The Revelation- Ernest Hemingway
’s A Farewell To Arms Essay, Research Paper
Ernest Hemingway’s WWI classic, A Farewell to Arms is a story of initiation in which the growth of the protagonist, Frederic Henry, is recounted. Frederic is initially a na?ve and unreflective boy who cannot grasp the meaning of the war in which he is so dedicated, nor the significance of his lover’s predictions about his future. He cannot place himself amidst the turmoil that surrounds him and therefore, is unable to fully justify a world of death and destruction. Ultimately, his distinction between his failed relationship with Catherine Barkley and the devastation of the war allows him to mature and arrive at the resolution that the only thing one can be sure of in the course of life is death and personal obliteration (Phelan 54).
In order to chronicle Frederic’s maturation, it is first necessary to understand his character; he is what critics label a “Hemingway Code Hero.” Indigenous to nearly all of Ernest Hemingway’s novels, the “Hemingway man” lives by one simple rule: ‘Man the player is born; life the game will kill him” (Rovit and Brenner 90). This man looks to derive meaning and dignity from his stale, directionless being. In Frederic Henry’s case, the search for a system of values and morals is difficult because he is caught between two very socially defined extremes, love and war. He only gains knowledge through his direct experience with these two elements and through the indirect teachings of various characters in the novel (Waldhorn 68). It is suggested that Frederic must commit to a comfortable medium between the selflessness of the young priest and the egocentricity of Rinaldi.
In the introductory chapters, Frederic is torn between spending his holiday in the cold, clear mountains of Abruzzi with the priest’s family, and taking his leave in the city, where most of his time would be spent at the dispose of taverns and institutions of prostitution. Frederic chooses to spend his time in the city rather than Abruzzi, although that is where he “had wanted to go…” (Hemingway 13). Frederic realizes that there is a moral and religious way of life, which the priest represents, and he respects these values of the priest. He acknowledges the fact that the priest has a code to live by. On the other shoulder sits Rinaldi, the satisfied, self-assured surgeon with whom Frederic also tries to identify. Rinaldi seems fulfilled, but as the war progresses he falls into a world of despair and disease. Although he cannot see it, Rinaldi too closely resembles Frederic’s dilemma and therefore is unable to tutor him (Waldhorn 69-70). Tremendously significant, Frederic Henry’s exchanges with the priest and Rinaldi play a strong role in his development because he is unable to solely identify with either of them.
Frederic’s education is enhanced by his relationship with the English nurse, Catherine Barkley, as well. Originally, Catherine is nothing more than an object of sensual desire, but as the novel progresses, Catherine becomes symbolic of Frederic’s final resolution. At first Frederic views Catherine as a replacement for the boring prostitutes that he is accustomed to visiting. He takes advantage of her situation; Catherine’s fianc? has been killed in the war.
“I thought she was probably a little crazy. It was alright if she was. I did not care what I was getting into. I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards. Like bridge you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes. Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were. It was alright with me” (Hemingway 30-31).
Typical of an immature youth, Frederic blatantly takes advantage of Catherine. He does not, however, realize the extent of Catherine’s shrewdness. She commits herself absolutely to the affair only because she had not given her innocence to her deceased fianc? (Donaldson 60). Catherine possesses the one major insight that Frederic does not: death is the end of all existence. Frederic attaches himself to Catherine because he yearns for a sort of order.
Having discovered the value of his relationship with Catherine, Frederic returns to the front, only to find the army in complete and utter chaos. Frederic is welcomed by his old friends but is greatly disturbed by their low morale. His once carefree companion, Rinaldi, is now a rough cynic, convinced that he has contracted syphilis. The war has completely transformed this character and he is suffering to a great degree (Benson 91-92). Because of this disorder, Frederic is incapable of identifying with his old comrades and makes the final decision to desert the army. Although he is legally bound, Frederic no longer feels obligated to serve a country to which he does not belong. His allegiance is shattered when he witnesses Italian officials firing on their own men. The only meaning Frederic can derive from this is that he does not want to die a senseless death without meaning or honor. He then retreats to the river. This is a symbolic point in the novel because Frederic is “[moving] actively toward a game worth playing” (94). Frederic’s plunge into the Tagliamento is seen by many as a baptism (Watkins 109). Indeed, Frederic announces that his “Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation” (Hemingway 232). He then goes on to explain that he is completely finished with the war, thus this chapter of his life is closed (Donaldson “Introduction” 20).
The whole section of the novel that is concluded with Frederic’s lunge into the river has a major factor that adheres it other than the obvious component of war: Frederic’s treatment of time. The protagonist offers only reference points such as names of battles or cities, but everything he says is vague (Miller 61). The very first sentence of the novel begins “In the summer of that year…” (Hemingway 3). This avoidance of time has been created by the war and Frederic knows that if he dwells on the element of time, he would go mad waiting for the war to end. To Frederic, war means death. When the war inches closer to him, Frederic fears time and becomes very concerned with the times of the attacks and battles. He is able to escape the grasp of time, temporarily when he is hospitalized after being wounded. When his leave is up, however, he is extremely precise and acute with his descriptions (Miller 61-63).
Along with death and war, Frederic also associates time with Catherine, as he grows more and more fond of her. He specifically notes the hours of her shifts at the hospital. After his desertion, the two lovers reunite in Stressa and decide to abandon all ties and disappear into Lausanne. As they retreat across the lake, time intrudes and becomes a factor since there is a clear danger of them being noticed. Although they attempt to virtually escape from reality, time is unavoidable. How can it be ignored when Catherine is pregnant? “Time becomes more important as danger increases” (63). During the labor, Frederic’s references to time are as detailed as the opening descriptions of the front.
The final books of the novel mark Frederic’s final desperate attempts to derive meaning from his life. He has comes quite a distance since the beginning of the novel so far. Frederic has made the first big decision of his life that contains motive and cause. Of course joining the ambulance corps was a significant decision but Frederic had no reasoning behind it other than that “[He] was in Italy… and [he] spoke Italian” (Hemingway 22). Frederic’s desertion is so extremely significant because it can be justified by, if nothing more abstract than he would be killed, being suspected as a spy.
As the two lovers retreat to Lausanne, Frederic reveals that he is “trapped biologically” (139). He becomes extremely restless waiting on the birth of their child. He and Catherine spend their days reading and playing games. Catherine senses Frederic’s restiveness and suggests that he grow a beard. Frederic agrees and does so, only to shave it a few pages later. He looks in the mirror sees another, not someone that he wishes to be. As the fifth book proceeds, it is suggested that Frederic reverts back to the use of cliches that he had previously denounced in earlier chapters. Catherine’s condition worsens and once again Frederic is confronted with the timely notion of death. He takes on the persona of a nervous expectant father and clings to every last sign of structure or identity 9Gelfant 80). Catherine’s inevitable fate has driven Frederic into a senseless cesspool of babbling thoughts.
“Get away hell! It would have been the same if we had been married fifty times. And what if she should die? She won’t die. People don’t die in childbirth nowadays. That was what all the husbands thought. Yes, but what if she should die? She won’t die. She’s just having a bad time. Initial labor is usually protracted… It’s just nature giving her hell” (Hemingway 320).
These words show Frederic’s scattered train of thought. He attempts to shield himself from death with these cliches, although he knows that Catherine has no chance. Frederic even begins to pray to God in one last futile attempt to hang on to Catherine, but he is rejected (Watkins 113).
It is unfortunate that Frederic’s final resolution is a consequence of his lover and child’s death. Even more so, it is dramatically ironic that Frederic’s conclusion has surrounded him throughout the entire course of the novel and was even directly pointed out by Catherine. She says of her fianc?, “…then of course he was killed and that was the end of it” (Hemingway 19). Frederic’s final revelation encompasses this same thought: “It was like saying goodbye to a statue” (332). This is Frederic’s final learning experience and it is also the biological trap that he had described before. Death cannot be alluded, no matter what the circumstances may be. Regardless of the life a person lives, death is the ultimate sacrifice and “those who play by the rules lose more and faster than others” (Spanier 93). If trust is put in something other than oneself, such as love, then it will ultimately be lost with mortality. If man is to live and be content in his heart and soul, then he must live for himself only. In the third chapter Frederic says, “I did not know that then, but I learned it later” (Hemingway 14). The “it” is Frederic’s insight. Man must live according to an inner code and cannot put faith and hope in anything else.
Although a story of initiation of Frederic Henry’s life in fiction, A Farewell to Arms is also the product of Ernest Hemingway’s nonfictional experiences. After being rebuffed numerous repeatedly from the American forces in WWI, Hemingway eventually succeeded in joining the American Red Cross Volunteer Ambulance Corps. Like his protagonist, Hemingway was injured, shot in the leg while carrying a dying soldier to safety. He was taken to a hospital in Milan where he met and fell in love with a night nurse by the name of Agnes Hannah van Kurowsky. After being wounded in Italy, he received a promotion to Second Lieutenant, the same as Frederic Henry. Although he was extremely engaged in his courtship with Agnes, duty called and he was sent back to the front. After corresponding through the mail for some time, Agnes wrote Hemingway and revealed that she had fallen in love with another man and this news broke Hemingway’s heart (Baker 39,44-45,47,50,51). Hemingway’s life and philosophical ideas on love, war and death are all incorporated into A Farewell to Arms and as he tells of Frederic’s initiation there is no doubt that Hemingway recounts his own tragic story.
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