Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Failure of Communication
The conversations among Jake and his friends are rarely direct or honest. They hide true feelings behind a mask of civility. Although the legacy of the war torments them all, they are unable to communicate this torment. They can talk about the war only in an excessively humorous or painfully trite fashion. An example of the latter occurs when Georgette and Jake have dinner, and Jake narrates that they would probably have gone on to agree that the war “would have been better avoided” if they were not fortunately interrupted. The moments of honest, genuine communication generally arise only when the characters are feeling their worst. Consequently, only very dark feelings are expressed. When Brett torments Jake especially harshly, for instance, he expresses his unhappiness with her and their situation. Similarly, when Mike is hopelessly drunk, he tells Cohn how much his presence disgusts him. Expressions of true affection, on the other hand, are limited almost exclusively to Jake and Bill’s fishing trip.
Nearly all of Jake’s friends are alcoholics. Wherever they happen to be, they drink, usually to excess. Often, their drinking provides a way of escaping reality. Drunkenness allows Jake and his acquaintances to endure lives severely lacking in affection and purpose. Hemingway clearly portrays the drawbacks to this excessive drinking. Alcohol frequently brings out the worst in the characters, particularly Mike. He shows himself to be a nasty, violent man when he is intoxicated. More subtly, Hemingway also implies that drunkenness only worsens the mental and emotional turmoil that plagues Jake and his friends. Being drunk allows them to avoid confronting their problems by providing them with a way to avoid thinking about them. However, drinking is not exclusively portrayed in a negative light. In the context of Jake and Bill’s fishing trip, for instance, it can be a relaxing, friendship-building, even healthy activity.
False friendships relate closely to failed communication. Many of the friendships in the novel have no basis in affection. For instance, Jake meets a bicycle team manager, and the two have a drink together. They enjoy a friendly conversation and make plans to meet the next morning. Jake, however, sleeps through their meeting, having no regard for the fact that he will never see the man again. Jake and Cohn demonstrate another, still darker type of false friendship. Although Cohn genuinely likes Jake, Jake must often mask outright antagonism toward Cohn, an antagonism that increases dramatically along with Jake’s unspoken jealousy of Cohn over his affair with Brett. At one point, he even claims to hate Cohn. This inability to form genuine connections with other people is an aspect of the aimless wandering that characterizes Jake’s existence. Jake and his friends wander socially as well as geographically. Ironically, Hemingway suggests that in the context of war it was easier to form connections with other people. In peacetime it proves far more difficult for these characters to do so.