as elusive and promiscuous, Brett, like Barnes, also lacks direction in life and finds emptiness in activities that she would have normally enjoyed during pre-war times. She is engaged to Michael.
Robert Cohn: His status as an outsider as a result of being Jewish has caused Cohn to develop an inferiority complex. Despite attempts to be civil and courteous, Cohn is the object of scorn from other characters. The novel's plot turns on his attempt to recover a brief affair he had with Brett, leading him to tag along with the group of expatriates, much to their collective vexation.
Michael Campbell: A Scottish veteran of the war, Michael is close friends with Jake and Bill, and engaged to Brett. Though he attempts to hide his contempt for Cohn, his fiery temper usually manifests itself during periods of heavy drinking.
Bill Gorton: An old friend of Barnes, Bill is also a veteran of the war and is less cruel than Michael in his attitudes towards Cohn. Despite also being a heavy drinker, Bill is often more light-hearted than the rest of his peers.
Pedro Romero: The star bullfighter of the fiesta, Romero is introduced to Jake and his friends, falls in love with Brett, and then they split up when they recognize her inability to commit to a sustained relationship. His autonomy, steadfastness, and commitment make him a model for Jake, who possesses none of these qualities even though he aspires to them. Furthermore, the younger Pedro Romero having been born in 1905 represents the younger Civic Generation, often referred to as the Greatest Generation. This served to further demonstrate the Lost Generation's feelings of insecurity and disillusionment compared to their next-younger Generation.
One way to read the novel is as an inverted novel of initiation. In traditional initiation stories, a young man leaves his home or community, goes through experiences that change his character or worldview, and returns to take his place in his community as a mature person. Jake Barnes, in contrast, leaves his autonomous position in Paris to join the group on their trip to Pamplona. His experiences there constitute an initiation, though not an initiation into the group but an initiation into self-reliance apart from the group. At the end, he renounces the detrimental influence of his friends and especially of Brett. If Brett is the "sun" of the title around whom the men revolve, Jake has succeeded in breaking out of the orbit and becoming an independent person (another sun) himself. Ultimately, the novel propagates the self-reliance and autonomy embodied by Romero, the bullfighter whom Jake admires.
Alternatively, the novel delivers a scathing indictment of the culture which relies on "simple exchange of values." Meaning is impossible to find in this entirely relational system. Jake hints at the possibility of an escape, of "finding out what it's all about," with his work, his interest in the earthy activities of bullfighting and fishing, and his obvious dissatisfaction, yet he too is increasingly bound by the wretched ennui that seizes all. Only once the unsustainable, unreal, novel-society has disintegrated entirely is there any hope of progression, and this hope is but scant; the values of accumulation and expenditure on which the novel relies are those which underlie modern Western culture.
While most critics tend to take the characters seriously, some have argued that the novel is satirical in its portrayal of love and romance. It shows Jake and Cohn, the two male protagonists, vying for the affections of Brett, who is clearly unworthy of the naive praise they heap on her (Cohn openly, Jake implicitly). This could be true in the sense that all of Hemingway's writing "pokes fun at" humans, their vulnerabilities and foibles. However, Hemingway is usually considered too dismayed with the human condition to have been anything but serious, and the situations of his characters so pathetic as to have moved well beyond simple sarcasm.
In The Sun Also Rises, gender issues are dealt with very seriously by critics, though there is little consensus among them. Some critics charge that the depiction of Brett as a 'liberated woman' is intrinsic to her divisiveness in relationships throughout the novel, and therefore that Hemingway saw strong women as causing trouble, particularly for the men who otherwise dominate the novel. The reading of Brett as a 'strong' or 'liberated woman' is itself debatable, however, as she seems unable to live outside a heterosexual relationship. Twice divorced, she has a sexual relationship with almost every man she meets, which suggests a neurotic and necessarily unsuccessful craving for security rather than independence from men. In this reading, Brett is as much a victim of the war and its destruction of social mores as are the male characters. Other critics have argued that Brett signifies the castration of Jake, meanwhile defenders suggest that Brett actually becomes the main character by being the only person Jake is truly interested in. Although the reasons vary significantly from critic to critic, the majority of critical opinion still labels Brett's character as an expression of misogyny.
Another point of criticism is Hemingway's depiction of character Robert Cohn, a Jewish man who is often the subject of mockery by his peers. Though some critics have interpreted this as anti-Semitism on the part of Hemingway, defenders of the book argue that Cohn is depicted in a sympathetic manner, mocked not due to his religion but due to his failure to serve during World War I. Interestingly, Hemingway is reported to have said that Cohn was the "hero" of the book, and Harold Loeb, the Jewish writer who served as a model for Cohn, defended Hemingway from charges of anti-Semitism.