2008: for an American novel class
Jake’s emotional impotence cannot be simply ascribed to a character trait or a war wound. It is something that is part and parcel of an entire milieu in which he lives and breathes: the time after the War in Europe – what Gertrude Stein called “the lost generation.” Because the people around him effectively live without purpose or values, he finds it more difficult to fight against the current. This environment, mixed with alcohol and the night, makes for a powerful potion. The wound only weakens him in this struggle, and ultimately becomes his dominating trait. Yet, by the end of the novel, it is clear that Jake has at least overcome these factors enough to be self-aware of where he stands in his life, and more importantly, where he stands with Brett.
Brett is Jake’s main interest in the novel. He loves her, yet “there’s not a damn thing we could do” (34) about it. His injury prevents him from consummating the emotional connection they have established. His encounters with her lead him to alternately damn her (“To hell with Brett. To hell with you, Lady Ashley”) (38) and mourn her (“I was thinking about Brett and my mind stopped jumping around and started to go in sort of smooth waves. Then all of a sudden I started to cry”) (39). In the first part of the novel, it doesn’t bother Jake that the problem is Brett, not him. She is incapable of sustaining a long-term relationship (Ashley, Cohn, Campbell, Romero) and incapable of being in a sexless relationship (with him) and so Jake’s physical impotency really shouldn’t fuel an emotional one. The fact that she does love him is a frustration, for he loves her too, and thus the physical consummation that would make her his is just out of reach. However, by the last line in the novel – “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” (251) the reader can see that Jake has moved on. That, all things being equal, Brett would have left him just like she leaves every male she sleeps with.
Alcohol, which washes every character in the novel, adds to Jake’s condition. In constantly being surrounded by people drinking to drunkenness, Jake too is unhooked from reality. The alcohol provides reprieve from proper manners, as in the scene in which Mike Campbell calls Robert Cohn a “steer” and lambastes him for following Brett around like a mindless cow. Later, this drunkenness would lead Cohn to punch out a number of people.
There is also interplay between night and day in Jake’s brooding. He says: “It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing” (42). At night is when he cries about Brett. At night is when he picks up with a girl named Georgette one place and leaves her without saying goodbye in another place. At night is when he is so drunk he doesn’t sleep in his own room.
It is all of these influences – Brett’s faithlessness, alcohol, the night, and indeed, the entire atmosphere of the purposeless time and the aimless people in it, combined with his actual and emotional impotence – that should lead Jake to despair. Instead, he leaves all of that behind when he goes to holiday in San Sebastian. After “rescuing” Brett in Madrid he ends the novel realizing he can live without her, and that, living with her wouldn’t have been that great anyway. Jake’s great triumph is not necessarily that he overcomes despair, but that he overcomes despair when all around him is shouting for him to drown in it.
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