Analysis of major characters in A Farewell to Arms – Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley, Robert Cohn, Mike Campbell, Bill Gorton.
The main character and narrator of the novel. Jake is a young man who has recently returned from war. During the war, Jake was wounded in such a way that he is no longer able to have sex. Jake says many times throughout the novel that he does not feel that his injury has changed his life so much and that he feels that other people make a bigger deal out of it than he does. However, it is often implied that Jake is at least a little saddened by the loss of the ability to become intimate especially as far as Brett is concerned.
Jake’s injury has many psychological ramifications that the novel explores through subtle character interactions. Jake’s feelings of inadequacy are often shown in his interactions with other men. His hostility toward Cohn and the other men vying for Brett’s affection, in particular, are obviously coming from a place of wounded masculinity.
Jake’s character does not show much growth throughout the novel and it could be argued that he ends the book in much the same place that he started, in a taxi cab with Brett, talking about their struggle with their relationship. However, Jake, especially with his inability to be with Brett in a sexual relationship, is very much painted as an outsider to the plot and a removed bystander who can relate the details of the story to the reader.
Lady Brett Ashley
The main heroine of the novel. Brett is a beautiful, English heiress who, when we meet her, is living in Paris and enjoying her life.
Brett captures the hearts of almost every man she meets and has a habit of intending to date all of them at once. Most of the male characters in the story are in love with her and she has some type of fling with almost all of them. Brett refuses to commit to any of the men in her life as she prefers her independence. However, she is not happy with her life.
She often tells Jake that she is miserable and finds her life unsatisfying. Hemingway is well known for his incomplete and often misogynistic female characters and Brett is no exception. Brett is portrayed as a strong and independent woman but she feels that she needs to have a man with her and Jake remarks that she “Can’t go anywhere alone”.
Brett’s character is also portrayed as a corrupting and dangerous force to the men in her life. She ruins male friendships simply by existing. Brett seems to be in love with and profess her devotion to whatever man is with her at the moment and thus, it can’t be said that she told the truth to any of them.
Jake’s good friend and a former middle-weight champion boxer. Cohn moved to Paris with his controlling girlfriend Frances to join the crowd of expatriates living there after the war. While living in Paris, Cohn writes a novel and spends some of the book hoping to get it published.
Cohn is a shy, reserved man who takes up boxing in order to get past his loneliness at Princeton. Cohn has a tendency to let himself be led around by people, especially women. He dates the controlling, gold-digging Frances for reasons that Jake cannot ascertain and later falls in love with Brett and “hangs around” as Mike puts it, well beyond the time when most men would have realized that she did not want them.
Because of his beaten-down nature, Jake and the other men take out their own insecurities on Cohn, making fun of him for his shortcomings and his religion. Cohn is also the only male member of the group who did not participate in the war, which also sets him apart for mocking.
However, Cohn’s response to Brett’s resistance is not that different from the other men in the novel. All of them want her and refuse to leave her be although she clearly does not want them.
A rich heir to a wealthy Scottish family who drinks heavily and courts Brett. Mike takes it as a forgone conclusion that he will be the one who ends up marrying Brett because they are both from wealthy families. Mike has a bad temper which gets’s worse when he drinks. He frequently challenges Brett’s other suitors to fights. Mike has the most trouble dealing with Brett’s inability to settle down and suffers many self-pitying moments and bursts of anger.
Jake’s good friend and former squad mate in the war. Bill frequently uses humor to disarm tense situations and is the only man in the book who does not seem to be in love with Brett. Bill enjoys Jake’s company and admits that he likes Jake better than anyone else in the world. However, Bill does exhibit much of the same cruelty and harshness that the others in the book do.