The Aimlessness of the Lost Generation
The generation of people who lived through World War I are often referred to as the Lost Generation. Lives were devastated and old values were revealed as pointless in the wake of the war. The characters in the novel cannot relate to the values and beliefs which guided the world prior to the war and they have nothing to replace them.
They wonder aimlessly, drinking and diverting themselves. They have no meaningful commitments to ideals or each other. Ultimately, they suffer for this callous cynicism. They are all left unfulfilled and heart-broken. Their lives of drinking and abandon serve only to allow them to not think about themselves or their lives. The characters are devoid of purpose and remain unfulfilled in almost all ways.
Masculinity and the Fragility of Male Ego
There is only one female character in the novel and the male characters surround her like predators. They compete in ways that are both psychological and physical. Yet none of the men are shown to be a strong man in any conventional sense. Though some are veterans of the war, now they live their lives in shallow pursuits living only for immediate pleasure. When it is time to win Ashley, none of the main characters are up to the task.
Romero wins her over for a time with his valor and bravery, but this is short lived. Cohn stands up in a violent manner toward the other characters, but this is portrayed as brutish and ugly. None of the men are strong. They are prone to self-pity and drunken childishness. The novel portrays the old image of manliness as a lost ideal. Men are no longer heroic and they experience this impotence both figuratively in the fact that they cannot accomplish anything meaningful, and literally in the case of Jake’s sexual impotence.