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.
Jake introduces Robert Cohn in the novel’s first paragraph with a sentence that reveals three important aspects of Robert’s character: his inner contradictions, the social effects of his Jewish heritage, and his corresponding male insecurity, all of which play into the drama that ensues. This description follows Jake’s mention of Robert’s college middleweight boxing title, a detail that plays a significant role later in the novel.
He was not in love yet but he realized that he was an attractive quantity to women, and that the fact of a woman caring for him and wanting to live with him was not simply a divine miracle.
Jake describes how Robert Cohn has changed since his return to America and the success of his novel. His confidence has grown. Formerly, he had never looked beyond his marriage, and afterwards, for several more years, he had not seen beyond his relationship with Frances. His success made him reevaluate himself and realize his own worth. Jake thinks that Robert’s new confidence makes him much less pleasant to be around.
She stood holding the glass and I saw Robert Cohn looking at her. He looked a great deal as his compatriot must have looked when he saw the promised land.
Jake uses a biblical allusion to describe Robert’s immediate attraction to Brett Ashley. Jake compares Robert’s emotions on seeing Brett for the first time to Moses’ when first seeing the land God had promised to the Jews. Robert’s intense infatuation foreshadows the love affair to come. Robert is much younger than Brett, but she is a stunningly beautiful woman, and Jake has already seen Robert’s newfound confidence in himself. Jake understands the age difference won’t matter in the end.
I shouldn’t wonder if I were in love with her.
Robert confesses his more than casual interest in Brett while asking Jake for information about her. Robert and Jake’s discussion becomes a quarrel when Jake suggests that Brett marries men she doesn’t love. Robert responds quickly to defend Brett’s honor. Readers may infer, however, that Robert feels smitten mostly because of Brett’s appearance rather than any internal honorable quality.
Cohn still sat at the table. His face had the sallow, yellow look it got when he was insulted, but somehow he seemed to be enjoying it. The childish, drunken heroics of it. It was his affair with a lady of title.
Jake describes the scene after Mike taunts Robert, telling him he’s unwanted, asking him to leave, and hurling anti-Semitic insults at him. Like other men in the presence of Lady Ashley, Robert melts into a puddle of insecure attraction, as if he were a boy again. Despite Mike’s behavior, Robert stays seated, reluctant to give up his place inside Brett’s circle. He and Brett once lived together in San Sebastian, but now the group has marginalized him by making him the butt of their jokes.
“I’ll make you tell me”—he stepped forward— “You damned pimp.” I swung at him and he ducked. I saw his face duck sideways in the light. He hit me and I sat down on the pavement.
Jake describes the scene in which Robert approaches him and demands to know Brett’s location. Robert will not accept that Brett has rejected him and has turned her attention to so many others. Early in the novel, readers learn that Robert is a boxing champion, and Robert displays those skills here. When Robert hits Jake, he knocks him down, hurts him badly, and punches him again. Later, Robert apologizes, claiming that he was out of his mind about Brett.
I’ve been through hell, Jake. It’s been simply hell. When I met her down here Brett treated me as though I were a perfect stranger. I just couldn’t stand it. We lived together at San Sebastian.
Robert tries to make amends with Jake after beating him up. Earlier, Bill encouraged Jake to go to Robert’s room to hear him out. During their talk, Robert cries and apologizes for his violent behavior, claiming that Brett’s rejection drove him to act irrationally. He asks for Jake’s forgiveness, which Jake gives. They shake hands, but Robert’s actions have dealt a serious setback to their friendship and mark the end of his contact with Brett.