Note: This post is part of The Hemingway Collection, an archive of essays, images, and hyperlinks to interesting articles about the great American author.
An essay on The Sun Also Rises by Katie Dehaan
WWI consumed the lives of millions. Those who lived through the war may have had only minor physical injuries or perhaps they were lucky enough to get away unscathed, but all of those who went home in the 1920s had lost a large chunk of the stuff of soul called hope. Hope is what feeds the soul, what burns to heat love and supplies meaning in a confusing world. The world had always been confusing before the war, but afterwards these expatriates had no energy, means, or desire to even attempt to find significance. Love was an empty word and empty people in search of sustenance looked in sex and in drunkenness and in superficial human relationships for this fulfillment which they were missing. They sucked what little any other person had to offer until no one had anything left to give. People then were alone – sorry individuals in a world that didn’t work. Feelings of disillusionment, loneliness, inadequacy, and alienation were commonplace. The characters in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises struggled with this, particularly Robert Cohn. He was a ray of hope that people just couldn’t bear. As if in a dark room when someone opened the shade. It hurts and one would rather close the shade than get used to the light. “It seems the bull-fighter chap was sitting on the floor. He was waiting to get strength enough to get up and hit Cohn again. Brett wasn’t having any shaking hands, and Cohn was crying and telling her how much he loved her, and she was telling him not to be a ruddy ass. Then Cohn leaned over to shake hands with the bull-fighter fellow. No hard feelings, you know. All for forgiveness. And the bull-fighter chap hit him in the face again.” As Mike spoke, he clearly showed us how much Cohn was pursuing Brett and how strongly everyone, including Brett, was rejecting and alienating him.
Robert Cohn was probably not even capable of truly being in love. He had severe self-esteem problems in college. “He took it out in boxing, and he came out of Princeton with painful self-consciousness and the flattened nose, and was married to the first girl who was nice to him.” Cohn was looking for love and thought he could find it in a girl who would care for him. All of the characters were dealing with this whole issue of self. Cohn, however, dealt with his problems in a different way. “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 felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton.” Cohn was willing to work and suffer physically to try to gain back some of what he wanted – acceptance and love. The others tried to simply escape their problems in sex, alcohol, work, or fishing. This is a similarity between Cohn and Romero. Although boxing is not as threatening as fighting bulls, the work and torment and sweat involved show the hope that they have that the end result is worth the work and pain. Cohn believed that true love existed, but he had never known it. “For four years his horizon had been absolutely limited to his wife. For three years, or almost three years, he had never seen beyond Frances. I am sure he had never been in love in his life.” “She [Frances] was very forceful, and Cohn never had a chance of not being taken in hand. Also he was sure that he loved her.”
Robert Cohn had two rather lengthy relationships – both three years or more. He did not fall in and out of love as quickly as the others. Brett thought she was in love with Romero only after seeing him from afar in the ring two or three times. Cohn, however, fell in love with Brett (or so he thought) and was willing to follow her around like a puppy as long as it would take to get her back. Even though she was married when he had his first affair with her and was engaged to get married again, he continued to pursue her. The others could not understand this willingness to wait. Mike expressed what they were all thinking but were not drunk enough to say to Cohn’s face. Mike was indeed drunk enough, as he usually was. “Tell me, Robert. Why do you follow Brett around like a poor bloody steer? Don’t you know you’re not wanted? I know when I’m not wanted. Why don’t you know when you’re not wanted? You came down to San Sebastian where you weren’t wanted, and followed Brett around like a bloody steer. Do you think that’s right?” Cohn only responded by saying, “Shut up. You’re drunk.” and then going to his hotel room to calm down and think. Again Robert Cohn was rejected for his romantic ideals and driven away. This time he was alienated physically as well as emotionally. As for Mike’s outburst, Jake had earlier stated, “Cohn had a wonderful quality of bringing out the worst in anybody.” Which is to say that Cohn’s hope was foreign to the other’s spiritual emptiness and that they reacted as if they were annoyed and angry at him because they couldn’t really feel any sense of loss.
Robert Cohn was almost always referred to by his full name, “Robert Cohn” or simply by his last name, “Cohn.” He was rarely called by his first name, although almost every other character was almost exclusively named by their first names. The other exceptions were Spider Kelly and Harris. They played minor roles, only making brief appearances in the novel. They were strangers. Robert Cohn, however, was seen throughout the book, but still remained a stranger of sorts, an outcast, and Hemingway emphasized this by calling him by a less personal name. Even Frances, his fiance, of whom we know even less, warrants only a first name. Pedro Romero was more often than not simply referred to as ‘Romero’, but he also was set apart by Hemingway due to the youth and hope that he represented through the book. His dealings with death and of his deep Spanish heritage set him apart. Hemingway also referred to him by his last name to keep the feel that one would have in the bull-fighting ring where he would not be called by his first name alone. Throughout the book, Romero is to be seen as someone to watch and not to truly interact with, as one who is in the ring. Cohn, on the other hand, is simply emotionally distanced and deliberately kept out of the clique.
Cohn came to represent alienation in the novel. After the first night of Festival in Pamplona, Jake retires early and goes back to the hotel alone. All of his friends were still out on the town, drinking, no doubt. It is not simply a coincidence that Jake could not find his key and had to go sleep in Robert Cohn’s room. In the morning, “I had bee sleeping heavily and I woke feeling I was too late. I put on a coat of Cohn’s and went out on the balcony. Down below the narrow street was empty. All the balconies were crowded with people. Suddenly a crowd came down the street. They were all running, packed close together. They passed along and up the street toward the bull-ring and behind them came some more men running faster and then some stragglers who were really running. Behind them was a little bare space, and then the bulls galloping, tossing thier heads up and down. It all went out of sight around the corner. One man fell, rolled to the gutter, and lay quiet. But the bulls went right on and did not notice him. They were all running together.” It is quite possible that this passage reflects how Cohn felt and saw things, through Jake’s eyes. Jake is the narrator, but Hemingway has established him as an observer. With Cohn’s jacket, on Cohn’s balcony, alone, Jake saw the bulls all running together and the men all running together and the one man fall unnoticed. That must have been how Robert Cohn felt his whole life. When Cohn had passed out in the restaurant, no one really noticed or cared. “Where’s Cohn?” “He’s passed out,” Brett called. “They’ve put him away somewhere.” “Where is he?” “I don’t know.” “How should we know,” Bill said. “I think he’s dead.”
Robert Cohn was one of the most intriguing characters in the novel. Not only did he seem to actually care about things that happened in the story, but he represented something abused and unappreciated and out of place. Cohn definitely did not fit in with a crowd of disillusioned people who believed that love had died with WWI. Sort of ironic that Robert Cohn may not have been able to love really, but he believed that he could. Deep down, he may not have felt as alienated from other people as Jake and Mike and Bill and Brett. But this shred of hope that he held on to was enough to disgust those around him that had lost theirs, and then Robert Cohn became the outcast for all others to exclude and spit upon to somehow feel superior because they were at that time a group all excluding the annoying solicitor that Cohn was. Because Cohn wasn’t selling sex or cheap thrills drenched in alcohol. His wares were hope, the possibility of real love, and persistence. But no one could understand.
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