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.