Summary and Analysis Chapter XVII



Jake finds Mike and Bill and Bill's friend Edna, who says she's kept them out of four bar fights. Robert Cohn shows up, looking for Brett, and Mike tells him that she has gone off with Romero. Cohn calls Jake a pimp. Jake takes a swing at him and, in the ensuing fight, Jake is beaten up. When he returns to the hotel, Bill urges Jake to speak with Cohn. After putting up some resistance, Jake does goes to Cohn's room; Cohn, crying, says he will be going home in the morning and begs Jake's forgiveness, which Jake grants.

The following day, Jake meets up with Mike and Bill again (Edna has gone home), and Mike reports that the night before, Cohn found Brett in Romero's room and beat him up, after which Cohn cried. Mike, who is too drunk to open his own beer bottle, admits that he is upset by Brett's promiscuity; when last seen, he is ordering more liquor with which to numb his pain.


This chapter is crucial with regard to Mike's characterization, as we see him genuinely falling apart because of the affair with Pedro Romero instigated by Brett. Suddenly the source of Mike's extreme drunkenness becomes clear. It is his fiancée's untamable promiscuity. The answer to Edna's incessant questioning? Yes, Mike is bankrupt, but not only in the financial sense. He is tapped out emotionally and spiritually, as well. Brett brings men joy, but she destroys them, too. Before chapter's end, Robert Cohn (introduced to us at the start of the book as a boyish naïf) will be ruined as well — and planning to leave the scene for good, a turning point in the novel's plot. Is the young bullfighter Romero next?

Though she never appears within Chapter XVI, Brett is its focus, as nearly everything that happens here is done in her name — even Romero's defeat of the bull. "All for sport, all for pleasure," the café owner says ruefully to Jake. He is speaking about the tragedy of the gored peasant, but he could be talking about Mike, Cohn, and Jake — as well as the Count, and countless others, too. Brett is no steer. She is a bull, and she can gore anyone who doesn't flee from her fast enough. (Of course, she has her reasons. To quote Mike himself, "She hasn't had an absolutely happy life." Note the horrifying story he tells here of her marriage to the deranged Lord Ashley.)

Pay special attention to the fistfight between Jake and Robert Cohn. Not only is this our payoff for the seemingly incidental information in the novel's first sentence that Cohn "was middleweight boxing champion of Princeton." It is also one of the most successfully rendered — one of the most accurate — fight scenes in all of literature. As the famous teacher of creative writing, John Gardner, often pointed out, action that is neither too sketchy nor so complicated that it becomes confusing is enormously difficult to render on the page. In the Barnes-Cohn bout that ends in seconds, Hemingway proves himself the gifted craftsman that he is reputed to be — a kind of champ of American letters, at least early in his career.

Even better is the writer's astonishing description of his late-night return to the Hotel Montoya. Though still profoundly intoxicated, Jake's drubbing at the hands of Cohn has provided him with a kind of clarity in viewing the world that he seems to have experienced only once: "Walking across the square to the hotel everything looked new and changed. I had never seen the trees before. I had never seen the flagpoles before, nor the front of the theatre. It was all different. I felt as I felt once coming home from an out-of-town football game." Jake goes on to share with us the details of an autumn afternoon in the Midwest (following an injury to his head in a football game), reminding the reader that although The Sun Also Rises takes place in France and Spain exclusively, it is very much a book about America — about the America that the soldiers in World War I believed they were fighting to defend, before becoming disillusioned by combat and their return home.

Also, this passage serves as a reminder of how very little we know about the basic facts of Jake's past. Who are his parents and siblings? Where did he grow up, and how old is he now? What exactly were his combat experiences, prior to sustaining the wound that serves as the basis for the story he tells here? Typically, Hemingway has excised all this background material. His creed in this regard might have been "less is more," and it inspired not only the storytellers who came immediately after him, but an entire school of novelists and short-story writers in the 1970s and 1980s (the aftermath of another disappointing international conflict) — that is, half a century after The Sun Also Rises was written. Though this minimalist approach can cause confusion for reader if it is mishandled, when it is done right it creates instead an effect that is hypnotic, mysterious, and even profound. It is as if we are looking at the tip of an iceberg and left to wonder what lies beneath the water's surface. And the result is active, involved readers who turn the pages of this difficult book as quickly as if perusing a cheap airport suspense novel.

Again regarding technique, note how Hemingway finesses the point-of-view limitations he has established for his novel — bends the rules, so to speak. To review: Jake and Jake alone is telling the story of The Sun Also Rises, so we can't witness any scenes that he himself does not. However, it would be a shame to miss the drama of Cohn's encounter with Romero in the latter's room — at which Jake wasn't present. So Hemingway has Brett, who's there, tell Mike. Bill asks Mike about it, and Jake listens in, then tells us. A writer as talented as Hemingway was able to surmount storytelling challenges of this kind — and do it with panache.

Finally, another word about Robert Cohn. In this chapter, more than ever before, he serves as Jake Barnes's foil: the character who, more than any other, characterizes Jake by contrast. "I've been through hell, Jake. It's been simply hell," Cohn says, crying in his hotel room. And indeed, the rejection and humiliation to which Brett has subjected Cohn is extreme and certainly painful. But think about Jake's situation vis-à-vis Brett. Cohn is a boxer, Jake a war veteran. Cohn, certainly, has visited hell. But Jake lives there.


the Suizo a café or restaurant in Pamplona.

wicket a small window or opening, as for a bank teller or in a box office.

cold (Informal) unlucky or ineffective.

Vaya! (Spanish) Go!

encierro (Spanish) enclosure.

cogido (Spanish) gored.

cornada (Spanish) goring.

Es muy flamenco (Spanish) It is very flamenco

Tafalla a town in Navarra, south of Pamplona.

Estella, Sanguesa towns in Navarra.

grade a sloping surface.

Bocanegra (Spanish) Blackmouth.

You've been in the war This seems to imply that Bill is not a veteran, and yet he has referred to being in France at the end of the war; an apparent contradiction. Perhaps Bill was covering the war as a newspaper correspondent.

Would you mind opening it? Mike is too drunk too open his own beer bottle.

baronet a man holding the lowest hereditary British title, below a baron but above a knight.

Bring up half a dozen bottles of beer and a bottle of Fundador Mike intends to stay severely intoxicated.

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