Let’s just get this out of the way nice and early; no one is happy in this novel.
I mean, sure that doesn’t mean each character is doom and gloom every sentence of every chapter, but even when the characters seem happy it almost seems like they are faking the emotion. Part of the problem is that Hemmingway’s writing style is brief, to the point, and leaving no room for description of emotion of any sort. But even then, the topic of any conversation changes so fast that it is impossible to get any sense of emotion from any character. The reader knows that the characters have some sort of feeling going on, but outside of anger each display of emotion seems to carry a very “distant” quality; it’s there, but it is not a strong showing.
One of the underlying reasons for the unhappiness is WWI. While it is only mentioned a handful of times throughout the plot, it seems to have had a profound impact on society as a whole. The most prominent representations of this are Nick’s injuries. It is never bluntly said what happened, but it is implied through some passively revealed information that it was likely a plane crash of some sort. While it is only mentioned only two or three times, it apparently had a profound impact on his character as a whole. In fact, a lot of information about the war is given in this manner. One image that comes to mind is the one legged soldier that appears at the very end of Nick’s travels. It’s not hard to spot a soldier with one leg, but instead of the huge spectacle our society makes of it Hemmingway shows us this image as if he was just saying something as petty as “The sky is blue.”
Perhaps this is just his way of showing what society wanted to do at that time; circumnavigate or forget the past. At the time, World War I was the largest conflict that the world had ever faced and, also unique to this war, nearly nothing positive came out of the war unless one really wanted World War II. War injuries, damages, and deaths are not the sort of images that can go unnoticed, yet that is exactly what Hemmingway is suggesting. Even to non-war topics, every character wants around their past as if, somehow, they could reclaim the happiness they had before the war. Brett wants to evade her past with her first husband who was extremely violent to her. Robert wants to recover the confidence he lost in his first two relationships. Each character has these types of scars that are either diminished in importance (they wanted to forget it) or expanded to where their character is altered (they wanted to change the past). Only by changing the past a character could obtain happiness.
And no one could. The war left a huge scar in society that was seemingly impossible to hide or heal. Sure people tried to forget the past conflicts, but the secret in hiding is the easiest one to be reminded of. Symbols of the repressed past appear everywhere and the reminder releases the stress and pain locked inside of a person. That is why the society seems angry and angst-y to an audience who does not have the same vantage point as Hemmingway. Brett is the best example of this. Her controlling and violent husband caused Brett to become extremely cautious of any man who wanted to have her as his and his alone. This causes not only her adulterous personality, but she runs away from any man who could not let her, as Romero said, “Go away from him.” Because she falls in love so frequently, her experiences are brought to the surface and her character becomes cowardly and defensive.
These scars were impossible to circumnavigate, so people turned to monetary possessions as a way to become “happy.” The void the war left in the lives of so many had to have been filled by something and, like an old man going through a midlife crisis, the first thing they turn to are any sort of expensive object so they can try to fill the void and at least seem like they are happy to others. Bill, at one point, tries to persuade Nick into buying a relatively useless stuffed dog, saying that it might “mean the world to [Nick] after he bought it.” A stuffed dog is a pointless possession to own, but what if that one object managed to fill that void and bring peace to that person? Until a person had found that one object, they kept buying up useless odds and ends until they finally found happiness.
Yet, according to Hemmingway, that too was impossible. The war left such a huge void that there was no way to forget about it and no way to fill it. Since happiness was on the other side of that divide (in the past), Hemmingway believes that it is impossible to be happy.
So, just to clarify, none of them lived happily ever after. The end.