The novel takes place in Europe after World War I and is narrated by Jake Barnes. Jake is a World War I veteran who was left stagnant by a plane crash. Jake leaves the military and becomes a journalist in Paris. Jake begins this novel by describing his civilian friend, Robert Cohn. Cohn, like Jake, is an American expatriate living in Paris.
Cohn is a Jewish writer who has recently published a novel and was a middleweight boxing champion in college at Princeton. Cohn lives with a woman named Frances Clyne, who only loves him for his money. After reading a book that romanticizes travel Cohn realizes that he’s wasting his life. Cohn visits Jake at his office to beg him to go to South America with him.
Jake refuses Cohn and says that bullfighters are the only people who waste their lives. Jake goes out to drink with Cohn and stumbles upon Lady Brett Ashley. Brett is a masculine, overly sexualized woman who was a volunteer during the war and helped to treat Jake after he was wounded. Brett and Jake fell in love but, Jake is unable to satisfy Brett’s sexual desires. Jake is in love with Brett who just uses Jake for his money and emotional support.
Brett leads Jake on while she parties and has relations with other men. Brett’s very flirtatious attitude hypnotizes Cohn and other men like Mike Campbell, a very drunk and angry Scottish war veteran. Brett stands Jake up for their afternoon plans; in the middle of the night she appears at his apartment along with Count Mippipopolous, a rich Greek man.
Brett tells Jake that she is going to San Sebastian to get away from him. A few weeks later, a writer and army-friend of Jake’s named Bill Gorton arrives in Paris. They plan to go fishing in Spain and then to go to the fiesta and bullfights in Pamplona, and to join up with Cohn along the way. That afternoon, Jake runs into Brett, who has returned from San Sebastian and is with Mike .
Mike and Brett also want to come to Pamplona. Brett privately asks Jake if Cohn is also coming, revealing that she was actually with Cohn in San Sebastian. Cohn and Brett end up staying in Pamplona while Jake and Bill head out into rural Spain to fish. For five blissful days Jake and Bill fish, play cards, drink, and remember their days and friends from the army. But on the fifth day they learn that Brett and Mike will be arriving in Pamplona that night, and they immediately head back.
In Pamplona, they stay at a hotel owned by Montoya, a man who loves bullfighting and appreciates Jake’s own love of the sport. Jake, Bill, Cohn, Mike, and Brett all meet up. They go to watch the unloading of the bulls, and see a bull kill a steer.
Afterward, Mike compares Cohn to the steer because Cohn won’t stop following Brett around.The festivities begin, and Pamplona is filled with drinking and dancing. During the bullfights on the first day, a nineteen-year-old bullfighter named Pedro Romero especially stands out. Brett is mesmerized by the violence of the fight and Romero’s abilities.
Mike starts a drunken altercation with Cohn, both men are fighting for Brett, and Brett leaves with Romero. At the bullfight that afternoon, a bullfighter who had come out of retirement named Belmonte fails to live up to his reputation and is jeered by the crowd. But Romero fights magnificently, and the crowd adores him. Later that night, Jake learns from Mike that Romero and Brett have left Pamplona together. Jake decides to lay low in San Sebastian rather than return to Paris. But he soon gets a telegram from Brett saying she needs his help in Madrid.
He goes immediately, and learns that Brett has left Romero because she feared corrupting him but also because he wanted her to act and look like a more traditional woman. As they ride in a taxi through Madrid, Brett sadly comments that she and Jake could have had such a good time together. Altogether the characters in this novel are seeking new lives for themselves after the war and use alcohol to suppress their emotions.