That Old Green-Eyed Monster - The Sun Also Rises
Of all the male characters in The Sun Also Rises, Robert Cohn is conspicuous for having not fought in WW1, and so, is not technically a member of the “lost generation.” He is a successful writer, trained as a boxer, and Jewish, which, as mentioned, is made a big deal of in the story. Robert Cohn is mentioned straight off in the book’s opening:
“Robert Cohn was once middle-weight boxing campion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn…Robert Cohn was a member, through his father, of one of the richest Jewish families in New York, and through his mother of one of the oldest.”
In fact, the first twenty-one pages of Sun concern Robert Cohn, seen through the eyes of Jake Barnes. Robert is a successful novelist, Jake is not. Robert is independently wealthy, Jake is not. Robert is popular with the ladies, and Jake has that nasty war wound that leaves him unable to have sex. Robert is mentioned continuously throughout the book, up to the point near the end when he leaves town.
Now, the discerning reader might wonder: if this book is about Jake Barnes and the lost generation, then why the heck does it devote so much space to a different character who did not fight in WW1?. It seems to be all about how Jake knows a lot about Robert’s life and resents him.
Hmmm. Is the story about Jake’s (ahem) envy?
At no place in Sun, does Jake say he’s jealous of Robert. He says a lot about how he doesn’t like him. But given the iceberg theory of there being a huge amount going on beneath the story’s surface, let’s consider my idea that for Jake, Robert is a kind of symbol of all Jake wants to be but isn’t.
As things develop, we learn about that human racing yacht, Brett Ashley, and the love between she and Jake. Robert seems smitten with Brett, and then we learn that the two of them went off to San Sebastian and lived together as lovers.
Here, this is revealed as Brett and Jake discuss the upcoming trip to Pamplona.
“Brett looked up at me. ‘I say,’ she said. ‘Is Robert Cohn going on this trip?’
‘Don’t you think it will be a bit rough on him?’
‘Why should it?’
“Who do you think I went down to San Sebastian with?’
‘Kay. So that rascal Brett is now with Mike whom she plans to marry and claims to love Jake. She’s concerned that Robert Cohn will be jealous—he is. So is Jake, I think, although in true iceberg style, he doesn’t let on. Robert Cohn joins the group as they go to Spain, mopes around staring at Brett and sighing in puppy-dog fashion. Mike and Jake are both cruel to him. He beats both of them up.
Brett becomes smitten with Pedro Romero, the young bullfighter, and seduces him. Mike and Jake deal with this by staying drunk most of the time. Robert Cohn on the other hand, bursts into Pedro and Brett’s bedroom and beats the tar out of Pedro and tells Brett he still loves her. When Brett tells him to get lost, he does, tearfully.
The conversation between Jake and Brett at the end of the novel seems, on the surface, to be about Brett’s affair with Pedro Romero. However, careful reading shows it may be equally about Brett’s affair with Robert Cohn.
The context is that Jake has arrived at the Hotel Montana in Madrid after receiving a telegram from Brett saying she needed his help.
“You ought to feel set up.” (In the vernacular of the times, I believe this means, feeling good that Brett is free of Romero).
“I do. I’m all right again. He’s wiped out that damned Cohn.”
“You know I’d have lived with him if I hadn’t seen it was bad for him. We got along damned well.”
“Outside of your personal appearance.”
“Oh, he’d have gotten used to that.”
She put out the cigarette.
“I’m thirty-four, you know. I’m not going to be one of those bitches that ruins children.”
She looked away. I thought she was looking for another cigarette. Then I saw she was crying…
“Don’t let’s ever talk about it. Please don’t lets ever talk about it.”
They leave the hotel together and drink heavily. Jake becomes very drunk, and the book ends with his saying that the idea of he and Brett being a couple was “a pretty idea,” the implication being that it’s never going to happen.
So, Brett says that Romero has “wiped out” the memory of her affair with Robert Cohn. Hmmm. That’s kind of an acknowledgement that it was significant, no? Jake grunts a monosyllabic “Good.” Then Brett says, apparently referring to Romero, that she’d have lived with him. “We got along damned well.” But it’s really unclear whether she’s referring to Romero or Cohn. Jake mentions Brett’s personal appearance, a reference to Romero wanting her to have longer hair. In other words, Jake tries to clearly establish they are talking about Romero, not Cohn. Then, Brett says that she had no intention of “ruining children.” Now, Pedro Romero has no children, Robert Cohn has three. It could be that she’s saying Romero wanted children and that she’d make a poor mother, but it’s ambiguous. Then she starts crying and says she doesn’t want them to talk anymore about it. And Jake is only too happy to go along with not talking about “it.” He gets supremely drunk.
My theory is that Jake, lacking a penis, knows Robert Cohn was attracted to Brett and maybe she to him and was jealous. He was stunned when he learns that Brett and Robert have been living together. And then Robert refuses to “play by the rules.” He pursues Brett to Pamplona and confronts her, only leaving when she clearly rejects him. But then Jake is called in to bail Brett out of trouble and must endure Brett’s talking ambiguously about her affair with Robert. Jake reacts by getting snookered. He doesn’t want to face the truth. Brett, the woman he claims to love, was involved with the guy he’s been jealous of for months, the guy who seems to have all he lacks.
Robert is a somewhat one-dimensional character who acts as a symbol of what Jake desires.
And at the end, Jake remains unchanged. He’s unable to commit to anything and is an alcoholic, drowning his troubles. If the question posed by Sun is can Jake transform into a better person, the answer is no.
The iceberg style, which cuts a lot away, creates both an openness in the text that invites the reader’s participation as well as complex, multi-layered scenes. In the above example, we have Brett and Jake talking about one relationship on the surface but referring to a different one without naming names. In a relatively simple passage, Hemingway shows Brett’s feelings about Pedro Romero and about Robert Cohn, and he shows that Jake is jealous of both.
Next time, let’s consider the portrayal of women in Sun.