Robert Cohn, shy and insecure, is plagued by feelings of inferiority because he is Jewish. He starts boxing to feel better about himself. He marries the first girl he dates after college. Though unhappy with her, it is a great blow to his ego when she leaves him. He moves out to California and meets a new woman. They travel to Europe, where he writes a novel. After he goes to America to get it published, he loses his shyness but becomes mean and egotistic. Undirected, he tries to get his friend Jake Barnes to go to South America with him. But Jake is not interested.
Jake meets a girl at a café, and he brings her with him to the Bal, a dance club. At the dance club he runs into Brett, the love of his life. During World War I Jake was injured and is now impotent; Brett loves sex, and she cannot give it up, even to be with a man she loves. Cohn is there and can barely take his eyes off Brett, but she and Jake leave the club together.
They ride around Paris and talk about why they can't be together. They kiss, but cannot go beyond that. Jake goes home alone and thinks about things and cries. He falls asleep, only to be awakened by the sound of an argument downstairs. It is Brett, drunk. She comes up, but soon leaves. She makes a date with Jake for tomorrow, but another man, a count, is waiting for her now.
The next day Cohn comes by and he and Jake go out for lunch. Cohn asks Jake about Brett, and Jake tells him she's engaged. Cohn thinks he's in love with her. Cohn gets mad when Jake, annoyed by Cohn's questions, tells him to go to hell.
Brett doesn't show up to meet Jake. Jake runs into his friend Harvey Stone, a broke gambler. When Cohn comes by he and Stone nearly have a fight. Cohn, who has writer's block, is not happy. He doesn't want to marry his girl, Frances, and she is not very happy about this. She humiliates Cohn in public, and he takes it all in silence.
Brett and the count come to Jake's that night for drinks. Brett and Jake talk more about how they love each other. For his sake, she says, she's going away to San Sebastian for awhile. The three go out to a club and Jake and Brett dance together.
Jake's friend Bill Gorton arrives, and the two get ready for their trip to Spain. When they go out they see Brett at a café. She is with Mike Campbell, her fiancé. Mike is hanging all over Brett, and he manages to invite himself and Brett onto Jake's trip to Spain.
Brett asks if Cohn will be on the trip. She was with him in San Sebastian. Jake is jealous and angry, mostly with Cohn. Despite the awkwardness, Cohn still wants to come on the trip. Bill and Jake will meet Cohn in Bayonne, then travel to Pamplona to meet the rest of the group.
Cohn arrives, and the three of them rent a car and head for Pamplona. Brett and Mike are supposed to arrive that night, but do not. They have stayed over in San Sebastian, and Cohn, uninvited, goes to see them. Jake and Bill continue on to Burguete, and spend a few days fishing. It is very pleasant, and they make a new friend. They receive a note from Mike, who will be in Pamplona that day. Bill and Jake leave for Pamplona.
Jake and Bill find Mike, Brett, and Cohn at a café. Mike and Brett seem annoyed with Cohn. Mike is especially angry with Cohn, who followed Brett all around San Sebastian. He and Cohn almost have a fight.
The fiesta starts. It is a week of drinking and partying, with bull-fights every day. The group drinks and parties all night. Jake meets Pedro Romero, one of the bull-fighters. In the ring, Romero is wonderful. Brett becomes infatuated with the attractive young bull-fighter.
One day during the festival it rains, so there are no bull-fights. Jake and his friends have a drink with Romero. Brett talks to Romero, and Mike is very obnoxious. Mike and Cohn almost have another fight. Jake and Brett go for a walk, and Brett confesses she's in love with Romero. Jake finds Romero, and arranges it so Romero and Brett can go off together.
Cohn finds Jake, and demands to know where Brett is. He calls Jake a pimp, then he beats him up. Jake goes back to the hotel, and Bill tells him to go see Cohn. Cohn is crying, and begs Jake for forgiveness. Jake reluctantly forgives him. Cohn plans to leave in the morning.
Jake learns that Cohn beat up Romero last night. Romero demanded Cohn leave in the morning. Brett now spends all her time with Romero, who was badly hurt in the fight. Romero still fights in the last bull-fight. His first bull has bad sight, but the second one is healthy and Romero shines. He is much better than the other two fighters. That night, Brett leaves with Romero. She does not say good-bye to Jake.
The festival is over and Jake heads north with Bill and Mike. They then go their separate ways, Jake travelling alone to San Sebastian, where he swims, reads, and relaxes after the stressful time in Pamplona. He is only there a few days when he receives a telegram from Brett, who is in Madrid. She needs his help. Jake, ashamed of himself, cuts his trip short and heads for Madrid.
Jake finds Brett broke in a fleabag hotel. She tells him that she made Romero go, because she didn't want to hurt him. Brett knew she wasn't good for Romero, so she sent him away.
Brett and Jake leave the hotel. Romero had paid the bill. They drink a little, then take a ride around Madrid. They talk again about their frustrated romance.
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