For those who have not read this classic book, it is the story of men who had been soldiers in World War I and a woman who had been a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse. They meet up in Paris and plan to meet again at the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. In the interim, Jake is joined by his friend Bill for a fishing trip in Spain, a time of lyrical and idyllic beauty.
Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes fell in love when she was his nurse during the war. Brett's first love died in the war. Jake's wounds prevent him from normal sexual function. Brett flits from one joyless, meaningless encounter to another, while depending on Jake to pick her up when things go wrong. Brett is engaged to a bankrupt drunkard who is very aware of her alliances with other men.
Their friends include Robert Cohn, whose Jewishness was targeted at Princeton so that he took up boxing. Robert was Jake's friend before he fell for Brett, who takes him up for amusement then discards him. Robert's jealous stalking of Brett leads him to beat up his rivals. Brett goes off with a beautiful and talented bull fighter half her age, unable to deny herself anything even when she knows it is wrong. The forward by Sean Hemingway refers to the "carnage" left in Brett's wake. When I read of the bulls tossing human bodies, I immediately thought of Brett.
"I can't help it. I've never been able to help anything."
"You ought to stop it."
"How can I stop it? I can't stop things....I've always done just what I wanted."
Hemingway's readers would have understood the background shared by these characters. The war is always present, although rarely discussed.
"It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening."
WWI saw 4,734,991 U.S. men in service. Of the 116,515 dead, 53,403 died in combat. Men dug trenches, then were sent 'over the top" into "no man's land" through a barrage of machine gun bullets, trying to reach the enemy trenches. Today we refer to "cannon fodder." Men going into the hail of bullets, no protection. Bodies piled up between the trenches.
204,002 men were wounded. And the wounds were horrible. Mustard gas blistered the skin and destroyed men inside and out and death could take weeks. Every war brings technological and medical advances. Plastic surgery was honed in this war, and the development of prosthesis and artificial noses and masks. Smithsonian Magazine had an article about The Faces of War and the people who endeavored to restore a human face to the disfigured WWI soldiers.
Then there was Shell Shock, originally believed to be concussions caused by exploding shells. Men were given a few days R&R then were sent back to the front. By 1918 the condition was called War Strain, and later War Neurosis. Today we call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Depression, anxiety, flashbacks, egocentric behavior, emotional withdrawal, and addictive behavior are all symptoms. 80,000 cases of "shell shock" were diagnosed during WWI.
Brett and Jake met when he was hospitalized and she was a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Women of the middle and upper classes, between the ages of 21 and 48, who wanted to help in the war effort joined the VAD. They worked in primitive circumstances. And they were exposed to gruesome wounds and maimed bodies, suffering and pain, and death. Brett would have understood what her first love had suffered.
The picture came back to me of myself standing alone in a newly created circle of hell during the 'emergency' of March 22, 1918, gazing half hypnotized at the disheveled beds, the stretchers on the floor, the scattered boots and piles of muddy clothing, the brown blankets turned back from smashed limbs bound to splints by filthy bloodstained bandages. Beneath each stinking wad of sodden wool and gauze an obscene horror waited for me and all the equipment that I had for attacking it in this ex-medical ward was one pair of forceps standing in a potted meat glass half full of methylated spirit.
Vera Brittain, describing a field camp hospital in Etaples in 1918
"Funny, how one doesn't mind the blood," Brett says about the bull fights.
Gertrude Stein's famous epitaph "You are all a lost generation" described the cohort generation who reached adulthood during WWI, known as The Lost Generation. Rereading the book, I realized that being lost was not a lack of direction and purpose. This cannon fodder generation was suffering from PTSD, self medicating with alcohol, and fearlessly seeking thrills. They were emotionally impaired, unable to truly connect in any meaningful way. It is pretty to think that true love could save anyone, but we know that if Jake's physical wounds were healed, Brett's emotional ones would have destroyed any possibility of a happy ending.
Hemingway started the book in 1925 and in 1926 the manuscript was sent to Maxwell Perkins, legendary editor at Scribner who also worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Alan Paton, Erskine Caldwell, and James Jones. Hemingway and Fitzgerald had met in Paris and Hemingway was impressed by The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald offered advice, including careful editing of the opening chapters which are offered in the appendix in this edition. The rewrite reads vastly superior.
The original opening chapter began with Bill and Hem ( Jake) meeting the young bull fighter. Duff (Brett) is with her fiance and cast off lover but is lusting for the bull fighter. Chapter II describes Duff (Brett) as having "had something once" but was pretty much a drunk now. In the final version she was "damned good looking." Her first husband was an abusive drunk who had tried to kill her. She was waiting for the divorce to come through for two years. Hem/Jake was the first person narrator in the original Chapter II.
"I don't know why I have put all this down...but I wanted to show you what a fine crowd we were." from the deleted chapter II
"To understand what happened in Pamplona you must understand the Quarter in Paris." from the deleted chapter II
The original draft ends, "Cohn is the hero." What a different book that would have been. Hem/Jake
as the sidekick to Cohn, like Gatsby's Nick Carraway. (Published in 1925, Nick is also a WWI veteran.)
How men respond to the stuff life throws at them reveals their character. Hemingway uses Brett as the stuff thrown, and her willing victims all react differently. Her fiance Mike makes rude comments, stays drunk, and carries on. Jake finds solace in his work, fishing, and tries to find peace in what little faith he still possess. Jake is a rock in public, but feels like hell in private. Each veteran in the group finds their own way to cope, with alcohol being the main way.
"It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing."
Robert Cohn takes it all very badly, and his comrades, and Brett, get mighty sick of his mooning about. "I hate his damned suffering," Brett tells Jake. Cohn has no war experience. He can't accept that Brett treats what they shared so lightly, and takes on the White Knight role trying to protect her from herself. He does not fit in. His Jewishness becomes an easy slur, but it is really his old fashioned values that set him apart.
Enter Pedro Romano, the bullfighter. He is the most beautiful boy anyone has seen. He has integrity in the ring, not stooping to the showmanship tactics of some bull fighters. He is unsullied and nothing like these Lost Generation men. Brett can't help but be attracted to this boy who stands for everything she has lost. She feels 'a bitch' and knows she will ruin him but still goes off with him. They are followed by Cohn, the boxer.
The novel is almost 100 years old! Today we may snicker at Brett's dilemma, we know there 'are ways' to overcome Jake's limitations. We abhor bull fighting and the mistreatment of animals. But do not underestimate the novel's relevance to today's problems. War still maims our sons and daughters. During WWI shell shocked men were ostracized as slackers, even shot by their own generals. Today we evade responsibility for treatment. There is nothing new under the sun. A generation comes, a generation goes, the sun rises and the sun sets, and we still send our youth into war and they still return to us wounded.
The e-book I was given access to read is part of The Hemingway Library Edition from Scribner. Supplements include early drafts and deleted chapters and prefaces by Hemingway's son Patrick and grandson Sean. It will be published July 15.