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.