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A Farewell to Arms

by Ernest Hemingway

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Analyze the character "the priest" in the novel A Farewell to Arms.

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The unnamed priest in A Farewell to Arms is an important character in that he helps Frederic Henry make sense of his experiences at the front line. Lt. Henry has made an existential choice in his life—to fight with the Italian Army during the First World War. Henry believed that throwing himself into the conflict would give meaning to his life. Yet it has not done so. If anything, his experiences of this terrible war have alerted him to the dark, meaningless void that lies in the very depths of his soul.

The priest is able to supply some of the spiritual wisdom that Lt. Henry so patently lacks. His patience, good sense, and sage advice divest Henry of some of his cynicism and bitterness. Henry's profound disillusionment with the war has had a negative impact on his ability to form meaningful relationships with other people. The priest, despite his avowed celibacy, has a much deeper understanding of love and the enormous sacrifices involved. He reminds us of the universality of love, irrespective of how it manifests itself.

Although some of the other men in Henry's unit poke fun at the priest due to his celibacy, Henry comes to respect him greatly. What he admires most of all about the priest is that he's completely genuine; he's not just going through the motions, dispensing pious platitudes. Despite their evident differences, Henry and the priest are able to connect on an existential level; they've both made a conscious decision to give meaning to their lives. In the case of the priest, this means living according to the example set by Christ, especially in relation to his loving sacrifice on the cross.

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The priest in A Farewell to Arms, a character with no specific name other than "the priest," is the voice of conscience. While the soldiers make fun of him, he is stoic and even good-natured as he blushes about their jokes poking fun at his celibate life. When the priest comes to visit Frederic Henry (when Henry is wounded and lying in pain in the field hospital in Chapter 11), the priest brings Henry vermouth, English newspapers, and mosquito netting. In the conversation that follows, the priest tells Henry that he hates the war and that there are two kinds of people: "There are people who would make war. In this country there are many like that. There are other people who would not make war" (page numbers vary by edition). The priest pushes Henry to reconsider his own views about the war and about the nature of love. When Henry describes the way he feels about love, the priest tells him that he doesn't yet understand that true love involves sacrifice.

The priest's conversations with Henry change the way Henry thinks about the war and about love, and they also show that the priest is a deep-thinking person who understands the futility of war and the essential quality of love. The priest is young, but wise and...

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full of love, as he only hopes that Henry and the other soldiers emerge from the war unharmed, despite the soldiers' relentless mockery of him.

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In A Farewell to Arms, the priest in some ways is like a foil to Lt. Frederic Henry.  The priest tells Lt. Henry that he believes in God and that much of what he does revolves around his belief.  Lt. Henry, on the other hand, does not really know what his life's purpose is, and as a result, Lt. Henry struggles with defining his own identity.  When they meet, the priest tries to help Lt. Henry find himself, but Lt. Henry is too skeptical about the war and about life to accept any easy answers.  That said, Lt. Henry is moved by the priest's ability to believe in something, and eventually, Lt. Henry is able to believe in the love that he has for Catherine Barkley.

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