I enjoyed reminiscing about Ernest Hemingway’s books so much while reading and posting on The Paris Wife, that I’ve decided to post five days this week on the works of Ernest Hemingway. I’ll be using a lot of the information from the class I took during my Master’s degree on Hemingway, and I’ll share some of my thoughts, insights, and experiences with his books and short stories.
One of my favorites is A Farewell to Arms (1929), a semi-autobiographical novel about young World War I soldier Frederic Henry, who falls in love with his nurse, Catherine Barkley. She’s an interesting character, because although she seems to represent the sexual freedom and loss of faith of the Modernist era, she dies because of her so-called sins, making Hemingway’s iconoclasm and representation of women’s sexual freedom ambivalent.
The Modernist era (roughly 1900-1950) was a time of social upheaval, when attitudes toward women and sex were changing and Victorian values began to wane. Because women were dressing differently, cutting their hair, and living more public lives, there was a misogynist response and a complicated admiration for these women. Female figures in Modernism are represented as both ugly and powerful, and misshapen yet important because of their femininity. This societal shift, although necessary, led to an ambiguity about women’s sexual roles.
However, women were not the only ones changing or affected during this time. Modernism also represented upheaval for all people and social systems. Science became more important than religion, artists and writers began experimenting with different forms and movements, and many people felt despair because of a life filled with wars and fear. It was a time of change and turmoil. One recent gripping portrayal of these changes in society and technology is the popular television series Downton Abbey. The Crawley family’s life is a microcosm of Modernist changes.
As a New Woman during this time, Hemingway’s character Catherine rejects religion through embracing sexual freedom, by refusing to marry, and by having a baby out of wedlock. In contrast, Catherine’s lover Lieutenant Frederic Henry embraces religion when he needs it and offers it to Catherine when he thinks she needs it.
When Catherine gives birth, the process is long and arduous. Catherine suffers much and eventually takes to breathing gas for each contraction. “They’ve got to give me something” (324). Henry muses, “And this was the price you paid for sleeping together. This was the end of the trap. This was what people got for loving each other” (320). Henry recognizes their affair as sinful and attributes labor pains as punishment from God for their disregard of church laws.
The tragedy of childbirth and the resulting deaths of both Catherine and her baby are foreshadowed when Catherine and Henry are reunited and alone in their hotel earlier in the novel. Their break from religious tradition is described as courageous. But, “[t]he world breaks every one . . . [b]ut those that will not break it kills” (249). It is not God that will kill her but the world she has turned to instead of religion. The world stands in opposition to God, and it seems that Catherine’s willingness to embrace the world and its sexual freedom is what contributes to her death. Although her actions seem to be right throughout the novel, the resolution leaves us wondering given Catherine’s experience if rejecting religion is a rewarding move.
Earlier in the novel, Catherine is afraid of dying. She sees them dead in the rain, a foreshadowing of their separation because of war, her own death, and the death of their relationship. She tries to convince herself that she isn’t afraid of the rain, or the tragic outcome of their lives, but she cannot. She has not yet completely rejected her guilt over breaking religious laws, and this fear seems to represent that. Throughout the rest of the novel, the rain persists, constantly reminding us that death will occur. However, Catherine becomes less afraid, facing her pregnancy and death with stoicism.
The words and phrases Catherine uses to describe her sexual relationship with Henry echo the words of a religious follower. She embraces sexual freedom as a replacement of religion. She is constantly telling Henry, “I’m good. I do what you want” (106). These words echo the words of a faithful follower of God. In any religion, there are rules and commandments that must be followed. Those who do so are considered “good” because they are doing what God wants them to do. Henry has become Catherine’s god.
The affair also represents Catherine’s rejection of faith and religion because she had previously saved herself for marriage and refused to sleep with her former fiancé. Yet, she regrets her adherence to religious standards, saying, “He could have had anything he wanted if I would have known. I would have married him or anything. I know all about it now” (19). However, that man is killed at the Somme, a turning point for Catherine. She no longer saves herself for marriage but instead rejects this and has an affair with Henry. This part of the novel really shows the influence that war has had on Catherine. She lost her fiancé, she is a nurse in love with a soldier, and she cannot leave Italy. War has disillusioned her and caused her to reject religion.
Despite Catherine’s decision to take charge of her own sexuality, the other nurses blame Catherine’s corruption on Henry. Ferguson is disgusted with him. Catherine’s reaction to this is to smile at Henry and touch him. She continues her worship of him over any religion and ignores Ferguson’s implications that her situation is wrong or messy. Ferguson continues her verbal attack, using Biblical imagery to try to evoke guilt. “You’re worse than sneaky. You’re like a snake” (246). Her words bring to mind the serpent that beguiled Eve in the Garden of Eden. Likewise, Ferguson believes Henry tricked Catherine into a sexual relationship with him, and the looming result of such an affair is death.
Catherine refuses to marry because of her rejection of religion. She acknowledges that such an institution is controlled by church and state. “You see, darling, it would mean everything to me if I had any religion. But I haven’t any religion” (116). Marriage is the institution in which a church would approve of sexual relations; however, Catherine does not need this approval. She has moved beyond religion and instead does what she feels is acceptable to her as a sexually liberated woman.
My favorite imagery in the novel is the Saint Anthony that Catherine gives Henry before he returns to the front. She admits to not being Catholic: “But they say a Saint Anthony’s very useful” (43). She does not practice religion formally, but she buys into its superstitions by passing on a protective religious token to Henry, whom she wants to see protected in war. But the token is lost when Henry is wounded. It seems to represent the era’s loss of faith. I’ve recently seen the Saint Anthony used in many novels and television shows. It is becoming a common symbol of that which cannot be found or regained, since Saint Anthony is supposed to help with finding lost objects.
There is a lot of interesting religious imagery throughout the novel. Henry compares himself to a Christ figure jokingly in the boat on the way to Switzerland. His hands “were both blistered raw” (284). He makes light of this, saying, “There’s no hole in my side” (284). Henry has sacrificed his hands and his freedom to be with Catherine. In a sense, he becomes worthy of her religious admiration because he plays the part of Savior. Yet, Catherine rejects this. She says, “Don’t be sacrilegious” (285). This statement is odd because of Catherine’s acknowledgement that Henry is her religion.
Interestingly, Henry’s faith is due to fear. Henry tells a priest, “I am afraid of Him in the night sometimes” (72). This fear may explain Henry’s willingness to pray. He is not faithful in a committed sense, but he is aware of and afraid of a higher power. When his life becomes hard, he turns to God through prayer to save what he can. His faith comes when he needs help or wants to change the way his life is going.
This last-minute approach to religion is evident when Catherine is dying. Henry prays, “Please, please, please don’t let her die. God please make her not die. I’ll do anything you say if you don’t let her die” (330). His pleading shows his faith in religion and God despite his laxity in living according to his religion’s precepts.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.