[Cohn] learned [boxing] painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton.
The novel begins with Jake Barnes, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, describing Robert Cohn. Cohn was born to a wealthy Jewish family in New York. At Princeton, Cohn faced rampant anti-Semitism. To minimize his feelings of inferiority and to combat his shyness, he threw himself into boxing, becoming the university’s middleweight champion. He married very soon after his graduation, on the rebound from his unhappy college experience. He and his wife had three children. Cohn lost most of his fifty-thousand-dollar inheritance, and, after five years, his wife left him, just when he had made up his mind to walk out on her. After the divorce, Cohn moved to California. There, he began spending time with a literary crowd, and he soon began backing a magazine. While in California, Cohn became involved with Frances Clyne, a manipulative status-seeker. When Cohn’s magazine failed, Frances persuaded Cohn to take her to Paris to join the postwar crowd of expatriates.
During his time in Paris, Cohn has few friends, one of whom is Jake. Cohn takes up writing while in Paris, and finishes a novel. As Frances begins to age and starts to lose her beauty, her attitude toward Cohn changes from one of careless manipulation to fierce determination to make him marry her. Jake first becomes aware of Frances’s attitude while he dines one night with her and Cohn. Cohn suggests that he and Jake take a weekend trip. Jake suggests that they go to Strasbourg, in northeastern France, because he knows a girl there who can show them around. Cohn kicks him under the table several times before Jake gets the hint and notices Frances’s look of displeasure. After dinner, Cohn follows Jake to ask why he mentioned the girl and explains that Frances will not permit him to take any trip that involves seeing a girl.
Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters.
That winter, Cohn travels to New York to find a publisher for his novel. There he gains new confidence. The publishers praise the novel, and several women are “nice” to him. He also wins several hundred dollars playing bridge. This success, combined with reading a romantic chronicle of an English gentlemen traveling abroad, infects Cohn with wanderlust. Upon returning to Paris, he comes to Jake’s office to persuade him to travel to South America with him, offering to pay for the entire trip. He worries that he is not living life to the fullest. Jake responds that only bullfighters live their lives “all the way up.”
Tired of Cohn pestering him in the office, Jake invites Cohn downstairs to have a drink. Jake knows that once they finish the drink it will be easier to get rid of Cohn. At the bar, Cohn continues to harangue Jake about traveling outside of Paris. He complains that he is tired of Paris and the Latin Quarter. Jake asserts that Cohn’s discontent has nothing to do with geography, saying, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.” After the drink, Jake says he needs to return to the office to work. Cohn asks if he can sit outside in the waiting room. Jake allows him to, and, after he is finished at work, he and Cohn have a drink and watch the evening Parisian crowd.
You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.
That Jake begins his story by talking about someone else—Robert Cohn—reveals his observer mentality. Jake frequently chooses to speak about other people rather than himself. Often the only means of gaining insight into his character is to read his reactions to other characters. In typical fashion, his portrait of Cohn indirectly reveals aspects of Jake’s personality that he does not mention straight out. He states that he likes Cohn, but his description of Cohn has a patronizing tone. He describes Cohn’s confrontation with the anti-Semitic atmosphere at Princeton, but his sympathy is tainted with a trivializing attitude, perhaps pointing to a latent anti-Semitism of his own. Hence, we learn that Jake does not respect Cohn. He regards him as a somewhat pathetic, ignorant, and inexperienced man. Jake’s disdainful attitude toward Cohn may stem from the fact that Cohn never fought in World War I. Jake also characterizes Cohn as shy and insecure and subject to the control and manipulation of women. This characterization of Cohn as weak reveals Jake’s unspoken anxiety regarding his own masculinity.
Cohn worries that he is not living his life the way he ought, but he cannot figure out what is lacking in his life. Like many characters in the novel, he fixates on travel as a solution to his feelings of discontent. Jake, however, realizes that Cohn’s unhappiness stems from his personality and lifestyle, and that these will hound him wherever he goes. Cohn’s travels, Jake understands, would be as aimless and unfulfilling as his life in Paris. Typically, however, Jake offers no alternative solution to Cohn’s dissatisfaction. Instead, he asserts that only bullfighters live their lives to the fullest. He implies that nearly everyone suffers from Cohn’s feeling of discontentment, and that Cohn must learn to live with it. Throughout the novel, Jake demonstrates an ability to identify problems but an inability to solve them.