Chapter I introduces us to Robert Cohn, who will serve as a foil to the novel's narrator and protagonist, Jake Barnes. Cohn is descended from two prominent New York Jewish families. He encountered anti-Semitism in college, at Princeton, and learned to box as a response to it. Soon after college, Cohn married a wealthy woman with whom he had three children, but his wife left him for a painter. Cohn founded a journal and then became involved with a jealous and controlling woman named Frances who was determined to marry him. He traveled with her to Europe, settling in Paris after a year. They have stayed for two years. Financially supported by his mother, Cohn wrote a novel that was not well-received by critics.
Rather than a series of scenes, the first chapter of The Sun Also Rises consists mainly of exposition, or background — information we need to know in order to understand and appreciate the story to come. Most of this background takes the form of characterization. Strangely, however, the character described is not the novel's hero but his foil, the man who will serve to highlight the protagonist's strengths and weaknesses by contrast.
Thus, we learn almost nothing explicit about Jake Barnes himself. Instead, Jake tells us about his tennis partner, Robert Cohn. Apparently, Cohn is insecure, self-conscious, perpetually broke, and a dabbler in the arts. He allows himself to be controlled by the women in his life — his mother, his wife, and his lover.
Note that Jake's résumé-like recitation of Cohn's experiences and accomplishments makes no mention of service in the armed forces. Though it is not quite clear yet, the time frame of this novel is the years just after World War I; significantly, Cohn did not participate in the fighting.
Meanwhile, we are learning about Jake himself via the ways in which he describes his friend. "I mistrust all frank and simple people," Jake tells us. The following remark about Cohn exposes Jake almost immediately as cynical, even bitter: "As he had been thinking for months about leaving his wife and had not done it because it would be too cruel to deprive her of himself, her departure was a very healthful shock." Jake is also competitive to an unappealing degree. Note the cattiness in the remark "He wrote a novel, and it was not really such a bad novel as the critics later called it. . . ." Jake tells us that Cohn is self-conscious, but the fact that Jake begins his own story by describing someone else speaks volumes about the narrator's insecurity. For reasons that will soon become clear, Jake declines at first to tell his own tale.
Chapter I introduces the theme that love can wound a person. Cohn's lover, Frances, literally hurts Jake by kicking him under the table in an effort to discourage him from inviting Cohn on a trip to visit another woman. And Cohn's first wife left him for a painter of miniatures. Women are fickle in The Sun Also Rises.
Also, by means of references to locales like Ardennes and Alsace made famous by World War I, we sense here the first intimations that this novel will be a special kind of war story: a post-war story. For the moment, the war plays no particular part in the novel. But that will change.
Finally, the famous Hemingway style is not as apparent in this chapter as it is later in The Sun Also Rises and in later Hemingway stories and novels. But note the author's use throughout this chapter of a limited vocabulary, necessitating the repetition of individual words, and short declarative sentences ("He was Spider Kelly's star pupil") or chains of these sentences linked by conjunctions to form long, compound sentences:
"I mistrust all frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together, and I always had a suspicion that perhaps Robert Cohn had never been middleweight boxing champion, and that perhaps a horse had stepped on his face, or that maybe his mother had been frightened or seen something, or that he had, maybe, bumped into something as a young child, but I finally had somebody verify the story from Spider Kelly."
Also, Hemingway tends to emphasize concrete experiences rather than abstract ideas, though he has less of a chance to do so in this exposition-rich chapter than in later chapters composed mainly of scenes.
middleweight a boxer between a junior middleweight and a super middleweight, with a maximum weight of 160 pounds.
Princeton an Ivy League university located in the town of Princeton, in central New Jersey.
featherweight a boxer between a junior featherweight and a junior lightweight, with a maximum weight of 126 pounds.
prepped attended a preparatory school.
miniature-painter a painter of very small paintings, especially portraits, done on ivory, vellum, and so on.
the Coast the West Coast of the United States.
a review of the Arts a journal, perhaps published quarterly and probably containing fiction, poetry and criticism.
Carmel, California . . . Provincetown, Massachusetts a town on the California coast north of Los Angeles, and a town at the tip of Cape Cod. Traditionally, both towns have welcomed artists and writers.
L'Avenue's a Parisian restaurant.
Café de Versailles a Parisian café.
fines (French) brandies.
Strasbourg a city and port in northeastern France, on the Rhine.
Alsace a historical region of northeastern France, under German control from 1871 to 1919.
Bruges French name for a city in northwestern Belgium.
Ardennes a wooded plateau in northeastern France, southern Belgium, and Luxembourg; the scene of heavy fighting in World War I.
Senlis a town in northern France, northeast of Paris.
Grand Cerf a hotel in or near Senlis, apparently.
courts tennis courts.
kiosque (French) a small structure open at one or more sides.