Bloodier and deadlier than its predecessors, the First World War shattered many hopes and convictions causing widespread disillusionment. Though seldom mentioned, this psychological destruction dictates the actions of Ernest Hemingway’s characters in The Sun Also Rises and isolates Robert Cohn who did not experience the war first-hand. By analysing Cohn’s struggle for respect, it becomes evident that Hemingway uses Cohn’s sensitivity and idealism to juxtapose the new male psyche of the lost generation, damaged by the war. This juxtaposition manifests in the novel’s exposition which presents a conflicting view of Cohn. While the reader is inclined to revere Cohn, “a thoroughly nice boy” who boxed to counteract his inferiority of being a Jew at Princeton, the narrator, Jake, colours this portrayal with rancour (11). Without explicitly stating that Cohn is not a veteran of the Great War, Jake’s narration focuses on his distrust for the “frank and simple” Jew and foreshadows the frequent antagonism towards Cohn (12).
It is notable that this antagonism tends to be rooted in Cohn’s “Jewish superiority,” a characterization that lends itself to the anguish of the socially displaced (166). However, one must acknowledge that this anti-Semitism is a façade for the male characters’ hostility towards the non-veteran who is seemingly insensitive to the emotional states of his companions. This perception is confirmed by Mike who criticizes Cohn’s sobriety and often asks “Why don’t you ever get drunk, Robert?” (146). Unlike the veterans, who seek solace in a frivolous life of habitual drinking, Cohn is comfortable in reality: a painful reminder of his companions emotional barren lives. This existential angst, which typifies the lost generation, is accompanied by deep insecurity that resulted from the erosion of traditional notions of masculinity during the war. Mike’s drunken tirades against Cohn epitomize this. By deriding Cohn for following Brett around like “a steer…
They never say anything and they’re always hanging about so,” Mike confirms that the veterans cope with their own insecurities by criticizing the weakness they see in Cohn. This tendency persists when Jake condemns Cohn for expressing that he does not “believe she [Brett] would marry anybody she didn’t love,” (46) and when Bill reveals that Cohn’s niceness is “the terrible part” about him (107). These rudimentary insults, which negatively depict Cohn’s admirable qualities, echo the sentiment of the lost generation that past values, such as sensitivity and idealism, were irrelevant in the post-war world. Jake embodies this cultural dissociation when he reflects on Cohn’s affair with Brett and comments that “It must have been pleasant for him to see her looking so lovely, and know he had been away with her and that everyone knew it” (150). While Cohn speaks very little of his affair, his actions reveal his love for Brett which causes Jake to interpret this silence as conceitedness.
This conclusion is significant as, in many ways, Cohn is a living reminder of what Jake could have been if the war had not rendered him impotent and hopeless. By warping Cohn’s love for Brett, refusing to tell Cohn “where Brett is,” and throwing a punch instead, Jake seeks to assert his masculinity and reveals his dislike of Cohn’s idealistic values (194). While this rampant antagonism makes the reader apt to uncritically adopt the prejudices against Cohn and his romantic ideals, it is intentional. By continually juxtaposing Cohn’s values against the disillusioned and morally bankrupt lost generation, Hemingway effectively uses Cohn as a foil to bring out the insecurities of the other male characters. This social ostracism not only fuels the hostility towards Cohn but, more importantly, allows The Sun Also Rises to express the sense of hopeless draft which afflicted the lost generation after the First World War.