Book I, Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
Robert Cohn: Princeton grad; Jake’s tennis partner; Frances’ lover
Jake Barnes: narrator
Frances: Robert’s girlfriend
Braddocks: Robert’s literary friend
Spider Kelly: Robert’s college boxing coach; only mentioned in story
Robert Cohn is introduced as an integral character whose life is filled with insecurities. At Princeton, he had taken up boxing as a defense mechanism for insecurities of being Jewish. He was overmatched and got his nose flattened, which made him dislike boxing but like the power his skill could give him. No one from school remembers him.
His shyness made him marry the first girl who was nice to him. He was unhappily married, had three children, lost most of his inheritance, and ultimately was devastated when his wife deserted him.
After the divorce, he goes to California and falls among literary types. With little money, he backs an arts review publication. He is taken on by Frances, an overbearing woman wanting to rise socially. When Cohn can no longer afford the magazine, she decides to take what she can and insists on a trip to Europe so Robert can write. They stay for three years, mostly in Paris. During this time, Robert has two friends in Europe, Braddocks and Jake.
When Frances’ looks begin to deteriorate, she decides Robert should marry her, since he receives a comfortable allowance of $300 per month. At this point in their relationship, her attitude changes from apathy to jealousy and possessiveness. At dinner, when Jake mentions another woman, Robert kicks him under the table so Jake will avoid the topic since Frances is so jealous. Robert decides on travel plans based on these jealousies. As they part, he worries Jake may be angry.
From the Ecclesiastes quote that precedes Chapter 1, Hemingway has derived both his title and his theme. “One generation passeth away, and another cometh; but the earth abideth forever.” Stein’s “lost generation” is always in quest of something that neither Hemingway nor his characters find.
Seemingly little plot happens in this chapter, but Hemingway sets the stage for Robert’s later choices. Robert is a man inadequate in most areas. As a writer, he is poor. His religion is also undesirable since he was ridiculed at Princeton and by other characters throughout the novel for being Jewish. He is physically unappealing both before and after his nose is smashed.
When Jake says the flattening “certainly improved his nose,” he is referring to Robert’s typically long Jewish nose. This reference to the anti-semitism of the 1920s explains Robert’s feelings of inferiority and shyness because of anti-Jewish feelings in Princeton. Jake feels Cohn became good at boxing to protect himself against jeering and insults. No one remembers him as a boxer, how¬-
ever, probably because his faith made him insignificant to his classmates.
Robert is equally inept with women. First, he marries because his wife pays attention to him, but he cannot keep her happy. Then, he is a failure as a man with Frances, who assumes the lead in their relationship. In this chapter, when he gets attention from women because of his writing and later when Brett sleeps with him, he does not put that attention into perspective. His lack of social skills makes him see these things as more important than they are.
He is unable to be assertive, not only with women but also with men. He only has two friends and alienates his acquaintances. He is insecure enough to make decisions based on if Frances is jealous or if Jake is offended. Later, when he fights with Jake and others, he does not see his indignation as justified but rather begs their forgiveness.
Robert’s relationship with Frances demonstrates his personality throughout the book. Frances is the leader, Robert the follower. She wants Robert for companionship and the security that he can give her and does not display a desire for him except as it will benefit her.
Frances, and later more obviously Brett, represents...
(The entire section is 1,117 words.)