One of the questions the novel raises is who is the hero?
From our perspective the disappearance of the hero is nothing new. When Hemingway wrote this book, the lack of a clear protagonist was not yet a tradition. Certainly, there was literature featuring anti-heroes, but in this novel, it is not even clear if there is a central character.
Even Hemingway did not seem entirely sure. The story of how Hemingway revised the novel is a fascinating account on its own. One point that emerges in looking at his rough drafts is Hemingway's ambiguity concerning whom he intended as the main character. Originally, the book started with two chapters on Lady Brett Ashley, beginning with the line, "This is a novel about a lady."
In another deleted section, Jake Barnes makes the following statement: "Now you see. It looked as though I were trying to get to be the hero of this story. But that is all wrong. Cohn is the hero. When I bring myself in it is only to clear up something. Or maybe Duff [Brett:] is the hero. Or Nino de la Palma [Romero:]. He never really had a chance to be the hero. Or maybe there is not any hero at all. Maybe a story is better without a hero" (Svobova 31).
In a 1926 letter to Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway proposes yet another hero: [the story:] "is a damn tragedy with the earth abiding forever as the hero" (Letters 229). Or, as Hemingway suggests in a 1926 letter to Fitzgerald, maybe it is just a story about "how people go to hell" (Letters 209).
Certainly Cohn, Brett, Jake, and Pedro Romero do not align as neatly into categories of good and bad as Philip Young's analysis of Hemingway's "code" would have us believe. Robert Cohn's grief at having been rejected by Brett is balanced by his earlier rejection of his wife and three small chilren as well as the expedient rejection of his subsequent mistress, Francis Clyne. Yet, in some ways, despite his romantic posturing, Cohn seems more alive than characters like Mike--lost in a drunken stupor--or Count Mippipopoulos with his leaden philosophy of value exchange.
Brett, though described by Cohn in glowing terms, "There's a certain quality about her, a certain fineness. She seems to be absolutely fine and straight," proves to be something less than "fine and straight." Seemingly pointless details and Brett's actions often show her to be a bit duplicitous.
Romero, for all his grace under pressure and perfect technique, has an unformed quality. He is a pretty boy, the child Brett refers to when she states she is not going to be one of those bitches who ruins children. Romero has youth, beauty, and the support of the crowd. Perhaps more heroic is the courage of Belmonte--the aging bullfighter--who works in pain and faces the contempt of a crowd expecting him to live up to a past reputation mythic in proportion. Jake, too, shows steady courage in a no-win situation. Trapped in the living hell of desire without hope of fulfillment, Jakes manages to salvage some dignity, to carve out a code of conduct as if his life had meaning.
Most of these characters lead lives of quiet desperation and aborted desires. Hemingway may have had this loneliness in mind when he considered using two lines from Andrew Marvell's poem as the novel's original epigraph:
The grave's a fine and private place
But none, I think, do there embrace