Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton.
These lines open the novel, as Jake begins a brief biographical sketch of Robert Cohn. This passage presents many of the themes and motifs that the novel goes on to develop, such as competitiveness and resentment between men and insecurity. For example, Cohn suffers from feelings of “inferiority” because he is Jewish, and, as soon becomes clear, nearly every male character in the novel finds something about which to feel inferior. It is significant that none of the themes in this brief passage is presented directly; rather, they are all invoked implicitly, demonstrating Hemingway’s style of stating relatively little but implying a great deal.
These sentences also have a noticeable tone of condescension. As the novel progresses, this condescension develops into outright hostility and antagonism toward Cohn. Over the course of the novel, we come to realize that Jake’s hostile and skeptical attitude toward Cohn is bound up with jealousies and insecurities of his own.
Finally, we learn from this passage that Cohn has an intense need to be accepted. Although he dislikes boxing, he perfects it in order to better his social position at Princeton. This need for acceptance proves harmful to Cohn in his relationships with Jake and Brett, who cannot stomach his insecurities.
[Cohn:] “I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.”
[Jake:] “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters.”
In this quotation, taken from Chapter II, Cohn verbalizes one of the key dilemmas afflicting the Lost Generation. In the wake of World War I, many young men and women felt their lives had no purpose or substance. Cohn worries that he is wasting his brief time on earth. Jake’s comfort is really not comfort at all. He advises Cohn that “[n]obody” feels fulfilled in their lives, except a small group of extraordinary people. Of course, Cohn cannot become a bullfighter. Jake implies that Cohn must learn to live with his feeling of discontent. This advice is demonstrative of Jake’s character: although he understands the flaws of the world and the people around him, he almost never takes action to correct those flaws. He simply accepts them, as he advises Cohn to do.
Jake says these words to Cohn in Chapter II when Cohn tries to convince him to travel to South America. Cohn feels dissatisfied with his life in Paris, and he believes that a change of location will fill the void he senses in his life. Jake knows that such reasoning is nonsense—Cohn’s unhappiness stems from his outdated values and his decadent lifestyle, which will not be any different anywhere else. As with the previous quote, Jake demonstrates a unique insight into the problems and activities of the postwar generation. Many of Jake’s friends, and indeed Jake himself, try to cure their unhappiness through constant travel, either on a small scale, from bar to bar, or on a large one, from country to country. Jake shows here that he knows that such travel is futile and ultimately purposeless. The discontent of the Lost Generation is psychological, not geographic.
[Jake:] “Couldn’t we live together, Brett? Couldn’t we just live together?”
[Brett:] “I don’t think so. I’d just tromper you with everybody.”
This exchange between Jake and Brett, which occurs in Chapter VII, after Brett shows up at Jake’s home in Paris with Count Mippipopolous, encapsulates the central conflict of the novel, which is rarely directly expressed. One must read closely to understand what is at stake and what is being discussed. As always in Hemingway’s prose, while little is said, much is communicated. Jake begs Brett to be with him, but she replies that she would always “tromper” him, a French word here meaning “to commit adultery.” A wound Jake received during the war rendered him impotent, and he thus cannot satisfy Brett’s need for sex. With her words, she is telling Jake that she would have to go with other men behind Jake’s back, which she knows he wouldn’t be able to stand. This central, intractable emotional conflict forms the backdrop for the action of the novel.
“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
These are the final lines of the novel, presenting Brett and Jake’s final dialogue, spoken in a taxi at the end of Chapter XIX. Jake has endured an attack by Cohn and helped Brett in her seduction of Romero. Brett has pushed Romero away and now finds herself alone again. In this concluding passage, the lament over what could have been is truly poignant, and for many this represents the novel’s finest moment. Just as Brett voices, one last time, the dream that the two of them could have had a relationship, a policeman raises his baton and symbolically signals a halt. The car’s sudden deceleration presses Brett tantalizingly close to Jake, echoing a number of similar scenes earlier in the novel, but the barrier between them is quite clear now. Moreover, Jake’s slightly cynical and bitter reply shows that he has no illusions about their relationship. He seems to appreciate the fact that a relationship between himself and Brett, if such a thing had been possible, would have been unlikely to end differently than any of her other failed relationships. Yet Jake’s subtle doubts only increase the poignancy of the novel’s closing lines. Their relationship is revealed to have been merely a beautiful dream, a dream that is now slipping away forever.