This classic Hemingway story is set in the post-World War I and Prohibition era. It is the age of cynics and booze. The men and women not involved in the war have a romanticized view of life while the war vets are much more cynical. The characters encountered can be found in small clubs and bars drowning themselves in booze and hooking up with various men and women. They have a dependence upon the physical elements of life in order to escape the effects of the war.
The novel follows the story of Robert Cohn, Lady Brett Ashley, Bill Gorton and Mike Campbell, and is told from the perspective of Jake Barnes. Jake is an American World War I vet who, during the war, had a terrible accident where his genitals were removed. Jake struggles throughout the book with his loss of masculinity and his love for Lady Brett Ashley, but at least he has room in his jockey shorts. When we meet Jake he is working as a journalist in Paris where he and his friends drink heavily together and attend parties.
Lady Brett Ashley is married to Lord Ashley mainly for the title and his money. As the novel opens, Brett is separated from her husband and awaiting a divorce. She loves Jake, but doesn’t commit to a relationship with him because of his accident. She has a long strand of lovers whom she never fully commits to but has affairs with. The pleasure she attempts to find in men leaves her unhappy, but even in her independence she finds herself alone and unfulfilled.
Robert Cohn is a writer in Paris and a quasi friend of Jake’s. Because Cohn had no direct experience of the war and he is Jewish, he is often ostracized and mocked by the other characters in the book, especially by Jake. They find his values on the romanticism of life before the war absurd. His girlfriend, Frances Clyne, is manipulative and domineering; in their relationship, she wears the pants. She is frequently possessive of Cohn and jealous of any other female interests he may have.
Bill Gorton is one of Jake’s war veteran pals who is a heavy drinker like Jake. His humor is a coping mechanism to deal with the emotional and psychological ramifications of the war. Bill and Jake’s friendship is one of the only genuine examples of an emotional bond in the novel.
Mike Campbell is a Scottish war veteran with a terrible temper manifesting during his frequent bouts of drunkenness. Mike becomes Brett’s fiancé for a while, until she decides she doesn’t want to commit to him. He is frequently insecure about Brett’s infidelity and his lack of finances.
In the second half of the book Jake, Cohn, Brett, Bill and Mike take a trip to Spain to see the bullfights. They are all quite taken with the beautiful performance of nineteen-year-old bullfighter, Pedro Romero. He serves as a foil for Jake and his friends because of his dignity and confidence. Romero’s purity and strength is in direct contrast to Jake’s corrupted masculinity as well as the immoral actions of the group.
Brett ends up hooking up with Romero and then leaving him for fear that she’ll ruin his career and because she wants to return to Mike. Jake picks her up in a taxi and he and Brett share their feelings that they could have had such a great time together but it could never have happened between them referenced in Jake’s last line, “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so?
By Carly Thompson