Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the Scribner 1954 edition. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.
Overall Impression: This is standard Hemingway with lots of booze, boorish behavior, and self-absorption.
The title derives from Ecclesiates 1:5 and suggests cynicism and futility or the meaninglessness of life [without God]
Robert Cohn is a wealthy Princeton grad, ex-boxer, Jewish, a writer in Paris. Francis Clyne wants him to marry her. They make plans to visit Senlis with Jake (Jacob Barnes), a journalist and narrator of the novel.
Cohn, now married, tells Jake he does not like Paris, feels he isn't living life to the fullest, and wants to go to S. America.
Jake casually picks up prostitute Georgette Hobin and encounters the Cohns and the Braddocks at a restaurant. They all go to a dance club, where Brett shows up. She and Jake go off together. Jake was injured in WWI, affecting his manhood-- she was like a nurse (a "V. A. D.") at a hospital in England and cared for him there. There is a mood of meaninglessness and loss.
Brett resists Jake's efforts to renew the old unsuccessful affair. She was widowed from her first love, who was killed in the war, and later became Lady Ashley but is now divorcing Ashley. She is drinking with Count Mippipoulos, who wants her to travel with him. Brett, who is 34 y/o, still loves Jake.
Cohn has become interested in Brett. But she is planning on marrying Mike Campbell after her divorce.
Brett fails to meet Jake as planned. Jake drinks with Harvey Stone, who is broke and unfriendly to Cohn. Frances complains to Jake that Cohn is dumping her.
Jake expresses his love to Brett, but it is hopeless. They drink with the count, who suggests they should marry. Brett tells Jake she will not see him again (wrong).
Bill Gorton, writer and heavy drinker, returns from Vienna and Budapest and has trouble recalling much but a rigged boxing fight. They meet Brett and have some drinks together. Michael Campbell, a drunkard and "undischarged bankrupt", arrives tight and with nose bloodied but hot for Brett.
Jake and Bill travel by train to Bayonne, France (near the N. Spanish border) in June and meet up with Cohn, on what is partly a fishing trip. Robert has previously traveled with Brett to San Sebastian (just across border in N. Spain) and yet still wants to be there, even though Mike Campbell and Brett are coming together. On the train, Jake and Bill are displaced from the dining room by Catholic pilgrims and are generally disgruntled.
The three hire a car to go into Spain, arriving at the Hotel Montoya in Pamplona (NE Spain). Cohn predicts that Brett and Michael will not arrive in time, irritating his companions with his airs of superiority. Jake tries praying in the local cathedral but feels he is a rotten catholic. Cohn admits he suggested that he meet Brett and Mike in San Sebastian first before they come to Pamplona, and decides to stay behind to meet up with them [in San Sebastian, apparently]-- Bill and Jake resent him increasingly for this duplicity.
Bill and Jake ride on top of the bus to Burguete, drinking wine with the Basque passengers. They check into the inn and drink several bottles of wine plus some rum.
Bill and Jake hike to the Irati River and fish. Bill offers his opinions on Jake's career. They catch some fish, drink 2 bottles of wine, and nap. They return to Burguete each night, fishing for 5 days.
A letter arrives from Michael. He and Brett want to meet up in Pamplona. Bill and Jake part company with their English fishing buddy Wilson-Harris after sharing much wine and head back to Pamplona. In Pamplona, innkeeper Montoya discusses the meaning of aficio ("passion") and aficionado. A bull gores a steer. Brett, Michael, and Cohn show up. Michael is drunk and insults Cohn, suggesting he should stop following Brett around. At dinner, wine relieves the tension temporarily.
Jake, awaiting the fiesta, reflects on women.
The fiesta begins. There is nonstop drinking. The bulls race through the streets to the bull-ring. After visiting torero Pedro Romero, they all attend the first fight. Cohn irritates them with his Jewish superiority. Brett is impressed by Romero after the second day of fighting.
It is raining. Montoya expresses concern to Jake about keeping Romero away from the corrupting effect of wealthy Americans such as the ambassador, etc. Jake and Bill drink with Romero and bull-fight critic Rafael. The latter feels Romero is so far incomplete as a fighter. Brett et al join in-- she lusts after Romero. Montoya eyes all this disapprovingly, fearful of Romero's corruption. Mike lashes into Cohn. Brett appeals to Jake for help-- she is mad for Romero. Romero rejoins them, later goes off with Brett.
All are behaving badly. Cohn is angry to learn that Brett has gone off with Romero and fights Jake & Mike, knocking Jake out. Later Jake finds Cohn crying over "losing" Brett (though she never had much interest in him) and over striking them. The bulls run through the streets-- one man is gored and dies. Later, Bill and Jake learn from Mike that Cohn attacked and beat Romero-- Brett is now nursing him. Mike has also been in a row with people he owes money to-- Mike orders more to drink.
Cohn has left town at last. Brett wants Jake to be with her. She tries praying in church to no avail. The last bull-fight takes place. Belmonte is aging and trying to reduce his risk. Romero performs commendably despite Cohn's beating. Afterwards, Jake feels low and gets very drunk. Brett has left town with Romero.
Post-fiesta letdown. Montoya understandably snubs them. Mike, Bill, and Jake get a car to Bayonne. Mike is broke and informs them that Brett is also. Bill goes back to Paris, Mike to Saint Jean de Luz (France near Spanish border), and Jake back to San Sebastian (Spain). He relaxes there for a while, then receives a telegram from Brett in Madrid-- she is in trouble and needs help. Jake goes there, finds her broke-- she has made Romero leave. Jake is drinking heavily. He and Brett sadly reflect on their love that cannot be.