As the novel opens, we meet our expatriate friends in their adopted home of Paris. They all have different feelings about the city; Jake clearly relishes his life there, despite his general sense of dissatisfaction. He seems to know, like, everyone in the city of Paris (or possibly in France), and it an expert at everything from picking the right restaurant to schmoozing with Parisian hookers. We get the feeling that Jake could fit in wherever he goes. Robert Cohn, on the other hand, isn’t comfortable anywhere.
This is a totally classic set-up. The relationship between Jake and Brett presents itself as the primary source of tension and anxiety in the novel. Although both Jake and Brett have romantic feelings for one another, Jake’s impotence is an insurmountable barrier for Brett. Throughout the rest of the novel, we are consistently reminded of the impossibility of their relationship.
Jake’s discovery of Cohn’s affair with Brett frustrates his already difficult relationship with her. Because Mike, Cohn, and Jake each have strong feelings for Brett, their mutual presence in Pamplona intensifies everyone’s anxieties. Brett doesn’t help matters by failing to acknowledge the havoc she is wreaking – she doesn’t take responsibility for her actions (kind of a theme with this bunch of people).
Cohn’s attack of Jake, Mike, and Romero reflects the culmination of his anger about Brett and her liaisons. It embodies in a very physical manner the frustration and disillusionment experienced by all of the novel’s main characters. His departure from Pamplona signals the beginning of the end for everyone. When the fiesta’s officially over, it’s a relief to all of them – and, frankly, to us.
When the gang departs from Pamplona, nearly everyone is dissatisfied. Cohn has disappeared, Mike is bankrupt and in emotional disarray, Jake is in need of some major alone time, and Brett has left with Pedro Romero, leaving us to question the nature of the novel’s central relationships. Things are even less certain at this point than ever before, and in their last couple of days together, Bill, Jake, and Mike have the sense that a whole lot of people are missing.
After only a brief respite, Jake learns that Brett has sent Romero; she telegraphs him urgently in San Sebastian to come and help her. The incident renews the question of a potential relationship between Brett and Jake. We hope against hope that something can work out, but by this point in the novel, we should really know better. Jake himself is cynical and resigned to his guilt and unhappiness with regards to Brett.
Brett is left at a crossroads – she has made the right decision in letting Romero go, but now has nowhere to go herself. She eventually decides to go back to Mike, who is "so damned nice and… so awful," and is the kind of guy she can handle. In a final resolution to the central conflict of the novel, it is decided that Brett and Jake could never be together. While this was Brett’s decision earlier in the novel, Jake is the one who finally decides that they never really had a chance.