Hemingway prefaces the novel with two quotes, one by Gertrude Stein, painter, poet, and social center of the American expatriates in 1920s Paris, and one by Ecclesiastes from the Bible. Stein's quote proclaims that Hemingway's is a "lost generation." Her title stuck and has since defined the moral, emotional, and physical emptiness of the young post-WWI generation, devastated by war and aimlessly seeking comfort in the superficial, hedonistic atmosphere of the 1920s. The quote from Ecclesiastes compares the permanence of the earth to the transience of men; Hemingway altered the words "'The sun also riseth'" for his novel's title. In one sense, the words of Ecclesiastes are an optimistic antidote to Stein's pessimism; though Hemingway's generation may be "lost," soon mankind will find himself again ("'One generation passeth away, and another generation commeth'"). On another level, the quote embraces the rejuvenation nature offers. This promise of natural rejuvenation will play an important role in the novel.
The narrator, Jake Barnes, describes Robert Cohn, who was the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Cohn took up boxing, though he disliked it, to compensate for the inferiority complex he developed as a Jew at Princeton. Cohn's nose was flattened while boxing, and Jake says no one he knows from Cohn's class remembers Cohn. From one of New York's richest, most prominent Jewish families, Cohn emerged from Princeton with low self-esteem, had an unsuccessful marriage, and lost most of his inheritance.
Cohn moved to California and edited and backed an arts magazine until it folded. A woman, Frances, who had been using Cohn for his rising status, moved with him to Paris so he could write a novel. There, Cohn became friends with Braddocks, his "literary" friend, and Jake, his "tennis" friend. Frances, wanting to marry Cohn, kept him on a short leash.
Cohn's time in Princeton is almost an allegory of a young soldier's going off to war: his early dreams of glory are quickly shattered, his body is physically changed (the flattened nose), and he leaves embittered. He is quickly exploited by two women, the first instance of the theme of manipulative sexuality that Hemingway will explore in greater depth.
We are also introduced into a social world of little responsibility -- Jake's crowd travels and drinks freely, Jake refers to himself as Cohn's "tennis" friend, and money is taken care of by rich relatives (Cohn is given an allowance by his mother).
Hemingway also deploys his influential style of spare, unadorned prose to good effect here; in giving a run-down of Cohn's character, Jake reveals himself as a quasi-reporter (indeed, he works for the newspaper, though not as a reporter, and Hemingway himself was a former journalist) who does not reveal much about himself. Jake doesn't even tell the reader his name -- we only find out when another character calls him by his first name -- or about his job, but lets you in on both his factual and emotional life through others.
For instance, Jake is somewhat sympathetic to the abuse and exploitation heaped on Cohn, and we intuit that Jake, too, must harbor similar feelings of inferiority. Though we know little about Jake's relationship with him so far, we will see that Jake is similar in some ways -- Cohn's flattened nose, for instance, foreshadows a less visible impairment Jake has (for Cohn, however, Jake maintains that the flattened nose has improved his appearance).
Jake recounts how Cohn left for America, sold his book to a good publisher who praised his efforts, had several affairs, and returned to Paris arrogant and rude. He strove to emulate W.H. Hudson's book, "The Purple Land," in which an Englishman has numerous romantic adventures.
One day, Cohn interrupts Jake in his newspaper office and proposes that they travel to South America, at Cohn's expense. Jake doesn't want to, but Cohn feels his life is slipping by him. Jake invites him to have a drink, since he knows he will be able to get rid of Cohn after one drink. At a café, Cohn expresses anxiety that their lives are half-over; Jake says he doesn't worry about death. Jake says he has to work, and Cohn joins him and reads the papers. Jake and the editor and publisher work hard and send out news stories. After, Jake wakes Cohn from a nightmare, and the two go to a café and have a drink.
With the sense that life is passing him by, Cohn seeks solace in adventure and sex. But Jake mentions that only bull-fighters truly experience life. For a former soldier, this is an odd admission. Ostensibly, Jake admires the bull-fighter because they confront death in their jobs, coming within inches of being gored every time they wave their red cape. Jake, as a soldier, confronted death frequently, too, but he probably would not consider fighting in a war on the same level. What sets the bull-fighters apart, at least in Jake's mind, will develop into an important theme later on in the novel.
Hemingway further details the shallow friendships and lack of responsibility in the expatriate circle. Jake gets rid of Cohn after a drink, and in much the same way Cohn wants to leave Paris, believing a new place will cure his boredom. This is the essence of the Lost Generation's aimlessness; disillusioned and unsure of their values, they are in a constant state of retreat rather than pursuit. The conventional offerings of life do not satisfy them; work is shown as unimportant -- newspaper people "should never seem to be working" -- and no one seems to care much about family life. All anyone does is drink, an ongoing effort to blind them to reality.
We get a sense of where Jake's narrative style comes from -- newspapers. He is trained in the hard, economical language of journalism, and he has a good eye for detail, real or fictional -- he says he has a "rotten habit of picturing the bedroom scenes of my friends."
Jake stays at the café after Cohn leaves. He watches a girl named Georgette walk past, then eventually catches her eye. They drink pernod together (an imitation of absinthe, which is a highly intoxicating, possibly hallucinogenic liquor) and take a horse-cab through town. When Jake rebuffs Georgette's seduction, she asks if he's "'sick,'" and he says he is. She says she's sick, too, and that he shouldn't drink pernod if he's sick -- however, it doesn't affect her as a woman. They eat dinner at a restaurant, and Jake explains he's sick because he "got hurt in the war."
Before they can discuss war, Braddocks calls over to Jake from another table with his wife, Cohn, Frances, and several others. Braddocks invites Jake and Georgette to a dance. Jake accepts. After he and Georgette finish their meal, they join the others for coffee. Mrs. Braddocks and Frances talk to Georgette.
The party arrives early at the empty dancing-club. They dance and work up a sweat in the hot room. Jake drinks in the doorway to cool off, and watches a crowd of young men with "white hands, wavy hair, white faces" enter. The policeman at the door gives Jake a knowing nod. With the young men is Lady Ashley, known to Jake as Brett. The men's flamboyant behavior annoys Jake to the point that he wants to punch them, though he knows he should be "tolerant." He leaves and has a beer at a bar down the street, then a cognac -- both drinks taste bad.
When he returns, Jake finds Georgette dancing with the men in turn. Jake sits down with his party and is introduced to Robert Prentiss, a new American novelist. Slightly drunk, Jake gets irritated by Robert's persistent questions about Paris. At the bar with Cohn, Brett talks to Jake. Jake finds her very good-looking, as does Cohn. Jake and Brett trade insults about her friends and his date. Cohn asks her to dance, but she says she has promised her last dance of the evening to Jake. Jake feels happy dancing with her. They decide to leave. Jake puts money in an envelope and gives it to the patronne (head of the club); he says to give it to Georgette if she leaves alone, but to save it for Jake if she leaves with one of the men. Cohn follows Jake and Brett outside, but they say good night to him. There are no taxis, so Jake and Brett silently wait inside a bar as a waiter hails them one. Finally, they get in one, and Brett confesses that she's been "'so miserable.'"
Jake's "sick"ness that prevents him from accepting Georgette's sexual offerings, and her statement that "'It doesn't make any difference with a woman,'" strongly suggests that Jake is impotent in some form. He never fully reveals his disability -- it is only strongly hinted at several times throughout the novel -- but it forms the basis of his pain, and its origin is the war. His impotence stands for the war's symbolic castration of the Lost Generation, especially the men. They felt as if they had lost their manhood in their return to the peacetime world.
Jake and Cohn best represent this loss of manhood, but it is applicable not only to the aimlessness of the Lost Generation. Rather, Hemingway explores in greater depth the new sexual relations that sprang up after World War I battered the male psyche. He is interested in the new power women wielded over their emasculated men. Cohn and Jake have little power in their dealings with women; Cohn (until his book's success, at least) is whipped and exploited by women, while Jake is literally impotent, "without power," and cannot fulfill the typical sexual expectations of a male.
The homosexual men who enter the club with Brett threaten Jake, and not only because they are with Brett. Even with their feminine appearance and behavior, their genitalia still functions -- they still have their "manhood," so to speak. To compensate for his feelings of inadequacy, Jake ups the ante on his drinking, imbibing another beer and then a harder cognac. But both taste bad, and Jake can't "take the taste out of my mouth"; there is no running away from his impotence.
Far more threatening to Jake than the homosexual men, and overall the most powerful, independent character in the novel, is Brett. Her traditionally male name is no mistake; she calls herself a "chap," has hair "brushed back like a boy's," and even her womanly curves are given a somewhat masculine connotation: "builtlike the hull of a racing yacht" (though boats are typically gendered as women, the fact that is a racing, and not luxury, yacht implies Brett's power and independence). She also has the capacity to wound Jake; though we know little about their relationship, she excites a response in him greater than any we have seen so far.
We see more evidence of the irresponsible behavior of the Lost Generation. Jake is happy to be drunk since it allows him to be "careless" and be angry at Robert Prentiss's persistent questions, but he is careless while sober, too. He lies and says Georgette is his fiancée and gives her the same name as a popular singer, all in an effort to poke fun both at her and at the naïveté of Mrs. Braddocks, who believes him. Though Jake is a sensitive observer of others and of himself (note the money he leaves for Georgette -- provided she does not go off with one of the men in the club), he often treats people as objects.
Jake and Brett ride in the taxi through Paris. They kiss, but she pulls away and tells him not to touch her, as she "'can't stand it'"; she tells him she "'turn[s] to jelly'" when he touches her. She says she doesn't want to go through "that hell again," but when Jake says they'll have to stay away from each other, she says she needs to see him. Referring to sex, she says that "'It isn't all that you know,'" but Jake says "'it always gets to be.'" Brett blames herself for causing men pain, and believes she is paying for it now; Jake says his condition is supposed to be funny, and that he never thinks about it. She relates how her brother's friend returned from war with the same condition.
Jake says it's a fun, "'enjoyable'" feeling to be in love, though Brett disagrees. They direct the taxi driver to a café. Brett finds her friends from the club. One introduces her to Count Mippipopolous (hereafter referred to as "the count"). Braddocks tells Jake that Georgette got in a fight with the patronne's daughter, and eventually someone took her home. Jake says he has to leave, and makes plans with Brett to see her tomorrow evening. She also tells him she received a letter from Mike today (we do not yet know who this is).
Jake walks home, passing a statue of Marshal Ney holding a sword. He gets his mail from the concierge in his flat and goes upstairs. He reflects on how so many people -- the Count and Lady Ashley, for instance -- have titles. He curses Brett, thinks about his condition, reads the newspaper, and tries to go to sleep. Instead, he thinks more about his condition, obtained on the Italian front. He thinks about how he wouldn't have had any trouble had he not met Brett when he was shipped to England; he believes she only wanted him because she couldn't have him. He thinks more about Brett and starts crying, then falls asleep.
He is woken by voices from outside, and the concierge tells him a woman has come to see him. Brett, drunk, comes upstairs. She says she just came from talking to the count, whom she finds interesting and says is "'one of us.'" The count offered her money to go with him to a number of exotic locales, but she kept saying she knew too many people there, so finally he took her to Jake's after she said she was in love with Jake. She says he wants to take them out to dinner tomorrow, and Jake accepts. She invites him to leave with her, as the count is waiting outside in a car, but he declines. They kiss and she leaves. He watches through the window as she gets in a limousine. Jake gets into bed and thinks about Brett some more and feels "'like hell again.'"
Brett doesn't want to go through with foreplay if it means they will ultimately be sexually stymied by Jake's impotence. She says she "turn[s] to jelly" when he touches her, but her phrase is indicative of the real problem -- that Jake is the one who, sexually speaking, is always held at the rigidity of jelly. (Another possible pun comes up when Brett, expressing skepticism about Jake's claim that he doesn't think about his impotence, says "'I'll lay you don't.'")
The statue Jake sees is a phallic symbol, with its sword (the penis) coming out of the "horse-chestnut leaves" (possibly representing testicles and pubic hair), and must mock Jake's impotence every time he passes it. He says that he and the others in the Italian hospital who were rendered impotent were going to form a "society." In a sense, the society has already been formed by men everywhere who have been devastated by the war.
The other society is the one Brett refers to when she says the Count is "'one of us.'" She includes Jake in this group when describing the count's cosmopolitan, elite demeanor, but Jake is not truly included in her "us." Not only does he not have a title or excessive amounts of money as they do (he needs to get up to work in the morning while they can frolic all night), he ultimately feels locked out of the sexual games they can play, even though Brett prefers his company to the count's and claims she loves him.
The other way Jake is separate from them is in the intensity of his pain. He cries in this scene and feels miserable each time he thinks about Brett, whereas we have witnessed Brett only talking about how "miserable" she feels and the "hell" she has gone through. Jake's revelation at the end, that he can be "hard-boiled" in the day but has a harder time at night, is one of the more intimate comments we will get from him. His adjective of choice even alludes to the new school of "hard-boiled" detective fiction that emerged after WWI. Laconic, wounded men, much like Jake, sprang up in American literature as a reaction to postwar emasculation. Jake admits, however, that he cannot maintain their level of stoicism, at least not while alone at night.