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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARIES AND NOTES
The first chapter is a portrait of Robert Cohn, drawn by his friend (and the book's narrator) Jake Barnes. Keep in mind that Jake Barnes is not Hemingway, nor is he always completely reliable as a narrator. Jake has very strong beliefs that can cloud his judgment, so you should not trust everything he tells you. Robert Cohn is a good case in point: Jake makes him out to be the book's villain, but don't blindly accept this. Some readers consider Cohn the hero of the book.
Robert Cohn comes from a wealthy Jewish family. He went to Princeton at a time when the school was filled with socially prominent white Anglo-Saxons. As a Jew, he was made to feel like an outsider. Too shy and gentle to attack the school's anti-Semitism straight on, he turned to boxing and became the school's middleweight champion. This was his only success, and years later none of his classmates even remembers him.
At school Cohn developed a "painful self-consciousness," probably because he could never forget he was a Jew and an outsider. Self-consciousness is seen by Jake and his friends as a sign of weakness. They have no patience or sympathy for a person who is easily ruffled and who cannot distance himself from his feelings. To Jake and the others, it's better to know who you are and to accept yourself without apologies or regrets. Cohn, on the contrary, is always blind to his faults. His blindness gets him and others into trouble.
Rejected at school, Cohn married "the first girl who was nice to him." The marriage came to nothing, and just when Cohn decided to leave her, she beat him to it. Even life itself, it seemed, was unable to take Cohn seriously, and treated him as a joke.
Doing the fashionable thing, Cohn now became involved in the arts, first as a patron, then by starting his own magazine. This put him in the company of other writers, which made him feel he ought to write a novel. He did, but it was poor.
Jake now brings us up to the present. Cohn has become involved with a woman named Frances, and has gone off to Paris with her. Many young Americans-including Jake-are living here after World War I.
The Bohemian life-style of these expatriate Americans is in many ways the subject of the book. Notice how their days are spent doing nothing but sitting in cafes, eating and drinking, talking about writing, and gossiping about people and their affairs.
It is in a cafe that Jake finds out how tight a rein Frances keeps on Cohn. When Jake suggests they go to Austria-Jake knows a girl there who can show them around-Cohn kicks him under the table. Frances is fiercely jealous. Cohn, a victim of his need for acceptance, is afraid to upset her, and refuses to go.
Jake, it seems, is fond of Robert Cohn, but he feels sorry for him, too.
Jake tells about Cohn's trip to America, where his new book is favorably received. Women are suddenly attracted to him, and both successes go to his head. Cohn starts to look at other women, and Frances feels rightly threatened.
By now you should have learned something important about Cohn and his relationship to the other characters in the book. Cohn is an oldfashioned romantic. The others are realists; they see the world as it is. Cohn, according to Jake, sees life falsely because he sees it as he would like it to be. Cohn, for instance, thinks life is "pretty." Jake ridicules him for getting his ideas from books, and not even good books at that. One, The Purple Land, tells of "splendid imaginary amorous adventures... in an intensely romantic land." Later you'll watch Cohn pursue a woman (who he wrongly believes loves him) to the supposedly romantic land of Spain.
Cohn begs Jake to run off with him to South America. If anything sounds like an impossibly romantic adventure, this surely does-and Jake of course refuses to go. So what if you're not leading the life of a hero, he tells Cohn, "nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters."
Cohn keeps after Jake, and Jake uses a ploy to get rid of him. He invites Cohn to a cafe beneath the newspaper office where Jake works, buys him a drink, then says he has to get back to work. Even this doesn't get rid of Cohn, who falls asleep outside the office. Cohn, here and elsewhere, seems a tagalong, a younger brother who wants to go everywhere, even when his older brother wants to be left alone.
Jake, the realistic voice, tells Cohn that a person can't escape himself: "You can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another," he says. Jake believes that a person should live with himself, hard as that may be. Cohn, on the contrary, wants to be someone other than himself. As a reader you can share Jake's belief that Cohn's blindness to himself is a fault; or you can see this blindness as a strength, giving Cohn a sense of purpose and a capacity for sacrifice that the "realistic" characters lack.
How does a person with no illusions learn to live with himself? Jake, named after the Biblical Jacob who wrestled the angel one long night, spends his life wrestling with this question without ever resolving it.