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A Farewell to Arms

by Ernest Hemingway

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J. B. Priestley (essay date Winter 1929)

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SOURCE: A review of A Farewell to Arms, in Now and Then, Vol. 34, Winter 1929, pp. 11–12.

[In the following essay, the Priestley recommends Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms to readers while expressing some reservations about its franker aspects.]

Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms is one of the very best novels that have passed through the hands of the Book Society Committee. Why, then, didn't we choose it? Well, I think anybody who reads our first choice, Whiteoaks,1 and then this novel will understand why. Whiteoaks, an equally good piece of writing, is one of those novels that all sensible readers can enjoy. A Farewell to Arms, far rougher and more outspoken, a brutally masculine performance, is not everybody's book. I am sorry about this, but, at the same time, I am not going to make the fashionable mistake of supposing that this limitation necessarily makes Mr. Hemingway more important than he already is. Literature is not a matter of pleasing Aunt Susan. But we must also remember that it is equally not a matter of simply shocking Aunt Susan.

For some time now, good critics have regarded Mr. Hemingway as one of the most important of the younger American writers of fiction. He is in his thirties, was born in the Middle West, but has lived in Europe, chiefly in Paris, for several years, and most of his work is not about America at all, but has a European background. (And I believe that work will be even better than it is now when he goes home again to interpret the life of his own people. This is the customary thing to tell these American artists who have exiled themselves, but then, like a good many customary things, it happens to be true.) Mr. Hemingway is really very American; though he may be writing about boulevards and bullfights, he could not possibly be mistaken for an English writer. He has a curious manner and idiom which are based on characteristic American speech. He tells his tales in a succession of short, direct sentences, piling up the facts, and avoiding all obvious ‘literary’ airs and graces. You feel as if he were riddling his subjects with a machine-gun. But through the medium of this bluff, masculine, ‘hard-boiled,’ apparently insensitive style, he contrives to give you a very vivid and sometimes poignant picture of the life he knows.

He has done this superbly in A Farewell to Arms, which is the story of a young American who does ambulance work on the Italian Front during the War. This tough young man falls in love with an English girl who is nursing out there. He is wounded, returns to the Front only to participate in the famous and horrible retreat of 1917, finally escapes from Italy with his girl, only to see her die, after the birth of their child, in Switzerland. It may be objected that the figures of mortality after childbirth are already far too high in fiction, but I think even the objectors will admit the terrible poignancy and force of Mr. Hemingway's concluding scene.

Even better though, and quite new to us, are the Italian Front scenes, especially those during the retreat, which are horribly alive. And then, dominating the whole grim chronicle, is the queer, almost inarticulate love story of the two unfortunates, who, like so many chief characters in modern fiction, seem to be curiously lonely, without backgrounds, unsustained by any beliefs of any kind, hardly looking on further than the next cocktail, at heart puzzled and melancholy barbarians. Mr....

(This entire section contains 743 words.)

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Hemingway, setting every possible obstacle in his way, yet achieves a beautiful tenderness and pathos in this love story, heightened no doubt by the cunning suggestion throughout of inarticulacy. A Hemingway character, suddenly finding himself rapturously in love, cannot do neat rhetorical things with moons and stars and flames and flowers; he can only mutter: ‘Aw, what the hell!’; but the emotion comes through all right, perhaps with all the more force because there is no suspicion of deft literary juggling in the scene.

I implore every member of this society who has a good head and a stout heart to acquire at least this one additional novel this month. I believe it will not be long before readers will be able to boast of the fact that they bought a first edition of A Farewell to Arms.


  1. A family chronicle novel (1929) by the Canadian writer Mazo de la Roche.


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A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway

The following entry presents criticism on Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929). See also, Ernest Hemingway Criticism.

A giant in the field of American literary modernism, Ernest Hemingway has long been called an important spokesman for the “lost generation” of disillusioned, war-wounded young Americans after the First World War. His 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms, a tragic love story about an American ambulance lieutenant and an English nurse, was based on Hemingway's own experiences on the Italian front. In the novel, Hemingway uses his characteristic unadorned prose, clipped dialogue, and understatement to convey an essentially cynical view of the world. Critics were at first skittish about Hemingway's linguistic and sexual frankness but soon began to regard him as a pioneer in establishing a writing style that came to dominate realistic writing for many decades. Although feminist critics have denigrated Hemingway's alleged male bias, and others have found the love story unsatisfying, A Farewell to Arms remains a powerful statement about the effects of the horrors of war on ordinary people.

Plot and Major Characters

A Farewell to Arms is autobiographical in that Hemingway himself was with the Red Cross ambulance corps in Italy and also had a romance with a nurse after he was wounded by shrapnel. His protagonist, Frederic Henry, is a young American who joins the Italian ambulance corps, only to be wounded and sent to a hospital in Milan. He soon falls in love with his English nurse, Catherine Barkley, who then spends a happy summer with him in the country while he recuperates. In the fall, Catherine reveals that she is pregnant but refuses to marry Frederic, fearing that she will be sent back to England and asserting that the two are “married” in all but a legal way. A depressing scene ensues, with Frederic back at the front commiserating with his despondent comrade Rinaldi. With him he shares the further disappointment of the retreat from Caporetto. Discouraged and disillusioned, Frederic deserts, finding his way back to Stresa, to which Catherine has been transferred. Although in civilian clothes, Frederic fears detection, and he and Catherine flee to Lausanne to await the birth of their child. After a traumatic childbirth scene, both Catherine and the child die. Frederic walks away alone in the rain, chastened by his experiences and feeling alone in the universe.

Major Themes

An overarching theme in A Farewell to Arms is the hopelessness of war and the futility of searching for meaning in a wartime setting. Further, Hemingway suggests that the only true values people can cling to are in individual human relationships, not in abstract ideas of patriotism or service. A Farewell to Arms is above all a story of the development of Frederic Henry, who begins as a rather rootless character who does not really know why he joined the war effort. His own wound, however, teaches him to value life and prepares him to enter into a love relationship with Catherine. When Frederic makes his “separate peace” by deserting, he begins to take responsibility for his own actions. By the end of the novel, with love and hope seemingly dead, he has come to an understanding that one must be engaged in life, despite the vicissitudes of an indifferent universe.

Critical Reception

Early critics of the novel emphasized its realistic picture of war and disagreed over the effectiveness of Hemingway's laconic literary style. A number of critics were squeamish about the frank language and sexual situations Hemingway presented. A Farewell to Arms was in fact banned in Boston in its first serialization in Scribner's Magazine. By the 1940s, however, proponents of the New Criticism had begun to do closer textual studies of A Farewell to Arms, finding it rich in language, symbolism, and irony. Other critics praised Hemingway's narrative structure and explored themes such as the conflict between abstract ideas (like honor and service) and concrete experience with love and death.

The 1970s and early 1980s saw a new flurry of Hemingway scholarship after his papers and manuscripts were opened to the public at the John F. Kennedy Library, allowing insight into Hemingway's processes of composition. In the early 1970s, feminist critics began to lambast Hemingway for his treatment of the character of Catherine, whom they saw as little more than a projection of male needs and desires. Her relative lack of development, compared with Frederic's evolution as a character, was called a weakness in the novel. In answer to feminist critics, others argued that one should not judge the novel from a particular ideological framework. In the 1980s and 1990s, criticism shifted back to close analyses of the text itself and explorations of the ways in which Hemingway's life and the culture in which he lived influenced the novel. Reader-response critics sought to infer what Hemingway expected from readers, psychoanalytic critics delved into the character of Frederic, and deconstructionists noted subtle uses of language, which often masked deep meanings not at first evident.

T. S. Matthews (review date 9 October 1929)

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SOURCE: A review of A Farewell to Arms, in Hemingway: The Critical Heritage, edited by Jeffrey Meyers, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, pp.121–26.

[In the following review, originally published in 1929, Matthews outlines Hemingway's transition in A Farewell to Arms from the realism of war to the idealism of a love story.]

The writings of Ernest Hemingway have very quickly put him in a prominent place among American writers, and his numerous admirers have looked forward with impatience and great expectations to his second novel. They should not be disappointed: A Farewell to Arms is worthy of their hopes and of its author's promise.

The book is cast in the form which Hemingway has apparently delimited for himself in the novel—diary form. It is written in the first person, in that bare and unliterary style (unliterary except for echoes of Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein), in that tone which suggests a roughly educated but sensitive poet who is prouder of his muscles than of his vocabulary, which we are now accustomed to associate with Hemingway's name. The conversation of the characters is as distinctly Hemingway conversation as the conversation in one of Shaw's plays is Shavian. But there are some marked differences between A Farewell to Arms and Hemingway's previous work.

For one thing, the design is more apparent, the material more solidly arranged. Perhaps the strongest criticism that could be levelled against The Sun Also Rises was that its action was concerned with flotsam in the eddy of a backwater. It was apparently possible for some readers to appreciate the masculinity of Hemingway's ‘anti-literary’ style, to admit the authenticity of his characters, and still to say, ‘What of it?’ This criticism I do not consider valid—there has always been, it seems to me, in the implications of Hemingway's prose, and in his characters themselves, a kind of symbolic content that gives the least of his stories a wider range than it seems to cover—but such a criticism was certainly possible. It is not, however, a criticism that can possibly be directed against A Farewell to Arms. Fishing, drinking, and watching bullfights might be considered too superficial to be the stuff of tragedy, but love and death are not parochial themes.

The story begins in the summer of one of the middle years of the War. The hero is an American, Frederic Henry, in the Italian army on the Isonzo, in charge of a section of ambulances. It is before America has declared war, and he is the only American in Gorizia. But an English hospital unit has been sent down: he meets one of the nurses, Catherine Barkley, and falls in love with her. In the Italian offensive, he is wounded, and taken back to the base hospital in Milan where she too manages to be transferred. He is ordered to the front again just in time to be caught in the Caporetto retreat. In the mad scramble across the plains he loses the main column, is almost cut off by the Germans, and then almost shot by the Italians for not being with his section. He escapes, makes up his mind to desert from the army, and gets to Milan, where he eventually finds Catherine again. He is in mufti, the police are suspicious, and with the connivance of a friendly barman they row across the border into Switzerland. Their passports are in order, so they escape being interned. Catherine is going to have a baby. They spend the winter in a little cottage in the mountains, and in the spring go down to Lausanne, where the baby is to be born. Everything goes well for a time; then the doctor advises a Caesarean operation; the baby is born dead, and Catherine has an unexpected hemorrhage and dies. Here the story ends. Or not quite here. Hemingway's characteristic last sentence is: ‘After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.’

The book has more in it than The Sun Also Rises; it is more of a story; and it is more carefully written. Sometimes this care is too evident.

I had gone to no such place but to the smoke of cafés and nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that was all there was, and the strange excitement of waking and not knowing who it was with you, and the world all unreal in the dark and so exciting that you must resume again unknowing and not caring in the night, sure that this was all and all and all and not caring. Suddenly to care very much and to sleep to wake with it sometimes morning and all that had been there gone and everything sharp and hard and clear and sometimes a dispute about the cost.

This is a good description, but it is Hemingway gone temporarily Gertrude Stein. There is one other striking example of this manner, not new to Hemingway, but new to his serious vein:

‘I love your beard,’ Catherine said. ‘It's a great success. It looks so stiff and fierce and it's very soft and a great pleasure.’

This speech of Catherine's occurs toward the end of the book. When she is first introduced, she talks, plausibly enough, in a manner which, though distinctly Hemingway, might also pass as British. In the last half of the book, (except for the Gertrude Stein lapse quoted above), she is pure Hemingway. The change that comes over her, the change that comes over both the main characters, is not, I think, due to the author's carelessness. Whether he deliberately planned this metamorphosis or half-consciously allowed it to take place is of minor interest. The interesting and the significant thing is the nature of the change. A typical Hemingway hero and a not-quite-so-typical Hemingway heroine are transformed, long before the end, into the figures of two ideal lovers.

Hemingway has been generally regarded as one of the most representative spokesmen of a lost generation—a generation remarkable chiefly for its cynicism, its godlessness, and its complete lack of faith. He can still, I think, be regarded as a representative spokesman, but the strictures generally implied against his generation will soon, perhaps, have to be modified or further refined. As far as Hemingway himself is concerned, it can certainly no longer be said that his characters do not embody a very definite faith.

‘They won't get us,’ I said. ‘Because you're too brave. Nothing ever happens to the brave.’

Rinaldi, the Italian surgeon who is the hero's room-mate in the first part of the book, has what almost amounts to a breakdown because he can discover nothing in life outside his three anodynes of women, wine and work. The note of hopelessness that dominated the whole of The Sun Also Rises is not absent in A Farewell to Arms, nor is it weaker, but it has been subtly modified, so that it is not the note of hopelessness we hear so much as the undertone of courage. Hemingway is now definitely on the side of the angels, fallen angels though they are. The principal instrument of this change is Catherine. Brett, the heroine of The Sun Also Rises, was really in a constant fever of despair; the selfless faith which Catherine gives her lover may seem to come from a knowledge very like despair, but it is not a fever. When we look back on the two women, it is much easier to believe in Brett's actual existence than in Catherine's—Brett was so imperfect, so unsatisfactory. And, like an old soldier, it would have been wrong for Brett to die. The Lady in the Green Hat died, but Brett must live. But Catherine is Brett—an ennobled, a purified Brett, who can show us how to live, who must die before she forgets how to show us—deified into the brave and lovely creature whom men, if they have never found her, will always invent.

This apotheosis of bravery in the person of a woman is the more striking because Hemingway is still the same apparently blunt-minded writer of two-fisted words. He still has a horror of expressing delicate or noble sentiments, except obliquely.

I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them … and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.

And his prophecy of individual fate is, if anything, more brutally pessimistic than ever:

The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

He will not even call Catherine brave, except through the lips of her lover. Here he is describing how she acted in the first stages of labor:

The pains came quite regularly, then slackened off. Catherine was very excited. When the pains were bad she called them good ones. When they started to fall off she was disappointed and ashamed.

Hemingway is not a realist. The billboards of the world, even as he writes about them, fade into something else: in place of the world to which we are accustomed, we see a land and a people of strong outlines, of conventionalized shadow; the people speak in a clipped and tacit language as stylized as their appearance. But Hemingway's report of reality is quite as valid as a realist's. The description of the War, in the first part of A Farewell to Arms, is perhaps as good a description of war just behind the front as has been written; and a fresh report from a point of view as original as Hemingway's is an addition to experience. But this book is not essentially a war-story: it is a love-story. If love-stories mean nothing to you, gentle or hard-boiled reader, this is not your book.

The transition, indeed, from the comparative realism of the war scenes to the ideal reality of the idyll is not as effective as it might be. The meeting of the lovers after Henry's desertion from the army, and their escape into Switzerland, have not that ring of authenticity about them which from Hemingway we demand. We are accustomed to his apparent irrelevancies, which he knows how to use with such a strong and ironic effect, but the scene, for instance, between the lovers and Ferguson in the hotel at Stresa seems altogether too irrelevant, and has no ironic or dramatic value, but is merely an unwanted complication of the story. From this point until the time when the lovers are safely established in Switzerland, we feel a kind of uncertainty about everything that happens; we cannot quite believe in it. Why is it, then, that when our belief is reawakened, it grows with every page, until once more we are convinced, and passionately convinced, that we are hearing the truth?

I think it is because Hemingway, like every writer who has discovered in himself the secret of literature, has now invented the kind of ideal against which no man's heart is proof. In the conclusion of A Farewell to Arms, he has transferred his action to a stage very far from realism, and to a plane which may be criticized as the dramatics of a sentimental dream. And it is a dream. Catherine Barkley is one of the impossibly beautiful characters of modern tragedy—the Tesses, the Alyoshas, the Myshkins1—who could never have existed, who could not live even in our minds if it were not for our hearts. In that sentimentalism, that intimation of impossible immortality, poets and those who hear them are alike guilty.

Hemingway himself is doubtless a very different sort of man from the people pictured in his books: he may well have very different ideas about the real nature of life; but as long as books remain a communication between us, we must take them as we understand them and feel them to be. ‘Nothing ever happens to the brave.’ It is an ambiguous statement of belief, and its implications are sufficiently sinister, but its meaning is as clear and as simple as the faith it voices. It is a man's faith; and men have lived and died by much worse.


  1. The protagonists of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891), Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (1880) and The Idiot (1868).

Principal Works

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Three Stories & Ten Poems (short stories) 1923

in our time (sketches) 1924

In Our Time (short stories) 1925

The Sun Also Rises (novel) 1926; published in England asFiesta (novel) 1926

Today Is Friday (journalism) 1926

The Torrents of Spring: A Romantic Novel in Honor of the Passing of a Great Race (novel) 1926

Men Without Women (short stories) 1927

A Farewell to Arms (novel) 1929

Death in the Afternoon (nonfiction) 1932

Winner Take Nothing (short stories) 1933

Green Hills of Africa (nonfiction) 1935

To Have and Have Not (novel) 1937

Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories (short stories and play) 1938

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (short stories) 1938

The Spanish Earth (criticism and broadcasts) 1938

The Fifth Column: A Play in Three Acts (play) 1940

For Whom the Bell Tolls (novel) 1940

The Portable Hemingway (novels and short stories) 1944

Across the River and Into the Trees (novel) 1950

The Old Man and the Sea (novel) 1952

The Hemingway Reader (novel) 1953

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories (short stories) 1961

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and Other Stories (short stories) 1963

A Moveable Feast (memoir) 1964

Hemingway's African Stories: The Stories, Their Sources, Their Critics (short stories) 1969

Collected Poems (poetry) 1970

Islands in the Stream (novel) 1970

The Nick Adams Stories (short stories) 1972

Ernest Hemingway: Eighty-Eight Poems (poetry) 1979

Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters, 1917-1961 (letters) 1981

Hemingway on Writing (essay) 1984

The Dangerous Summer (nonfiction) 1985

Conversations With Ernest Hemingway (interviews) 1986

The Garden of Eden (novel) 1986

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition (short stories) 1987

The Only Thing That Counts: The Ernest Hemingway/Maxwell Perkins Correspondence (letters) 1996

The Short Stories (short stories) 1997

Robert Herrick (essay date November 1929)

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SOURCE: “What Is Dirt?” in The Bookman, November, 1929, pp. 258-62.

[In the following essay, Herrick raises questions about the propriety of certain frank sexual references in A Farewell to Arms, comparing them unfavorably with similarly explicit passages in Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.]

The censor, whatever he may think of himself, is always a ridiculous figure to the impartial observer. Latterly the censoring spirit has been especially active around Boston, that ancient home of witch hangers, offering comic relief to the gods. That a community which could perpetrate the Sacco-Vanzetti outrage on justice should try to suppress Candide and Strange Interlude is but another instance of the marvellous perversion of our mentality when it becomes tangled in the thickets of public morality. A civilization which laps up jazz, even in Boston, goes delirious over smacking contacts in the “close-ups” of movies, and indulges in the semi-nudities of the bathing beach, ought not to be squeamish over a few printed words, no matter how “suggestive” they may be.

What is sexual evil? What “contaminates” the adolescent or even the mature mind? Our generation is still at sea on these points and the efforts of the censor do not make for light. Indeed proscription often advertises and enhances the attraction of a suppressed article. If the authorities really desire to protect the morals and the taste of the public, they go about it in a foolish manner. Frank commercial pornography such as was practised openly in Italy ante Mussolini may have less effect on the morals of the race than wire-tapping, third-degree methods, and universal graft. Unfortunately to the censor there is only one form of evil, sexual license, and only one morality, his own. Therefore open-minded persons like myself who may not care for eroticism in literature are suspicious of every exercise of literary censorship, as likely to be another case of the mote and the beam.

All the same there are instances where the censor's ban seems less grotesque than others where even the most liberal minded observer might accept—for his own reasons, never for the censor's!—the hasty suppression of some expressions of the phallic cult, e.g.., the above-mentioned pornographic pictures still vended in Europe. The coarse, mechanical representation of what should be a beautiful, a significant, at least an intense, human action is deplorable from any point of view. So, too, mere “garbage” (to use Mr. Owen Wister’s apt word about the work of a young American author whom he greatly admires), being repulsive, may well be disposed of as summarily as possible. “Garbage”, to be sure, in cludes other ugly and malodorous human functions—drunkenness accompanied by vomiting (the detailed representation of which Mr. Wister's young protégé seems to have a special fondness for) and the intimate details of physical evacuation. One keeps such offal out of reach of dogs, especially puppies, to prevent them from indulging a depraved taste. The human animal is not supposed to have the animal liking for offal, but if he does I cannot see any sure way of preventing him from indulging in it. There is always the secrecy of the mind where the worst debauchery can be freely indulged in, beyond the reach of any censorship!

It is an old controversy, this—what “decency” finds permissible for expression in the arts. Not only the vendors of garbage, but young radicals and experimenters of all kinds always vociferate loudly in behalf of “naturalism” or “realism” or “truth” or “fact”—whatever term the fashion of the day may use—while the more conventional (and perhaps more sensitive) minded object in terms of “decency”, “good taste”, or “public morals”. The result is a lot of noise and dust from the beating of straw men, and the antics of the censor, who like the circus clown, always presents himself obtusely to the slaps of all parties. Yet there has been progress, if we may call it such, since the time when Hauptmann's Hannele could not be played in New York—from the time when Harper's mangled Jude the Obscure to the time when Scribner's Magazine prints A Farewell to Arms intact! I cannot say that there has been any clarification of the principles underlying the censorship of plays and books, but an ever-increasing tendency towards free exposure of the nude, as in our manners.

The principle that should govern exclusions, if it is worth while to make any, is, however, simple enough: that is the principle that must govern the creative artist who has a larger ambition than to become a successful pornographist or sensation-monger. Ardent naturalists or realists or expressionists (whatever from generation to generation they prefer to call themselves) seem to forget the elementary truth that while all human activities may have eternal significance and therefore an art value, few actually do bear the sacred mark. It is the fundamental duty of the creator to endow the activities he chooses to present with such an enduring quality. If he fails, as he often does, he should not fall back childishly on the plea, “But it's so in life, it's true”. Everything conceivable is so somewhere in life, but what of it? Unless an action or a word reveals something, means something, why burden our distracted attentions with it? Because a man often vomits after over-drinking of what human importance is it—except to the man himself and those who have to care for the swine?

Lately there has been presented in two contemporary novels a fine instance of the elementary thesis I am setting forth: both are war stories, both by young men; one is German, the other American. The American tale is set forth (perhaps symbolically) from the point of view of an ambulance driver—the amateur; the European story, from that of the common soldier, the professional. Boston, with its beautiful lack of discrimination, has condemned them both; that is, the censor forbade the circulation of the magazine containing A Farewell to Arms, and the Boston publisher of the American edition of All Quiet on the Western Front prudently deleted certain passages and expressions from the English translation which he knew would not pass the Watch and Ward Society. Although the two stories present similar material, although both deal “nakedly” with certain common physiological functions, one, I maintain, is literature and the other it would not be too strong to call mere garbage.

Of the two considerable passages of All Quiet on the Western Front suppressed by the American publisher (not too strong for the English taste!) the first deals explicitly with a necessity of the toilette which even animals and savages prefer to perform in private. I take it that the young German novelist had a very definite purpose in not sparing the reader all the details of this daily function (aside from a certain Rabelaisian humor whose indulgence all robust literature has allowed), the desire to reveal to the sensitive reader the most debasing and spiritually disintegrating aspect of our great factory war—its complete lack of privacy for the individual. Nothing, I take it, so stripped its victims of all sense of dignity, of human individuality, as the necessary publicity of even the most intimate and personal activities; nothing so tended to reduce the common soldier to a mere automaton. He was brought by the processes of that gigantic conflict (concerning which his leaders babbled beautiful nonsense) far lower than primitive man in the scale of existence, lower often than domesticated animals, to the place where he had to become a bundle of crude appetites. Remarque, by emphasizing the preoccupation of his common soldiers with food and drink and warmth, did what other truthful writers of war stories from Barbusse on have done, but in this scene (which does not offend me in the least) he has put the final firm touch to his picture of men stripped of every personal protection by the brutal necessities of modern war. The scene over the sanitary buckets tells me far more of war than all the vivid pictures of mangled flesh.

The American novel has no passage exactly paralleling the above although it is never chary of odorous references to similar facts. But what Mr. Hemingway does not hesitate to present is vomiting due to drunkenness, which is not peculiar to soldiers nor significant of their terrible ordeal. Granted that the thing is true and common enough, it has no value in the picture: it is just unpleasant garbage.

The other deleted passage of All Quiet on the Western Front has a close parallel in A Farewell to Arms. The Boston publisher was probably well-advised in not trying to get away with this scene, although any community with a keener sense of humor might well forgive its frankness for its robust amusement. It is a case of a soldier confined to the convalescent ward of a hospital who is visited (for the first time in two years) by his wife with the child born since her husband's last leave. Since everything must be shared in common, the little group of soldiers in that hospital ward know of this event and know what it means to their comrade not to be able to enjoy this brief visit in privacy. They arrange that the forced conditions shall interfere as little as possible with the privacy of the two and with the perfectly natural desires of the reunited couple to enjoy their (legal) relationship. The situation as rendered by Remarque is a delightful mingling of camaraderie and broad humor, without a single vulgar or “suggestive” word. Solely for the fun of it the incident would be worth while, but it contributes richly to the whole picture of what war does to the human being, which the novelist is painting. Also the goodness and good sense of the ordinary man, his homely sound humanity and honest morality, are all finely revealed.

My memory goes back to a situation something like this in Under Fire where a soldier on leave, having travelled many days to reach his home, picks up on the way a stranded comrade and offers him shelter from a storm in the one room he is to share with his wife for the single night left to them of the precious leave. Barbusse, so often accused of brutality, handled the situation with more reserve and less humor than his German rival. … I believe that the Boston publisher has defended the suppression of these two passages, both of which are printed in the translation published in England, on the ground that they are of no significance to the story as a whole. In that I think he errs. The story can stand the lopping off of these two rich episodes because it is so much of a piece, so firmly woven, but the omission of them is a loss to the American reader, who, after all, is accustomed to much worse stuff!

The parallel passage to which I have alluded in A Farewell to Arms is an ordinary boudoir scene, the boudoir being the private ward of an Italian military hospital where the hero is to be operated on for a presumably serious wound. The heroine is an English nurse whom the ambulance driver has flirted with casually at the front:—

I looked toward the door. It was Catherine Barkley. She came into the room and over to the bed. “Hello darling,” she said. She looked fresh and young and very beautiful. … “Hello,” I said. When I saw her I was in love with her. Everything turned over inside of me. … I pulled her down and kissed her and felt her heart beating. … “You mustn't,” she said. “You're not well enough.” “Yes, I am.” … “No. You're not strong enough.” “Yes, I am. Yes, Please.” … “Feel our hearts beating.” “I don't care about our hearts. I want you. I'm just mad about you.”

(Interlude discretely indicated by space in text)

Catherine sat in a chair by the bed. The door was open into the hall. The wildness was gone, and I felt finer than I had ever felt.

She asked, “Now do you believe I love you?”

This, according to the magazine editor who writes the monthly puff, is “the love conceived in the muck of war which evolves into beauty”! … There follows a nuit d'amour in the hospital interrupted by stealthy reconnoiterings and punctuated by such bits of conversational exchange as this:

“There, darling. Now you're all clean inside and out. Tell me. How many people have you ever loved?” “Nobody.” “Not me even?” “Yes, you.” … “How many have you how do you say it?—stayed with?” “None.” “You're lying to me.” “Yes.” … “You sweet.” “I'm good. Aren't I good? You don't want any other girls, do you?” “No.” “You see? I'm good. I do what you want.”

This, I maintain, is merely another lustful indulgence, like so many that occur between men and women and have since the beginning of time and will persist to its end. It has no significance, no more than what goes on in a brothel, hardly more than the copulations of animals. There are fewer gros mots, perhaps, used by the American writer than by the German, more sentimental wash, but the implications of the situation and of the following passages in the hospital and at a Milan hotel—are plain enough even for the dull-witted Victorian to grasp: the whole episode smells of the boudoir. Remarque's treatment of the theme is literature, whereas the American's “beautiful love” is mere dirt, if anything. …

I must confess that I did not stay with the story beyond the Milan episodes and so am not qualified to say whether such a love “conceived in the muck of war” finally evolved into something which I should call beauty. I had had enough of what Mr. Wister quite properly calls “garbage”, in which Mr. Hemingway so often wraps his pearls. I gather from a review of the book that the hero finally deserted from his post of ambulance driver for the sake of his “great love”, and I am wondering if that action—to quote once more from the publishers' puff—“elucidates the driving purpose of Hemingway's work”?

It is in substance a quite simple matter, this distinction between what is dirt and what isn't in regard to the sexual relation, so obvious one might think as not to require repetition, except for the fact, which every teacher knows, that it is the simplest truth that most needs iteration. All human activities are the rightful property of the creative artist, from the lowest to the highest, on condition that he can endow them with some significance, a meaning—I do not say with beauty. The sun and the rain beat upon the earth, men and women are born and die, love and hate, hunger and lust: there is nothing either new or important in all that. It remains for the imagination to take these commonplaces of sensation and make out of them some thing, if not beautiful, at least arresting—something of a larger import than the facts themselves. Mr. Hemingway's young man and woman are but another couple on the loose in Europe during the War—there were so many of them! Erich Remarque's soldiers on their sanitary buckets or stealing food or in the convalescent ward of the hospital befriending a comrade, are pitiful and tragic figures of the greatest significance to people of this generation. From them even the dullest—even American amateurs—may learn what war really is, what hateful things it does to human souls as well as to their bodies, what an infinite coil of evil the patrioteers unloose in this world. And, incidentally, how pathetically right and lovable the basic instincts of human beings are even in the depths of slime and muck. …

The censor, by intimidating the prudent publishers of the American edition of All Quiet on the Western Front into deleting certain passages and glossing certain coarse terms in others, has done a great harm. Americans more than Europeans need to have their consciousness of the realities of war pricked, and should have received this important story unblemished by prudery, in its full import, literally rendered out of the German. Whereas, to my way of thinking, no great loss to anybody would result if A Farewell to Arms had been suppressed.

Yet I realize that the censor should be the last person to whose intelligence such a decision should be left. The very fact that he was willing to become a censor marks his unfitness for the job. The censoring impulse or habit of mind is both dangerous and puerile. Better to allow free pornography than to leave to any censor or board of censors the choice of what we can read and think! Less harm to public morals would be done with complete license than from the sort of censoring we suffer from at present—haphazard, ignorant, vacillating (also less free advertising for inferior books and plays!). It would seem more intelligent to spend the energy now wasted on ineffectual and wrong-headed censorship, with the attendant controversies in press and pulpit, on an effort to educate the public in what is dirt as distinguished from life and literature. A difficult and perhaps hopeless undertaking, I grant, nevertheless one which from the beginning of human expression every serious creator has endeavored to perform. Let the pornographers and the eroticists ply their trade in the open and purvey dirt for those who like it. Leave the honest imaginative creators free to work in the chaos of human instincts and impulses, knowing that time will inexorably suppress all of their effort but that which has either beauty or significance. The rest will inevitably go to the dust heap of the ages. Dirt would remain, of course—dirty thoughts and habits. But imaginative beings would be free to explore those hidden spiritual significances of sex, which the present age seems to be forgetting.

Donald Davidson (review date 3 November 1929)

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SOURCE: A review of A Farewell to Arms, in Hemingway: The Critical Heritage, edited by Jeffrey Meyers, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, pp. 126–30.

[In the following review, originally published in 1929, Davidson criticizes what he calls Hemingway's behaviorist, “scientific” approach to writing in A Farewell to Arms.]

Ernest Hemingway's novel A Farewell to Arms is like a direct and most remarkable answer to the recent wish of Dr. Watson,1 prophet of behaviorism, that somebody would write a novel containing people who act in a lifelike and scientific manner. That is exactly what Mr. Hemingway does, with such astounding verity as to overwhelm, befuddle and profoundly impress all readers. Mr. Hemingway here is playing scientist, and he is watching people behave. It is a mistake to suppose that people behave morally or immorally, becomingly or unbecomingly. That is not the point at all: they merely behave. There is no good, no ill, no pretty, no ugly—only behavior. Behaviorism argues that there is stimulus and response, nothing else, and Mr. Hemingway's books contain (ostensibly, but not quite) nothing else. The novel is a bold and exceptionally brilliant attempt to apply scientific method to art, and I devoutly hope that all the scientists will read it and admire it intensely.

This comment on a book that is apparently taking the public by storm requires further demonstration, which I shall attempt to give.

Look first at the people of the book, who happen to be people, not cockroaches or mice, acting and reacting in wartime Italy rather than in a laboratory. But they are only people, not highly differentiated individuals. That is to say they are, in a manner of speaking, laboratory specimens. In the interest of the scientific ‘experiment’ or observation, they must be as normal and average as possible, and so they are. It is regrettable, perhaps, that they are nice healthy creatures, not without animal charm (even if without souls), but we must presume that their occasional sufferings are in the interest of some scientific investigation which will eventually declare the ‘whole truth’ about something, possibly war and love.

Thus we have first a Male with no characteristics other than might be noted in a description like this: Henry, Frederic; American; commissioned in Italian ambulance corps; speaks Italian (with accent); reactions, normally human. And then of course a Female: Barkley, Catherine; nurse; English; normally attractive and equipped with normal feminine reactions. The subordinate characters, too, are just as colorless: Rinaldi, Italian officer, inclined to be amorous; a priest, unnamed; other officers, soldiers, police, nurses, surgeons, bawdyhouse keepers and inmates, restaurant keepers, Swiss officials, family folk. All of these, notice, talk alike and all do nothing but behave, offering given responses to given stimuli.

Then we must have a situation. It is simply this. Put the Male and Female under the disorderly and rather uninviting conditions of war, including battle, wounds, hospitalization, return to the front, retreat and bring the Male and Female into propinquity now and then. What will happen?

I am tempted to describe what does happen—it is all, of course, ‘natural’—in such a catechism as James Joyce uses in one part of Ulysses.2 It would run something like this:

Question: What do soldiers do in war?

Answer: They fight, drink, eat, sleep, talk, obey commands, march, go on leave, visit brothels, are tired or sick or dead or alive, wonder when the next battle will be, sometimes meet respectable women, sometimes fall in love hastily.

Question: Was the same true in the case of Henry, Frederic?

Answer: It was invariably true.

Question: What do nurses do in a war?

Answer: They eat, sleep, drink, talk, obey commands, tend the wounded, are tired or sick or dead or alive, wonder when the next battle will be, sometimes meet attractive officers, sometimes fall in love hastily.

Question: Was the same true in the case of Barkley, Catherine?

Answer: It was invariably true.

Question: What not very special circumstances modified the case of Henry, Frederic?

Answer: He was wounded in the leg, and was thus entitled to prosecute a love affair with Barkley, Catherine.

Question: What wholly natural thing did Henry, Frederic do during the Caporetto retreat?

Answer: He retreated, was arrested, saw police shooting fugitives, jumped in the river, escaped, joined Catherine, quit the war, went to Switzerland.

Question: What not unnatural consequences to Barkley, Catherine, attended her love affair with Henry, Frederic?

Answer: Ineffective labor in childbirth, Caesarean operation, death.

Question: And what were the results for Henry, Frederic?

Answer: Results unknown. He merely walked back in the rain.

The application of the scientific method may be further demonstrated by a scrutiny of other features of the novel. A scientific report of events requires that there be no comment, no intrusion of private sentiments, no depreciation or apology. The ‘bare facts’ must be given—or tabulated.

Therefore style (as style is generally known) is wiped out, or is reduced to its lowest, most natural, terms. It will take the form of simple, unelaborated predications, not unlike the sentences in a First Reader. For instance: The dog is black. The sky is blue. Catherine is pretty. I did not love Catherine at first but now I love Catherine. I drank the wine and it did not make me feel good. She was unconscious all the time and it did not take her very long to die.

And that, as I see it, is the gist of Mr. Hemingway's hypothetical case, which by the unthinking may be called an indictment of war or of civilization or an apology for free love or what you will. But its method does not justify any of these interpretations, however latently they may exist.

What of it, then? On the surface it is assuredly a most remarkable performance. To those who take pleasure in contemplating a world of mechanisms doing nothing but acting and reacting, it must be a nearly perfect book. Let us leave them with their admirations, which are no doubt justifiable under the circumstances.

But what of those who, without knowing exactly why, have an uneasy sense of dissatisfaction with Mr. Hemingway's book and ask for something more than a remarkably natural series of conversations, daydreams, and incidents? Mr. Hemingway's book will have plenty of defenders to fly up and condemn those who are dissatisfied. I want to supply a little ammunition to the dissatisfied, out of pure sympathy for the underdog if for no other reason.

First of all, don't complain about vulgarity or obscenity. There you lose the battle. For to a scientist, nothing is vulgar or obscene any more than it is genteel or pretty. And Mr. Hemingway apparently is trying to be a scientist. Attack him instead at the point where a fundamental contradiction exists. Can there be such a thing as a scientific work of art? The nature of the contradiction can be immediately seen. Mr. Hemingway could treat human affairs scientifically only in a scientific medium. That is, he would have to invent equations, symbols, vocabularies, hypotheses, laws, as scientists are in the habit of doing. By so doing he would achieve all the ‘reality’ that science is capable of achieving—which might perhaps be of practical use, but could not be vended as a novel, even by so respectable a house as Charles Scribner's Sons.

Obviously Mr. Hemingway did not, could not, go to such a logical limit. He was forced to compromise by using the vocabulary and the forms of art. The minute he made the compromise, he failed fundamentally and outrageously. His novel is a splendid imitation, but only an imitation, of science. It is a hybrid beast, ill-begotten and sterile. It is a stunt, a tour de force, and no matter how blindingly brilliant, no matter how subtle in artifice, it is in effect a complete deception (possibly a self-deception) and can exist only as a kind of marvelous monstrosity.

Note that he falls short even of science. Committed to the form of the novel, he must be selective where science is inclusive. He cannot destroy his own personality and bias, for from his book we get the distinct impression that he wishes us to believe war is unheroic, life is all too frequently a dirty trick, and love may be a very deadly joke on the woman. Even in his effort to get away from style he creates a new style that is in effect a reaction against all decorative imagistic prose.

A Farewell to Arms, which is apparently intended to give us a perfect example of pure behavior, turns out after all to be only the behavior of Mr. Hemingway, stupendously overreaching himself in the effort to combine the role of artist and scientist and producing something exactly as marvelous and as convincing as a tragic sculpture done in butter.


  1. John Watson was Professor of Psychology at Johns Hopkins University and author of Behaviorism (1925). Behaviorism is a concept of psychology in which the organism is seen as responding to stimuli set by the outer environment and inner biological processes.

  2. Joyce uses this method in the Ithaca section of the novel.

Further Reading

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Monteiro, George. “Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms—The First Sixty-Five Years: A Checklist of Criticism, Scholarship, and Commentary.” Bulletin of Bibliography 53 (4) (December 1996): 273-92.

Comprehensive, chronological list of works about the novel and its film, radio, and television adaptations through 1994.


Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Scribner, 1969. 697 p.

One of the first authoritative biographies of Hemingway, with a short section on A Farewell to Arms.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Harper and Row, 1985, 644 p.

Biography with references to A Farewell to Arms.


Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: Critiques of Four Major Novels. New York: Scribner, 1962. 199 p.

An influential collection of essays about A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea.

Bloom, Harold, Ed. Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 164 p.

Selections from Hemingway criticism, edited and with an introduction by the Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale.

Comley, Nancy, and Robert Scholes. Hemingway's Genders: Rereading the Hemingway Text. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994, pp. 36-40.

A gender-related examination of how characters in the novel are represented.

Donaldson, Scott. By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway New York: Viking, 1977, pp. 151-62, 203-04.

Biographical-critical work which attempts to analyze Hemingway's thought processes through his writings; includes a chapter on Frederic as a “selfish lover” in A Farewell to Arms.

———. New Essays on A Farewell to Arms. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 140 p.

Selections from Hemingway criticism, to the end of the 1980s, with useful introduction.

Dow, William. “Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.” The Explicator 55 (Summer 1997): 224-25.

Compares A Farewell to Arms to Henri Barbusse's 1916 novel Le Feu.

Glasser, William A. “A Farewell to Arms.” The Sewanee Review 74 (April-June 1966): 453-59.

Glasser argues that Frederic begins to achieve a Christian vision of the world.

Hemingway Review 8 (Fall 1989).

Entire issue dedicated to essays on A Farewell to Arms on the sixtieth anniversary of its publication.

Hicks, Granville. The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature Since the Civil War. New York: Macmillan, 1933. 341 p.

Useful for its insight into critical views of Hemingway in the 1930s.

Lewis, Robert W. A Farewell to Arms: The War of the Words. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992. 161 p.

Comprehensive study of A Farewell to Arms, one in a series of Twayne's Masterwork Studies.

Monteiro, George, ed. Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1994. 192 p.

An updated collection of scholarly materials on Hemingway, divided into four sections: composition, censorship, reviews, and criticism.

Phelan, James. “Evaluation and Resistance: The Case of Catherine Barkley.” In Reading People, Reading Plots. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 165-88.

A rhetorical analysis of the character of Catherine, in partial response to Fetterley's criticism, emphasizing Hemingway's narrative structure and Catherine's progression within it.

Rovit, Earl. Ernest Hemingway. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1986. 214 p.

Revision of the 1963 work, part of Twayne's United States Authors Series.

Spilka, Mark. Hemingway's Quarrel with Androgyny. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. 383 p.

Analyzes the novel in terms of Hemingway's attempts to come to terms with his own androgynous impulses.

Tyler, Lisa. “Passion and Grief in A Farewell to Arms: Ernest Hemingway's Retelling of Wuthering Heights.” Hemingway Review 14 (Spring 1995): 79-86.

Examines ways in which A Farewell to Arms echoes Bronte's novel in themes, symbols, and details.

Wagner, Linda W., Ed. Ernest Hemingway: Six Decades of Criticism. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1987. 341 p.

Selections from Hemingway criticism to the mid-1980s, with an introduction by the editor.

Williams, Wirt. The Tragic Art of Ernest Hemingway. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1981. 240 p.

Author defines tragedy and applies its parameters to various Hemingway works, including A Farewell to Arms.

Additional coverage of Hemingway's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 19; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 2, 3, and 13; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1917–1929; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77–80; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 34; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9, 102, and 210; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vols. 1, 15, and 16; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981, 1987, 1996, and 1998; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 3 and 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1 and 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 5, and 6; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 1, 25, 36, and 40; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 1, 6, 8, 9, and 11; and World Literature Criticism.

L. P. Hartley (review date 7 December 1929)

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SOURCE: A review of A Farewell to Arms, in Hemingway: The Critical Heritage, edited by Jeffrey Meyers, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, pp. 134–35.

[In the following review, originally published in 1929, Hartley states that A Farewell to Arms is particularly interesting because of its account of war on the Italian front.]

Mr. Hemingway is a novelist of the expatriated. Fiesta showed us a group of Americans and one Englishwoman being violently idle, first in Paris and then in Spain. They went to bull-fights, they made love, they drank. Above all, they drank. They were not congenial company even in a book, but they knew how to get the utmost out of their emotions, and though bored and desperate, they were seldom dull.

The same characters, or others like them, reappear in A Farewell to Arms. There is an English woman serving as a nurse in the Italian Red Cross, there is an American who has joined the Italian army for no better reason than that he speaks the language. There is the Continental scene as envisaged by a thirsty Anglo-Saxon: cafés, vermouths, drinks—unlimited drinks. There is the same dialogue between the lovers, the American soon cuts out Catherine's Italian admirer—trivial, pregnant, witty, yet coming from the heart and charged with a plangent emotion. A Farewell to Arms contains most of the ingredients of its predecessor, but it has others as well, and it is a much better book. The Italian officers, with whom the hero was on intimate terms (Mr. Hemingway has a gift for portraying friendship as well as love), are excellently drawn and the war passages are vivid and exciting. No doubt the war in Italy is easier to describe than the war on the Western Front: there was more movement, hope ran higher, disappointment was more acute; the emotions aroused were more comparable to those of everyday life. And, as chronicler of the war in Italy, Mr. Hemingway has the field almost to himself: the novelist writing of the Western theatre must first disentangle his impressions from those of scores of others before he can be certain that he is drawing on his own experience. Warfare in the Italian campaign was still warfare in the old style, stimulating not stultifying, to the imagination; at least so it seems, from the American ‘tenente's’ partial glimpses of it.

But he was glad to escape with his mistress to a neutral country: all for love and the war well lost. Mr. Hemingway comes as near as a novelist can to making unmixed, lyrical love his central theme. Other people's happiness is difficult to enjoy, in life or in fiction; we experience, even before Fate does, a kind of envy at the spectacle of so much bliss, and long to prove the unworthiness of its possessors. Certainly, this particular unmarried couple, rejoicing in their sin, present a broad target to the censorious; and even to a less jaundiced view, there is something wanton and wasteful in their happiness. But, if it is an offence to be happy, they certainly pay for it a thousandfold; the concluding scenes are unbearably painful, and would wring tears from a stone. The hypercritical may question whether Henry would have been granted such freedom of access to Catherine's accouchement; but he was headstrong and hard to cross and had no respect for circumstances:

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.

Closing the book, the reader will agree that the narrator had every reason for espousing this gloomy view.

Ford Madox Ford (essay date 1932)

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SOURCE: An introduction to A Farewell to Arms, in Hemingway: The Critical Heritage, edited by Jeffrey Meyers, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, pp. 151-59.

[In this introduction, originally published in the 1932 edition of A Farewell to Arms, Ford, a novelist himself and a friend and colleague of Hemingway's from his days in Paris in the 1920s, dwells on Hemingway's literary discipline, clarity of language, and economy of form.]

I experienced a singular sensation on reading the first sentence of A Farewell to Arms. There are sensations you cannot describe. You may know what causes them but you cannot tell what portions of your mind they affect nor yet, possibly, what parts of your physical entity. I can only say that it was as if I had found at last again something shining after a long delving amongst dust. I daresay prospectors after gold or diamonds feel something like that. But theirs can hardly be so coldly clear an emotion, or one so impersonal. The three impeccable writers of English prose that I have come across in fifty years or so of reading in search of English prose have been Joseph Conrad, W. H. Hudson1 … and Ernest Hemingway. … Impeccable each after his kind! I remember with equal clarity and equal indefinableness my sensation on first reading a sentence of each. With the Conrad it was like being overwhelmed by a great, unhastening wave. With the Hudson it was like lying on one's back and looking up into a clear, still sky. With the Hemingway it was just excitement. Like waiting at the side of a coppice, when foxhunting, for the hounds to break cover. One was going on a long chase in dry clear weather, one did not know in what direction or over what country.

The first sentence of Hemingway that I ever came across was not of course:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain towards the mountains.

That is the opening of Farewell to Arms. No, my first sentence of Hemingway was:

‘Everybody was drunk.’ Tout court! Like that!

Exactly how much my emotion gained from immediately afterwards reading the rest of the paragraph I can't say.

It runs for the next few sentences as follows:

Everybody was drunk. The whole battery was drunk going along the road in the dark. We were going to the Champagne. The lieutenant kept riding his horse out into the fields and saying to him, ‘I'm drunk, I tell you, mon vieux. Oh, I am so soused.’ We went along the road in the dark and the adjutant kept riding up alongside my kitchen and saying, ‘You must put it out. It is dangerous. It will be observed.’

I am reading from ‘No 3 of 170 hand-made copies printed on rives hand-made paper’ which is inscribed: ‘to robert mcalmon and william bird publishers of the city of paris and to captain edward dorman-smith m.c., of his majesty's fifth fusiliers this book is respectfully dedicated.’ The title page, curiously enough bears the date 1924 but the copy is inscribed to me by Ernest Hemingway ‘march 1923’2 and must, as far as I can remember have been given to me then. There is a nice problem for bibliophiles.

This book is the first version of In Our Time and is described as published at ‘paris, printed at the three mountains press and for sale at shakespeare & company in the rue de l'odéon; london: william jackson, took's court, cursitor street, chancery lane.

Those were the brave times in Paris when William Bird and I, and I daresay Hemingway too believed, I don't know why, that salvation could be found in leaving out capitals. We printed and published in a domed wine-vault, exceedingly old and cramped, on the Ile St. Louis with a grey view on the Seine below the Quais. It must have been salvation we aspired to for thoughts of fortune seldom came near us and Fortune herself, never. Publisher Bird printed his books beautifully at a great old seventeenth-century press and we all took hands at pulling its immense levers about. I ‘edited’ in a gallery like a bird-cage at the top of the vault. It was so low that I could never stand up. Ezra also ‘edited’ somewhere, I daresay, in the rue Notre Dame des Champs. At any rate the last page but one of In Our Time—or perhaps it is the feuille de garde,3 carries the announcement:

Here ends The Inquest into the state of
contemporary English prose, as
edited by EZRA POUND and printed at
works constituting the series are:
Indiscretions of Ezra Pound
Women and Men by Ford Madox Ford
Elimus by B. C. Windeler
with Designs by D. Shakespear
The Great American Novel
by William Carlos Williams
England by B. M. G. Adams
In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway
with portrait by Henry Strater.

Mr. Pound, you perceive did believe in CAPITALS and so obviously did one half of Hemingway for his other book of the same date—a blue-grey pamphlet—announces itself all in capitals of great baldness. (They are I believe of the style called sans-sérif):4


it calls itself without even a ‘by’ in italics. There is no date or publisher's or distributor's name or address on the title page but the back of the half-title bears the small notices

Copyright 1923 by the author
Published by
Contact Publishing Co.

and the last page but one has the announcement


This copy bears an inscription in the handwriting of Mr. Hemingway to the effect that it was given to me in Paris by himself in 1924. That seems almost an exaggeration in antedating.

Anyhow, I read first In Our Time and then My Old Man in Ten Stories [sic] both in 1923.

Those were exciting times in Paris. The Young-American literature that today forms the most important phase of the literary world anywhere was getting itself born there. And those were birth-throes!

Young America from the limitless prairies leapt, released, on Paris. They stampeded with the madness of colts when you let down the slip-rails between dried pasture and green. The noise of their advancing drowned all sounds. Their innumerable forms hid the very trees on the boulevards. Their perpetual motion made you dizzy. The falling plane-leaves that are the distinguishing mark of grey, quiet Paris, were crushed under foot and vanished like flakes of snow in tormented seas.

I might have been described as—by comparison—a nice quiet gentleman for an elderly tea-party. And there I was between, as it were, the too quiet aestheticisms of William Bird, publisher supported by Ezra Pound, poet-editor, and, at the other extreme, Robert McAlmon damn-your-damn-highbrow-eyes author-publisher, backed by a whole Horde of Montparnasse from anywhere between North Dakota and Missouri. … You should have seen those Thursday tea-parties at the uncapitalled ‘transatlantic review’ offices! The French speak of ‘la semaine a deux jeudis’ … the week with two Thursdays in it.5 Mine seemed to contain sixty, judging by the noise, lung-power, crashing in, and denunciation. They sat on forms—school benches—cramped round Bird's great hand press. On the top of it was an iron eagle. A seventeenth-century eagle!

Where exactly between William Bird, hand-printer and publisher and Robert McAlmon, nine-hundred horse power linotype-publisher Hemingway came in I never quite found out. He was presented to me by Ezra and Bill Bird and had rather the aspect of an Eton-Oxford husky-ish young captain of a midland regiment of His Britannic Majesty. In that capacity he entered the phalanxes of the transatlantic review. I forget what his official title was. He was perhaps joint-editor—or an advisory or consulting or vetoing editor. Of those there was a considerable company. I, I have omitted to say, was supposed to be Editor in Chief. They all shouted at me: I did not know how to write, or knew too much to be able to write, or did not know how to edit, or keep accounts, or sing ‘Franky & Johnny,’ or order a dinner. The ceiling was vaulted, the plane-leaves drifted down on the quays outside; the grey Seine flowed softly.

Into the animated din would drift Hemingway, balancing on the point of his toes, feinting at my head with hands as large as hams and relating sinister stories of Paris landlords. He told them with singularly choice words in a slow voice. He still struck me as disciplined. Even captains of his majesty's fifth fusiliers are sometimes amateur pugilists and now and then dance on their toe-points in private. I noticed less however of Eton and Oxford. He seemed more a creature of wild adventures amongst steers in infinitudes.

All the same, when I went to New York, I confided that review to him. I gave him strict injunctions as to whom not to print and above all whom not to cut.

The last mortal enemy he made for me died yesterday. Hemingway had cut his article and all those of my most cherished and awful contributors down to a line or two apiece. In return he had printed all his wildest friends in extenso. So that uncapitalised review died. I don't say that it died of Hemingway. I still knew he must somehow be disciplined.

But, a day or two after my return, we were all lunching in the little bistro that was next to the office. There were a great many people and each of them was accusing me of some different incapacity. At last Hemingway extended an enormous seeming ham under my nose. He shouted. What he shouted I could not hear but I realised I had a pencil. Under the shadow of that vast and menacing object I wrote verses on the table-cloth.

Heaven over-arches earth and sea
Earth sadness and sea-hurricanes
Heaven over-arches you and me.
A little while and we shall be
Please God, where there is no more sea
          And no. …

The reader may supply the rhyme.

That was the birth of a nation.

At any rate if America counts in the comity of civilised nations it is by her new writers that she has achieved that immense feat. So it seems to me. The reader trained in other schools of thought must bear with it. A nation exists by its laws, inventions, mass-products. It lives for other nations by its arts.

I do not propose here to mention other names than those of Ernest Hemingway. It is not my business to appraise. Appraisements imply censures and it is not one writer's business to censure others. A writer should expound other writers or let them alone.

When I thought that Hemingway had discipline I was not mistaken. He had then and still has the discipline that makes you avoid temptation in the selection of words and the discipline that lets you be remorselessly economical in the number that you employ. If, as writer you have those disciplined knowledges or instincts, you may prize fight or do what you like with the rest of your time.

The curse of English prose is that English words have double effects. They have their literal meanings and then associations they attain from other writers that have used them. These associations as often as not come from the Authorised Version or the Book of Common Prayer. You use a combination of words once used by Archbishop Cranmer or Archbishop Warham6 or the Translators in the XVI & XVII centuries. You expect to get from them an overtone of awfulness, or erudition or romance or pomposity. So your prose dies.

Hemingway's words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through the flowing water. The words form a tessellation, each in order beside the other.

It is a very great quality. It is indeed the supreme quality of the written art of the moment. It is a great part of what makes literature come into its own at such rare times as it achieves that feat. Books lose their hold on you as soon as the words in which they are written are demoded or too usual the one following the other. The aim—the achievement—of the great prose writer is to use words so that they shall seem new and alive because of their juxtaposition with other words. This gift Hemingway has supremely. Any sentence of his taken at random will hold your attention. And irresistibly. It does not matter where you take it.

I was in under the canvas with guns. They smelled cleanly of oil and grease. I lay and listened to the rain on the canvas and the clicking of the car over the rails. There was a little light came through and I lay and looked at the guns.

You could not begin that first sentence and not finish the passage.

That is a great part of this author's gift. Yet it is not only ‘gift.’ You cannot throw yourself into a frame of mind and just write and get that effect. Your mind has to choose each word and your ear has to test it until by long disciplining of mind and ear you can no longer go wrong.

That disciplining through which you must put yourself is all the more difficult in that it must be gone through in solitude. You cannot watch the man next to you in the ranks smartly manipulating his side-arms nor do you hear any word of command by which to time yourself.

On the other hand a writer holds a reader by his temperament. That is his true ‘gift’—what he receives from whoever sends him into the world. It arises from how you look at things. If you look at and render things so that they appear new to the reader you will hold his attention. If what you give him appears familiar or half familiar his attention will wander. Hemingway's use of the word ‘cleanly’ is an instance of what I have just been saying. The guns smelled cleanly of oil and grease. Oil and grease are not usually associated in the mind with a clean smell. Yet at the minutest reflection you realise that the oil and grease on the clean metal of big guns are not dirt. So the adverb is just. You have had a moment of surprise and then your knowledge is added to. The word ‘author’ means ‘someone who adds to your consciousness.’

When, in those old days, Hemingway used to tell stories of his Paris landlords he used to be hesitant, to pause between words and then to speak gently but with great decision. His temperament was selecting the instances he should narrate, his mind selecting the words to employ. The impression was one of a person using restraint at the biddings of discipline. It was the right impression to have had.

He maintains his hold on himself up to the last word of every unit of his prose. The last words of My Old Man are:

But I don't know. Seems like when they get started they don't leave a guy nothing.

The last words of In Our Time:

It was very jolly. We talked for a long time. Like all Greeks he wanted to go to America.

A Farewell to Arms ends incomparably:

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned out the light it wasn't any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

Incomparably, because that muted passage after great emotion still holds the mind after the book is finished. The interest prolongs itself and the reader is left wishing to read more of that writer.

After the first triumphant success of a writer a certain tremulousness besets his supporters in the public. It is the second book that is going to have a rough crossing. … Or the third and the fourth. So after the great artistic triumph of William Bird's edition of In Our Time Hemingway seemed to me to falter. He produced a couple of books that I did not much like. I was probably expected not much to like them. Let us say that they were essays towards a longer form than that of the episodic In Our Time. Then with Men Without Women he proved that he retained the essential gift. In that volume there is an episodic-narrative that moves you as you will—if you are to be moved at all—be moved by episodes of the Greek Anthology.7 It has the same quality of serene flawlessness.

In the first paragraph I have explained the nature of my emotion when I read a year or so ago that first sentence of Farewell to Arms. It was more than excitement. It was excitement plus re-assurance. The sentence was exactly the right opening for a long piece of work. To read it was like looking at an athlete setting out on a difficult and prolonged effort. You say, at the first movement of the limbs: ‘It's all right. He's in form. … He'll do today what he has never quite done before.’ And you settle luxuriantly into your seat.

So I read on after the first sentence:

In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and the leaves, stirred by the breeze falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.

A wish I could quote more, it is such pleasure to see words like that come from one's pen. But you can read it for yourself.

A Farewell to Arms is a book important in the annals of the art of writing because it proves that Hemingway, the writer of short, perfect episodes, can keep up the pace through a volume. There have been other writers of impeccable—of matchless—prose but as a rule their sustained efforts have palled because precisely of the remarkableness of the prose itself. You can hardly read Marius the Epicurean. You may applaud its author, Walter Pater. But A Farewell to Arms is without purple patches or even verbal ‘felicities.’ While you are reading it you forget to applaud its author. You do not know that you are having to do with an author. You are living.

A Farewell to Arms is a book that unites the critic to the simple. You could read it and be thrilled if you had never read a book—or if you had read and measured all the good books in the world. That is the real province of the art of writing.

Hemingway has other fields to conquer. That is no censure on A Farewell to Arms. It is not blaming the United States to say that she has not yet annexed Nicaragua. But whatever he does can never take away from the fresh radiance of this work. It may close with tears but it is like a spring morning.


  1. English naturalist and novelist, author of The Purple Land (1885) and Green Mansions (1904).

  2. Hemingway meant to write March 1924.

  3. Endpaper.

  4. Form of type without cross-lines finishing off a stroke of a letter.

  5. I.e. two half-holidays.

  6. William Wareham (c. 1450-1532), Archbishop of Canterbury; and Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), Archbishop of Canterbury, who was mainly responsible for the Book of Common Prayer (1552).

  7. The first collection of Greek poems, including Sappho's, made by Meleager of Gadara.

Wyndham Lewis (essay date 1934)

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SOURCE: “Ernest Hemingway: The ‘Dumb Ox’,” in Men Without Art, 1934. Reprint by Russell & Russell, Inc., 1964, pp. 17-41.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1934, Lewis accuses Hemingway of borrowing the style of Gertrude Stein, purveying brutish speech patterns, and championing the unthinking masses, but at the same time praises his skill as a writer.]

Ernest Hemingway is a very considerable artist in prose-fiction.

Besides this, or with this, his work possesses a penetrating quality, like an animal speaking. Compared often with Hemingway, William Faulkner is an excellent, big-strong, novelist: but a conscious artist he cannot be said to be. Artists are made, not born: but he is considerably older, I believe, than Hemingway, so it is not that. But my motive for discussing these two novelists has not been to arrive at estimates of that sort.

A quality in the work of the author of Men Without Women suggests that we are in the presence of a writer who is not merely a conspicuous chessman in the big-business book-game of the moment, but something much finer than that. Let me attempt to isolate that quality for you, in such a way as not to damage it too much: for having set out to demonstrate the political significance of this artist's work, I shall, in the course of that demonstration, resort to a dissection of it—not the best way, I am afraid, to bring out the beauties of the finished product. This dissection is, however, necessary for my purpose here. “I have a weakness for Ernest Hemingway,” as the egregious Miss Stein says:1 it is not agreeable to me to pry into his craft, but there is no help for it if I am to reach certain important conclusions.

But political significance! That is surely the last thing one would expect to find in such books as In our Time,The Sun also Rises,Men Without Women, or Farewell to Arms. And indeed it is difficult to imagine a writer whose mind is more entirely closed to politics than is Hemingway's. I do not suppose he has ever heard of the Five-Year Plan, though I dare say he knows that artists pay no income tax in Mexico, and is quite likely to be following closely the agitation of the Mexican matadors to get themselves recognized as ‘artists’ so that they may pay no income tax. I expect he has heard of Hitler, but thinks of him mainly, if he is acquainted with the story, as the Boche who went down into a cellar with another Boche and captured thirty Frogs and came back with an Iron Cross. He probably knows that his friend Pound writes a good many letters every week to American papers on the subject of Social Credit, but I am sure Pound has never succeeded in making him read a line of Credit-Power and Democracy. He is interested in the sports of death, in the sad things that happen to those engaged in the sports of love—in sand-sharks and in Wilsonspoons—in war, but not in the things that cause war, or the people who profit by it, or in the ultimate human destinies involved in it. He lives, or affects to live, submerged. He is in the multitudinous ranks of those to whom things happen—terrible things of course, and of course stoically borne. He has never heard, or affects never to have heard, that there is another and superior element, inhabited by a type of unnatural men which preys upon that of the submerged type. Or perhaps it is not quite a submerged mankind to which he belongs, or affects to belong, but to something of the sort described in one of Faulkner's war stories: “But after twelve years,” Faulkner writes, “I think of us as bugs in the surface of the water, isolant and aimless and unflagging. Not on the surface; in it, within that line of demarcation not air and not water, sometimes submerged, sometimes not.”2 (What a stupid and unpleasant word ‘isolant’ is! Hemingway would be incapable of using such a word.) But—twelve, fifteen years afterwards—to be submerged, most of the time, is Hemingway's idea. It is a little bit of an art pur notion, but it is, I think, extremely effective, in his case. Faulkner is much less preoccupied with art for its own sake, and although he has obtained his best successes by submerging himself again (in an intoxicating and hysterical fluid) he does not like being submerged quite as well as Hemingway, and dives rather because he is compelled to dive by public opinion, I imagine, than because he feels at home in the stupid medium of the sub-world, the bêtise of the herd. Hemingway has really taken up his quarters there, and has mastered the medium entirely, so that he is of it and yet not of it in a very satisfactory way.

Another manner of looking at it would be to say that Ernest Hemingway is the Noble Savage of Rousseau, but a white version, the simple American man. That is at all events the rôle that he has chosen, and he plays it with an imperturbable art and grace beyond praise.

It is not perhaps necessary to say that Hemingway's art is an art of the surface—and, as I look at it, none the worse for that. It is almost purely an art of action, and of very violent action, which is another qualification. Faulkner's is that too: but violence with Hemingway is deadly matter-of-fact (as if there were only violent action and nothing else in the world): whereas with Faulkner it is an excited crescendo of psychological working-up of a sluggish and not ungentle universe, where there might be something else than high-explosive—if it were given a Chinaman's chance, which it is not. The latter is a far less artistic purveyor of violence. He does it well: but as to the manner, he does it in a way that any fool could do it. Hemingway, on the other hand, serves it up like the master of this form of art that he is, immeasurably more effective than Faulkner—good as he is; or than say the Irish novelist O'Flagherty—who is a raffiné too, or rather a two-gun man; Hemingway really banishes melodrama (except for his absurd escapes, on a Hollywood pattern, in Farewell to Arms).

To find a parallel to In Our Time or Farewell to Arms you have to go to Colomba or to Chronique du règne de Charles ix: and in one sense Prosper Merimée supplies the historical key to these two ex-soldiers—married, in their literary craft, to a theatre of action a l'outrance. The scenes at the siege of La Rochelle in the Chronique du Règne de Charles ix for instance: in the burning of the mill when the ensign is roasted in the window, that is the Hemingway subjects-matter to perfection—a man melted in his armour like a shell-fish in its shell—melted lobster in its red armour.

S'ils tentaient de sauter par les fenêtres, ils tombaient dans les flammes, ou bien étaient reçus sur la pointe des piques. … Un enseigne, revêtu d'une armure complète, essaya de sauter comme les autres par une fenêtre étroite. Sa cuirasse se terminait, suivant une mode alors assez commune, par une espèce de jupon en fer qui couvrait les cuisses et le ventre, et s'élargissait comme le haut d'un entonnoir, de manière à permettre de marcher facilement. La fenêtre n'était pas assez large pour laisser passer cette partie de son armure, et l'enseigne, dans son trouble, s'y était précipité avec tant de violence, qu'il se trouva avoir la plus grande partie du corps en dehors sans pouvoir remuer, et pris comme dans un étau. Cependant les flammes montaient jusqu'à lui, échauffaient son armure, et l'y brûlaient lentement comme dans une fournaise ou dans ce fameux taureau d'airain inventé par Phalaris.3

Compare this with the following:

We were in a garden at Mons. Young Buckley came in with his patrol from across the river. The first German I saw climbed up over the garden wall. We waited till he got one leg over and then potted him. He had so much equipment on and looked awfully surprised and fell down into the garden. Then three more came over further down the wall. We shot them. They all came just like that.4

In no century would Prosper Merimée have been a theologian or metaphysician,” and if that is true of Merimée, it is at least equally true of his American prototype. But their ‘formulas’ sound rather the same, “indifferent in politics … all the while he is feeding all his scholarly curiosity, his imagination, the very eye, with the, to him ever delightful, relieving, reassuring spectacle, of those straightforward forces in human nature, which are also matters of fact. There is the formula of Merimée! the enthusiastic amateur of rude, crude, naked force in men and women wherever it could be found … there are no half-lights. … Sylla, the false Demetrius, Carmen, Colomba, that impassioned self within himself, have no atmosphere. Painfully distinct in outline, inevitable to sight, unrelieved, there they stand, like solitary mountain forms on some hard, perfectly transparent day. What Merimée gets around his singularly sculpturesque creations is neither more nor less than empty space.5

I have quoted the whole of this passage because it gives you ‘the formula,’ equally for the author of Carmen and of The Sun also Rises—namely the enthusiastic amateur of rude, crude, naked force in men and women: but it also brings out very well, subsequently, the nature of the radical and extremely significant difference existing between these two men, of differing nations and epochs—sharing so singularly a taste for physical violence and for fine writing, but nothing else. Between them there is this deep gulf fixed: that gifted he of today is ‘the man that things are done to’—even the ‘I’ in The Sun also Rises allows his Jew puppet to knock him about and ‘put him to sleep’ with a crash on the jaw, and this first person singular covers a very aimless, will-less person, to say the least of it: whereas that he of the world of Carmen (so much admired by Nietzsche for its bright Latin violence and directness—la gaya scienza) or of Corsican vendetta, he was in love with will, as much as with violence: he did not celebrate in his stories a spirit that suffered bodily injury and mental disaster with the stoicism of an athletic clown in a particularly brutal circus—or of oxen (however robust) beneath a crushing yoke: he, the inventor of Colomba, belonged to a race of men for whom action meant their acting, with all the weight and momentum of the whole of their being: he of post-Napoleonic France celebrated intense spiritual energy and purpose, using physical violence as a mere means to that only half-animal ideal. Sylla, Demetrius, Colomba, even de Mergy, summon to our mind a world bursting with purpose—even if always upon the personal and very animal plane, and with no more universal ends: while Hemingway's books, on the other hand, scarcely contain a figure who is not in some way futile, clown-like, passive, and above all purposeless. His world of men and women (in violent action, certainly) is completely empty of will. His puppets are leaves, very violently blown hither and thither; drugged or at least deeply intoxicated phantoms of a sort of matter-of-fact shell-shock.

In Farewell to Arms the hero is a young American who has come over to Europe for the fun of the thing, as an alternative to baseball, to take part in the Sport of Kings. It has not occurred to him that it is no longer the sport of kings, but the turning point in the history of the earth at which he is assisting, when men must either cease thinking like children and abandon such sports, or else lose their freedom for ever, much more effectively than any mere king could ever cause them to lose it. For him, it remains ‘war’ in the old-fashioned semi-sporting sense. Throughout this ghastly event, he proves himself a thorough going sport, makes several hairbreadth, Fenimore Cooper-like, escapes, but never from first to last betrays a spark of intelligence. Indeed, his physical stoicism, admirable as it is, is as nothing to his really heroic imperviousness to thought. This ‘war’—Gallipoli, Paschendaele, Caporetto—is just another ‘scrap.’ The Anglo-Saxon American—the ‘Doughboy’—and the Anglo-Saxon Tommy—join hands, in fact, outrival each other in a stolid determination absolutely to ignore, come what may, what all this is about. Whoever may be in the secrets of destiny—may indeed be destiny itself—they are not nor ever will be. They are an integral part of that world to whom things happen: they are not those who cause or connive at the happenings, and that is perfectly clear.

Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag,
Smile boys, that's the style

and keep smiling, what's more, from ear to ear, a should-I-worry? ‘good sport’ smile, as do the Hollywood Stars when they are being photographed, as did the poor Bairnsfather ‘Tommy’—the ‘muddied oaf at the goal’—of all oafishness!

I hope this does not seem irrelevant to you: it is not, let me reassure you, but very much the contrary. The roots of all these books are in the War of 1914-1918, as much those of Faulkner as those of Hemingway: it would be ridiculous of course to say that either of these two highly intelligent ex-soldiers shared the ‘oafish’ mentality altogether: but the war-years were a democratic, a levelling, school, and both come from a pretty thoroughly ‘levelled’ nation, where personality is the thing least liked. The rigid organization of the communal life as revealed in Middletown, for instance (or such a phenomenon as N.R.A.) is akin to the military state. So will, as expressed in the expansion of the individual, is not a thing we should expect to find illustrated by a deliberately typical American writer.

Those foci of passionate personal energy which we find in Merimée, we should look for in vain in the pages of Hemingway or Faulkner: in place of Don José or of Colomba we get a pack of drugged or intoxicated marionettes. These differences are exceedingly important.

So any attempt to identify ‘the formula’ for Prosper Merimée with that of Ernest Hemingway would break down. You are led at once to a realization of the critical difference between these two universes of discourse, both employing nothing but physical terms; of how an appetite for the extremity of violence exists in both, but in the one case it is personal ambition, family pride, romantic love that are at stake, and their satisfaction is violently sought and undertaken, whereas in the other case purposeless violence, for the sake of the ‘kick,’ is pursued and recorded, and the ‘thinking subject’ is to regard himself as nothing more significant than a ripple beneath the breeze upon a pond.

If we come down to the manner, specifically to the style, in which these sensational impressions are conveyed, again most interesting discoveries await us: for, especially with Mr. Hemingway, the story is told in the tone, and with the vocabulary, of the persons described. The rhythm is the anonymous folk-rhythm of the urban proletariat. Mr. Hemingway is, self-consciously, a folk-prose-poet in the way that Robert Burns was a folk-poet. But what is curious about this is that the modified Beach-la-mar in which he writes, is, more or less, the speech that is proposed for everybody in the future—it is a volapuk which probably will be ours tomorrow. For if the chief executive of the United States greets the Roman Catholic democratic leader (Al Smith) with the exclamation “Hallo old potato!” today, the English political leaders will be doing so the day after tomorrow. And the Anglo-Saxon Beach-la-mar of the future will not be quite the same thing as Chaucer or Dante, contrasted with the learned tongue. For the latter was the speech of a race rather than of a class, whereas our ‘vulgar tongue’ will really be vulgar.

But in the case of Hemingway the folk-business is very seriously complicated by a really surprising fact. He has suffered an overmastering influence, which cuts his work off from any other, except that of his mistress (for his master has been a mistress!). So much is this the case, that their destinies (his and that of the person who so strangely hypnotized him with her repeating habits and her faux-naif prattle) are for ever interlocked. His receptivity was so abnormally pronounced (even as a craftsman, this capacity for being the person that things are done to rather than the person who naturally initiates what is to be done to others, was so marked) and the affinity thus disclosed was found so powerful! I don't like speaking about this, for it is such a first-class complication, and yet it is in a way so irrelevant to the spirit which informs his work and must have informed it had he never made this apparently overwhelming ‘contact.’ But there it is: if you ask yourself how you would be able to tell a page of Hemingway, if it were unexpectedly placed before you, you would be compelled to answer, Because it would be like Miss Stein! And if you were asked how you would know it was not by Miss Stein, you would say, Because it would probably be about prize-fighting, war, or the bull-ring, and Miss Stein does not write about war, boxing or bull-fighting!

It is very uncomfortable in real life when people become so captivated with somebody else's tricks that they become a sort of caricature or echo of the other: and it is no less embarrassing in books, at least when one entertains any respect for the victim of the fascination. But let us take a passage or two and get this over—it is very unpleasant. Let us take Krebs—the ‘he’ in this passage is Krebs, a returned soldier in a Hemingway story:

When he was in town their appeal to him was not very strong. He did not like them when he saw them in the Greek's ice-cream parlor. He did not want them themselves really. They were too complicated. There was something else. Vaguely he wanted a girl but he did not want to have to work to get her. He would have liked to have a girl but he did not want to have to spend a long time getting her. He did not want to get into the intrigue and the politics. He did not want to have to do any courting. He did not want to tell any more lies. It wasn't worth it.

He did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again. He wanted to live along without consequences. Besides he did not really need a girl. The army had taught him that. It was all right to pose as though you had to have a girl. Nearly everybody did that. But it wasn't true. You did not need a girl. That was the funny thing. First a fellow boasted how girls mean nothing to him, that he never thought of them, that they could not touch him. Then a fellow boasted that he could not get along without girls, that he had to have them all the time, that he could not go to sleep without them.

That was all a lie. It was all a lie both ways. You did not need a girl unless you thought about them. He learned that in the army. Then sooner or later you always got one. When you were really ripe for a girl you always got one. You did not have to think about it. Sooner or later it would come. He had learned that in the army.

Now he would have liked a girl if she had come to him and not wanted to talk. But here at home it was all too complicated. He knew he could never get through it all again. It was not worth the trouble. That was the thing about French girls and German girls. There was not all this talking. You couldn't talk much and you did not need to talk. It was simple and you were friends. He thought about France and then he began to think about Germany. On the whole he liked Germany better. He did not want to leave Germany. He did not want to come home. Still, he had come home. He sat on the front porch.

He liked the girls that were walking along the other side of the street. He liked the look of them much better than the French girls or the German girls. But the world they were in was not the world he was in. He would like to have one of them. But it was not worth it. They were such a nice pattern. He liked the pattern. It was exciting. But he would not go through all the talking. He did not want one badly enough. He liked to look at them all, though. It was not worth it.6

So much for Krebs: now open Miss Stein and ‘meet’ Melanctha.

Rose was lazy but not dirty, and Sam was careful but not fussy, and then there was Melanctha. … When Rose's baby was coming to be born, Rose came to stay in the house where Melanctha Herbert lived just then, … Rose went there to stay, so that she might have the doctor from the hospital. … Melanctha Herbert had not made her life all simple like Rose Johnson. Melanctha had not found it easy with herself to make her wants and what she had, agree.

Melanctha Herbert was always losing what she had in wanting all the things she saw. Melanctha was always being left when she was not leaving others.

Melanctha Herbert always loved too hard and much too often. She was always full with mystery and subtle movements … etc., etc., etc.7

Or here is a typical bit from Composition as Explanation:

There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking. By this I mean so simply that anybody knows it that composition is the difference which makes each and all of them then different from other generations and this is what makes everything different otherwise they are all alike and everybody knows it because everybody says it.8

There is no possibility, I am afraid, of slurring over this. It is just a thing that you have to accept as an unfortunate handicap in an artist who is in some respects above praise. Sometimes it is less pronounced, there are occasions when it is almost absent—Krebs, for instance, is a full-blooded example of Hemingway steining away for all he is worth. But it is never quite absent.

How much does it matter? If we blot out Gertrude Stein, and suppose she does not exist, does this part of Hemingway's equipment help or not? We must answer Yes I think. It does seem to help a good deal: many of his best effects are obtained by means of it. It is so much a part of his craft, indeed, that it is difficult now to imagine Hemingway without this mannerism. He has never taken it over into a gibbering and baboonish stage as has Miss Stein. He has kept it as a valuable oddity, even if a flagrantly borrowed one—ever present it is true, but one to which we can easily get used and come to like even as a delightfully clumsy engine of innocence. I don't mind it very much.

To say that, near to communism as we all are, it cannot matter, and is indeed praiseworthy, for a celebrated artist to take over, lock, stock and barrel from another artist the very thing for which he is mainly known, seems to me to be going too far in the denial of the person, or the individual—especially as in a case of this sort, the trick is after all, in the first instance, a personal trick. Such a practice must result, if universally indulged in, in hybrid forms or monstrosities.

And my main criticism, indeed, of the steining of Hemingway is that it does impose upon him an ethos—the Stein ethos, as it might be called. With Stein's bag of tricks he also takes over a Weltanshauung, which may not at all be his, and does in fact seem to contradict his major personal quality. This infantile, dull-witted, dreamy stutter compels whoever uses it to conform to the infantile, dull-witted type. He passes over into the category of those to whom things are done, from that of those who execute—if the latter is indeed where he originally belonged. One might even go so far as to say that this brilliant Jewish lady had made a clown of him by teaching Ernest Hemingway her baby-talk! So it is a pity. And it is very difficult to know where Hemingway proper begins and Stein leaves off as an artist. It is an uncomfortable situation for the critic, especially for one who ‘has a weakness’ for the male member of this strange spiritual partnership, and very much prefers him to the female.

Hemingway's two principal books, The Sun also Rises (for English publication called Fiesta) and Farewell to Arms, are delivered in the first person singular. What that involves may not be at once apparent to those who have not given much attention to literary composition. But it is not at all difficult to explain. Suppose you, Raymond Robinson, sit down to write a romance; subject-matter, the War. You get your ‘I’ started off, say just before the outbreak of war, and then there is the outbreak, and then “I flew to the nearest recruiting station and joined the army” you write. Then the ‘I’ goes off to the Western Front (or the Italian Front) and you will find yourself writing “I seized the Boche by the throat with one hand and shot him in the stomach with the other,” or whatever it is you imagine your ‘I’ as doing. But this ‘I,’ the reader will learn, does not bear the name on the title page, namely Raymond Robinson. He is called Geoffrey Jones. The reader will think, “that is only a thin disguise. It is Robinson's personal experience all right!”

Now this difficulty (if it be a difficulty) is very much enhanced if (for some reason) Geoffrey Jones is always doing exactly the things that Raymond Robinson is known to have done. If Raymond Robinson fought gallantly at Caporetto, for instance, then Geoffrey Jones—with the choice of a whole earth at war to choose from—is at Caporetto too. If Raymond Robinson takes to the sport of bull-fighting, sure enough Geoffrey Jones—the ‘I’ of the novel—is there in the bull-ring too, as the night follows day. This, in fine, has been the case with Hemingway and his First-person-singular.

Evidently, in this situation—possessing a First-person-singular that invariably copies you in this flattering way—something must be done about it. The First-person-singular has to be endowed so palpably with qualities that could by no stretch of the imagination belong to its author that no confusion is possible. Upon this principle the ‘I’ of The Sun also Rises is described as sexually impotent, which is a complete alibi, of course, for Hemingway.

But there is more than this. The sort of First-person-singular that Hemingway invariably invokes is a dull-witted, bovine, monosyllabic simpleton. This lethargic and stuttering dummy he conducts, or pushes from behind, through all the scenes that interest him. This burlesque First-person-singular behaves in them like a moronesque version of his brilliant author. He Steins up and down the world, with the big lustreless ruminatory orbs of a Picasso doll-woman (of the semi-classic type Picasso patented, with enormous hands and feet). It is, in short, the very dummy that is required for the literary mannerism of Miss Stein! It is the incarnation of the Stein-stutter—the male incarnation, it is understood.

But this constipated, baffled ‘frustrated’—yes, deeply and Freudianly ‘frustrated’—this wooden-headed, leaden-witted, heavy-footed, loutish and oafish marionette—peering dully out into the surrounding universe like a great big bloated five-year-old—pointing at this and pointing at that—uttering simply “CAT!”—“HAT!”—“FOOD!”—“SWEETIE!”—is, as a companion, infectious. His author has perhaps not been quite immune. Seen for ever through his nursery spectacles, the values of life accommodate themselves, even in the mind of his author, to the limitations and peculiar requirements of this highly idiosyncratic puppet.

So the political aspects of Hemingway's work (if, as I started by saying, one can employ such a word as political in connection with a thing that is so divorced from reality as a super-innocent, queerly-sensitive, village-idiot of a few words and fewer ideas) have to be sought, if anywhere, in the personality of this First-person-singular, imposed upon him largely by the Stein-manner.


We can return to the folk-prose problem now and face all the questions that the ‘done gones’ and ‘sorta gonnas’ present. Mr. H. L. Mencken in his well-known, extremely competent and exhaustive treatise, The American Language (a classic in this field of research, first published fifteen years ago) affirmed that the American dialect had not yet come to the stage where it could be said to have acquired charm for “the purists.” If used (at that time) in narrative literature it still possessed only the status of a disagreeable and socially-inferior jargon, like the cockney occurring in a Dickens novel—or as it is still mostly used in William Faulkner's novels, never outside of inverted commas; the novelist, having invoked it to convey the manner of speech of his rustic or provincial puppets, steps smartly away and resumes the narrative in the language of Macaulay or Horace Walpole, more or less.

“In so far as it is apprehended at all,” Mencken wrote in 1920, “it is only in the sense that Irish-English was apprehended a generation ago—that is, as something uncouth and comic. But that is the way that new dialects always come in—through a drum-fire of cackles. Given the poet, there may suddenly come a day when our theirns and would'a hads will take on the barbaric stateliness of the peasant locution of old Maurya in ‘Riders to the Sea.’”9

The reason that the dialect of the Arran Islands, or that used by Robert Burns, were so different from cockney or from the English educated speech was because it was a mixture of English and another language, Gaelic or lowland Scotch, and with the intermixture of foreign words went a literal translation of foreign idioms and the distortions arrived at by a tongue accustomed to another language. It was “broken-English,” in other words, not “low-English,” or slum-English, as is cockney.

Americans are today un-English in blood—whatever names they may bear: and in view of this it is surprising how intact the English language remains in the United States. But the Beach-la-mar, as he calls it, to which Mencken is referring above, is as it were the cockney of America. It has this great advantage over cockney, that it is fed with a great variety of immigrant words. It is, however, fundamentally a class-jargon; not a jargon resulting from difference of race, and consequently of speech. It is the patois of the ‘poor white,’ the negro, or the uneducated immigrant. It is not the language spoken by Mrs. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, for instance, or by Ernest Hemingway for that matter. But it is very American. And it is a patois, a fairly good rendering of which any American is competent to give. And you have read above the affectionate way Mencken refers to our ‘theirns’ and ‘would 'a hads.’

English as spoken in America is more vigorous and expressive than Oxford English, I think. It is easy to mistake a native from the wilds of Dorsetshire for an American, I have found: and were ‘educated’ English used upon a good strong reverberant Dorsetshire basis, for instance, it would be all to the good, it is my opinion. Raleigh, Drake, and the rest of them, must have talked rather like that.

But with cockney it is not at all the same thing. There you get a degradation of English—it is proletariat, city-slum English, like Dublin-slum English. That is in a different category altogether to the weighty, rapid, and expressive torrent of the best Dorsetshire talk; and, as I have said, the best American is in the same category as the Dorsetshire—or as non-slum Irish—a good, sound accent, too. But the question to be answered is whether the Beach-la-mar Mr. Mencken has in mind is not too much the deteriorated pidgin tongue of the United States; and whether, if that is affectioné too much by the literati—as being the most American thing available, like a jazz—it is not going to be a vulgar corruption, which will vulgarize, as well as enrich, the tongue. So far it exists generally in inverted commas, as in Mr. Faulkner's books. Is it to be let out or not? A question for Americans.

For fifty years dialect-American has tended, what with negro and immigrant pressure, to simplify itself grammatically, and I suppose is still doing so at this moment.

His (the immigrant's) linguistic habits and limitations have to be reckoned with in dealing with him and the concessions thus made necessary have a very ponderable influence upon the general speech. Of much importance is the support given to the native tendency by the foreigner's incapacity for employing (or even comprehending) syntax of any complexity, or words not of the simplest. This is the tendency towards succinctness and clarity, at whatever sacrifice of grace. One English observer, Sidney Low, puts the chief blame for the general explosiveness of American upon the immigrant, who must be communicated with in the plainest words available, and is not socially worthy of the suavity of circumlocution anyhow. In his turn the immigrant seizes upon these plainest words as upon a sort of convenient Lingua Franca—his quick adoption of damn as a universal adjective is traditional—and throws his influence upon the side of the underlying speech habit when he gets on in the vulgate. Many characteristic Americanisms of the sort to stagger lexicographers—for example, near-silk—have come from Jews, whose progress in business is a good deal faster than their progress in English.

While England was a uniquely powerful empire-state, ruled by an aristocratic caste, its influence upon the speech as upon the psychology of the American ex-colonies was overwhelming. But today that ascendancy has almost entirely vanished. The aristocratic caste is nothing but a shadow of itself, the cinema has brought the American scene and the American dialect nightly into the heart of England, and the ‘Americanizing’ process is far advanced. ‘Done gones,’ ‘good guys’ and ‘buddies’ sprout upon the lips of cockney children as readily as upon those to the manner born, of New York or Chicago: and there is no politically-powerful literate class any longer now, in our British ‘Banker's Olympus,’ to confer prestige upon an exact and intelligent selective speech. Americanization—which is also for England, at least, proletarianization—is too far advanced to require underlining, even for people who fail usually to recognize anything until it has been in existence for a quarter of a century.

But if America has come to England, there has been no reciprocal movement of England into the United States: indeed, with the new American nationalism, England is deliberately kept out: and all the great influence that England exerted formally—merely by being there and speaking the same tongue and sharing the same fundamental political principles—that is today a thing of the past. So the situation is this, as far as our common language is concerned: the destiny of England and the United States of America is more than ever one. But it is now the American influence that is paramount. The tables have effectively been turned in that respect.


But there is a larger issue even than that local to the English-speaking nations. English is of all languages the simplest grammatically and the easiest to make into a Beach-la-mar or pidgin tongue. Whether this fact, combined with its “extraordinary tendency to degenerate into slang of every kind,” is against it, is of some importance for the future—for it will have less and less grammar, obviously, and more and more cosmopolitan slang.—Mr. Mencken is of opinion that a language cannot be too simple—he is all for Beach-la-mar. The path towards analysis and the elimination of inflection, has been trod by English so thoroughly that, in its American form, it should today win the race for a universal volapuk. Indeed, as Mr. Mencken says, “the foreigner essaying it, indeed, finds his chief difficulty, not in mastering its forms, but in grasping its lack of form. He doesn't have to learn a new and complex grammar; what he has to do is to forget grammar. Once he has done so, the rest is a mere matter of acquiring a vocabulary.”

There is, it is true, the difficulty of the vowel sounds: but that is easily settled. Standard English possesses nineteen distinct vowel sounds: no other living European tongue except Portuguese, so Mr. Mencken says, possesses so many. Modern Greek, for instance, can only boast of five, we are told. “The (American) immigrant, facing all these vowels, finds some of them quite impossible: the Russian Jew, for example, cannot manage ur. As a result, he tends to employ a neutralized vowel in the situations which present difficulties, and this neutralized vowel, supported by the slip-shod speech-habits of the native proletariat, makes steady progress.”

That that ‘neutralized vowel’ has made great progress in America no one would deny who has been there; and, starting in the natural language-difficulties of the Central European immigrant, the above-mentioned ‘neutralized vowel’ will make its way over here in due course, who can doubt it? These vowels must be watched. Watch your vowels should be our next national slogan! The fatal grammatical easiness of English is responsible, however, for such problems as these, as much as the growing impressionability of the English nation, and the proletarianization, rather than the reverse, of the American.

As long ago as 1910 an English traveller, Mr. Alexander Thompson, in a book called Japan for a Week, expresses himself as follows:

It was only on reaching Italy that I began fully to realize this wonderful thing, that for nearly six weeks, on a German ship, in a journey of nearly ten thousand miles, we had heard little of any language but English!

It is an amazing thing when one thinks of it.

In Japan most of the tradespeople spoke English. At Shanghai, at Hong-Kong, at Singapore, at Penang, at Colombo, at Suez, at Port Said—all the way home to the Italian ports, the language of all the ship's traffic, the language of such discourse as the passengers held with natives, most of the language on board ship itself, was English.

The German captain of our ship spoke English more often than German. All his officers spoke English.

The Chinese man-o'-war's men who conveyed the Chinese prince on board at Shanghai, received commands and exchanged commands with our German sailors in English. The Chinese mandarins in their conversations with the ships' officers invariably spoke English. They use the same ideographs in writing as the Japanese, but to talk to our Japanese passengers they had to speak English. Nay, coming as they did from various provinces of the Empire, where the language greatly differs, they found it most convenient in conversation among themselves to speak English.

If you place side by side the unfortunate impressionability of Hemingway, which caused him to adopt integrally the half-wit simplicity of repetitive biblical diction patented by Miss Stein, and that other fact that Mr. Hemingway, being an American nationalist by temperament, is inclined to gravitate stylistically towards the national underdog dialect, in the last resort to the kind of Beach-la-mar I have been discussing, you have the two principal factors in Hemingway as artist in prose-fiction, to make of what you can.

Take up any book of his, again, and open it at random: you will find a page of stuff that is, considered in isolation, valueless as writing. It is not written: it is lifted out of Nature and very artfully and adroitly tumbled out upon the page: it is the brute material of every-day proletarian speech and feeling. The matière is cheap and coarse: but not because it is proletarian speech merely, but because it is the prose of reality—the prose of the street-car or the provincial newspaper or the five and ten cent store. I have just opened Farewell to Arms entirely at random, for instance, and this is what I find:

“If you had any foreign bodies in your legs they would set up an inflammation and you'd have fever.”

“All right,” I said. “We'll see what comes out.”

She went out of the room and came back with the old nurse of the early morning. Together they made the bed with me in it. That was new to me and an admirable proceeding.

“Who is in charge here?”

“Miss Van Campen.”

“How many nurses are there?”

“Just us two.”

“Won't there be more?”

“Some more are coming.”

“When will they get here?”

“I don't know. You ask a great many questions for a sick boy”

“I'm not sick.” I said, “I'm wounded.”

They had finished making the bed and I lay with a clean, smooth sheet under me and another sheet over me. Mrs. Walker went out and came back with a pyjama jacket. They put that on me and I felt very clean and dressed.

“You're awfully nice to me,” I said. The nurse called Miss Gage giggled. “Could I have a drink of water?” I asked.

“Certainly. Then you can have breakfast.”

“I don't want breakfast. Can I have the shutters opened, please?”

The light had been dim in the room and when the shutters were opened it was bright sunlight, and I looked out on a balcony and beyond were the tiled roofs of houses and chimneys and the sky very blue.

“Don't you know when the other nurses are coming?”

“Why? Don't we take good care of you?”

“You're very nice.”

“Would you like to use the bedpan?”

“I might try.”

They helped me and held me up, but it was not any use. Afterward I lay and looked out the open doors on to the balcony.

“When does the doctor come?”

It is not writing, if you like. When I read Farewell to Arms doubtless I read this page as I came to it, just as I should watch scenes unfolding on the screen in the cinema, without pictorial criticism; and it, page eighty-three, contributed its fraction to the general effect: and when I had finished the book I thought it a very good book. By that I meant that the cumulative effect was impressive, as the events themselves would be. Or it is like reading a newspaper, day by day, about some matter of absorbing interest—say the reports of a divorce, murder, or libel action. If you say anyone could write it, you are mistaken there, because, to obtain that smooth effect, of commonplace reality, there must be no sentimental or other heightening, the number of words expended must be proportionate to the importance and the length of the respective phases of the action, and any false move or overstatement would at once stand out and tell against it. If an inferior reporter to Hemingway took up the pen, that fact would at once be detected by a person sensitive to reality.

It is an art, then, from this standpoint, like the cinema, or like those ‘modernist’ still-life pictures in which, in place of painting a match box upon the canvas, a piece of actual match box is stuck on. A recent example of this (I choose it because a good many people will have seen it) is the cover design of the French periodical Minotaure, in which Picasso has pasted and tacked various things together, sticking a line drawing of the Minotaur in the middle. Hemingway's is a poster-art, in this sense: or a cinema in words. The steining in the text of Hemingway is as it were the hand-made part—if we are considering it as ‘super-realist’ design: a manipulation of the photograph if we are regarding it as a film.

If you say that this is not the way that Dante wrote, that these are not artistically permanent creations—or not permanent in the sense of a verse of Bishop King, or a page of Gulliver, I agree. But it is what we have got: there is actually bad and good of this kind; and I for my part enjoy what I regard as the good, without worrying any more about it than that.

That a particular phase in the life of humanity is implicit in this art is certain. It is one of the first fruits of the proletarianization which, as a result of the amazing revolutions in the technique of industry, we are all undergoing, whether we like it or not. But this purely political, or sociological side to the question can be brought out, I believe, with great vividness by a quotation. Here, for instance, is a fragment of a story of a mutiny at sea?

I opened the door a little, about two inches, and saw there was a rope round the companion, which prevented the doors opening. Big Harry and Lips asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted to go down to the galley. Big Harry said: ‘Plenty of time between this and eight o'clock; you stop down below.’ I then went into the chief mate's room, which was the nearest to me. There was nobody there. I went to the second mate's room, he was not there. I went to the captain's pillow, it was standing up in his bed, and I found two revolvers loaded, one with six shots and one with four. I took possession of them and put them in my pockets. I then stood on the cabin table in the after cabin, and lifted the skylight up and tried to get out there. Renken was standing at the wheel, and he called out, ‘Come aft, boys, the steward is coming out of the skylight.’ I then closed the skylight and came down again. The after-skylight was close to the wheel, about 10 feet as near as I could guess. I could see him. The light used for the compass is in the skylight, and the wheel is in the back of it. The light is fastened to the skylight to light the compass, and the compass is just in front of the wheel. Before I could get the skylight closed I heard their steps coming aft, and I went down into the cabin and told the boy to light a fire. Shortly afterwards I heard five shots fired on deck … about a second afterwards the same as if somebody was running on deck. I could not judge which way they were running; the noise on the deck, and the vessel being in ballast, you could hear as well aft as forward. That was about twenty minutes after hearing the captain call out. I put the revolvers away in my locker. I then took it into my head to take the revolvers into my possession and chance it; if the men came down to me to do anything wrong, to save myself. I put them in my pockets, one on each side. About 5.30 Green, the boatswain, came down first, and French Peter, Big Harry, and all the other lot followed. The deck was left without anybody, and the wheel too, they came into the cabin; Trousillot was there as well. They did not speak at first. The first thing they did was to rub me over. They could not feel anything. I had the two revolvers with me, but they did not feel them. French Peter and Big Harry felt me over. All the others were present. Green said, ‘Well, steward, we have finished now.’ I said, ‘What the hell did you finish?’ He said, ‘We have finished captain, mate and second.’ He said, ‘We got our mind made up to go to Greece; if you like to save your own life you had better take charge of the ship and bring us to Greece. You bring us to Gibraltar, we will find Greece: you bring us there you will be all right, steward. We will take the boats when we get to Greece, and take the sails and everything into the boats, and sell them ashore and divide the money between ourselves. You will have your share, the same as anybody else; the charts and sextants, and all that belongs to the navigation, you can have. Me and my cousin, Johny Moore, have got a rich uncle; he will buy everything. We will scuttle the ship. My uncle is a large owner there of some ships. We will see you right, that you will be master of one of those vessels.’ I said, ‘Well, men, come on deck and get them braces ready, and I hope you will agree and also obey my orders!’ The other men said, ‘All right, steward, very good, very good, steward, you do right.’ That was all I could hear from them, from everybody. The conversation between me and Green was in English, and everybody standing round. He spoke to the other men in Greek. What he said I don't know. I said, ‘Where are the bodies? Where is the captain?’ Green said, ‘Oh they are all right, they are overboard,’ and all the men said the same. …”10

That is not by Hemingway, though it quite well might be. I should not be able to tell it was not by Hemingway if it were shown me as a fragment. But this is by him:

Across the bay they found the other boat beached. Uncle George was smoking a cigar in the dark. The young Indian pulled the boat way up the beach. Uncle George gave both the Indians cigars. They walked up from the beach through a meadow that was soaking wet with dew, following the young Indian who carried a lantern. Then they went into the woods and followed a trail that led to the logging road that ran back into the hills. It was much lighter on the logging road as the timber was cut away on both sides. The young Indian stopped and blew out his lantern and they all walked on along the road.

They came around a bend and a dog came out barking. Ahead were the lights of the shanties where the Indian barkpeelers lived. More dogs rushed out at them. The two Indians sent them back to the shanties. In the shanty nearest the road there was a light in the window. An old woman stood in the doorway holding a lamp.

Inside on a wooden bunk lay a young Indian woman. She had been trying to have her baby for two days. All the old women in the camp had been helping her. The men had moved off up the road to sit in the dark and smoke out of range of the noise she made. She screamed just as Nick and the two Indians followed his father and Uncle George into the shanty. She lay in the lower bunk, very big under a quilt. Her head was turned to one side. In the upper bunk was her husband. He had cut his foot very badly with an axe three days before. He was smoking a pipe. The room smelled very bad. Nick's father ordered some water to be put on the stove, while it was heating he spoke to Nick. ‘This lady is going to have a baby, Nick,’ he said. ‘I know,’ said Nick. ‘You don' know,’ said his father. ‘Listen to me. What she is going through is called being in labour. The baby wants to be born and she wants it to be born. All her muscles are trying to get the baby born. That is what is happening when she screams.’ ‘I see,’ Nick said. Just then the woman cried out.11

The first of these two passages is from a book entitled Forty Years in the Old Bailey. It is the account of a mutiny and murder on the high seas, the trial occurring on May 3 and 4, 1876. It was evidence verbatim of one Constant von Hoydonck, a Belgian, twenty-five years of age, who joined the vessel Lennie at Antwerp, as chief steward, on October 22. This is a Querschnitt, a slice, of ‘real life’: and how close Hemingway is to such material as this can be seen by comparing it with the second passage out of In our Time.

That, I think, should put you in possession of all that is essential for an understanding of the work of this very notable artist: an understanding I mean; I do not mean that, as a work of art, a book of his should be approached in this critical and anatomizing spirit. That is another matter. Where the ‘politics’ come in I suppose by this time you will have gathered. This is the voice of the ‘folk,’ of the masses, who are the cannon-fodder, the cattle outside the slaughter-house, serenely chewing the cud—of those to whom things are done, in contrast to those who have executive will and intelligence. It is itself innocent of politics—one might almost add alas! That does not affect its quality as art. The expression of the soul of the dumb ox would have a penetrating beauty of its own, if it were uttered with genius—with bovine genius (and in the case of Hemingway that is what has happened): just as much as would the folk-song of the baboon, or of the ‘Praying Mantis.’ But where the politics crop up is that if we take this to be the typical art of a civilization—and there is no serious writer who stands higher in Anglo-Saxony today than does Ernest Hemingway—then we are by the same token saying something very definite about that civilization.


  1. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

  2. Ad Astra. William Faulkner.

  3. Chronique du règne de Charles ix. Merimée.

  4. In our Time. Hemingway.

  5. Miscellaneous Studies. Walter Pater.

  6. In our Time, pp. 92, 94. Ernest Hemingway.

  7. Three Lives, p. 89. Gertrude Stein.

  8. Composition as Explanation (p. 5). Gertrude Stein.

  9. The American Language, p. 396.

  10. Forty Years at the Old Bailey. F. Lamb.

  11. In our Time. Ernest Hemingway.

Robert Penn Warren (essay date Winter 1947)

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SOURCE: “Hemingway,” in The Kenyon Review, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1947, pp. 1-28.

[In the following essay, Warren answers critics of Hemingway and explores themes of the quasi-religious significance of human love and the solitariness of the individual in A Farewell to Arms.]

The situations and characters of Hemingway's world are usually violent. There is the hard-drinking and sexually promiscuous world of The Sun Also Rises; the chaotic and brutal world of war as in A Farewell to Arms,For Whom the Bell Tolls, many of the inserted sketches of In Our Time, the play The Fifth Column, and some of the stories; the world of sport, as in “Fifty Grand,” “My Old Man,” “The Undefeated,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”; the world of crime as in “The Killers,” “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” and To Have and To Have Not. Even when the situation of a story does not fall into one of these categories, it usually involves a desperate risk, and behind it is the shadow of ruin, physical or spiritual. As for the typical characters, they are usually tough men, experienced in the hard worlds they inhabit, and not obviously given to emotional display or sensitive shrinking, men like Rinaldi or Frederic Henry of A Farewell to Arms, Robert Jordan of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Harry Morgan of To Have and To Have Not, the big-game hunter of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the old bull-fighter of “The Undefeated,” or the pugilist of “Fifty Grand.” Or if the typical character is not of this seasoned order, he is a very young man, or boy, first entering the violent world and learning his first adjustment to it.


A Farewell to Arms is a love story. It is a compelling story at the merely personal level, but is much more compelling and significant when we see the figures of the lovers silhouetted against the flame-streaked blackness of war, of a collapsing world, of nada. For there is a story behind the love story. That story is the quest for meaning and certitude in a world which seems to offer nothing of the sort. It is, in a sense, a religious book; if it does not offer a religious solution it is nevertheless conditioned by the religious problem.

The very first scene of the book, though seemingly casual, is important if we are to understand the deeper motivations of the story. It is the scene at the officers' mess where the captain baits the priest. “Priest every night five against one,” the captain explains to Frederic. But Frederic, we see in this and later scenes, takes no part in the baiting. There is a bond between him and the priest, a bond which they both recognize. … This becomes clear when, after the officers have advised Frederic where he should go on his leave to find the best girls, the priest turns to him and says that he would like for him to go to Abruzzi, his own province:

“There is good hunting. You would like the people and though it is cold it is clear and dry. You could stay with my family. My father is a famous hunter.”

“Come on,” said the captain. “We go whorehouse before it shuts.”

“Goodnight,” I said to the priest.

“Goodnight,” he said.

In the preliminary contrast between the officers, who invite the hero to go to the brothels, and the priest, who invites him to go to the cold, clear, dry country, we have in its simplest form the issue of the novel.

Frederic does go with the officers that night, and on his leave he does go to the cities, “to the smoke of cafes and nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that was all there was, and the strange excitement of waking and not knowing who it was with you, and the world all unreal in the dark and so exciting that you must resume again unknowing and not caring in the night, sure that this was all and all and all and not caring.” Frederic at the opening of the novel lives in the world of random and meaningless appetite, knowing that it is all and all and all, or thinking that he knows that. But behind that there is a dissatisfaction and disgust. Upon his return from his leave, sitting in the officers' mess, he tries to tell the priest how he is sorry that he had not gone to the clear, cold, dry country—the priest's home, which takes on the shadowy symbolic significance of another kind of life, another view of the world. The priest had always known that other country.

He had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget. But I did not know that then, although I learned it later.

What Frederic learns later is the story behind the love story of the book.

But this theme is not merely stated at the opening of the novel and then absorbed into the action. It appears later, at crucial points, to define the line of meaning in the action. When, for example, Frederic is wounded, the priest visits him in the hospital. Their conversation makes even plainer the religious background of the novel. The priest has said that he would like to go back after the war to the Abruzzi. He continues:

“It does not matter. But there in my country it is understood that a man may love God. It is not a dirty joke.”

“I understand.”

He looked at me and smiled.

“You understand but you do not love God.”


“You do not love him at all?” he asked.

“I am afraid of him in the night sometimes.”

“You should love Him.”

“I don't love much.”

“Yes,” he said. “You do. What you tell me about in the nights. That is not love. That is only passion and lust. When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve.”

“I don't love.”

“You will. I know you will. Then you will be happy.”

We have here two items of importance. … First, there is the definition of Frederic as the sleepless man, the man haunted by nada. Second, at this stage in the novel, the end of Book I, the true meaning of the love story with Catherine has not yet been defined. It is still at the level of appetite. The priest's role is to indicate the next stage of the story, the discovery of the true nature of love, the “wish to do things for.” And he accomplishes this by indicating a parallel between secular love and Divine love, a parallel which implies Frederic's quest for meaning and certitude. And to emphasize further this idea, Frederic, after the priest leaves, muses on the high, clean country of the Abruzzi, the priest's home which has already been endowed with the symbolic significance of the religious view of the world.

In the middle of Book II (Chapter xviii), in which the love story begins to take on the significance which the priest had predicted, the point is indicated by a bit of dialogue between the lovers.

“Couldn't we be married privately some way? Then if anything happened to me or if you had a child.”

“There's no way to be married except by church or state. We are married privately. You see, darling, it would mean everything to me if I had any religion. But I haven't any religion.”

“You gave me the Saint Anthony.”

“That was for luck. Some one gave it to me.”

“Then nothing worries you?”

“Only being sent away from you. You're my religion. You're all I've got.”

Again, toward the end of Book IV (Chapter xxxv), just before Frederic and Catherine make their escape into Switzerland, Frederic is talking with a friend, the old Count Greffi, who has just said that he thought H. G. Wells's novel Mr. Britling Sees It Through a very good study of the English middle-class soul. But Frederic twists the word soul into another meaning.

“I don't know about the soul.”

“Poor boy. We none of us know about the soul. Are you Croyant?”

“At night.”

Later in the same conversation the Count returns to the topic:

“And if you ever become devout pray for me if I am dead. I am asking several of my friends to do that. I had expected to become devout myself but it has not come.” I thought he smiled sadly but I could not tell. He was so old and his face was very wrinkled, so that a smile used so many lines that all graduations were lost.

“I might become very devout,” I said. “Anyway, I will pray for you.”

“I had always expected to become devout. All my family died very devout. But somehow it does not come.”

“It's too early.”

“Maybe it is too late. Perhaps I have outlived my religious feeling.”

“My own comes only at night.”

“Then too you are in love. Do not forget that is a religious feeling.”

So here, again, we find Frederic defined as the sleepless man, and the relation established between secular love and Divine love.

In the end, with the death of Catherine, Frederic discovers that the attempt to find a substitute for universal meaning in the limited meaning of the personal relationship is doomed to failure. It is doomed because it is liable to all the accidents of a world in which human beings are like the ants running back and forth on a log burning in a campfire and in which death is, as Catherine says immediately before her own death, “just a dirty trick.” But this is not to deny the value of the effort, or to deny the value of the discipline, the code, the stoic endurance, the things which make it true—or half true—that “nothing ever happens to the brave.”

This question of the characteristic discipline takes us back to the beginning of the book, and to the context from which Frederic's effort arises. We have already mentioned the contrast between the officers of the mess and the priest. It is a contrast based on the man who is aware of the issue of meaning in life and those who are unaware of it, who give themselves over to the mere flow of accident, the contrast between the disciplined and the undisciplined. But the contrast is not merely between the priest and the officers. Frederic's friend, the surgeon Rinaldi, is another who is on the same “side” of the contrast as the priest. He may go to the brothel with his brother officers, he may even bait the priest a little, but his personal relationship with Frederic indicates his affiliations; he is one of the initiate. Furthermore, he has the discipline of his profession, and as we have seen, in the Hemingway world, the discipline which seems to be merely technical, the style of the artist or the form of the athlete or bull fighter, may be an index to a moral value. “Already,” he says, “I am only happy when I am working.” (Already because the seeking of pleasure in sensation is inadequate for Rinaldi.) This point appears more sharply in the remarks about the doctor who first attends to Frederic's wounded leg. He is incompetent and does not wish to take the responsibility for a decision.

Before he came back three doctors came into the room. I have noticed that doctors who fail in the practice of medicine have a tendency to seek one another's company and aid in consultation. A doctor who cannot take out your appendix properly will recommend to you a doctor who will be unable to remove your tonsils with success. These were three such doctors.

In contrast with them there is Dr. Valentini, who is competent, who is willing to take responsibility, and who, as a kind of mark of his role, speaks the same lingo, with the same bantering, ironical tone, as Rinaldi—the tone which is the mark of the initiate.

So we have the world of the novel divided into two groups, the initiate and the uninitiate, the aware and the unaware, the disciplined and the undisciplined. In the first group are Frederic, Catherine, Rinaldi, Valentini, Count Greffi, the old man who cut the paper silhouettes “for pleasure,” and Passini, Manera, and the other ambulance men in Frederic's command. In the second group are the officers of the mess, the incompetent doctors, the “legitimate hero” Ettore, and the “patriots”—all the people who do not know what is really at stake, who are decided by the big words, who do not have the discipline. They are the messy people, the people who surrender to the flow and illusion of things. It is this second group who provide the context of the novel, and more especially the context from which Frederic moves toward his final complete awareness.

The final awareness means, as we have said, that the individual is thrown back upon his private discipline and his private capacity to endure. The hero cuts himself off from the herd, the confused world, which symbolically appears as the routed army at Caporetto. And, as Malcolm Cowley has pointed out, the plunge into the flooded Tagliamento, when Frederic escapes from the battle police, has the significance of a rite. By this “baptism” Frederic is reborn into another world; he comes out into the world of the man alone, no longer supported by and involved in society.

Anger was washed away in the river along with my obligation. Although that ceased when the carabiniere put his hands on my collar. I would like to have had the uniform off although I did not care much about the outward forms. I had taken off the stars, but that was for convenience. It was no point of honor. I was not against them. I was through. I wished them all the luck. There were the good ones, and the brave ones, and the calm ones and the sensible ones, and they deserved it. But it was not my show any more and I wished this bloody train would get to Maestre and I would eat and stop thinking.

So Frederic, by a decision, does what the boy Nick, in In Our Time, does as the result of the accident of a wound. He makes a “separate peace.” And from the waters of the flooded Tagliamento arises the Hemingway hero in his purest form, with human history and obligation washed away, ready to enact the last phase of his appropriate drama, and learn from his inevitable defeat the lesson of lonely fortitude.


This is not the time to attempt to give a final evaluation of Hemingway's work as a whole or even of this particular novel—if there is ever a time for a “final” evaluation. But we may touch on some of the objections which have been brought against his work.

First, there is the objection that his work is immoral or dirty or disgusting. This objection appeared in various quarters against A Farewell to Arms at the time of its first publication. For instance, Robert Herrick, himself a respected novelist, wrote that if suppression were to be justified at all it would be justified in this case. He said that the book had no significance, was merely a “lustful indulgence,” and smelled of the “boudoir,” and summarized his view by calling it “garbage.” That objection has for the most part died out, but its echoes can still be occasionally heard, and now and then, at rare intervals, some bigot or highminded but uninstructed moralist will object to the inclusion of A Farewell to Arms in a college course.

The answer to such an objection is fundamentally an answer to the charge that the book has no meaning. The answerer must seek to establish the fact that the book does deal seriously with a moral and philosophical issue, which, for better or worse, does exist in the modern world in substantially the terms presented by Hemingway. This means that the book, even if it does not end with a solution which is generally acceptable, still embodies a moral effort and is another document of the human will to achieve ideal values. As for the bad effect it may have on some readers, the best answer is perhaps to be found in a quotation from Thomas Hardy, who is now sanctified but whose most famous novels, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, once suffered the attacks of the dogmatic moralists, and one of whose books was burned by a bishop:

Of the effects of such sincere presentation on weak minds, when the courses of the characters are not exemplary and the rewards and punishments ill adjusted to deserts, it is not our duty to consider too closely. A novel which does moral injury to a dozen imbeciles, and has bracing results upon intellects of normal vigor, can justify its existence; and probably a novel was never written by the purest-minded author for which there could not be found some moral invalid or other whom it was capable of harming.

Second, there is the objection that Hemingway's work, especially of the period before To Have and To Have Not, has no social relevance, that it is off the main stream of modern life, and that it has no concern with the economic structure of society. Critics who hold this general view regard Hemingway, like Joseph Conrad and perhaps like Henry James, as an exotic. There are several possible lines of retort to this objection. One line is well stated in the following passage if we substitute the name of Hemingway for Conrad:

Thus it is no reproach to Conrad that he does not concern himself at all with the economic and social background underlying human relationships in modern civilization, for he never sets out to study those relationships. The Marxists cannot accuse him of cowardice or falsification, because in this case the charge is not relevant [though it might be relevant to To Have and To Have Not or to For Whom the Bell Tolls]. That, from the point of view of the man with a theory, there are accidents in history, no one can deny. And if a writer chooses to discuss those accidents rather than the events which follow the main stream of historical causation, the economic or other determinist can only shrug his shoulder and maintain that these events are less instructive to the students than are the major events which he chooses to study; but he cannot accuse the writer of falsehood or distortion.1

That much is granted by one of the ablest critics of the group who would find Hemingway an exotic. But a second line of retort would fix on the word instructive in the foregoing passage, and would ask what kind of instruction, if any, is to be expected of fiction, as fiction. Is the kind of instruction expected of fiction in direct competition, at the same level, with the kind of instruction offered in Political Science I or Economics II? If that is the case, then out with Shakespeare and Keats and in with Upton Sinclair.

Perhaps instruction is not a relevant word, after all, for this case. This is a very thorny and debatable question, but it can be ventured that what good fiction gives us is the stimulation of a powerful image of human nature trying to fulfill itself and not instruction in an abstract sense. The economic and the political man are important aspects of human nature and may well constitute part of the materials of fiction. But the economic or political man is not the complete man and other concerns may still be important enough to engage worthily the attention of a writer—such concerns as love, death, courage, the point of honor, and the moral scruple. A man does not only have to live with other men in terms of economic and political arrangements; he has to live with them in terms of moral arrangements, and he has to live with himself, he has to define himself. It can truly be said that these concerns are all inter-related in fact, but it might be dangerously dogmatic to insist that a writer should not bring one aspect into sharp, dramatic focus.

And it might be dangerously dogmatic to insist that Hemingway's ideas are not relevant to modern life. The mere fact that they exist and have stirred a great many people is a testimony to their relevance. Or to introduce a variation on that theme, it might be dogmatic to object to his work on the ground that he has few basic ideas. The history of literature seems to show that good artists may have very few basic ideas. They may have many ideas, but the ideas do not lead a life of democratic give-and-take, of genial camaraderie. No, there are usually one or two basic, obsessive ones. Like the religious reformer Savonarola, the artist may say: “Le mie cose erano poche e grandi”—my ideas were few and grand. And the ideas of the artist are grand because they are intensely felt, intensely realized—not because, by objective standards, by public, statistical standards, “important.” No, that kind of public, statistical importance may be a condition of their being grand but is not of the special essence of their grandeur. (Perhaps not even the condition—perhaps the grandeur inheres in the fact that the artistic work shows us a parable of meaning—how idea is felt and how passion becomes idea through order.)

An artist may need few basic ideas, but in assessing his work we must introduce another criterion in addition to that of intensity. We must introduce the criterion of area. In other words, his basic ideas do not operate in splendid isolation; to a greater or lesser degree, they operate in terms of their conquest of other ideas. Or again differently, the focus is a focus of experience, and the area of experience involved gives us another criterion of condition, the criterion of area. Perhaps an example would be helpful here. We have said that Hemingway is concerned with the scruple of honor, that this is a basic idea in his work. But we find that he applies this idea to a relatively small area of experience. In fact, we never see a story in which the issue involves the problem of definition of the scruple, or we never see a story in which honor calls for a slow, grinding, day-to-day conquest of nagging difficulties. In other words, the idea is submitted to the test of a relatively small area of experience, to experience of a hand-picked sort, and to characters of a limited range.

But within that range, within the area in which he finds the congenial material and in which competing ideas do not intrude themselves too strongly, Hemingway's expressive capacity is very powerful and the degree of intensity is very great. He is concerned not to report variety of human nature or human situation, or to analyze the forces operating in society, but to communicate a certain feeling about, a certain attitude toward, a special issue. That is, he is essentially a lyric rather than a dramatic writer, and for the lyric writer virtue depends upon the intensity with which the personal vision is rendered rather than upon the creation of a variety of characters whose visions are in conflict among themselves. And though Hemingway has not furnished—and never intended to furnish—document and diagnosis of our age, he has given us one of its most compelling symbols.


  1. David Daiches: Fiction in the Modern World.

Francis Hackett (essay date 6 August 1949)

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SOURCE: A review of A Farewell to Arms, in Saturday Review of Literature, August 6, 1949, pp. 32-3.

[In the following essay, Hackett asserts that Hemingway's hero in the novel represents a false concept of male dignity.]

In one detail time has dulled the luster of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. He had gone through the First World War with the Italians and he put much of his own experience into that brilliant book. When he issued it in 1929 the story was still fresh but familiarity with war material now makes it a little trite. A wholly imagined experience, as in The Red Badge of Courage, is the kind that keeps its salience, though Stendhal and Tolstoy triumphed in spite, of knowing the actuality of war.

As an artist, however, Hemingway turns the background of war to his special purpose. It is a defect that his hero's enlistment with the Italians is given no weight. He seems to have gone along out of masculine camaraderie. But by keeping it relatively tame and incidental, Hemingway uses it as a springboard for the real story, which is a love story. Tension mounts from the moment when the narrator is wounded until, after his cure and his sharing in the Caporetto retreat, he becomes AWOL and breaks away to reunite with his former nurse. He had left her pregnant, without any visible distress, but he throws off the war as an obstacle to his romantic reunion. In this way war and love are inverted—deliberately.

It is easy now to see why Hemingway did this. The primitive mood of war gave him his chance to dig down into himself for a native primitiveness that peace had long ruled out of bounds in polite American fiction. The American male egoist, with a pioneer code and a greed for direct experience, was long circumvented in novels by those who took their cue from England. Not since Byron had made his postwar protest did any male writing in English hurdle all the polite barriers in an effort to vindicate natural appetites. If A Farewell to Arms has created an epoch it is because Hemingway had the art to do this trick.

The staccato jabs with which the hammered it home make many pages tedious, but his report of actual be havior as against any polite hint at it proved a great boon to a generation in transition. “I was not made to think,” says Hemingway's hero, which is all too true. “I was made to eat. My God, yes. Eat and drink and sleep with Catherine. Tonight maybe.” The frank eagerness of desire and the heightening of its keen moments Hemingway carries off with its best weapon, which is veracity in accent and detail. Except for the patent in fantilism at the beginning, with over thirty “and”s on the first page, he achieves singularly clear and bold lines time after time. That is his prime distinction. It gives us plausible behavior, if not elucidation.

The disadvantage of the method is evident only on reflection. By bestowing on his hero a superb alimentary canal, a sufficient income from home for an undisturbed love life, and an adoring girl to complete it, Hemingway is extremely telling. He suggests the desirable no less vividly than Maupassant and as a storyteller he gives examples of narrative skill—as in his hero's escape from an execution squad, his fight into Switzerland with Catherine, and his vigil in the maternity hospital—which the author of “Bel-Ami” might well have envied. He can make such comment palpitant, exciting horror or disgust or shock of recognition events pushing against the protagonist until he takes his own part.

But tragedy does not reside in events, however vivid. It gets its value from the dignity of the protagonist, and to eat, to drink, to sleep with Catherine do not constitute a full human destiny. Hemingway's hero is not a cur but he is a puppy, a destructive puppy whose gamboling comes high. Take his part in the Italian campaign. Though he does not hesitate to kill a deserter, he himself deserts when offered the same dose of medicine and then discards Italy like a wet bathing suit. His only claim to dignity is a certain masculine prowess very attractive to the girls. But it is with irony that Maupassant depicts a more extreme case of this egoism in Bel-Ami. And not even Odysseus, highly attractive to the girls as he was, could have been a triumph of the storyteller art had his masculine prowess had no greater object outside itself. His dignity is not diminished by his eating and drinking and fighting, but he transcends those. He has intercourse with the gods.

Catherine is the nearest to a divine object in A Farewell to Arms, but she is essentially the male egoist's dream of a lover, a divine lollypop. At no time is she led to measure her strength against her hero. She is never individualized.

Hence the poignant end is a crushing blow from fate, not a true and inevitable outcome of destiny, unless we accept Hemingway's immature nihilism.

It is a tribute to his art, so succinct and so conscious, that he hits the bull's eye he aims at, if we accept the pose he has adopted. But the primrose path down which he has led so many young novelists in their attempt to offer the masculine protest is in reality a dead end, and Ernest Hemingway's lyrical novel, for all its excellences, shows how sterile the primitive protest really is.

James F. Light (essay date Summer 1961)

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SOURCE: “The Religion of Death in A Farewell to Arms,” in Ernest Hemingway: Critiques of Four Major Novels, edited by Carlos Baker, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962, pp. 37-40.

[In the following essay,originally published in 1961, Light discusses the four ideals of service in A Farewell to Arms.]

One way of looking at Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms is to see its close involvement in four ideals of service.1 Each of these ideals is dramatized by a character of some importance, and it is between these four that Lt. Henry wavers in the course of the novel. The orthodoxly religious ideal of service is that of the Priest, who wishes to serve God but who asserts as well the broader concept of service: “When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve.”2 Another selfless ideal of service is that of the patriot Gino, who wishes to serve his country so fully that he is willing to die for it. A third is the code of Catherine Berkeley [sic], who wishes to serve her lover and who sees in such service her personal substitute for conventional religion. The last is the ideal of Rinaldi, who, as a doctor, wishes to serve mankind by alleviating the wounds of war. Each is an initiate to the subordination of self, and in this they differ from the selfishness of the king and the officers who ride in cars and throw mud on the men, or from the hero Ettore, who sees war as an accident suitable for promotion and self-glorification. In no other way, despite the contention of such a perceptive and influential critic as Robert Penn Warren, are they really initiates. They are not so in their greater discipline—Catherine is hysterical early in the novel and Rinaldi is a nervous wreck in the middle. They are not so in their talk, for though Rinaldi and Valenti [sic], another doctor and another so-called initiate, may possess a similar “bantering, ironical tone,” the Priest and Catherine are far removed from any such tone; nor do they have any greater awareness than others “of the issue of meaning in life.”3 They act instinctively rather than intellectually, and the one instinct they have in common—the attraction toward the ideal of service—is, from the context and the conclusion of the novel, a foolish selflessness without intellectual worth.

The Priest, Gino, Catherine, and Rinaldi do, however, live by the ideal of service, and the dramatic tension of the novel is largely based on Lt. Henry's wavering toward each ideal and eventual rejection of all four. Toward the Priest's ideal, Henry's attitude is at first one of sympathy but of rejection. He does not bait the Priest with the other priest-baiters early in the novel, but neither does he stay with the Priest when the other officers leave for the whore houses near by. Nor does he visit the high, cold, dry country, the Priest's home, where he is invited to go on his leave. Instead he goes to the large cities, the ironic “centres of culture and civilization” (p. 8), where he lives the life of sensation and feels “that this was all and all and all and not caring” (p. 13). After he is wounded and has found real love with Catherine, however, Lt. Henry comes closer to the Priest, so that when he returns to duty he can reject the priest-baiting of Rinaldi and instead of going to town—and the whore houses—he can visit with the Priest. The implication apparently is that the love Henry has found in Catherine has somehow made him more sympathetic to the kind of selfless love that the Priest avows. By the end of the novel, however, Henry has thoroughly rejected the Priest and his ideal of service to God. He does, however, give that ideal a test. Where the Priest had earlier prayed for the end of the war—“I believe and I pray that something will happen. I have felt it very close” (pp. 184-5).—Henry now prays that Catherine not die. Basic and repetitive in the prayer is the implication of some necessary reciprocal relation between man and God: you do this for me and I'll do this for you. Thus Henry prays: “Oh, God, please don't let her die. I'll do anything for you if you won't let her die. … Please, please, please don't let her die. … I'll do anything you say if you don't make her die” (p. 341). Catherine, however, does die, just as, despite the Priest's prayers, the war continues. The implication is that the Priest's ideal of service lacks reciprocity, and the knowledge of its lack is not unique to Henry. Huck Finn had earlier, in the novel that Hemingway has said is the origin of all modern American literature, felt the same flaw; for he had seen, by pragmatic test, the inefficacy of prayer, and he had discerned that the Priest's—or Miss Watson's—ideal of service was a one-way street with no advantage for the human individual. For Lt. Henry this lack of reciprocity makes for the image of a God who in his eternal selfishness is the origin of human selfishness, so that man in his selfishness most accurately reflects God. This concept of the divine selfishness is portrayed in Henry's remembrance, as Catherine is dying, of watching some ants burning on a log. Henry envisions the opportunity for him to be “a messiah and lift the log off the fire” (p. 339). Divinity, however, does not ease the pain of man's existence, and Henry does not save the ants. Instead, selfishly—and in so doing he is reflecting the divine selfishness which is so antithetical to the Priest's ideal of service—Henry throws “a tin cup of water on the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whiskey in before I added water to it” (p. 339).

A second ideal of service is that dramatized by the patriot Gino. He believes the “soil is sacred” (p. 190) and that the deaths in the war were not “in vain” (p. 191). He will not talk of losing the war and Lt. Henry feels he understands Gino's “being a patriot. He was born one” (p. 191). Though Lt. Henry never has Gino's simple love of country, he does for a good part of the novel act and talk as a “patriot.” The priest applies the term to Lt. Henry (p. 74), and its justification, despite the fact that Lt. Henry is not defending his own country, is shown in an early conversation of Lt. Henry with the mechanic Passini. Passini believes there is nothing worse than war, but Lt. Henry contradicts this by saying, “Defeat is worse” (p. 52). When Passini disagrees, Lt. Henry continues by arguing in patriotic cliches: the enemy “come after you. They take your home. They take your sister” (p. 52). Passini says people should defend their own homes, and sisters should be kept in the house. The disagreement concludes with Lt. Henry saying that the war is bad but it must be finished. Passini answers, “It doesn't finish. There is no finish to a war” (p. 52). The innocence of Lt. Henry is revealed when he says, “Yes, there is” (p. 52). In terms of the ultimate despair of the book, with its cry that life itself, from birth to death, is perpetual war, Lt. Henry's statement shows a naivete that Lt. Henry must—and does—lose. His loss begins when the real danger and killing of the war become apparent. (Earlier he had felt the war “seemed no more dangerous to me myself than war in the movies” [p. 38].) His loss of innocence is most obvious when he feels himself completely separated from the patriot Gino and responds to Gino's cliches by the famous passage that begins, “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice, and the expression in vain …” (p. 191). Because he has lost his patriotism, Lt. Henry, later, has no intellectual qualms about deserting and making a “separate peace” (p. 252).

A third ideal of service is the ideal by which Catherine lives. She dramatizes the service of secular lovers to one another, and she lives and dies by this code. Completely selfless in her attitude toward her lover, she needs no marriage ceremony and dreams of uniting herself so completely to Lt. Henry—her religion she calls him at one time—that the two become truly one. The depth of the desire to serve is shown in the last chapter. There, Lt. Henry takes Catherine's hand. She knows that she is going to die and also feels that her recent agony in childbirth and her impending death are the final results for her of the sexual desires of Henry. Therefore, she lashes out: “Don't touch me” (p. 341). Then, despite her bitterness, she adds, “Poor darling. You touch me all you want” (p. 342). This is perfect selflessness, still concerned with others, still trying to serve even while dying, and it is this kind of service that Henry learns about from Catherine. Thus while rowing Catherine to Switzerland, Henry can blister his hands to the point of real pain, and then can jestingly refer to his own hands as similar to those of Christ. Later, when Catherine is dying, Henry desperately wishes to serve, and this he does in some small way by giving her gas to ease her pain. Of this act, he feels, “It was very good of the doctor to let me do something” (p. 328). Later Henry asks such questions as, “Do you want anything, Cat?” and “Can I get you anything?” (p. 342). Henry, however, can do nothing, and the ineffectuality of the service of secular lovers is made apparent in the last paragraph of the novel when Henry finds he can't even effectively say goodbye.

The fourth ideal of service is that of Rinaldi. Rinaldi is a good doctor, one for whom work is the sole justification for life. It is Rinaldi to whom Henry is closest at the beginning of the novel—Rinaldi says they are blood brothers—for both are not only living a life of non-thinking sensation, but more important both are involved in the service of healing man's body. After Henry has been wounded and has returned to duty, however, there is a change. Henry finds that the Priest now is more sure of himself, while Rinaldi, convinced that he has syphilis, is tense and irritable. The cause for the change is the way in which the war has been going. Many men have been killed and many wounded, and these facts have made the Priest—concerned with man's soul—feel more necessary, while at the same time, they have made Rinaldi—concerned with man's body—feel his own futility. The difference is made clear when Rinaldi attempts to bait the priest, as in earlier days, and is unsuccessful in weakening the Priest's placidity. His lack of success, though his insults go even beyond those of the earlier time, and his feeling that Henry is betraying him and is now on the Priest's side enrage Rinaldi, and he yells at Henry that he can't side with the Priest: “You can't do it. You can't do it. I say you can't do it. You're dry and you're empty and there's nothing else. There's nothing else I tell you. Not a damned thing. I know, when I stop working” (p. 180). The complete materialist—he calls himself “the snake of reason” (p. 176)—Rinaldi, after this scene, disappears physically from the novel, but his role as the worker for the cure of man's body is assumed later by another doctor, the one who cares for Catherine in her childbirth. Like Rinaldi, this doctor is also ineffectual in his attempt at service, and his feeling of his failure leads to apologetics [sic] which Henry rejects. Henry is left with the failure of all the ideals of service. In addition he is left with the knowledge of the one thing man can believe in: death. Catherine becomes a “statue”—which suggests some pagan deity—and the novel ends on the word rain, a word which symbolically stands for two things, paradoxically intertwined, in the novel. One is spring and new birth. The other is the thaws of spring that begin the war anew and anew bring death. In the beginning of life, then, is the fact of death, and the sexual urge is the biological trap which leads to death. Death is the basic fact of life, and there is nothing more deserving of worship.

It is no wonder that in Hemingway's next book, Death in the Afternoon, he states—and it is a thorough rejection of any ideal of service—that “what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”4 Hemingway feels good after seeing a bullfight, and for him it is “very moral.”5 The reason is that in the bullfight one confronts in a pure way the ultimate fact of death. Man's problem is to dominate death as the bullfighter's is to dominate the bull, and the way toward domination is to see life, like the bullfight, as an art form, with certain rules which the “manly” man will obey. The basic offense against the “rules” of the bullfight is for the bullfighter to pretend to be in the area of danger while in reality he avoids that area and is perfectly safe. The basic offense against the “rules” of life as an art form is to show self-pity, an offense so great that Hemingway could, when he saw it in his friend Scott Fitzgerald, write a reprimanding letter in which he pointed out that all men “are bitched from the start” and no man has any right to whine.6 To avoid the area of danger in the bullfight is to avoid real domination of the bull; to whine in life is to avoid domination of death. The lack of domination makes for messiness—impure art—in either the bullfight or life. Such messiness is a form of cheating, and in life “when you get the damned hurt use it—don't cheat with it.”7

Watching the bullfights, Hemingway gains a feeling of “life and death, mortality and immortality.”8 Though he himself is vague about the reason he gains these feelings, it seems clear that the feeling of immortality does not come from any orthodox Christian reason. Instead it arises because the bullfighter, when he enters the area of danger, shows his contempt for death, becomes victorious over it, and gains in his victory a small immortality. The same kind of contempt for death is evident in the way in which Catherine meets her end, for she recognizes her death as a “dirty trick” (p. 342) but winks at the joke. She has not been broken by death, despite her feeling to the contrary, and she has therefore gained victory and immortality. This is the only kind of immortality man can know; it is gained by bravery and stoicism, not selfless service to God (the Priest), country (Gino), beloved (Catherine), or mankind (Rinaldi). Such a limited immortality is a poor substitute for victory over death through everlasting life; but it is the only kind of immortality, the only kind of religion, the Hemingway of Farewell can believe in.


  1. Robert Penn Warren discusses two of these ideals, those of Catherine and the Priest, in his introduction to Scribner's Modern Standard Authors edition of Farewell. Anyone familiar with Mr. Warren's essay will see that though I disagree with much of its interpretation of Farewell, I at the same time am indebted to it deeply.

  2. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, Intro. Robert Penn Warren (Scribner's Modern Standard Authors, 1949), p. 75. Subsequent page references to Farewell are from this edition and are incorporated in the text.

  3. Warren, Introduction to Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, p. xxxi.

  4. Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (Scribner's, 1932), p. 4.

  5. Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, p. 4.

  6. Letter from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Quoted in Arthur Mizener, The Far Side of Paradise (Houghton-Mifflin, 1951), p. 238.

  7. Letter from Hemingway to Fitzgerald. Quoted in Mizener, The Far Side of Paradise, p. 238.

  8. Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, p. 4.

Daniel Schneider (essay date Autumn 1968)

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SOURCE: “Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms: The Novel as Pure Poetry,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 14, Autumn, 1968, pp. 283-96.

[In the following essay, Schneider compares A Farewell to Arms to a lyric poem, where plot, character, and images all contribute perfectly to a feeling of hopelessness and desolation.]

In a well-known essay1 Robert Penn Warren has drawn a distinction between two kinds of poetry, a “pure” poetry, which seeks more or less systematically to exclude so-called “unpoetic” elements from its hushed and hypnotic atmosphere, and an “impure,” a poetry of inclusion or synthesis, which welcomes into itself such supposedly recalcitrant and inhospitable stuff as wit, cacophony, jagged rhythms, and intellectual debate. The distinction between the two types, so helpful in the analysis of lyrics, may obviously be employed to advantage in the criticism of novels, and I should like to use it here to call attention to an aspect of Hemingway's art that has not received any extended comment. For if there are works, such as War and Peace, Ulysses,Moby Dick, and The Magic Mountain, whose power and beauty are best explained by their very “impurity”—novels that batten on the diversity of life and are most themselves when they are most “loose and baggy” (to use James's fine phrase)—the strength of Hemingway's novels is explained best, I think, by noting that they are in spirit and in method closer to pure lyric than to epic, and that they systematically exclude whatever threatens to interfere with the illusion of life beheld under the aspect of a single, dominant, all-pervasive mood or state of mind. They attempt to sustain perfectly a single emotion: they begin with it and end with it, and any scenes, characters, thoughts, or stylistic elements that might tend to weaken the dominant emotion are ruthlessly rejected. Consequently, Hemingway's art has both the virtues and the limitations of lyricism: maximum intensity on the one hand, extremely limited range on the other.

Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms is I think one of the purest lyric novels ever written. But if we are fully to appreciate its power—and the power of a number of other works by Hemingway—we are driven to examine the poetics of this lyricism2 and to assess, if we can, the extent to which Hemingway has exploited the possibilities of the type.


The dominant emotion or state of mind behind the events of A Farewell to Arms is seldom stated explicitly. It is always there, informing every scene of the novel, lying beneath every descriptive passage and every bit of characterization, but it seldom shows, or it shows, at most, but a tiny part of itself, like the iceberg that Hemingway often took to be the apt image of his art. It is a bitterness, a disgust, a desolation of soul, a remorse of such depth and durance that it can be held in check only by dint of the severest, most unremitting self-control. When it does show itself clearly, this inner violence, as in Chapter XXXIV of Farewell, it is expressed in this way:

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.3

The world's malevolence is taken for granted in Hemingway's novels. The artistic problem Hemingway faced was to find the correlatives of his bitterness—objects adequate to the emotion, techniques capable of rendering it as purely as possible. The tragic action, involving failure, humiliation, and, especially, the punishment and defeat of lovers was of course the chief means of conveying the essential vision, the essential bitterness. But a whole poetics of the novel which confines itself to the embodiment of such a state of mind had to be developed, and it is in the solution of minor as well as of major problems that the genius of Hemingway is finally revealed. His style, for example—the perfect correlative (as Brooks and Warren have shown) of his sense of the ruthless and arbitrary condition of the world that breaks and kills—becomes the perfect correlative too of the emotions of despair and bitterness. The careful selection of a dominant image and its reiteration through whole paragraphs and pages and chapters, so that the image presently becomes symbol, conveying both the central meaning and the central emotion, becomes Hemingway's fixed method. Perhaps the best analogy is found in the choice of a musical key and in the elaborate harmonization of notes always referring to the tonic. Ideally, when the writing is purest, every sentence will bespeak the central meaning and emotion. There will be no purely functional passages, no passages which merely illustrate a meaning, no characters or episodes given freedom to develop emotions outside the dominant bitterness. Everything will be converted into a symbol of the emotion. Where such conversion does not take place, the art fails and the novel becomes epic, not lyric; narrative, instead of the pure utterance of passion.

The determination to make the novel lyrical inevitably influences all of its parts. Character becomes, in one sense, unimportant. Characters exist for the sake of the emotion and, as in most lyric poems, need not be three-dimensional. Indeed, any full and vivid particularization of character is likely to work against the dominant emotion, for when a character is complex and fully realized, he is scarcely able to maintain a single, fixed emotion or state of mind. It is only rather highly generalized characters who can feel “purely.” A lovely and brave young woman may function well in a lyric world. Represent her in such complicated terms as Joyce employs to depict Leopold Bloom and the emotion is adulterated by a thousand reservations and ironic complexities. Of course character cannot be reduced to passion: a writer like Poe frequently fails because he is so much interested in feeling that he virtually eliminates character altogether; but Poe's Gothic tales suggest the proper direction of the lyric novel: character must exist for the sake of the emotion, and wherever the variety and diversity of life threaten to dilute or dissipate the central emotion, life must be excluded from the novel. It is thus no fair criticism to say that Hemingway has created no memorable characters; the truth is that his novels necessarily reject such people. One may imagine what Hemingway would have to do with the “memorable” Buck Mulligan to adjust him to the world of Farewell. Much of the élan of the Joycean character would necessarily be sacrificed to the mood of the scene, and only so much of Mulligan's irreverence as would not undermine the sense of despair would be recorded. In short, what is rolicking insouciance in Joyce would become, in Hemingway, the doleful chant of “irony and pity”; the Rabelaisian humor would be infused with the central bitterness, and would scarcely be humor at all: Mulligan would become Rinaldi.

The action, too, must obviously become, as nearly as possible, simple, intellectually uncomplicated, and, in spirit if not in actual construction, akin to lyric soliloquy. An action involving much intellectual debate, analysis, repartee, or a multiplication of points of view is clearly antithetical to the spirit of Hemingway's lyric novels. For cerebration tends to destroy passion; intellectual analysis or agility introduces a note of objectivity that the lyric novel cannot tolerate, and debate might require the introduction of spokesmen whose personalities and whose mere presence could shatter the lyric mood. It is for this reason that the action of Hemingway's lyric novels approaches, whenever it can, the scene of prolonged suffering. The characteristic sources of complication are not new complications of “plot” in the sense that fresh problems are introduced to be debated and solved, but rather new wounds, new torments, so that bitterness deepens and grows toward a pitch of anguish and remorse. Hemingway is always reluctant to introduce actions that do not feed the dominant emotion (sometimes so close to self-pity) and in consequence his characteristic way of structuring the action of his novels is to employ a simple qualitative shift or oscillation between despair and happiness. In The Sun Also Rises the shifts are from Paris, to Burguete, to Pamplona, to San Sebastian; in A Farewell to Arms they are from the front, to the hospital, to the front, to Switzerland: disgust and bitterness, followed by a short respite, then back to disgust and bitterness again. The dominant emotion is intensified through these powerful contrasts with opposite emotions. And major form is reinforced by minor: brief scenes in which characters are represented as enjoying intensely food and drink or a lovely view or a simple physical comfort exist chiefly to heighten the sense of despair and bitterness; the interludes of normal pleasure are inevitably short-lived; by various signs we know that they will soon be over and that whatever one has will be taken away. Every meal, every sight, every sound thus comes to one as to a man about to be executed. That is one reason the descriptions of food and drink always seem so preternaturally vivid in Hemingway.

It is unnecessary to extend this poetics further at this point. We shall see, if we look closely at A Farewell to Arms, how thoroughly Hemingway has exploited the possibilities of his lyric form.


In A Farewell to Arms the dominant state of mind—the sense of death, defeat, failure, nothingness, emptiness—is conveyed chiefly by the image of the rain (with all its tonal associates, mist, wet, damp, river, fog), by images and epithets of desolation (chiefly bare, thin, small, and fallen leaves), and by images and epithets of impurity and corruption (chiefly dust, mud, dirt, and disease). Hemingway's method of working with the images is surprisingly uniform. I have already employed an analogy to music; another way of describing the method is to think of a painter working tiny patches of a dominant color over his entire canvas. Hemingway himself perhaps had both analogies in mind when he said, in the Lillian Ross interview, that he had “learned how to make a landscape from Mr. Paul Cézanne” and mentioned, in the same context, his imitation of Bach's counterpoint in the first chapter of Farewell.4 The images are repeated so frequently that they begin to toll like bells in the mind. Virtually every sentence says, “Death, despair, failure, emptiness,” because virtually every sentence contains an image or symbol associated with the dominant state of mind.

The novel begins with this state of mind, and it is established so firmly, through the repetition of the central symbols, that any emotions other than bitterness and despair may thereafter intrude only with difficulty. The typical procedure, as in lyric poetry, is to intensify the dominant emotion by means of a simple contrast of images. Thus the images of purity and vitality, introduced in the second sentence of the novel, are contrasted throughout the chapter with the images of dirt and failure:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

(p. 3)

Purity has been defiled, the life-force has been thwarted and defeated. The leaves are “powdered” by dust; the trunks too are “dusty”; the leaves fall “early”; and the empty road, “bare and white except for the leaves,” becomes a perfect correlative of the inner desolation. The defilement and violation of life is further suggested by a reference to camouflage (“There were big guns that passed in the day drawn by tractors, the long barrels of the guns covered with green branches and green leafy branches and vines laid over the tractor” [p. 4]) and by a reference to the cartridge-boxes bulging under the capes of the soldiers “so that the men, passing on the road, marched as though they were six months gone with child” (p. 4). And these bitter ironies are reinforced by the introduction of the dominant symbol of the rain: not life-giving rain causing the leaves to grow but the autumnal and winter rain causing them to fall, a rain associated with darkness, mud, and death:

There was fighting for that mountain too, but it was not successful, and in the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks were black with rain. The vineyards were thin and bare-branched too and all the country wet and brown and dead with the autumn. There were mists over the river and clouds on the mountain and the trucks splashed mud on the road and the troops were muddy and wet in their capes; their rifles were wet. …

(p. 4)

The sense of failure and impotence is also reinforced by the studious avoidance of action-verbs. Almost invariably Hemingway employs the copulative to be, and the expletives there were and there was occur ten times in the twenty-one sentences of the chapter, six of the sentences being introduced by them. The repetitions give a sense of endless sameness and weariness: abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

The concluding paragraphs of the chapter reinforce what has already been established powerfully. The guns, the tractors, the motor-cars show a ruthless power, and it is as if life, in the presence of these overwhelming forces of death, had withered and shrunk. The “very small” king, sitting in the speeding motor-car “between two generals,” becomes a fine correlative of the sense of impotence:

There were small gray motor cars that passed going very fast; usually there was an officer in the seat with the driver and more officers in the back seat. They splashed more mud than the camions even and if one of the officers in the back was very small and sitting between two generals, he himself so small that you could not see his face but only the top of his cap and his narrow back, and if the car went especially fast it was probably the king. He lived in Udine and came out in this way nearly every day to see how things were going, and things went very badly.

At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.

(p. 4)

With this last paragraph the sense of doom is complete. The rain is “permanent” and the apparent consolation, the fact that the cholera is checked, is viciously undercut by the irony that “only seven thousand died of it in the army.”

The mood of the first chapter is thus established powerfully through the proliferation of associated images, images written in a single key. But to continue in this way—that is, to continue to present events and people as the objectification of feeling through the modulation of images—would of course be to drive narrative out of the novel; there would be no “story,” only bitterness distilled. Hemingway's artistic problem accordingly becomes that of presenting action and conflict in such a way that the central emotion will not be shattered by the inclusion of elements hostile to it. As I have indicated, action must be converted into passion; characters must become embodiments of the central bitterness. When it becomes necessary, then, in Chapter II, to introduce characters and to develop a scene whose essential quality is potentially uncongenial to the established emotion, Hemingway must take pains to weaken or nullify the inharmonious effects and to absorb character and scene into the dominant mood. So it is that when the priest, the captain, and the other soldiers are introduced, Hemingway guards against any dilution of the central emotion by framing the scene with a description expressive, once again, of the profound regret and bitterness:

Later, below in the town, I watched the snow falling, looking out of the window of the bawdy house, the house for officers, where I sat with a friend and two glasses drinking a bottle of Asti, and, looking out at the snow falling slowly and heavily, we knew it was all over for that year. Up the river the mountains had not been taken; none of the mountains beyond the river had been taken. That was all left for next year. My friend saw the priest from our mess going by in the street, walking carefully in the slush, and pounded on the window to attract his attention. The priest looked up. He saw us and smiled. My friend motioned for him to come in. The priest shook his head and went on. That night in the mess after the spaghetti course … the captain commenced picking on the priest.

(pp. 6-7)

In the scene that follows, the captain's baiting of the priest takes its tone from the frame and is anything but humorous. The “good fun” is swallowed up by the pervasive sadness and bitterness, and the episode acts upon the reader in much the same way as an episode in The Waste Land affects Eliot's readers: dialogue, narrative, description are all viewed as expressions of the central fears and desires. The characters introduced are not important in themselves; their development as characters does not interest the writer. They are aspects of the hero's state of mind, and represent, covertly, the conflicts of his soul.

We must note, moreover, that the scene is, characteristically, short. For to lengthen any scene of this sort, in which the actions and speeches of minor characters threaten to shake our awareness of the hero's mood, would be fatal to the lyric novel. If developed at length, the scene would cease to function as the token of the hero's feelings. E. M. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel, has pointed out the danger of the characters' taking the story out of the novelist's control. The minor characters, if freed from the hero's sensibility, would take the scene into their own hands. The rhythm and mood of the scene would be theirs, not the hero's, and the scene, instead of reinforcing, might easily weaken or dissipate the central emotion. Furthermore, any particularly vivid rendering of the inherent “coloring” of the events and speeches—such rendering as one finds everywhere in the novels of Dickens—might work dangerously against the emotion. Hence the scene must be reported as barely, as “objectively” as possible. Perhaps it has not been sufficiently appreciated that “objectivity,” as employed by Hemingway, is more than a means of effective understatement or of being true to the facts; it is also, much of the time, a means of preventing alien attitudes and feelings from asserting themselves vigorously—at the expense of the dominant emotion of the lyric novel. Of course objectivity also gives an air of distance and detachment; but where the objectively rendered scene is framed by lyric passages of great intensity, the scene becomes suffused with the emotion of the antecedent lyric, and it is precisely the deadpan reporting with the recurrent “he saids” that permits such penetration of the emotion.

The depression of Frederic Henry continues into Chapter III, but by this time the impressions of bitterness and failure have accumulated so densely that one is ready for a shift to an opposite state of mind. Returning from his leave, Frederic finds everything at the front unchanged. He has not gone to Abruzzi, as the priest urged him to, and, as the symbolism suggests delicately, he is mired in moral filth and inertia. Rinaldi, after kissing him, says: “You're dirty. … You ought to wash,” and in Chapter IV Frederic observes, “I was very dusty and dirty and went up to my room to wash” (p. 17). In truth he needs a kind of purification. Thus when he sees Catherine Barkley for the first time in the garden of the British hospital, the imagery hints at the purity, the Edenlike peace that Frederic most deeply craves: “Miss Barkley was in the garden. Another nurse was with her. We saw their white uniforms through the trees and walked toward them” (p. 18). But the first conversation of the lovers, with its truncated, tight-lipped exchanges, only reiterates the desperation and despair that have already pervaded the novel. Once a key word has been sounded, Hemingway modulates it beautifully in half a dozen different shadings, until the conversation, like the descriptions already quoted, becomes a refrain on the theme of failure:

“Yes,” she said. “People can't realize what France is like. If they did, it couldn't go on. He didn't have a sabre cut. They blew him all to bits.”

I didn't say anything.

“Do you suppose it will always go on?”


“What's to stop it?”

“It will crack somewhere.”

“We'll crack. We'll crack in France. They can't go on doing things like the Somme and not crack.”

“They won't crack here,” I said.

“You think not?”

“No. They did very well last summer.”

“They may crack,” she said. “Anybody may crack.”

“The Germans too.”

“No,” she said. “I think not.”

(p. 20)

Catherine here exists almost as the echo of Frederic's own bitterness and despair. She is Despair turning desperately to the religion of love. She has no past beyond the absolute minimum required for plausibility. Like another Catherine, Bronte's Catherine Earnshaw, she is her lover: her temperamental affinity to Frederic is so marked that their right to each other is accepted almost from the first moment of meeting. Thus she is, in a sense, not a distinct character at all but Frederic's bitterness or his desire objectified. She will presently become the peace or bliss that stands at farthest remove from the war: the white snows of the mountaintops, the idyllic serenity of Switzerland, the Beatrice of the Paradiso. To lose her will be to lose Love. The lyric novel requires no deeper characterization.

Once she has been introduced, Hemingway is ready to effect the first qualitative shift in the novel. He has only to bring about the circumstances that will make possible a brief interlude of love and joy—a state of mind opposite to the intolerable mood of the opening chapters. In Chapter VII Frederic returns to the front, and the sweat, the heat, and the dust are again emphasized (p. 33). References to washing or taking baths recur (pp. 36, 39), and in Chapter IX, when he is wounded, we are told that so much dirt has blown into the wound that it has not hemorrhaged much (p. 57). The form of the next several chapters, then, becomes the gradual emergence from the filth and darkness of the war into the purity and light of love. The slow healing of Frederic's wound is concomitant with a subtle, incomplete healing of his soul, and before his return to the front he will have acquired, though without fully knowing it, the conviction that neither Rinaldi, who visits him in Chapter X, nor the priest, who visits him in Chapter XI, can claim his soul: his love of Catherine is his religion. Yet this first idyll of love is by no means as pure and satisfying as the second interlude in Switzerland. It alters Frederic's disposition; it teaches him that love is possible; but it does not bring such full and radiant joy as will come later. It must, of necessity, be less complete, less satisfying, than the Switzerland episodes; if it were not, the happiness in Switzerland would be anticlimactic, and there would be no conviction that the lovers had grown emotionally and spiritually in such a way as to make the shattering of their union fully tragic. At this stage of the action Hemingway therefore wisely presents only so much of the lovers' joy as will establish a strong contrast between the old state of mind and the new. The moments of joy are intermittent. There are still, even after Frederic's recovery, many ominous suggestions of the old hollowness and despair. The ugliness of Etore's ambition to rise and win glory in the army reminds the lovers of the world they want to forget. The rain returns and Catherine, who sometimes sees herself “dead in it,” is frightened and begins to cry; in Chapter XX the dishonesty of the fixed horse-races sullies the lovers' afternoon, though they are able to outwit the world by betting on a horse they've never heard of (named symbolically “Light for Me”) and Catherine says, “I feel so much cleaner.” But in Chapter XXI Catherine announces that she is pregnant, and the uncertainty of the future stirs a new dread. In the next chapter the rain returns: “It turned cold that night and the next day it was raining. Coming home from the Ospedale Maggiore it rained very hard and I was wet when I came in. Up in my room the rain was coming down heavily outside on the balcony, and the wind blew it against the glass doors” (p. 142). Frederic comes down with jaundice, a physical correlative of the old sense of “rottenness,” and the visit he and Catherine had planned to Pallanza is now out of the question. The old pattern of failure reasserts itself. When Miss Van Campen discovers the empty bottles in the armoire of his hospital room, his leave is cancelled.

In Chapter XXIII, the night on which Frederic returns to the front, the rain, the lovers' goodbyes, and the sense of helplessness all combine to produce a profound pathos and anguish that passes, finally, into a bitterness even more intense than that of the opening chapters. The chapter begins with Frederic's making arrangements to have a seat on the troop train held for him and with his saying goodbye at the hospital. The wife of the porter weeps. Frederic walks to a wine-shop and waits for Catherine to pass. At this point the rain of despair and death is suggested only by mist and fog: “It was dark outside and cold and misty. … There was a fog in the square and when we came close to the front of the cathedral it was very big and the stone was wet” (pp. 146-147). Frederic asks Catherine if she would like to go in, but she says no, and they go instead to a hotel where the furniture of vice, red plush curtains, a satin coverlet on the bed, and “many mirrors,” besmirch the sacredness of their love. On their trip to the hotel the fog changes to rain, and the sense of failure and loss deepens:

“We can get a cab at the bridge,” I said. We stood on the bridge in the fog waiting for a carriage. Several streetcars passed, full of people going home. Then a carriage came along but there was someone in it. The fog was turning to rain.

“We could walk or take a tram,” Catherine said.

“One will be along,” I said. “They go by here.”

“Here one comes,” she said.

The driver stopped his horse and lowered the metal sign on his meter. The top of the carriage was up and there were drops of water on the driver's coat. His varnished hat was shining in the wet. We sat back in the seat together and the top of the carriage made it dark.

(p. 150; italics mine)

In the hotel Catherine bursts out: “I never felt like a whore before.” Frederic stands at the window looking down at “the wet pavement” until Catherine calls him back to the bed. For a time the lovers are happy in the hotel room, which, in a bitter irony, Catherine refers to as their “fine house” and their “home.” But in a moment of stillness they can “hear the rain” (p. 154) and presently they must leave. The symbolic rain now finds its way into almost every sentence, as if doom were complete, inescapable:

I saw the carriage coming. It stopped, the horse's head hanging in the rain, and the waiter stepped out, opened his umbrella, and came toward the hotel. We met him at the door and walked out under the umbrella down the wet walk to the carriage at the curb. Water was running in the gutter.

“There is your package on the seat,” the waiter said. He stood with the umbrella until we were in and I had tipped him.

“Many thanks. Pleasant journey,” he said. The coachman lifted the reins and the horse started. The waiter turned away under the umbrella and went toward the hotel. We drove down the street and turned to the left, then came around to the right in front of the station. There were two carabinieri standing under the light just out of the rain. The light shone on their hats. The rain was clear and transparent against the light from the station. A porter came out from under the shelter of the station, his shoulders up against the rain.

(p. 157; italics mine)

When Frederic enters the crowded troop-train, where “every one was hostile,” the return to the old bitterness is virtually complete. He gives up his seat to the belligerent captain with the “new and shiny” scar, then stands watching the lights of the station as the train pulls out. Light has been associated from the beginning with Catherine, her white uniform and, especially, her shining hair (p. 114). Just before boarding the train, Frederic sees her face “in the light” (p. 157). But now “It was still raining and soon the windows were wet and you could not see out” (p. 159). The violence of the shift from the interlude of love to the nightmare of the war is consummately rendered in the final sentences of the chapter: Frederic is swallowed up in a hell of darkness, congestion, and hostility, and the loss of his identity as lover is complete; he sleeps on the floor of the corridor, thinking: “they could all walk over me if they wouldn't step on me. Men were sleeping on the floor all down the corridor. Others stood holding on to the window rods or leaning against the doors. That train was always crowded” (p. 159).

The world has again triumphed. Accordingly, the sense of desolation and failure at the beginning of Book Three is almost identical with that of the novel's first chapter. Once again it is autumn, and once again Hemingway uses the limited palette of key words to paint the emotion, building his opening paragraph on the adjective “bare” and on references to the rain and to “shrunken” life:

Now in the fall the trees were all bare and the roads were muddy. I rode to Gorizia from Udine on a camion. We passed other camions on the road and I looked at the country. The mulberry trees were bare and the fields were brown. There were wet dead leaves on the road from the rows of bare trees and men were working on the road, tamping stone in the ruts from piles of crushed stone along the side of the road between the trees. We saw the town with a mist over it that cut off the mountains. We crossed the river and I saw that it was running high. It had been raining in the mountains. We came into the town past the factories and then the houses and villas and I saw many more houses had been hit. On a narrow street we passed a British Red Cross ambulance. The driver wore a cap and his face was thin and very tanned. I did not know him. I got down from the camion in the big square in front of the Town Major's house, the driver handed down my rucksack and I put it on and swung on the two musettes and walked to our villa. It did not feel like a homecoming.

I walked down the damp gravel driveway looking at the villa through the trees. The windows were all shut but the door was open. I went in and found the major sitting at a table in the bare room with maps and typed sheets of paper on the wall.

(pp. 163-164; italics mine)

The old sense of pollution also returns: Rinaldi, who fears he has syphilis, chides Frederic for trying to cleanse his conscience with a toothbrush. And the sense of impotence and failure is further objectified in Rinaldi's “You can't do it. You can't do it. I say you can't do it. You're dry and you're empty and there's nothing else. There's nothing else I tell you” (p. 174). Presently Frederic picks up the refrain: he believes “in sleep,” he tells the priest, “meaning nothing” (p. 179). Then in Chapter XXVII the rains begin again:

It stormed all that day. The wind drove down the rain and everywhere there was standing water and mud. The plaster of the broken houses was gray and wet. Late in the afternoon the rain stopped and from out number two post I saw the bare wet autumn country with clouds over the tops of the hills and the straw screening over the roads wet and dripping. The sun came out once before it went down and shone on the bare woods beyond the ridge. … We loaded two cars and drove down the road that was screened with wet mats and the last of the sun came through in the breaks between the strips of matting. Before we were out on the clear road behind the hill the sun was down. We went on down the clear road and as it turned into the open and went into the square arched tunnel of matting the rain started again.

The wind rose in the night and at three o'clock in the morning with the rain coming in sheets there was a bombardment and the Croatians came over across the mountain meadows and through the patches of wood and into the front line. They fought in the dark in the rain and a counter-attack of scared men from the second line drove them back. There was much shelling and many rockets in the rain and machine-gun and rifle fire all along the line. They did not come again and it was quieter and between the gusts of wind and rain we could hear the sound of a great bombardment far to the north.

(pp. 185-186; italics mine)

The retreat begins, “orderly, wet and sullen,” with troops marching “under the rain” (p. 188). In Chapter XXVII the word “rain” appears twenty-four times; in Chapter XXVIII, seventeen times. Chapter XXVII begins with a reference to sleep—meaning, of course, nothing—and in twelve pages the word appears, incredibly, as noun, adjective, or verb, thirty-three times. I am aware that such counting is not in itself a proof of the lyric progression of these events, but when rain means death and sleep means nothing, the recurrence of the words builds a mood of absolute hopelessness.

Moreover, because of the repetitions, a note of desperation comes to suffuse the scene: the pressure of the accumulated bitterness will become too intense, and the dominant emotion will again seek to elicit its opposite, pure peace, pure happiness, the pure joy of love. After the overwhelming development of the emotion in these chapters, Frederic's bolt for freedom cannot be far off. Hemingway can sustain the emotion for a few chapters more, but any further prolongation would make the intensity commonplace and the evil banal, meaningless. Frederic must soon fall into the hands of the battle police. A very brief qualitative shift in Chapter XXX enables Hemingway to prolong the suffering for an additional chapter: the interlude in the barn depicts a normality, a wholesomeness and sanity that appear with great force after the nightmare of the retreat (“The hay smelled good and lying in the hay took away all the years in between. We had lain in hay and talked and shot sparrows with an air-rifle when they perched in the triangle cut high up in the wall of the barn” [p. 216]), but the war is too close, the barn provides only momentary respite, and Frederic must quickly move out into the “black night with the rain.” The scene in which he confronts the battle-police occurs within four pages after the departure from the barn.

Once Frederic has fled, the lyric form of the novel is predictable: the interlude in Switzerland followed by the crushing failure in the hospital. Once again the rhythm of the novel becomes that of emergence from darkness and failure. The rain continues as Frederic crosses the symbolic Venetian plain (Chapter XXXI), as he takes the train to Stresa, and as he and Catherine lie in the hotel room there (Chapter XXXIV). In Chapter XXXV there occurs a brief interlude of sanity and peace in which Frederic trolls for lake trout with the barman and plays billiards with Count Greffi; but Chapter XXXVI begins: “That night there was a storm and I woke to hear the rain lashing the window-panes” (p. 264), and in “the dark and the rain” (p. 266) Frederic and Catherine set out for Switzerland. In Chapter XXXVII Frederic rows all night as the rain comes “occasionally in gusts” (p. 270). But when they set foot in Switzerland a second and more perfect idyll of love and purity commences.

Here again, as in the earlier interlude, Hemingway wisely guards against sentimentalizing the period of happiness. The religion of love is not enough: there is anxiety about the future, and Catherine is quick to notice that Frederic is chafing because he has nothing to do. But after the prolonged suffering and failure of the middle section of the novel, the impression of perfect joy is very strong, and the emotion is objectified in dozens of images suggesting sanity, wholesomeness, purity, and peace. Energy returns: “it was good walking on the road and invigorating” (p. 290). The snow on the mountain peaks, like the snows of Kilimanjaro, is a correlative of the sense of heavenly bliss and purity. The sun shines, and the air is “cold and clear” (p. 291). By January the winter settles into “bright cold days and hard cold nights.” The snow is now “clean packed” (p. 303); the air comes “sharply into your lungs”; there is now a sense that the life-force has not been defeated, and the lovers see foxes; the night is “dry and cold and very clear” (p. 304).

It is not until March, when the winter breaks (Chapter XL) and it begins raining that the old failure and bitterness threaten to shatter the lovers' happiness. Then, in the magnificent last chapter, the pattern of failure is sharply reasserted in a terrible echo of Rinaldi's “You can't do it.” All of Catherine's efforts to give birth to the child fail. She cries out that the anesthetic is “not working.” The child is strangled by the umbilical cord; the Caesarian fails. Even Frederic's effort to say good-by fails: “It wasn't any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue” (p. 332). And so he is delivered up, once again, to the rain of death and failure: “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” The two attempts to escape the world's malice have failed, just as, in The Sun Also Rises, the two interludes of sanity and purity (the trout-fishing episode and the swimming episode at San Sebastian) provide only brief respite from the world; and one is left with the conviction that any further effort to escape will be crushed with equal ruthlessness.

The basic rhythm of the action of Farewell is thus almost identical with that of Hemingway's earlier novel, and the symbolism, too, is virtually unchanged. It seems safe to say that Hemingway had established his art in the earlier book: he had learned that lyricism was his essential talent, and he set about deliberately to apply the knowledge imparted by the earlier lessons. Over the next thirty years he was not to make any significant changes in his basic method. If there was a slight decline in his creative energy in the later books, if some of them seem mechanical, their style having become self-conscious mannerism rather than the perfect objectification of lyric impulses, the defects were scarcely so great as to impair the central vitality of his work. For he had developed his lyric art with the utmost attention to every means of rendering emotion purely. By 1929 he knew so well what he could do and how he could do it that he had reduced the possibilities of failure to a minimum. To adventure into the epic novel might have proved disastrous to an artist of Hemingway's limited powers. Provided that he confined himself to the lyric art he knew so thoroughly, he was not likely to fail. It is perhaps no small part of his genius that he seems to have recognized his limitations and to have made maximum use of the materials available to his lyric sensibility.


  1. “Pure and Impure Poetry,” Selected Essays (New York, 1957).

  2. For a sensitive analysis of the characteristics and possibilities of the lyric novel see Ralph Freedman, The Lyrical Novel (Princeton, 1963), Chapters 1, 2, and 6.

  3. New York: Scribner Library, p. 249. Hereafter page references will be given in the text.

  4. “How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?” in Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert P. Weeks (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1962), p. 36.

Floyd C. Watkins (essay date 1971)

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SOURCE: “World Pessimism and Personal Cheeriness in A Farewell to Arms,” in The Flesh and the World: Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, Vanderbilt University Press, 1971, pp. 109-26.

[In the following essay, Watkins asserts that, in both theme and style, A Farewell to Arms sets up a conflict between abstract notions of patriotism and honor and the concrete world of individual choice.]

After describing every nation fighting in World War I as “cooked,” a British major in Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms tells Frederic Henry “Good-by” cheerfully and wishes him “Every sort of luck!” Henry reflects on the contradictions in the major: “There was a great contrast between his world pessimism and personal cheeriness.”1 The major's world view epitomizes the theme and the style of this novel and even provides a good perspective on all Hemingway's fiction. The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls offer the greatest contrast. In the first of these novels personal cheeriness is the only refuge in a world of utter despair. In For Whom the Bell Tolls individual and small groups of men sacrifice personal happiness in a magnanimous attempt to improve the conditions of the world for all men. The generalizations of For Whom the Bell Tolls could not possibly be embodied in a style as factual, blunt, and noncommittal as that in The Sun Also Rises. And the earlier novel contains little hope or regard for the general welfare which could be stated in the didacticism and optimism of For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The variety of critical judgments on style and theme in Hemingway's writing is always amazing. Generally the most favorable views of his late fiction belong to critics who most desire some kind of glowing view of man. The early works, on the other hand, appeal to those who prefer art for art's sake and to those who object most strenuously to the explicit or the didactic. Some of the critics of A Farewell to Arms have praised the novel as the best of Hemingway, and others have damned it as an example of his worst. Robert Penn Warren regards it as his best.2 For Carlos Baker it is his best except for For Whom the Bell Tolls.3 Although much of Hemingway “is the product of a somewhat uneasy attitudinizing,” writes D. S. Savage, A Farewell to Arms is “surprisingly genuine and unforced.”4 Some extremists have viewed the novel as too immoral or, by contrast, too brazenly philosophical or even didactic. The novelist Robert Herrick and Henry Seidel Canby were repelled by the “lustful indulgence,” “mere dirt,” “erotic fantasy.”5 E. M. Halliday finds too many “subjective passages” and too little “objective epitome,” too little “firm gaze upon outward reality.”6 David Daiches dislikes the “false simplicity” and “forced primitivism.”7 Edwin Berry Burgum does not have a high regard for the novel. “On the whole,” he wrote in 1947, “this novel is written in a more awkward style than any other work of Hemingway's.”8 And Frederick Hoffman judges the novel severely: its style is “perceptibly losing hold of the discipline”; the love affair is created in “sentimentality and romantic softness”; conversations are “embarrassingly naïve.” He objects to Hemingway's “philosophical interpretation” and “a note of softness and insincerity in the sentiments.” In Hemingway's treatment of values, Hoffman says, A Farewell to Arms represents “a half-conversion to an ideological religion and a degeneration of moral insight and artistic integrity.”9

Any considered view of this novel should be based on a careful examination of the unique style, the theme, and the peculiar blend of the two. Of all aspects of fiction, style is the most difficult to define and evaluate. Lists and categories of figures of speech say something about writing, but dissimilar manners of writing may contain the same kinds of figures of speech. And even if the style of a work could be exactly defined, the question of its appropriateness to a particular theme would still be exceedingly difficult. Hemingway's style has been described by Mark Schorer as “the very finest prose of our time. And most of it is poetry.”10 Burgum uses derogatory terms from several economic and social vocabularies to describe the style contemptuously as “the typical speech of the proletariat, taken over and stylized, as the last step in a process long under way in the American collegian and his elder brother, the sportsman of the mature world.”11

The simplicity and the technical characteristics of Hemingway's prose enable the critic to describe it about as accurately as any style can be described. Even so, how Hemingway blended his manner of writing and his subject matter in A Farewell to Arms needs still further discussion. Indeed, the harmony between style and theme may be as perfectly demonstrable in this novel as in any work of literature. Robert Penn Warren describes “the close coordination that he sometimes achieves between the character and the situation, on the one hand, and the sensibility as it reflects itself in the style, on the other hand.”12

Like Jake Barnes and the heroes of most of the short stories, Frederic Henry rejects all the conventional words associated with personal ideals and love of country. Henry despises the words of orators and posters and proclamations—the words made so prominent by idealists such as Woodrow Wilson:

I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. … I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

(FA, p. 191)

This passage has been quoted perhaps as much as anything Hemingway wrote; it is almost as well known as Faulkner's Nobel Prize Speech. Curiously, the two passages have four words in common: glory, honor, sacrifice, and courage. In 1950 Faulkner stated that it is necessary for the writer to write about these things. In 1929 Frederic Henry had been embarrassed by the same words. But Frederic denies the words more than he does the concepts they represent. He admires names of villages and rivers and numbers of roads and regiments and dates. On particular dates, numbered regiments fight battles on numbered roads and at named villages and rivers. The actions of individual soldiers might be loosely described with the abstract words that Frederic shuns. But the problem is that Henry and Hemingway cannot use these terms in telling the story of A Farewell to Arms.

But Frederic uses them in the very act of rejecting them. In the passage denying abstraction he is already more abstract than Jake Barnes, who was so embarrassed at the words that he did not even state his embarrassment and the words that could cause it. Mainly the words appear when Henry quotes someone who uses them abstractly and emptily. The battle police, for example, “had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it” (FA, p. 233). They know only the vocabulary, not the referents, not the “dignity” of facts and names and places. One who is positive and genuine may on occasion courageously use one of the abstract terms without embarrassment. The priest tells Henry that love means that “You wish to sacrifice for” (FA, p. 75). Henry assures himself that taking the stars off his uniform after his desertion is “no point of honor” (FA, p. 241). The concept may be real even if the word is false: Henry thinks of Catherine Barkley and people “who bring so much courage to this world” (FA, p. 258).

Henry's and Hemingway's embarrassment at abstract words controls the style and the meaning of A Farewell to Arms. If Henry were absolutely true to his principles, he could use only words that communicate sensuous impressions. Since polysyllables are usually more abstract than monosyllables, Henry uses a plain vocabulary. Many co-ordinate connectives are words which reflect abstractions and intellectual concepts. The more subtle the connector, the less likely it is to appear in the novel. Such words as therefore, however, moreover, furthermore, consequently appear seldom or not at all. Hemingway uses only simple subordinating connectives, the relative pronouns and where, when, after. Such words as if, unless, since, though, although, whereas represent conditions, causes, contrarieties—that is, sophisticated concepts, nuances, intellectualizations. And Frederic Henry never uses them. Even but may suggest antithesis or elementary paradox. When Henry does not avoid connectives, he usually uses and. His sentences are simple or compound—seldom complex. They are “staccato jabs” which “make many pages tedious”13 for many readers who cannot accept this “great leveling democracy of the and.14 Francis Hackett regards the style in places as “patent infantilism.”15 Those who read merely for plot are untroubled by the metronomic rhythm, but after the odd sentences are pointed out they are disturbed by a style which makes them wish to bob their heads up and down as if they were first graders chanting in unison the words from a primer.

Because there is considerable variety within the dominant pattern, no paragraph selected to exemplify the style of A Farewell to Arms can be entirely representative. The shortest sentences are likely to occur when Frederic meditates or when there is great suspense or a crisis. The paragraph at the end of Book III just after his desertion illustrates the most unusual quality of the style. Fifteen sentences contain only eighty-three words—less than six words per sentence. Henry thinks about not-thinking, and the only suggestion of thought above the level of the senses is contained in the word go, which may suggest flight. Go is repeated several times, and it appears at the end of four sentences.

I was not made to think. I was made to eat. My God, yes. Eat and drink and sleep with Catherine. To-night maybe. No that was impossible. But to-morrow night, and a good meal and sheets and never going away again except together. Probably have to go damned quickly. She would go. I knew she would go. When would we go? That was something to think about. It was getting dark. I lay and thought where we would go. There were many places.

(FA, p. 242)

The style here is about as remote from the usual manner of the stream of consciousness as any writing one can imagine, and yet it does suggest not only the urgency of Frederic's thoughts but also the processes of his thinking. Faulkner's Quentin Compson shows his weakness by the complicated process of his thinking, his excessive abstraction, and his intellectualizing. Frederic, on the contrary, demonstrates his strength by thinking only of the facts and the necessities without interpreting them. Quentin uses sense impressions to make himself remember; Frederic uses them to forget. Quentin's brother Jason does not think with the rapid and poetic associations of stream of consciousness, and Faulkner thus suggests his practicality, his lack of imagination. But the short sentences and the practical facts of Henry's thought process indicate his extraordinary strength and will power.

If abstract words are obscene, truly obscene words may indicate virtue. During the retreat from Caporetto, Aymo gives two young girls a ride in his ambulance.

“Don't worry,” he said. “No danger of—,” using the vulgar word. “No place for—.” I could see she understood the word and that was all. Her eyes looked at him very scared. She pulled the shawl tight. “Car all full,” Aymo said. “No danger of—. No place for—.”

(FA, p. 203)

A strange vocabulary to reassure a virgin. But Aymo, here a gentle man, reassures the virgins with whorehouse talk and escorts them as he would his sisters. His words make little difference. The facts and the deeds are right.

Sometimes in A Farewell to Arms abstractions and generalizations become almost necessary, but the characters use various strategies to avoid them. To express the ideals and aims of a profession would be as objectionable as to describe one's patriotic fervor. Though Frederic is a man of education, his studied vocabulary is not more extensive than that of a near illiterate. He shuns mentioning his civilian ambitions and ideals. He states that he is studying to be an architect only when he is escaping from Italy and is asked what he has been doing there (FA, pp. 250, 289). Never is any explanation of his reasons for joining the Italian army given. There are no indications of frustrated hopes for adventure during the war. Presumably he joined the ambulance corps for some humanitarian or even patriotic motive. Hemingway himself did.16 Soon after Catherine meets Frederic she asks him why he joined, and he answers, “‘I don't know. … There isn't always an explanation for everything’” (FA, p. 18). When another nurse asks the same question, he replies, “‘I was in Italy …, and I spoke Italian’” (FA, p. 22). When he denies the possibility of explanation, Catherine replies that she was brought up to think there were always explanations. The values have changed, but the words which once explained them have changed even more. Their conversation here is as much a discussion of language as of motive. John W. Aldridge explains the reluctance: “Abstract thoughts, like abstract words, seduce his mind away from essential experience, the true nature of things. …”17

Some restraint always prevails between Catherine and Frederic. Intimate feelings and thoughts of love itself almost always must remain unexpressed and incommunicable. Their restraint in language may make their love seem more casual and gross than it is. Frederic and Catherine's parting when he returns to the front from the hospital may be one of the most restrained emotional scenes in all fiction. He uses fewer words than a teen-ager fleeing from his first trip to a brothel.

“Good-by,” I said, “Take good care of yourself and young Catherine.”

“Good-by, darling.”

“Good-by,” I said.

(FA, p. 164)

But the refusal to state feelings is itself a sign of emotion. The throat-tightening comes simply because this is a novel and a world where the expression of sentiment is impossible no matter how real the sentiment is. Words are as inadequate as a handshake between an inhibited father and son after one has spent years in the horrors of a Buchenwald.

At times Frederic's friends and the world make it impossible for him to be silent or to use words that are meaningful only on the sensuous level. Occasionally when he is forced to speak in general terms, he picks and chooses words that are deliberately worn and trite and even vague. This too is a manner of self-defense. When he is compelled to refer to a world order, he uses the great impersonal they, which for him cannot have an antecedent. Nice and fine and lovely are words common in the novel. These counter words avoid the particular and the sentimental and the extravagant. They are so worn that they are not embarrassing when used genuinely or ironically. Catherine speaks vaguely of her “nice boy”:

I wanted to do something for him. You see I didn't care about the other thing and he could have had it all. 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. But then he wanted to go to war and I didn't know.

(FA, p. 19)

Some words are so general as to be puzzling. Yet author and character do not wish definition. The priest, Frederic says, “had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget” (FA, p. 14).

The positive unbeliever, curiously, can use more abstractions in his evangelical denial of his faith than a believer. The priest-baiters say such things as “I am an atheist” and “shook my faith” (FA, p. 7). The priest does not say “I am a believer” and “found my faith.” On him is the burden of demonstration without declarations. As a friend of the priest, Henry can only change the subject. Even the priest uses concrete images when he wishes to spread the gospel to Frederic. The mountains of the Abruzzi represent home to the priest; they suggest the things of religion. Tactfully, he couches his invitation to Frederic in concrete terms. He promises “good hunting,” a land that is cold and clear and dry, and a place where the peasants take off their hats and call you Lord—suggesting but not stating order and tradition.

A social historian reading A Farewell to Arms and deliberately searching for its subject matters would find a variety of topics: war, love, religion, mores and attitudes of a time and place. But the critic should indicate how these subject matters, if one may call them that, become integral parts of the over-all action or plot of the novel and how “subject matter,” plot, and style are harmonious. In general, Hemingway's treatment of his subject matter rejects exactly the same abstractions as are shunned in the style. This is that almost perfect harmony of techniques and subject toward which all works of art aspire and which none ever perfectly attains.

Style and subject yearn for the one (singularity) and reject the many (plurality). The subject of war is one of the best vantage points from which to see the distinction between the one and the many. In pulp fiction perhaps and certainly in romantic fiction the tale-teller may not distinguish between the individual and the great and glorious cause. An almost perfect example of such a yarn is Thomas Nelson Page's Marse Chan, where the hero's individuality is entirely submerged in his fight for God and country and cause and his love. But modern soldiers or perhaps all sane soldiers truly seen in fiction cannot wholly submerge themselves in the general cause.

Every aspect of the art and the meaning of A Farewell to Arms establishes a conflict between the concrete, the particular, the individual on the one hand and the abstract, the general, and the mass on the other. The larger theme is figured in several ways: the individual caught in the toils of the war; lovers trapped by their own bodies or by the mortal world in which they love; the individual's solipsism and terrible need for religion in a world without belief and without an order or a pattern which might provide evidence of something in which to believe. Plot, image, character, event—the minute details of the novel reflect the whole.

The themes of love, war, and religion dominate the patterns of meaning in A Farewell to Arms. Only one of these is perfectly comprehensible and without mystery—war. Love and religion remain complex, mysterious, inexplicable. An army and battle police can more definitely represent a society than love and a priest can represent the divine and the mystical. One may desert the army and make his separate peace, but he cannot withdraw from his own body without death; nor can he simply by proclamation separate himself from chaos or rule himself outside the theological order. The theme of war in A Farewell to Arms, therefore, because of the very nature of the problems involved, most clearly reveals the over-all design of the novel.

Only the naïve patriot in the novel may believe wholeheartedly in the cause of his country. Such a man is Gino, who provokes Frederic to think of his embarrassment at words: “Gino was a patriot, so he said things that separated us sometimes, but he was also a fine boy and I understood his being a patriot” (FA, p. 191). Ettore was worse—“a legitimate hero who bored everyone he met” (FA, p. 129). Gino provides an opportunity for Frederic to examine himself. Until the retreat from Caporetto he is more disturbed by the words than he is by the patriotism which they represent. That he himself was something of an idealist is indicated by his talk with disgruntled soldiers. As concretely as he can, he tells them that “defeat is worse” than war, and again he says, “I believe we should get the war over” (FA, pp. 51, 52). But the restraint of these abstractions indicates only the vaguest kind of patriotism. Even these minor symptoms of belief disappear after his desertion, and always they are made to seem insignificant in comparison with the other soldiers' hatred of the war. The triviality of Frederic's little patriotic displays is also made apparent by the contrast with his ardent feelings about his men. Personal relationships are comparable to facts, the words of the senses, the names of places. Under artillery fire, Frederic takes food to his men. Told to wait, he says, “They want to eat” (FA, p. 55). Here are sacrifice, honor, courage; but even to name the virtues is to diminish the force of the deed. If a character used the words, he would be a bore like Gino. A shell hits the group; and Manera, one of the most disgruntled and mutinous of the men, tenderly leads in the rescue of Frederic after he is wounded. One could say of him (like the major) that there is a great difference between his “world pessimism” and his personal loyalty.

The retreat from Caporetto reveals best the difference between the world and the individual. Different episodes in the retreat indicate a change in Frederic's view of the self, the war, and the world. The first of these, the shooting of the sergeant, is the most complex moral situation in the novel; and though it is a key to meaning in A Farewell to Arms, it has been ignored in almost all interpretations of the book. Henry's men invite two sergeants to ride in their ambulances during the retreat. From the moment when the two join the ambulance drivers, Hemingway begins preparing for the climactic desertion of the army by Frederic, and he juxtaposes several moral systems: the responsibilities of the individual to himself, to his group of friends, and to his general military or patriotic cause. The whole situation has been interpreted as mere selfish inconsistency on the part of Frederic: “Though he does not hesitate to kill a deserter,” writes Francis Hackett, “he himself deserts when offered the same dose of medicine. …”18 The medicine is the same, but the disease is not. First of all, the sergeants violate the code of a group by eating first without sharing. (Contrast Frederic's carrying food to his men during bombardment.) The sergeants enjoy the ride for a long time, but they are unwilling to share the ill fortunes of the group. When the ambulances are stuck in the mud, the sergeants refuse to push or to cut brush to put under the wheels. Thus they betray those who have helped them and disobey the orders of a superior officer. At a moment of desperate crisis they violate military law as well as the laws of common human decency. Frederic shoots at both as they flee and hits one. At this moment he has two different kinds of justification, but obviously he does not debate his reasons and offer explanations. Later, after his own desertion, he might. Bonello, the most brazen, cocksure, and unpatriotic of Frederic's men, administers a coup de grâce mostly for the pleasure of killing. “‘The son of a bitch,’ he said. He looked toward the sergeant. ‘You see me shoot him, Tenente?’” (FA, p. 211). Bonello and Frederic act with all “the beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice” of the carabinieri who try to execute Henry later. But they also have a personal and particular justification. What Frederic should have done, indeed, what he would have done, about the sergeants after his own desertion, remains a point more for contemplation than solution.

After the killing of the sergeant all obligations and responsibilities to group and to military cause begin to disappear. Events make personal loyalty seem less meaningful. Before crossing a bridge, Bonello cares more for his own safety than that of the group: “‘It's probably mined,’” he says. “‘You cross first, Tenente’” (FA, p. 216). Faith in the general world becomes as meaningless as the words which might describe it. The loyal Aymo is shot by his own countrymen. Words and the world have failed Frederic, and about the death of Aymo he can only say, “He looked very dead. It was raining. I had liked him as well as any one I ever knew. I had his papers in my pocket and would write to his family” (FA, p. 222).

Bonello leaves the group because he wishes to be a prisoner. Piani stays even though he does not believe in the war. He does not wish to leave Frederic. Even before Frederic is finally convinced by the carabinieri that he should make a separate peace, the loyalty of Piani is all that is left to cling to. Personally devoted to Frederic, Piani respectfully calls him “Tenente,” but the retreating troops have their own “beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice.” Piani therefore calls his lieutenant by his first name because the men may shoot officers. At this point Frederic still feels enough loyalty to the general situation to voice to Piani his objection to the troops' throwing away their rifles.

At the end of the retreat with the army Frederic encounters the battle police. They have “all the efficiency, coldness, and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and not being fired on” (FA, p. 231), “That beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it” (FA, p. 233). They still can mouth the abstractions like in vain, glory, courage, and honor. One of them refers to “the sacred soil of the fatherland.” But these men know nothing about the facts, the concrete actions which the words are supposed to describe. Of all the characters in the novel, they are the best representatives of abstraction and generality.

To escape execution by the battle police, Frederic jumps into a river and swims to safety. In words that suggest baptism Henry later reflects on his escape: “Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation” (FA, p. 241). This sentence has been the delight of many critics. First was Malcolm Cowley: “When Frederic [sic] Henry dives into the flooded Tagliamento …, he is performing a rite of baptism that prepares us for the new life he is about to lead as a deserter from the Italian army; his act is emotionally significant, but it is a little unconvincing on the plane of action.”19 Acknowledging his indebtedness to Cowley, John W. Aldridge calls the escape in the river “an act of purgation symbolizing the death of the war and the beginning of a new life of love.”20 And Robert Penn Warren refers to “baptism” and “the significance of a rite.”21

This is, however, a strange kind of baptism. Frederic's mental state does not resemble that which should accompany the Christian sacrament. In the river during his escape he thinks almost as a hunted animal. Even after he has found a hiding place in a railroad car under a canvas with guns, he does not reflect on the battle police, his desertion, his perilous situation, his justification. Before thinking about the general world, he ponders over the performance of his stiff knee. “The head was mine, but not to use, not to think with; only to remember and not too much remember” (FA, p. 240). The ceremony is an ironic parody of baptism, a travesty of the ceremony. The change and dedication that should precede baptism is a change in the appearance of the world, not in Frederic. Saint Paul's blinding light here is the threat of unjust execution. The newly baptized Christian assumes obligations; Frederic now can deny them. It is more initiation than baptism. Instead of subscribing to a new belief in the transcendent life of the spirit, Frederic uses his own personal principles to act in a new way because he has learned new things about the disorder of the world. Not only is he embarrassed at the words sacred, sacrifice, and in vain, but now he also doubts the existence of the facts that the words might describe. He had seen the sacred implicit in the names of places; but Caporetto can suggest only the profane. Whatever verities there may be exist only in the personal, in the relationship of love, in himself and Catherine.

The escape in the river does almost complete Frederic's knowledge about the war and the great world. “My life used to be full of everything,” he tells Catherine. “Now if you aren't with me I haven't a thing in the world” (FA, p. 266). When a friendly bartender asks him why men go to war, Frederic for the first time can reply factually, although he will answer the question only for himself: “I don't know. I was a fool” (FA, p. 264).

The climactic escape and desertion marks a sharp change in the structure of A Farewell to Arms. The style and the general theme are the same but the love of Catherine and Frederic replaces the war as the vehicle of narration and meaning. Before, Frederic had to define the place of the individual in society and the world; the moment of definition came with desertion; now, he and Catherine must define the place of lovers in creation. If the individual can only try and fail to make a separate peace in a world, lovers ultimately can attain only separation and death. Disaster comes early for Catherine and Frederic, but sooner or later, they learn, it comes to all.

But before the death of Catherine and Frederic's realization of the place of love in the world, the two are almost as alone in the mountains of Switzerland as Eve and Adam were in the Garden. And as innocent. Frederic's desertion was but an early bloom on the tree of knowledge. Although innocence is an odd word to use in describing Catherine and Frederic, their love in a sense exists apart from the world. “‘I wish we could do something really sinful,’ Catherine said. ‘Everything we do seems so innocent and simple. I can't believe we do anything wrong’” (FA, p. 160).

The priest describes such a love as that of Catherine and Frederic in terms that are idealistic but not sexual: “When you love you wish to do things for” (FA, p. 75). But this sentence, concrete as it is, borders on abstraction, and the two lovers avoid such statements of what they feel. When Frederic realizes that he loves Catherine, he lets all the meanings remain in physical terms: “Everything turned over inside of me” (FA, p. 95). The lovers' refusal, indeed, inability, to talk about love in terms of the embarrassing words leaves much unsaid, and here may be a reason for what many regard as Hemingway's failure to characterize Catherine. John W. Aldridge, for example, regards the love affair as “strangely inadequate.” “Instead of emerging as a human personality,” Catherine he believes, “became merely an abstraction. …”22 Hemingway had set himself a difficult task in trying to portray an individual woman who rejects all the words that the women of the world use to describe the raison d'etre of marriage and womanhood.

After the reality of their love has been expressed by the flesh, marriage becomes a convention, a religious or civil institution, a generalization. Catherine's friend Ferguson accuses Catherine of having no honor, but Fergy still thinks with the immoral world's embarrassing words (FA, p. 256). Frederic wishes marriage more than Catherine because in the priest's terms he might be doing a thing for the one he loves. In keeping with his rejection of the world, he wishes to be “married privately some way” (FA, p. 120), but Catherine reminds him of the meaninglessness of marriage in the moral terms of the book when she tells him that “‘There's no way to be married except by church or state” (FA, p. 120). And in a happy moment the concrete good feelings of love are so predominant that Catherine says they are already married—and given a chaotic world like that in this novel, any ceremony would be love's sacrilege.

Love therefore is a refuge from the failure of all generalities. And the world vanishes during the Edenic life in Switzerland. After Catherine and Frederic leave Italy in a small boat on a lake, the two think only of the concrete things of the sensations which they endure and enjoy. There are no thoughts of a separate peace, not even talk about the war. Switzerland is “a grand country,” “a splendid country,” where “The war seemed as far away as the football games of some one else's college” (FA, p. 301). In Switzerland they eat pretzels, drink beer, enjoy the weather, and read “about disaster” (FA, p. 302). The idyll which Hemingway has written about the days of Catherine and Frederic in the mountains is one of the simplest and most beautiful passages in his works.

But the world cannot be denied. In A Farewell to Arms it works out destinies with little or no regard for the meanings of the embarrassing words it uses. The individual is not freely given that prerogative of decision. The hard paradox is that Frederic on the one hand has every right to say farewell to arms; but the world will not let him exercise the right with impunity. Though there be chaos and evil, the individual must act in the terms of duty and honor. Already years before For Whom the Bell Tolls Hemingway is aware that no man can be an island. But a chaotic world still forces a man to try to be an island, and paradoxically even as he flees from evil he is wrong in his flight. Trapped in a mortal world, faced with social obligations, man must accept. There is no way to sign a separate peace with all creation and life itself. Robert Penn Warren describes well the doom of the lovers: “the attempt to find a substitute for universal meaning in the limited meaning of the personal relationship is doomed to failure.”23 Love, which helped to carry them out of the world, makes them return when Catherine goes to the hospital in Lausanne to bear her child. Always the baby reminds them that they cannot deny the press of the world. When the time of birth is near, Catherine and Frederic share a “feeling as though something were hurrying us and we could not lose any time together” (FA, p. 321). Whether Hemingway or Henry regards the baby as the agent of the world or whether Henry's attitude is merely that of a father-to-be who does not yet know and love his child is never clear. In a sense Frederic and Catherine have even been isolated from their own unborn child. And he is so much worried about her that he has no time for concern about the baby. After Catherine and the baby die, Frederic still cannot define his role in creation. He knows that in a sense the baby also has been “biologically trapped.” If he thought in Christian terms he would recognize the biological trap as mortality, the fall of man. And the trap indicates that Nature—or God if there is One—rather than man brought death into the world and all our woe. “Poor little kid. I wished the hell I had been choked like that” (FA, p. 338). Though he has no religion, he prays for Catherine and recognizes that the baby should be baptized.

By this time the words glorious and sacred are meaningless as well as embarrassing. The particular facts to which one may cling are that the words mean little and sometimes nothing in the world, that the individual cannot speak the words, but that he must act with sacrifice and courage and pity and pride. He must endure in a world without explanations.

In the war Frederic learns that the individual is trapped in a society that mouths words without knowing the meanings. Only the relationships between individuals in small groups can be true. In his love affair Frederic learns that he is mortal, that he is “biologically trapped.” In religion he never learns anything. From the beginning to the end of the novel he yearns for a faith like that of the priest. Like the words, religion remains vague and abstract. The ultimate in Frederic's knowledge of religious things is expressed by Count Greffi, who tells him that love is a “religious feeling.” But religion is too vague for Catherine, who tells Frederic that he is her religion. Hemingway's doomed lovers never know whether love is a substitute for religion because there is no God or whether it is a concrete and ideal experience which may enable them to become very devout when they are old. Even in religion they maintain a world skepticism and a personal cheeriness. Frederic's lack of faith allows him to blaspheme although he prays in moments of fear and he cannot put away religious things.

In A Farewell to Arms, style and the major subjects of the novel (war, love, religion) form an almost perfect harmony in the rejection of the general and vague and the acceptance only of the particular, the things of the senses, the knowable. Both style and theme reject the words which do not refer to a material thing. In historical terms A Farewell to Arms is very much a book of its time. The two lovers desire what Alfred North Whitehead has described as an “Order of Nature. …” “It does not matter what men say in words,” Whitehead wrote in 1925, “so long as their activities are controlled by settled instincts. The words may ultimately destroy the instincts.”24 He might have been writing of Catherine and Frederic when he wrote that the “new tinge to modern minds is a vehement and passionate interest in the relation of general principles to irreducible and stubborn facts.” Hemingway and Frederic and Catherine admitted the possibility of the existence of principles and mind and spirit, even with capital letters, but for author and characters the instincts could not be expressed in the embarrassing words which have been destroyed. Words change in every age; but in Hemingway's early career, he said, “words we knew were barred to us, and we had to fight for a single word. …”25 In these respects A Farewell to Arms is one of the best manifestations of an attitude in an age, but, more significantly, Hemingway has created a novel that will be a lasting work of art. Most of Catherine's and Frederic's soul-searchings resemble those of any thinking individual in any period, and they are embodied in a vehicle so appropriate to the theme that style and subject become indistinguishable and inseparable.


  1. Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, Modern Standard Authors (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953), p. 140. Hereafter cited in text with abbreviation FA.

  2. Robert Penn Warren, “Introduction,” A Farewell to Arms, Modern Standard Authors, p. xxv.

  3. Carlos Baker, Hemingway: The Writer as Artist (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952), p. 116.

  4. D. S. Savage, The Withered Branch: Six Studies in the Modern Novel (New York: Pellegrini & Cudahy, 1952), p. 32.

  5. Robert Herrick, “What Is Dirt?” The Bookman, 70 (November 1929), 261. Henry Seidel Canby, “Chronicle and Comment,” The Bookman, 70 (February 1930), 643.

  6. E. M. Halliday, “Hemingway's Narrative Perspective,” The Sewanee Review, 60 (1952), 210.

  7. David Daiches, “Ernest Hemingway,” College English, 2 (May 1941), 734.

  8. Edwin Berry Burgum, The Novel and the World's Dilemma (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 185.

  9. Frederick J. Hoffman, The Modern Novel in America 1900-1950 (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1951), pp. 98-100.

  10. Mark Schorer, “Mr. Hemingway & His Critics,” New Republic, 131 (November 15, 1954), 20.

  11. Burgum, p. 190.

  12. Warren, p. xxvi.

  13. Francis Hackett, “Hemingway: ‘A Farewell to Arms,’” Saturday Review of Literature, 32 (August 6, 1949), 32.

  14. Joseph Warren Beach, American Fiction 1920-1940 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941), p. 101.

  15. Hackett, p. 32.

  16. Charles A. Fenton, The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway: The Early Years (New York: Viking Press, 1954), p. 61.

  17. John W. Aldridge, After the Lost Generation: A Critical Study of the Writers of Two Wars (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1951) p. 8.

  18. Hackett, p. 33.

  19. Malcolm Cowley, “Introduction,” Hemingway, The Viking Portable Library (New York: The Viking Press, 1944), p. xvii.

  20. Aldridge, p. 9.

  21. Warren, p. xxxii.

  22. Aldridge, pp. 38-39.

  23. Warren, p. xxxi.

  24. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Lowell Lectures, 1925 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1925), p. 5.

  25. George Plimpton, “An Interview with Ernest Hemingway,” in Carlos Baker, Hemingway and His Critics (New York: Hill and Wang, 1961, 1963), p. 26.

David L. Carson (essay date December 1972)

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SOURCE: “Symbolism in A Farewell to Arms,” in English Studies, Vol. 53, December, 1972, pp. 518-22.

[In the following essay, Carson explores the ways in which A Farewell to Arms fuses a naturalistic approach with compressed, symbolic language.]

Edmund Wilson proclaimed in 1931 that the ‘literary history of our time is to a great extent that of the development of Symbolism and of its fusion or conflict with Naturalism.1’ History and the course of literary criticism have proved him correct. Strangely, however, he neglected all but passing mention of Ernest Hemingway, who had already demonstrated successful fusion of these elements in A Farewell to Arms.

Hemingway's naturalism is seldom questioned, but, despite the obvious allegorical significance of The Old Man and the Sea, his use of the symbol is still questioned.2 Hemingway had, nonetheless, already put into practice Mallarmé's dictum that ‘to name an object is to do away with three-quarters of the enjoyment’.3 As he tells us in Death in the Afternoon, he attempted to duplicate an emotion by describing the ‘sequence of motion and fact’ which provided the stimulus for the emotion.4 His description of the goring of a matador is a case in point:

When he stood up, his face white and dirty and the silk of his breeches opened from waist to knee, it was the dirtiness of the rented breeches, the dirtiness of his slit underwear and the clean, clean unbearably clean whiteness of the thigh bone that I had seen, and it was that which was important.

(Death in the Afternoon, p. 20)

As John Atkins writes, using the word wound would serve no end since the word itself is merely an abstraction, ‘an intermediate stage … between woundedness and the fact seen or felt’.5 What is called for is a series of symbols operating together to approximate a sense of reality greater than that created by the use of the word itself. In a simplistic psychological sense this practice may be likened to a literary gestalt or to Eliot's objective correlative, although in the latter case as Carlos Baker points out Hemingway eschews word connotations tied only to a literary tradition.6 The first chapter of A Farewell to Arms provides a vivid example of Hemingway's technique of symbolic suggestion which is one of the more subtly effective uses of associative symbolism in modern prose.

Critics have generally agreed that the passage from Book Five of A Farewell to Arms in which Frederic Henry discusses the death of Catherine's baby is an explicit statement of Hemingway's major theme:

Poor little kid. I wished the hell I'd been choked like that. … Now Catherine would die. That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. Or they killed you gratuitously like Aymo. Or gave you the syphilis like Rinaldi. But they killed you in the end. You could count on that. Stay around and they would kill you.7

Certainly, Frederic Henry's thoughts reflect the tragedy of man's existence in an impartially deterministic universe, but his pessimism is directed toward a rather vague they. The first chapter of the novel presages this, but it also adds further qualification to this theme. A mere two pages long, it sets the tone, mood, and thematic framework of that which is to follow.

Hemingway begins with an apparently conventional, if lean, descriptive passage laden with visible phenomena purportedly hoping only to achieve realism through density of specification:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.

(p. 3)

But there is a good deal more here than simple description. Through the phrase, ‘late summer’, Hemingway projects an instinctual image which evokes the feeling of mild despair one experiences in contemplating impending Autumn and the ominousness of Winter which it portends. The next sentence triggers the traditional human response to water, calling forth the mystery inspired by both its life-giving and deadly characteristics. The description of pebbles and boulders reinforces the water's ambivalence and provides the first occurrence of symbolic color-contrast. The stones ‘dry and white in the sun’, might suggest merely natural purity, but the image also suggests skeletal dessication as found in The Waste Land:

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song …
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

(lines 180-6)

.....Pheblas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell. …
A current under the sea
Picked his bones in whispers.

(lines 312-16)

So that the mysteries of water's deepness and darkness become intermingled with the pure and bleached-skull lightness of the rocks to create conventional tension between the lightness and darkness of each element and between the lightness (good) and darkness (bad) within each element. This contrasting evidences Hemingway's first ironical comment on appearance versus reality in the world of the novel. Through the ambiguity of these images he succeeds in juxtaposing the life-death images which permeate its deterministic world, and he, thereby, establishes the mood which points toward the novel's theme. Nature of itself is neither good nor bad but is naturally both. In two subsequent sentences Hemingway introduces the impact of man:

Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and the leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Here he moves the apprehension of Winter closer to realization and deftly connects the passing soldiers to the mood of deepening gloom. Through repetition of dust, troops, and leaves and his allusion to the whiteness of the dust, Hemingway expands the earlier thematic element and develops a cause and effect relationship between soldiers and death. They bring, in other words, an unnatural death with them. When they pass, the place where they have marched is ‘bare and white’ except for the unnatural and untimely remnants of their killing. By implication then, a world made terrible through its determinism is made even more so by the intrusion of man and his institutions or, more specifically, war.

The next paragraph presents an apparent change of pace with descriptions of the green and voluptuous plain, but the effect of the periodic antithesis achieved through contrast with the ‘mountains … brown and bare’ is to engrave doubly on the reader's consciousness the portent of the maledictions of the previous passage. This impact is made more emphatic through intentional underemphasis of the irony inherent in this new image of life-death juxtaposition, but the highest tension is achieved once again by the intrusion of civilization. The mountains already awesome are made more so by the struggle which goes on there. From bright daylight, Hemingway quickly moves to night, suggesting man's primal fears of darkness. He then superimposes the lightning imagery, arousing an awareness of even greater apprehension. But he tells us ironically that it was only ‘like summer lightning’, for ‘the nights were cool and there was not the feeling of a storm coming’. So again Hemingway plays upon an instinctive human reaction to the natural world to reinforce his comment on the more horrible aspects of man's invention. The unnaturalness of the situation is heightened by a repetition of the chiaroscuro-contrast in which darkness is again shown as better than light.

In the next paragraph, Hemingway continues his exploration of the unnaturalness of the natural setting:

Sometimes in the dark we heard the troops marching under the window and guns going past pulled by motor-tractors. There was much traffic at night and many mules on the roads with boxes of ammunition on each side of their pack-saddles and gray motor-trucks that carried men, and other trucks with loads covered with canvas that moved slower in the traffic.

Certainly, none of this traffic could have been expected in rural Italy under normal peacetime conditions. Moreover, Hemingway's use of periodic construction creates the illusion that the wounded are a product of all that precedes them in the paragraph—which indeed they are in fact. It is significant, that he communicates the sense of ‘wounded, maimed, war ravaged’ through the use of loads, covered, canvas, slower.

To this point in the chapter Hemingway has achieved subtle irony through juxtaposing natural and unnatural. Hereafter he presents only the unnatural, suggesting the natural only by implication. Setting up another cause and effect relationship, he next turns to development of a perverted dionysian symbolism:

There were big guns too that passed in the day drawn by tractors, the long barrels of the guns covered with green branches and green leafy branches and vines laid over the tractors … and the troops were muddy and wet in their capes; their rifles were wet and under their capes the two leather cartridge-boxes on the front of the belts, gray leather boxes heavy with the packs of clips of thin long 6.5 mm. cartridges, bulged forward under the capes so that the men passing on the road marched as though they were six months gone with child.

There were small gray motor-cars that passed going very fast … and if one of the officers in the back was very small and sitting between two generals, he himself so small that you could not see his face but only the top of his cap and his narrow back, and if the car went especially fast it was probably the King [sometimes now seeing his face and little long necked body and gray beard like a goat's chin tuft].8 He lived in Udine and came out in this way nearly every day to see how things were going, and things went very badly.

The traditional elements of the dionysian rites are all here, but they are all awry. The garlanded phallus is a camouflaged instrument of death. The earth mother, or nymph, symbolizing sexual joy, fecundity, and the mystery of life, is replaced with a poor masculine imitation whose false womb contains only the seeds of death. The satyr has diminished to a little, narrow-backed, long-necked goat of a king.

Here, then, is the chapter's final contrasting of the natural with the unnatural. The natural world may be an impartial and deterministic one which moves each living thing inscrutably toward death, but the unnatural determinism imposed by civilization is far the more cruel and enigmatic. It serves only to compound an already bleak human predicament. If the natural world brings death, it also brings life, but the unnatural determinism imposed by man brings only death or agony. Both determinisms in conjunction, moreover, produce situations like that with which Hemingway finishes the chapter:

At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.

And they lead toward the conclusions which Frederic Henry formulates as he contemplates the deaths of his son and wife. Henry had escaped man's determinism only to be trapped by an unnatural natural occurrence.

In less than seven-hundred words, Hemingway succeeds in establishing a mental set in the mind of his reader which prepares him for what will follow and aims unerringly at the major themes of the novel. Through heavy reliance upon associative symbols, he is able to strip his prose of the excessive verbiage characteristic of the ‘sandhill’ school of naturalistic description. Whereas Dreiser, Norris, or even James went after descriptive realism by piling up objects a grain at a time, Hemingway got a greater semblance of reality by isolating the object which would evoke the desired psychological and emotional response. As a result he achieved compression never before equalled in prose. He was one of the first prose writers to capitalize on the power of the non-allegorical symbol and was, even early in his career, one of the first novelists to succeed in fusing a naturalistic approach with elements of symbolism.


  1. Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870 to 1930 (New York, 1931), pp. 56-7.

  2. Vance Bourjaily, ‘The Big Comeback’, New York Times Book Review (February 28, 1965), p. 49, wrote that the symbolism of The Old Man and the Sea had been inserted merely as ‘critic bait’.

  3. Quoted in Axel's Castle, p. 20.

  4. (New York, 1932), p. 20.

  5. The Art of Ernest Hemingway, His Work and Personality (New York, 1953), p. 185.

  6. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist (Princeton, 1952), pp. 56-7.

  7. (New York, 1929), p. 338.

  8. From Chapter Two, p. 5.

Judith Fetterley (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: “A Farewell to Arms: Hemingway's ‘Resentful Cryptogram,’” in The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction, Indiana University Press, 1978, pp. 46-71.

[In the following essay, Fetterley states that the character of Catherine is a scapegoat for Frederic's hostility rather than a true object of romantic love, providing a way for Frederic to avoid commitment.]


Once upon a time there was a writer who told the truth. He wrote a story called “Indian Camp” and in that story a little boy watches his doctor-father perform a contemptuous and grotesque Caesarean section on an Indian woman while her husband in the bunk above slits his throat. Like “I Want to Know Why,” “Indian Camp” is a story of initiation, and in it Nick Adams is given a lesson in the meaning of growing up male in America: “‘That's one for the medical journal, George,’ he said. ‘Doing a Caesarean with a jack-knife and sewing it up with nine-foot, tapered gut leaders.”’ The lesson, reflected in the double mirror of the two fathers, is one of guilt—guilt for the attitudes men have toward women and guilt for the consequences to women of male sexuality. A Farewell to Arms has many of the same elements as “Indian Camp” but they are significantly rearranged. There is still the painful and protracted labor followed by the Caesarean birth of a son, but the emotions which surround this event have been displaced from the self onto the other. The hostility toward the father in “Indian Camp” is now directed against Catherine, the woman, and it is her sexuality, her strangling womb, which is the enemy. And the guilt which in “Indian Camp” is so clearly located in the male self of the Indian father has been deflected onto Catherine, who takes upon herself the burden of Frederic's sins and dies for him.

In comparison to “Indian Camp,” A Farewell to Arms is a lie. Yet the lie is a familiar one to anyone who knows the tradition and the mentality that inform “Rip Van Winkle,” “I Want to Know Why,” and “The Birthmark.” “Indian Camp” ends with its protagonist in a state of limbo; he has rejected his father and retreated from reality. A Farewell to Arms portrays that protagonist in the escape route provided by nominal adulthood, a route that involves the strategy of projection, the mechanism of the scapegoat, and the creation of a mythology which allows for the evasion of one's true motives and true aim. And Frederic Henry's true aim, as it finally is Aylmer's, is to resolve the dilemma documented in “I Want to Know Why” and “Indian Camp” by evading the fact of growing up and by eliminating the agent that threatens to force adulthood upon one. Like Rip Van Winkle, Frederic Henry sleeps a lot, and the dream he dreams is the archetypal American one of remaining forever a boy in an asexual world without women.

Aylmer's mythology is science; Frederic Henry's is romantic love. Both are processes of idealization which serve to disguise hostility. Since A Farewell to Arms is written in the tradition of romantic love, it will be worthwhile to examine briefly some of the elements of this tradition, for love stories are perhaps the ultimate form of disguise and deception. When I first read Erich Segal's Love Story, I was struck by its similarity to A Farewell to Arms. Both novels are characterized by a disparity between what is overtly stated and what is covertly expressed. Both ask the reader to believe in the perfection of a love whose substance seems woefully inadequate and whose signature is death. “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?” asks Oliver Barrett IV on the opening page of Love Story. The answer is, as the question implies, not very much, because the investment of this love story, like so many others, is not in the life of the beloved but in her death and in the emotional rewards the hero gets from that death—Oliver Barrett weeping in the arms of his long-estranged but now-reconciled father. What one doesn't say is precisely that which alone would be worth saying: that you loved her because she died or, conversely, that because you loved her she died. For surely one of the central questions that such love stories raise is why their emotional charge so often depends on the death of the woman and so rarely on the death of the man. Why the death of a beautiful woman, as Poe suggested, should be such an unfailing source of “universal” melancholy is a question well worth pondering. Certainly one of its implications is that the tears are a luxury enjoyed by the survivor, who is male or male-identified, and that at some level the experience is factitious and dishonest.

If we examine Hemingway's novel closely, we will discover that the emotions which in fact direct it are quite opposite from those which are claimed as central. One cannot miss the disparity between the novel's overt fabric of idealized romance and its underlying vision of the radical limitations of love, between its surface idyll and its subsurface critique. And one is equally struck by its heavy use of the metaphor and motif of disguise. When Sheridan Baker describes A Farewell to Arms as a “resentful cryptogram,” he is essentially extending this metaphor to the form of the novel itself.1 That deviousness and indirection are often the companions of hostility is no new observation, and that idealization often disguises and masks hatred is clear from our reading of “The Birthmark.” If we explore the attitude toward women in A Farewell to Arms, we will discover that while the novel's surface investment is in idealization, behind that idealization is a hostility whose full measure can be taken from the fact that Catherine dies and dies because she is a woman.

The disparity between the claimed and the real is also apparent from the novel's subject matter, the joining of the twin themes of love and war. We are told that love and war are “strange but time-honored bed-companions,”2 and that “despite the frequency with which they appear in the same books, the themes of love and war are really an unlikely pair, if not indeed—to judge from the frequency with which writers fail to wed them—quite incompatible.”3 Nevertheless, many of the interpreters of A Farewell to Arms have sought to provide a framework within which these apparently irreconcilable subjects do, in fact, make sense. We may, therefore, be justified if we pause for a moment to raise a question, and an eyebrow, at the remarks quoted above of Robert W. Lewis, Jr., and Philip Young. Is it entirely accidental that both of them invoke a sexual metaphor to describe what they think cannot be made to go together? If metaphor is indeed itself a cryptogram, may we not be justified in decoding thus: love and war appear together so frequently because romantic love is a form of war? Such a reading would seem to be invited by the title of the novel, whose pun suggests, despite its sentimental intention, that the arms of war and the arms of love are equivalent. Thus, the world of the Italian front is not contrast but complement to Frederic and Catherine's love and is the best place to begin our exploration of the meaning of that emotion.

War simplifies men's relation to women.4 It erases the distinctions among women that normally keep male hostility under some restraint and it legitimizes aggression against all women. The fear in the eyes of the virgins whom Frederic picks up during the retreat registers their acute awareness of the position of women in war. The virgins know that there is only one category for them in this world and that is the category of sexual object: whores if they are picked up by their own side, victims of rape if they are captured by the enemy, though even this marginal distinction is often violated. The initial complication Catherine Barkley introduces is being a nurse in a world where all women are whores. The Italians don't want nurses at the front and don't know what to do with them. Rinaldi makes a brief attempt to accommodate Catherine through the fantasy of marriage, after which he resolves his dilemma in the fashion of the other Italians by turning nurses into a sexual category and viewing them solely in sexual terms: “‘What a lovely girl. … Does she understand that? She will make you a fine boy. A fine blonde like she is. … What a lovely girl”’ (A Farewell to Arms, [1929; rpt. N.Y.: Scribner, 1957], p. 99). One asks of doctors if they are good at surgery, if they will make you a fine leg; one asks of nurses if they are sexually adequate, if they will make you a fine boy. Rinaldi asks one question about Catherine when Frederic returns to the front after his hospitalization in Milan: “‘I mean is she good to you practically speaking”’ (p. 169), that is, does she go down on you? Is she a good whore?

Rinaldi's refusal to see women in other than sexual terms is quite clear from his outburst to Frederic before the latter leaves for Milan:

Your lovely cool goddess. English goddess. My God what would a man do with a woman like that except worship her? What else is an Englishwoman good for? … I tell you something about your good women. Your goddesses. There is only one difference between taking a girl who has always been good and a woman. With a girl it is painful. … And you never know if the girl will really like it.

(p. 66)

The implications are that if a woman is good only for worship, then she really isn't any good at all, because women exist only for one thing and the real definition of a good woman is she who knows what she exists for and does it and lets you know that she likes it. Any woman who wishes to think of herself in other than sexual terms is denying her humanness and trying to be superhuman, a goddess, for humanness in women is synonymous with being sexual.

The contempt and hostility Rinaldi feels for women who dare to be more than sexual are directed also against women who are only sexual. The emotions of his reductive paradigm also define scenes like the one in which the soldiers watch their whores being loaded into a truck for the retreat: “I'd like to be there when some of those tough babies climb in and try and hop them. … I'd like to have a crack at them for nothing. They charge too much at that house anyway. The government gyps us” (p. 189). Herded like animals, the whores are seen by the men as so many pieces of meat whose price on the market is too damn high for what they get. Because, after all, what do they get? “Over in half an hour or fifteen minutes. Sometimes less. Sometimes a good deal less” (pp. 170-71). And the result? Syphilis and gonorrhea. This attitude toward women has its obvious correlative in an attitude toward sexuality. Coarse, gross, the favorite subject matter for jokes whose hostility is hardly worth disguising, sex is seen as the antithesis of sensitivity, tenderness, idealism, and ultimately of knowledge. When the men in Frederic Henry's “mess” bait their priest with endless sexual jokes, they are expressing their sense of his difference and their uneasiness in the face of it. For, by virtue of his asexuality, the priest has access to a certain knowledge and stature that the men who remain sexual do not have and secretly admire. “He had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget” (p. 14). The priest, who comes from the cold, white, pure mountainous world of the Abruzzi, where women are safely distanced and men relate to each other,5 knows something that Frederic Henry, who is down there on the plain among the whores, who “had gone to no such place but to the smoke of cafés and nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to make it stop” (p. 13), does not know and who, when he learns it, cannot hold on to: that sex is a dangerous and wasteful commodity and the best world is one of men without women. The priest alone is able to carry out the full implications of his culture's attitude toward sex.


On first consideration, Frederic Henry seems to be quite different from his companions at the front. His position as an American fighting in an Italian war would seem to be a metaphor for his larger role of outsider in this culture, for he is sensitive and tender, capable of a sustained personal relationship with a woman and of an idealization of love that appears to be the secular analogue of the priest's asexual spirituality. While he does not openly identify with the cleric, neither does he join his mess-mates in their priest-baiting. Catherine is for him a “sacred subject,” and he resists Rinaldi's attempt to sexualize everything and to reduce his feeling for Catherine to the genitals. At one point, when Catherine is teasing Frederic, she refers to him as “Othello with his occupation gone” (p. 257). The allusion is striking because it suggests how different Frederic is from the culture in which he finds himself. He is neither Othello as soldier nor Othello as lover; it is impossible to imagine him strangling Catherine in a fit of jealous rage. But when one considers the events of A Farewell to Arms, one is tempted to speculate that the difference between Frederic and Othello is essentially superficial and rests only in the degree to which each is able to face his immense egocentrism and the extent to which that egocentrism is responsible for the death of his “beloved.” If the violence of the novel's ending is striking, so too is its abstract nature, its reliance on a biological trap which is the agent of an impersonal “they” who break the brave and beautiful. Yet surely this abstraction masks both Frederic's fear of Catherine and his hostility toward her. The image of strangulation, suggested by the comparison with Othello, persists, leaving in us the nagging suspicion that Frederic Henry sees himself in the dead fetus which emerges from Catherine's womb and that her death, however much it may be shaped as biological accident, is in fact the fulfillment of his own unconscious wish, his need to kill her lest she kill him.6

Frederic Henry's hostility to women is in some ways quite open, especially during his encounters with women in positions of authority. Like Rinaldi, who resents women who try to be goddesses, Frederic resents women who do not present themselves primarily as love objects. While Frederic's enmity finds overt expression only rarely—e.g., at the end of the novel when he shoves the two nurses out of the room in order to make his peace with the dead Catherine—it is implicit in his view of these women as smug, self-righteous, critical, antisexual, and sadistic; and he conveys it through his reactions to them. Consider, for instance, his exchange with the head nurse at the hospital where Catherine works when first at the front. In response to his request for Catherine, he is informed that she is on duty, and, the nurse adds, “there's a war on, you know” (p. 22). By implication Frederic is defined as an egocentric, insensitive noncombatant who expects to get his pleasure while other men are dying. This woman speaks from a presumed moral superiority, which she uses to humiliate Frederic.

The hostility between Frederic and women in authority comes out more fully in his relation to Miss Van Campen, the head of the hospital in Milan to which he is taken after his injury. Their dislike for each other is immediate and instinctual, as if each realizes in the other a natural enemy. When she describes Frederic as “domineering and rude,” she defines the nature of their relationship as a power struggle. Not the least bit impressed by her authority or her rules, Frederic thoroughly discredits the one and pays no attention to the other: “She was small and neatly suspicious and too good for her position. She asked many questions and seemed to think it was somewhat disgraceful that I was with the Italians” (p. 86). Like the earlier nurse, Van Campen sees herself as morally superior to Frederic and is critical of him, seeing in him a selfish egotist, as insensitive to the concerns of others as he is to the larger issue of the war. But Frederic disarms her criticism by implying that the basis of her hostility toward him is his sexual relation with Catherine. He places her in the category, so comfortable to the male ego, of the frustrated old maid who, because she has never had sex, is jealous of those who do and persecutes them. He insinuates that her hostility results from rejection while his is the result of contempt.

In the final phase of their struggle, Frederic employs the method by which men have classically sought to deny women any possibility of power, authority, or credibility. He denies her ability to be a judge of male experience by reminding her that she is not a man and by calling into question her sexuality and her status as a woman. All Frederic feels he need do to rout her utterly is to imply that she is not a full woman, that she has had no sexual experience, and that she knows nothing of the pain of the scrotum or the agonies of the womb. So insecure as a person because she has failed to be a woman, she can in Frederic's eyes be vanquished by the merest mention of the sacred genitalia. The perfect chauvinist, Frederic uses his penis as the ultimate weapon and the ultimate court of appeal.

Although Frederic Henry does not like women who aspire to positions of authority, neither does he like women who are incompetent. Doing night duty in a just-opened and empty hospital, Mrs. Walker is awakened from her sleep to deal with an unexpected patient and proves to be unable to handle the situation: “I don't know,” “I couldn't put you in just any room,” “I can't put on sheets,” “I can't read Italian,” “I can't do anything without the doctor's orders” (pp. 82, 83). Frederic is contemptuous of her incompetence and deals with it by ignoring her and turning to the men involved, who, despite their being mere porters, are able to get him to a bed. Mrs. Walker is one of a number of weepy women in the novel who appear to have no way of meeting difficulty other than by crying. The attitude toward them is one in which contempt is mingled with patronizing pity. Poor Mrs. Walker, poor Fergy, poor whores, poor virgins. Here, of course, is a classic instance of the double bind: women are pathetic in their inability to handle difficulty, but if they assume positions of authority and, even worse, use the authority conferred by those positions, they become unbearably self-righteous and superior. Damned if you do and damned if you don't. But ultimately less damned if you don't, because at least Walker is a Mrs.—no shadow here of not being a real woman—while it is Van Campen who bears the stigma of Miss. Frederic Henry is finally more comfortable with women who do not threaten his ego by pretending to authority over him. This is part of his attraction to whores: “‘Does she [the whore] say she loves him?’ … ‘Yes. If he wants her to.’ ‘Does he say he loves her?’ … ‘He does if he wants to”’ (p. 105, italics mine).


The context within which the great love of Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley occurs is one of multiple hostilities. If we examine the origins of this emotion, we will begin to expose the degree to which it is in fact complement rather than contrast to this context. Despite the mythology around the phenomenon of falling in love that defines it as an accident over which one has no control, anyone who examines her or his history carefully might be more inclined to say that there is nothing less arbitrary in all one's experience than falling in love. While Frederic Henry views his experience with Catherine as something that happens to him, describing it in terms of the trap metaphor elaborated in the novel, it seems clear that he falls in love when he needs to and with whom. Certainly it is not fortuitous that it happens after Frederic is wounded, when his disillusionment with the arms of war is growing daily and when he is particularly in need of the alternate experience that will eventually justify his flight from the world of war. Nor is it fortuitous that it occurs when he is most in need of the loving service Nurse Barkley is so willing to provide. Frederic has, after all, had several weeks of lying flat on his back with a smashed leg and little else to think about except the absurdity of his position in relation to the war, his isolation, and the essential fragility of life. Such thoughts might incline one to accept affection and service even if they require the word “love” to get them. And Frederic, trapped as he is in a cast, in a bed, in a hospital, in a stupid war, seems only too happy to avail himself of Catherine's service: “Catherine Barkley was greatly liked by the nurses because she would do night duty indefinitely” (p. 108). Frederic greatly likes her for this, too, since it means she is available for his needs not only during the day but all night as well. While Frederic sleeps, however, Catherine goes right on working. He is conveniently unaware of her exhaustion in the face of the double duty induced by his continual invitations to “play,” until Catherine's friend, Ferguson, points it out to him and insists that he get her to take a rest.

That egotism is the root of Frederic's feeling for Catherine is clear, too, in those few scenes in which Catherine makes demands on Frederic. During their second meeting, Frederic tries to kiss Catherine. Because she feels that he is insincere, that his gesture is simply part of the routine soldiers go through when they get a nurse on her evening off, she says no; and when that has no effect, she slaps him. Frederic responds to her initial refusal by ignoring it. When she slaps him, he gets angry and uses his anger in combination with her guilt to get what he wanted in the first place. Jackson J. Benson describes the situation accurately:

In his early encounters with the British nurse Catherine Barkley, Henry is the casual, uniformed boy on the make, but down deep inside he is really a decent sort. In other words, what makes Henry so sinister is his All-American-Boy lack of guile. He demonstrates an attitude and pattern of behavior that any Rotarian would privately endorse. He fully intends (he spells it out quite clearly) to take a girl, who is described in terms of a helpless, trembling Henry James bird, and crush her in his hands very casually as part of the game that every young, virile lad must play. It is a backhanded tribute to Hemingway's irony here that most readers don't seem to even blanch at the prospect.7

But if irony is so unrecognizable, one is justified in questioning whether or not it is intended. And why should Hemingway in this instance be separated from the cultural norm of “any Rotarian” embodied in Frederic and Catherine's view of the affair. Both of them see Frederic's anger as justifiable, the legitimate response of a male thwarted in his rightful desires by a maiden unduly coy (vide Catherine's reference to Marvell's “To His Coy Mistress”: “it's about a girl who wouldn't live with a man”), whose posture of trembling helplessness is simply a way of disguising what she really wants or ought to want.

Later in the novel, in the hotel room they have taken to spend a last few hours together before Frederic leaves for the front, Catherine has a sudden attack of depression. The idea of taking a room not for the night but for two or three hours, the quality of the hotel, and the décor of the room all combine to make her feel like a whore. At the moment when Catherine is experiencing this feeling of alienation, Frederic is standing by the windows whose red plush curtains he has just closed, in a gesture that signals their possession of the room as another “home” and encloses the two of them in an inner world that reflects his sense of their closeness. Obviously they are at this moment poles apart in their feelings. Then Frederic catches sight of Catherine in the mirrors which surround the room and discovers that she is unhappy. He is surprised—for how could they be reacting so differently when they two are one and that one is he—and disappointed, for this will upset his plans for their last evening together. “You're not a whore,” he says, as if simple assertion were sufficient to cancel the complex sources of her sense of degradation. He then proceeds to register his own feelings of disappointment, anger, and frustration in unmistakable terms: he reopens the curtains and looks out, implying that she has shattered their rapport and broken up their home. Quite literally, Frederic turns his back on Catherine. His meaning is clear. Catherine's unhappiness is something he can respond to only in terms of how it affects him; beyond that, it is her problem and when she gets herself together and is ready to be his “good girl” again, then he will come back. And if she doesn't? “Oh, hell, I thought, do we have to argue now?” (p. 152). Either she does what he wants or he gets angry. Hostility and love seem very close here, separated only by Catherine's ability to fulfill the demands of Frederic's ego. Catherine's behavior indicates that she knows quite well the source of Frederic's love. Supersensitive to his ego, she is forever asking him, “What would you like me to do now?” And she continually responds to their situation in terms of his needs: I'll get rid of Ferguson so that we can go to bed, you must go play with Count Greffi, don't you want a weekend with the boys, I know I'm not much fun now that I'm big.

There are, however, even more radical ways in which Catherine is useful to Frederic and which predicate his falling in love with her. The essential passivity of Hemingway's protagonist has been amply documented. Among the “multitudinous ranks of those to whom things happen,” Frederic Henry lacks “executive will,” a sense of responsibility and the capacity to make a commitment.8 In contrast to Frederic's passivity, Catherine's aggressiveness is striking. How, after all, can a heroine be allowed so much activity and still keep her status as an idealized love object, especially since Frederic dislikes women with authority? Catherine's aggressiveness, however, achieves legitimacy because it is always exercised in the service of Frederic's passivity. Whenever Catherine acts, she does so in order to save Frederic from responsibility and commitment. It is Catherine who creates the involvement between herself and Frederic: it is she who constructs their initial encounter in such a way as to place them in a “relationship” almost immediately; it is she who shows up at the hospital in Milan so that he can fall in love with her. In addition, Catherine takes full responsibility for the pregnancy and for figuring out where and how she will have their baby. When she dies, she takes, in conjunction with certain ill-defined cosmic forces, the responsibility for the termination of their relationship. It is possible for Frederic to love Catherine because she provides him with the only kind of relationship he is capable of accepting: he does not have to act; he does not have to think about things because she thinks for him (“You see, darling, if I marry you I'll be an American and any time we're married under American law the child is legitimate”); he does not have to assume responsibility; and he does not have to make a final commitment because both her facile logic and her ultimate death give him a convenient out.

Frederic's need to avoid responsibility is central to his character and Catherine is central to that need. He is able to relate to her precisely because and so long as their relationship has neither past nor future. He is spared complications by Catherine's death in childbirth, that “cloud,” as John Killinger puts it, “spread by the author as a disguise for pulling off a deus ex machina to save his hero from the existential hell of a complicated life.”9 Through Catherine's death Frederic Henry avoids having to face the responsibilities incumbent on a husband and father. Her death abets his desire to remain uncommitted and gives him a justification for it.

It is easy to say, however, that in serving Frederic's need to avoid responsibility and to remain uncommitted Catherine has failed him. Thus, Robert Lewis can write of Catherine: “Her death carries the hope with it of the destruction of her destructive love that excludes the world, that in its denial of self possesses selfishly, that leads nowhere beyond the bed and the dream of a mystical transport of ordinary men and women to a divine state of love through foolish suffering.” As Lewis's tone indicates, Catherine's very adaptability to Frederic's need “to reduce life to its lowest denominator, to make it simple, to make it thoughtless, to destroy consciousness and responsibility in a romantic, orgiastic dream” is in itself a source of his hostility toward her.10

Let us recapitulate. On the simplest level Frederic falls in love with Catherine because she is useful to him; she serves his physical needs and adapts herself to his emotional requirements, primary among which is his desire to avoid responsibility and commitment. But to the degree to which this desire is juvenile, in indulging it she fails him.

But one can give the emotional screw of the novel one final turn. In failing Frederic, Catherine provides the ultimate service. The moral basis of Frederic Henry's resistance to accepting responsibility is his sense that he is a victim of betrayal. Frederic needs to feel betrayed and Catherine serves this need. And he needs to feel betrayed because a sense of betrayal is the structure that supports his ego; it allows him the indulgence of his egotism through the posture of self-pity and provides the justification for his evasion of responsibility. Frederic finds betrayal everywhere. Betrayal is at the heart of his experience in the war; the killings the novel details are those of Italians by Italians, and Frederic makes his break for the river because he is about to be shot by his own army as a traitor. The imagery of betrayal also informs Frederic's concept of Catherine's experience; she is betrayed by her own body, whose physical construction is in direct opposition to its biological function. In internecine strife she destroys herself. Betrayal permeates Frederic's view of nature and is at the root of his vision of the universe as one in which a “we” who are good and brave and beautiful are opposed by a “they” who wish to break us precisely because we are good and brave and beautiful.

Catherine betrays Frederic too. She entangles him in a relationship with her, pretending that there will be no drawbacks, no demands, pressures, or responsibilities, only benefits; then she gets pregnant: “I know I've made trouble now” (p. 138). At one point, early in the novel, when Frederic is going off to see Catherine, he asks Rinaldi to come with him. Rinaldi answers, “No … I like the simpler pleasures” (p. 41). To Rinaldi, Catherine is a complication and what she has to offer cannot compensate for the complications that come along with her. Frederic echoes Rinaldi's view of love and women when he says, “God knows I had not wanted to fall in love with her. I had not wanted to fall in love with anyone” (p. 93). And while at this moment he claims, in spite of not wanting this complication in his life, to feel “wonderful,” at other times he appears to feel differently. “You always feel trapped biologically,” he says to Catherine, and the announcement of her pregnancy is followed not only by the rain but by his waking in the night nauseated and jaundiced. The conjunction is hardly accidental. If in Rinaldi's eyes women give one syphilis, Catherine, it would seem, makes Frederic sick. Finally, at the end of the novel, after making him emotionally dependent on her, Catherine abandons Frederic; she dies happily ever after and leaves him alone to face a cold, wet, hostile world. “There isn't anything, dog,” Frederic says to a stray nosing a garbage can filled with coffee grounds, dust, and dead flowers (p. 315). Palpably self-pitying, Frederic sees himself alone in an empty world which no longer has nourishment for him. Catherine cuts off his life as effectively as she strangles her own son inside her.

But if Catherine is just one more piece of evidence to validate Frederic's sentimental and egocentric philosophy that the world exists for the single purpose of breaking him, then she has once again failed him. Da capo. Ad nauseam. The point is that no matter what Catherine does, she is bad for Frederic. Her death is the logical consequence of the cumulative hostilities Frederic feels toward her, and the final expression of the connection between the themes of love and war.


In A Farewell to Arms the connection of sex and death is made by the second page of the book: “their rifles were wet and under their capes the two leather cartridge-boxes on the front of the belts, gray leather boxes heavy with the packs of clips of thin, long 6.5 mm. cartridges, bulged forward under the capes so that the men, passing on the road, marched as though they were six months gone with child.” That pregnancy is death and the womb an agent of destruction could hardly be stated more clearly. The real source of betrayal in A Farewell to Arms is not simply biology; it is, specifically, female biology. Women, who promise life, are in reality death, and their inner world is finally nightmare. Conversely, the outer world of men, which seems overtly to be given over to death, is finally the reservoir of hope and possibility: “If it is possible, I will return to the Abruzzi.”

Very early in A Farewell to Arms a contrast is established between outer and inner space. Frederic tries to explain to the priest why he never got back to the Abruzzi, “where the roads were frozen and hard as iron, where it was dear cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery and hare-tracks in the snow,” but went rather to smoke-filled cafés and dark rooms in the night (p. 13). The tension between these two kinds of space dominates Frederic's imagination. Initially he shies away from images of outer space, investing them with loneliness and fear, and he embraces images of inner space, investing them with an aura of security. The images of inner space are initially developed against the background of a hostile outer world. Early in the novel Frederic moves back and forth between the mountains, where the fighting is and where the forest is gone and there are only “stumps and the broken trunks and the ground torn up” and where the remnants of the trees project, isolated against a background of snow, and the town, with “trees around the square and the long avenue of trees that led to the square,” where he sits looking out the window, drinking and watching the snow falling (p. 6). This image of Frederic Henry inside, warm, dry, and secure, watching the world outside struggle against the cold and the wet, recurs in the novel. It is this kind of inner space he seeks in Catherine, loving as he does to let her hair fall over him like a tent and focusing always on every room they inhabit and how they make it a “home.” When Frederic arrives at the hospital in Milan, it is, significantly, empty. There is nobody in it, no patients, seemingly no staff, no sheets on the bed, and no room of one's own. By the time he leaves, the hospital has become a home from which he is ejected into the outer world of the war. The apotheosis of his creation of inner space with Catherine is, of course, their rooms in the house in the Swiss mountains, with the big stove in the corner and the feather bed for the lovely dark nights and the air crisp and cold to define for them the security of being inside, snuggled and warm.

But while this archetypal image evokes feelings of warmth and security, it evokes feelings of vulnerability too, for the inner space so carefully and elaborately created is continually threatened by intrusions from the hostile, infinitely larger, outer world; it is but a momentary stay against the confusion of crowded troop trains, where you spend the night on the floor with people walking over you, and of stalled retreats where, like a sitting duck, you wait to be picked off by planes coming in from Austria. It can at any moment be changed to outer space: “But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn't any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain” (p. 332). The vulnerability of inner space is dramatized when Frederic and Catherine, on their way to the station for his departure to the front, encounter a soldier and his girl standing up against a wet stone buttress, his cape pulled around them both to ward off the mist and cold. It is a posture which they consciously or unconsciously imitate a few moments later in sympathetic appreciation of their equal vulnerability. It is pathetic or ironic, or both, that Catherine, driven away in a carriage, her face lighted up in the window, motions Frederic to get back in under the archway and out of the rain.

The threat to inner space, however, comes not only from outside but from inside, from its very nature. When Frederic is retreating from the retreat and trying to get back to Milan, he hops a train and dives in under the canvas of a flatcar, where he is out of sight, secure, warm, dry. But in the process he hits his head against something hard and discovers, on feeling about, that he is sharing this inner space with a gun. The connection of inner space with death is elaborated through Catherine. Carrying an embryo secure, warm, and nourished, her womb is an obvious analogue for the world Frederic creates with her. But at the end of the novel Catherine's womb becomes a chamber of horrors filled with blood and death. In an ironic reversal of expectations, the real danger to Frederic Henry turns out to be not the world of war, the outer world that is so obviously threatening, but the world of love, the inner world that seems overtly so secure.


The obvious contradictions of Catherine's character elicit from the critics a bemused perplexity. Jay Gellens' treatment in the introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of “A Farewell to Arms” is representative:

… she is easy but, somehow, irrevocably pure; has the strength of Beowulf, yet falls apart in a hotel room at the reflection that she is behaving like a whore; is gentle as a deer, and still, in the boat on the way to Switzerland, muses rather crudely about the advantages of being poked “in the tummy” by Henry's oar. … Though Catherine is, admittedly, a pleasant, tough little companion, a version of the woman as partner, it is obvious that if she lacked such courage and resource she could hardly have survived at all in a world at war. She is, however, feminine enough on her first night with Henry in the hotel room to feel ashamed, somehow derelict, a tramp. Still, the reader suspects the efficient, businesslike detachment with which she rigs her schedule at the hospital to enable the sex with Henry. Yet again, the very fact of her pregnancy guarantees, in its careless abandon, the sincere intensity of the love affair. Further, though she continually whines about seeing Henry dead in the rain, and though she naïvely makes her token bet at the racetrack, she can also, during the boat trip, resent her unpropitious maternity. She is, finally, a girl who, at the point of death, pleads with Henry not to “do our things with another girl, or say the same things. …” Her complexity crystallizes at last, for the woman she is yearns for the reassurance, yet only the frank, open, tough little partner would have the audacity to demand it.11

The passage reveals the critics' need to resolve the range of contradictions in Catherine's character and to make of her a coherent whole. Catherine has always made the critics uneasy. Their need to explain her suggests that to accept and confront her contradictions might be to discover something rather unpleasant in Hemingway's handling of women. In fact, Catherine's contradictions are not resolvable, because her character is determined by forces outside her; it is a reflection of male psychology and male fantasy life and is understandable only when seen as a series of responses to the needs of the male world that surrounds her. Like Georgiana in “The Birthmark,” Catherine exemplifies the point that female characterization is often of a different order than male characterization and requires for its analysis different constructs. Carlos Baker points the way to this distinction as he brings his discussion of Hemingway's female characters to a conclusion, explaining that “his women are truly emancipated only through an idea or ideal of service. His heroines, to make the statement exactly, are meant to show a symbolic or ritualistic function in the service of the artist and the service of man.”12 For every critic, however, who sees in Catherine an ideal, of service or love or whatever, there is another who is ready to attack her. Yet if Catherine's character is a reflection and result of the men around her, then to attack her is absurd. In blaming Catherine for what is Frederic's problem, the critics simply repeat the action of the novel, in which Catherine is the scapegoat whose ritual death allows the hero to survive. Indeed, the critical animus against Catherine is the logical extension of the hostility toward her that is at the heart of A Farewell to Arms. The best way to approach the “complexity” of Catherine's character is to see her as one more in a series of cryptograms whose decoding reveals the essential hostility toward women that lies behind this classic love story.

Catherine defines herself in terms of men. Initially we learn that she is a nurse not because of any interest in nursing or even in the concept of service it represents, but because her lover has joined the army and she has a romantic image of his being brought, wounded, to the hospital where she is working. Nursing for Catherine is a way to be with her man when he is at war. And it has the same function in her affair with Frederic when her “silly idea” essentially comes true as she gets herself transferred to the hospital where Frederic has been sent for surgery and recuperation.

Catherine does not determine her own identity. Her sense of self comes from outside, and her self-image is a result of internalizing male attitudes. This self-image is consistently negative. Catherine is pervaded by a self-contempt that affects everything she says and does. When we first meet her, she is berating herself for having failed her first lover: “I was a fool. … I didn't know about anything then” (p. 19). When she arrives at the hospital to be with Frederic and he falls in love with her, she reveals a massive craving for reassurance: “I'm afraid I'm not very good at it yet. … I'm good. Aren't I good? … You see? I'm good. I do what you want” (p. 106). When she discovers she is pregnant, her need for reassurance escalates, because she knows that now she has been really bad: “‘You're pretty wonderful.’ ‘No I'm not. But you musn't mind, darling, I'll try and not make trouble for you. I know I've made trouble now. But haven't I been a good girl until now?’” (p. 138). As her pregnancy advances she feels ugly; she doesn't want Frederic to see her naked and she won't think of getting married until she is slim and attractive again. Feeling inadequate as a lover, she is certain Frederic must be bored, alone with her in a cabin in the mountains. When she finally is dying, she can view that event only in terms of how she is failing him.

Catherine's negative self-image, her self-hatred, and her guilt, are also revealed through her talent for punishing herself. In one of the few conversations she has with Frederic, she chooses a topic guaranteed to give her pain, and she chooses to cast it in a form that is particularly insulting to her: “‘Tell me. How many people have you ever loved? … You're lying to me. … It's all right. Keep right on lying to me. That's what I want you to do’” (pp. 104-105). But Catherine's reason for wanting the information she refuses is just as significant as her request for deception. She wants Frederic to tell her what whores do and don't do so that she can both imitate and transcend them and be in effect a super-whore. Proving Rinaldi's thesis, Catherine Barkley, the lovely English goddess, sees herself as a whore, and what she reveals to Frederic in the gaudy hotel room as he is about to return to the front strikes closer to home than either of them cares to admit. Catherine's situation at this moment is the logical result of Rinaldi's little paradigm. She has picked up the signals of a culture which expects her at once to be “easy” and “irrevocably pure” and will damn her for being either or both.

It is clear that Catherine views herself through the lens of her sexual relation to men and that, when she asks Frederic whether or not she is good, she means good sexually. And it is equally clear that Catherine's attitudes toward her sexuality are as depressing as everything else about her. Speaking to Frederic about the death of her first lover, she remarks: “‘You see, I didn't care about the other thing and he could have had it all. He could have had anything he wanted if I would have known. I would have married him or anything’” (p. 19). One is struck by the impersonality of her language; in her eyes her sex is an “it” which her lover could have “had” if she had known he was going to die. Catherine sees her sexuality not as something meaningful or pleasurable for her, but as something separate from herself, a commodity that happens by chance to be hers and that she can use to gain other things, like the approval of men and their involvement with her. Yet, despite the fact that Catherine is sexual not for herself but only for men, she nevertheless expresses a continual sense of sexual failure and a continual need to punish herself for that failure. When she hears of her lover's death, her first impulse is to cut off all her hair, as if this particular form of humiliation were the only appropriate expiation for the crime of not having given “it” to him. And surely, from her point of view, her death in childbirth is fit punishment for having failed Frederic sexually by getting pregnant.

Catherine's attitudes toward her sexuality are an accurate reflection of the sexual nausea that pervades A Farewell to Arms. In a world in which the ideal is an asexual priest and in which women are defined solely in sexual terms, it is no wonder Catherine hates herself and feels guilty for existing. While the vision of herself dead in the rain that precedes the announcement of her pregnancy is an obvious instance of foreboding, it has its origins in Catherine's sense of guilt, which projects her death as a form of punishment and retribution. Through her guilt Catherine registers her appreciation of the hostility toward her of the men through whom she emancipates herself in an “ideal of service”; it is her mode of realizing the undercurrent of hostility that lies behind the protestation of love. As Catherine knows, love for women means you always have to say you're sorry; and she does, again and again and again.

The source of Catherine's compulsive apologizing is revealed in the disparity between the treatment accorded her death and the treatment accorded the deaths of men at war: “‘You will not do any such foolishness,’ the doctor said. ‘You would not die and leave your husband’”; “‘You are not going to die. You must not be silly’” (pp. 319, 331). The tone here is only half joking; beneath the jocular surface is a reprimand appropriate to a parent addressing a recalcitrant child. Catherine internalizes the attitude of the doctor and presents that reductio ad absurdum of the female experience: she feels guilty for dying and apologizes to the doctor for taking up his valuable time with her death—“I'm sorry I go on so long.” Though the two major attendants on her death are male, no shadow of blame falls on them. Catherine never questions Frederic's responsibility for her situation; she seems to operate on the tacit assumption that conception, like contraception, is her doing. And while Frederic is quick to suspect incompetence when it comes to his leg, no doubts are raised about the doctor who performs the Caesarean on Catherine, though usually the need for such an operation is noticed before the child has strangled.13 Rather, the responsibility for both her death and the child's is implicitly placed on Catherine. In contrast, the soldier who hemorrhages to death in the ambulance sling above Frederic Henry does not see himself as stupid, bad, or irresponsible. Even more incongruous is the idea of a doctor referring to a dying soldier in such terms. Indeed, when Miss Van Campen accuses Frederic of the irresponsibility of self-induced jaundice, the results are quite different from those of the comparable scene between Catherine and her doctor. A soldier's responsibility is to himself, but a woman is responsible even in the moment of her death to men. If we weep reading the book at the death of soldiers, we are weeping for the tragic and senseless waste of their lives; we are weeping for them. If we weep at the end of the book, however, it is not for Catherine but for Frederic Henry. All our tears are ultimately for men, because in the world of A Farewell to Arms male life is what counts. And the message to women reading this classic love story and experiencing its image of the female ideal is clear and simple: the only good woman is a dead one, and even then there are questions.


  1. Ernest Hemingway: An Introduction and Interpretation (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), p. 73.

  2. Robert W. Lewis, Jr., “The Tough Romance” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of “A Farewell to Arms,” ed. Jay Gellens (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1970), p. 45.

  3. Philip Young, Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration, rev. ed. (New York: Harcourt, 1966), p. 93.

  4. Susan Brownmiller's extended analysis of the role of war in encouraging and legitimizing rape is relevant here. See Chapter III of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975).

  5. The suggestion that the Abruzzi is an ideal world because in it female sexuality is carefully controlled may be reinforced if we consider a possible context for the ban against flute playing. According to Joanne Edgar in “‘Wonder Woman’ Revisited,” Ms. 1 (July, 1972), 52-56, one of the major elements in the mythology surrounding the legendary Amazon society of South America is the belief that “these fierce female warriors and powerful victors kidnapped males from neighboring tribes, and brought them to a copulatorium for a mating ritual complete with dancing and flute music.” In the Abruzzi, “it was forbidden to play the flute at night. … Because it was bad for the girls to hear the flute at night” (p. 73). If this prohibition stems from the same association of female sexuality with flute music and the same vision of the danger to men of that sexuality as the myths about the Amazons, then the Abruzzi is indeed a version of that ideal American territory whose achievement is the implicit goal in A Farewell to Arms.

  6. In this connection see Wyndham Lewis's essay on A Farewell to Arms, reprinted in Twentieth Century Interpretations (pp. 72-90) as “The ‘Dumb Ox’ in Love and War.” In describing and ultimately decrying the paralysis of the will that characterizes the Hemingway protagonist, Lewis picks as his point of comparison and his representative of “passionate personal energy” Prosper Merimee's Don José, who dealt in a truly Othello-like way with his particular Desdemona, Carmen. In part, then, what Lewis's essay seems to be is a lament for the good old days when men's hostility toward women could be openly expressed and socially justified. Indeed, the politics of this change are, as Lewis implies, immense. See also the section on Hemingway in Gershon Legman's Love and Death (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1949), pp. 86-90, which begins, “No modern writer has taken the hatred of women farther than has Ernest Hemingway.”

  7. Hemingway: The Writer's Art of Self-Defense (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969), pp. 82-83.

  8. Wyndham Lewis, pp. 73, 90.

  9. Hemingway and the Dead Gods (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1960), p. 47.

  10. Lewis, pp. 52 and 53.

  11. Gellens, p. 13.

  12. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, 3rd. ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 113.

  13. This absence of questioning underscores the inevitability of Catherine's death. And this inevitability in turn emphasizes the sense of its being planned from the start, of its being not accident but necessity. In Frederic's case it is clear that things could go right and they could go wrong, and Frederic is alert enough and assertive enough to see that they go right. In Catherine's case not only is she not in control of the outcome but there is no suggestion that the outcome could be different.

Millicent Bell (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “A Farewell to Arms: Pseudoautobiography and Personal Metaphor,” in Ernest Hemingway: The Writer in Context, edited by James Nagel, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984, pp. 107-28.

[In the following essay, Bell uses drafts and revisions of the novel to show that, while not autobiographical in every detail, A Farewell to Arms is highly realistic as a reflection of Hemingway's state of mind.]

Autobiographic novels are, of course, fictions, constructs of the imagination, even when they seem to incorporate authenticating bits and pieces of personal history. But all fiction is autobiography, no matter how remote from the author's experience the tale seems to be; he leaves his mark, expresses his being, his life, in any tale. A Farewell to Arms can illustrate both of these statements.

Ernest Hemingway's novel is not the autobiography some readers have thought it. It was not memory but printed source material that supplied the precise details of its descriptions of historic battle scenes on the Italian front in World War I.1 The novel's love story is no closer to Hemingway's personal reality. He did go to Italy and see action, but not the action he describes; he did fall in love with a nurse, but she was no Catherine Barkley. A large amount of the book fulfills the principle expressed in the deleted coda to “Big Two-Hearted River”: “The only writing that was any good was what you made up, what you imagined.”2 Still, there is much that must represent authentic recall in the book. Innumerable small details and a sense of general conditions in battle, the character of the Italian landscape, the Italian soldier, the ambulance corps—all impressed themselves upon Hemingway in 1918 in the Dolomite foothills near Schio as surely as they might have further east around the Tagliamento a year earlier. And there are fetishes of autobiography, trophies of the personal, chief among these the famous wounding at Fossalta, which Hemingway often recalled.3

Why is this last episode reproduced so exactly as it happened—the shell fragments in the legs, the sensation of dying and coming to life, the surgical sequel? In the coda, Nick—who is Hemingway—had “never seen a jockey killed” when he wrote “My Old Man”; “he'd never seen an Indian woman having a baby” like his namesake in “Indian Camp.” But Hemingway had been wounded just as Frederic is. The answer may be that it was a trauma obsessively recurring to mind, irrepressibly present in his writing because of its crucial, transforming effect upon his life.4 Still, in the novel the wounding is not at all transforming, does not provide the occasion for the “separate peace” declared by Nick at a similar moment in chapter 6 of In Our Time, often incorrectly thought to be the novel's germ. It does not even cause the novel's hero to suffer from sleeplessness afterward, the consequence of a similar wounding for the narrator of “Now I Lay Me,” written only two years before A Farewell to Arms. Perhaps in life as in the novel the wounding was simply a very striking experience, the young man's first brush with death. But as an authentic, indelible memory it was deliberate evidence, in any case, that the fiction was not all made up. Perhaps, then, the authentic wounding is chiefly a sign, a signature of the author's autobiographic contract with himself.

Hemingway's style, his realist pose, suggests, guilefully, that much more has been borrowed directly from experience than is actually the case. Perhaps the testimonial incorporation of the real, which guarantees autobiographic realism, may also be mimicked. When the “real” is made up to become the “realistic,” when the seemingly accidental detail appears to have been stuck into the narrative for no other reason than that it happened, than that it was there, the writer has deliberately made it look as though he is yielding to memory and resisting the tendency of literature to subdue everything to a system of connected significance. In A Farewell to Arms, as elsewhere in his writing, Hemingway made the discovery of this secret of realist effect, and his art, which nevertheless presses toward poetic unity by a powerful if covert formalist intent, yet seems continually open to irrelevance also. The result is a peculiar tension requiring the strictest control. Only a manner which conceals implication as severely as Hemingway's can nevertheless suggest those coherences, those rhythmic collocations of mere things, in the manner of imagist poetry, pretend notation of what the witnessing eye might simply have chanced to see. And this restraint is reinforced by deliberate avoidance of the kind of comment that might impose significance or interpretation. It is even further strengthened by the often-noted qualities of Hemingwayan syntax, the simple or compound declaratives lacking subordination, and the vocabulary high in nouns and verbs and low in qualifiers. The frequency of the impersonal passive voice that presents events simply as conditions, as in the many sentences that begin with “There were,” suppresses not only the sense of agency but the evaluating presence of the observer. If, despite these effects, there is often poetic meaningfulness it is also true that the poetic is sometimes renounced altogether and the realistic detail maintains its irrelevance, refusing any signification in order to affirm the presence of the actual, whether or not truly remembered, reported, historical.5

But this stylistic contest only reflects the struggle of the writer between the impulses to tell it “as it was” and to shape and pattern a story; it is not that struggle itself. The “realistic” style is, in fact, most conspicuous and most successful in the most “invented” parts of the book, the war scenes. It is not so evident in those other scenes where Hemingway draws upon memory—the Milan and Switzerland sections. Hemingway had been a patient in the Red Cross hospital in Milan and had spent convalescent weeks in the city; and he had taken vacation tours in the Alpine lake region. But the action situated in those places in the novel has no authenticity to match that of the great Caporetto chapter in which Frederic participates in events Hemingway had not. Still, it is the war scenes, probably—to turn our paradox about once more—that express Hemingway's deepest feelings by way of metaphor, his sense of the war as an objective correlative of his state of mind. The love affair located in familiar, remembered scenes fails of authenticity though it takes something from the writer's experiences with his nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, and something from his love for Hadley Richardson, and even Pauline Pfeiffer's caesarian operation; it succeeds less well than the invented war scenes in achieving either the effect of realism or the deeper autobiography of metaphor. It is as the latter that it can, however, be explained.

Any first-person story must imitate the autobiographic situation, but there is particular evidence that Hemingway gave his narrator his own sense of the difficulty of reconciling Wahrheit and Dichtung. The novelist's struggles to achieve an appropriate ending to his book are visible in the manuscript drafts at the John F. Kennedy Library.6 They show that his chief problem was that he felt both that a novel needed formal closure and also that life was not “like that.” He rejected, in the end, the attempt to pick up dropped threads and bring Rinaldi and the priest back into the narrative from which they had been absent since the end of chapter 26, a little beyond the novel's midpoint. It may be argued that these two companions de la guerre are felt even in their absence, that there are no dropped threads, the priest in particular being absorbed into the transformed conception of love which the American lieutenant and the English nurse discover in the later portions of the book. But there is really no such absorption; Frederic and Catherine remain very much what they were at the beginning, this mentor and the skeptical doctor both being left behind. Of the “three people of any importance in this story” to whom Hemingway referred in the rejected opening for chapter 10, only Catherine persists.7 Hemingway must have decided this made an ending—the tightening isolation of his hero requires the loss of the larger human world—but in one of the discarded drafts he permits Frederic to express the misgivings of his creator. “I could tell how Rinaldi was cured of the syphilis. … I could tell how the priest in our mess lived to be a priest in Italy under Fascism,” the pseudoautobiographic narrator observes. But he knows that a story must end somewhere. That he realizes that his closure cannot be complete is due to his awareness that life does not have endings.

Things happen all the time. Everything blunts and the world keeps on. You get most of your life back like goods recovered from a fire. It all keeps on and then it keeps on. It never stops for you. Sometimes it stops when you are still alive. You can stop a story anytime. Where you stop is the end of that story. The rest goes on and you go on with it. On the other hand you have to stop a story. You have to stop at the end of whatever it was you were writing about.8

The rejected passage can be read not merely as a device to excuse the odd shape of the novel but as a reflection of Hemingway's personal dilemma, his desire to respect the claim of art and also to get back his own past like “goods recovered from a fire.”

Getting back his life by writing fiction was not, in this case, a matter of endings, of plot. The indeterminacy of remembered experience does not matter, because the coherence of events is not so important as the unity of the mind which is the container for them. If Hemingway was to fulfill the autobiographic expectation, the promise made by authentic transcriptions like the Fossalta wounding, it would not be by trying to tell, literally, “the story” of his past. The novelist wrote about himself, and perhaps never so truly as in A Farewell to Arms, but he did so by projecting, lyrically, an inner condition. Mood and tone, not events, provide unity, and these were more intensely the concomitants of the present life of the writer than of his younger self. The novel is about neither love nor war; it is about a state of mind, and that state of mind is the author's.

That plot is not dominant in A Farewell to Arms has not been properly recognized. Critics who have stressed the prevalence of poetic metaphors in the novel have failed, on the whole, to see that such patterns establish its “spatial” composition, minimize progressive effects.9 In fact, an unvarying mood, established by the narrative voice, dominates everything it relates, bathes uniformly all the images and levels events which are seen always in one way only. That the principal descriptive elements—river, mountains, dust or mud, and above all, rain—are all present in the opening paragraphs suggests not so much that later scenes are being predicted as that the subsequent pages will disclose nothing that is not already evident in the consciousness that has begun its self-exhibition.

The famous wounding is no turning-point in the journey of that consciousness. But even the later “separate peace” in chapter 32 after Frederic's immersion in the Tagliamento is not really a change of direction, a peaking of the plot, though Hemingway's hero does say as he lies on the floor of the flatcar that takes him to Milan, “You were out of it now. You had no more obligation” (p. 232). In chapter 7, even before his wounding, it should be remembered, he has already said, “I would not be killed. Not in this war. It did not have anything to do with me” (p. 37). It is impossible to tell at what point this narrator has acquired his conviction of separateness amounting to alienation from the events which carry him along the stream of time.

By the time he turns away from the war at the Tagliamento in October 1917, Frederic will have had two years in which to acquire the apathy of war weariness. But this is not his malady. Already on the opening page, in 1915, the voice that speaks to us exhibits that attitude psychoanalysts call “blunting of affect,” the dryness of soul which underlies its exquisite attentiveness. One has heard of the “relish of sensation” implied in this and other passages of descriptive writing by Hemingway. But “relish” is too positive a word for the studied emotional distance from the perceived world which is in effect here. For the view from Gorizia across the Isonzo, toward the passing troops and the changing weather, this narrator seems hardly to feel anything beyond a minimal “things went very badly.” An alienated neutrality governs the reiterated passives, the simple declaratives. “There were big guns. … There was fighting. … There were mists over the river. … There were small gray motor cars” (p. 4). The next year (chapter 2) is the same. “There were many victories. … The fighting was in the next mountains. … The whole thing was going well. … The war was changed” (pp. 5-6). The different character of military events makes for no change in the tone. We are prepared for the personality who emerges into view as he describes his leave. He had not gone to Abruzzi but had spent drunken nights when “you knew that that was all there was,” and he had known the “not knowing and not caring in the night, sure that this was all … suddenly to care very much” (p. 13), swinging from not caring to caring and back again, from affectlessness to affect and then again to its loss. If there is something that transcends this alternation, the ecstasy of either love or religion, it is so fugitive as to be almost unnameable: “If you have had it you know. … He, the priest, had always known what I did not know, what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget” (pp. 13-14).

“Always” is an important word here. There is no hint that Frederic has at any time had a beginning in illusion, that he ever started out like Stephen Crane's Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage (something of a model for A Farewell to Arms) with a naive belief in exalted meanings. The well-known passage, “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice, and the expression in vain” is not the culmination of a process by which these concepts have withered. His embarrassment goes as far back as he can remember. He has had it always. “Gino was a patriot,” Frederic continues, “so he said things that separated us sometimes, but he was also a fine boy and I understand his being a patriot. He was born one” (pp. 184-85). And the opposite attitude, disbelief in such things, may also be inborn. Rinaldi has told Frederic that for him “there are only two things”—drink and sex—and his work. Frederic hopes that he will get other things but the doctor says, “No. We never get anything. We are born with all we have and we never learn” (p. 171). If Frederic may be conceived of as having been also born with all he has, this explains why he is described as having enlisted in the ambulance corps for no reason at all, unlike Hemingway who was swept into the wave of American enthusiasm to aid the Allies. Frederic just happened to be already in Italy when the war broke out. He had been studying architecture. He has never had any belief in the big words. “Why did you do it?” asks Catherine, referring to his enlistment. “I don't know. … There isn't always an explanation for everything,” he answers.

And yet this sufferer from blunted affect can fall in love. It is one of the “givens” of the story, though it seems to demand a capacity which, like the emotion of patriotism, he was born without. “When I saw her I was in love with her,” he says when Catherine appears again at the hospital. “I had not wanted to fall in love with anyone. But God knows I had” (pp. 91, 93). Catherine, as well, had experienced this hardly credible conversion. Although we never get so direct a view of her mental operations—this is Frederic's story, after all—she appears, in the earlier scenes, to be as incapacitated as Hemingway's other English nurse who has lost a fiancé in the war, Brett Ashley. There is more than a hint that she too suffers the dissociation of feeling from sensation that accounts for her unfocused sexuality when Frederic first makes love to her. But now she feels. The raptures of both lovers, however, are curiously suspect.

Frederic has only delusively attached himself to an otherness. Far from the war's inordinate demand upon his responses, he has been converted to feeling in the isolation of his hospital bed, where, like a baby in its bassinet, he is totally passive, tended and comforted by female caretakers, the nurses, and particularly by this one. The image is regressive, and the ministering of Catherine, who looks after all his needs, including sexual, while he lies passive, is more maternal than connubial. The relation that now becomes the center of the novel is, indeed, peculiar enough to make us question it as a representation of adult love. More often noted than Frederic's passivity is the passivity of Catherine in this love affair, a passivity which has irritated readers (particularly female readers) because it seems to be a projection of male fantasies of the ideally submissive partner. It results from her desire to please. She is a sort of inflated rubber woman available at will to the onanistic dreamer. There is, in fact, a masturbatory quality to the love of each. The union of these two is a flight from outer reality and eventually from selfhood, which depends upon a recognition of the other; the selfhood that fails to find its definition in impingement upon the world at large and the establishment of distinction from it eventually proves incapable of recognizing the alien in the beloved and therefore the independent in itself. The otherness that Frederic and Catherine provide for one another is not enough to preserve their integral selves, and while the sounds of exteriority become more and more muffled in the novel, their personalities melt into one another. It is for this reason that Hemingway's novel, far from being the Romeo and Juliet he once carelessly called it, is more comparable to Anthony and Cleopatra, a play which shows that the world is not well lost for love, though nothing, of course, can be further from the masterful images of Shakespeare's adult lovers than Hemingway's pitiful pair.

Affective failure, then, shows itself not merely in the war sections of the novel but in the parts where one would imagine it to have been transcended, the love story of Catherine and Frederic. Catherine constantly reminds her lover of her resolution not to offer him otherness but to collapse her own selfhood into his. She asks what a prostitute does, whether she says whatever the customer wants her to, even “I love you.” She will outdo the prostitute: “But I will. I'll say just what you wish and I'll do what you wish and then you will never want any other girls, will you. … I want what you want. There isn't any me any more. Just what you want” (pp. 105, 106). The idyll of their Milan summer is spent in such games as this: “We tried putting thoughts in the other one's head while we were in different rooms. It seemed to work sometimes but that was probably because we were thinking the same thing anyway” (p. 114). She refuses his offer to marry her, and when he says “I wanted it for you” replies, “there isn't any me. I'm you. Don't make up a separate me” (p. 115).

Their solitariness à deux is only emphasized by their occasional contacts with others who are outside the war, those met in the Milan cafés or at the racetrack who are not the true alienated but the self-serving and parasitic, and even by their encounter with the genuine war hero, Ettore, who is wounded in the foot, like Frederic, and has five medals, and whom they cannot stand. After she becomes pregnant, Catherine says, “There's only us two and in the world there's all the rest of them. If anything comes between us we're gone and then they have us.” When the time comes for him to leave for the front, they walk past a couple embracing under a buttress of the cathedral, and she will not agree that they are like themselves. “‘Nobody is like us,’ Catherine said. She did not mean it happily” (p. 147). Not surprisingly, they both are orphans of a sort. Catherine has a father but “he has gout,” she says to Frederic; “You won't ever have to meet him.” Frederic has only a stepfather, and, he tells her, “You won't have to meet him” (p. 154). When they are waiting for the birth of their baby in Switzerland, she asks him about his family: “Don't you care anything about them?” He replies, “I did, but we quarrelled so much it wore itself out” (p. 304).

Book 3, the justly praised Caporetto section, returns Frederic to Gorizia where others have spent a different sort of summer. Rinaldi, depressed, overworked, perhaps syphilitic, says, “This is a terrible war, baby,” drinks too much, and is impatient of Frederic's acquisition of a “sacred subject.” The priest tells him how the terrible summer has made the major gentle. No one any longer believes in victory. But Frederic confesses that he himself believes in neither victory nor defeat. He believes, he says, “in sleep.” It is more than a joke, even though in a moment he apologizes that “I said that about sleep meaning nothing” (p. 179). The regressive process, the withdrawal from reality, the surrender of complex personal being, the limitation of relationship to that with an other who is really only a mirror of self approaches more and more the dreamless sleep of apathy, the extremity of ennui. There is a suggestion of the pathologic in the “I was deadly sleepy” with which the chapter ends (p. 180).

The retreat is reported by a sensibility already asleep, by an emotional apparatus already itself in retreat from the responsibilities of response. “The houses were badly smashed but things were very well organized and there were signboards everywhere” (p. 181). However much this sounds like irony to us, irony is not intended by the speaker, who does not mean more by saying less. His downward adjustment of feeling is the one often made by soldiers—or by concentration camp victims, or long-term prisoners—by which emotions are reduced to the most rudimentary since the others have become insupportable. His battle-weary companions express their own reduction by a preoccupation with food. The entire retreat is a massed legitimization of apathy and a symbol of it.

Frederic's affectlessness is climaxed by his “cold-blooded” shooting of one of the Italian sergeants who has refused to obey his order to move the stalled ambulance. “I shot three times and dropped one,” he observes, as though describing the pursuit of game, and Bonello then takes the pistol and “finishes him,” as a hunting companion might finish off an animal still quivering where it has fallen (p. 204). One may say that this is simply war—Sherman's war—and feeling has no place in it. But this does not make it less shocking that the perceiving hero is so matter-of-fact. Even Bonello expresses a motive: he is a socialist, and all his life he has wanted to kill a sergeant, he tells Frederic, who expresses no personal motive at all, and who has never felt that it was his war. Yet for giving up his part in it he has also no special motive. His case is not like that of the demoralized soldiers who are flinging down their arms and shouting that they want to go home. He cannot go home. And now a profoundly significant flash of memory comes to him as he rests in the hay of a barn:

The hay smelled good and lying in a barn in the hay took away all the years between. We had lain in the hay and talked and shot sparrows with an air-rifle when they perched in the triangle cut high in the wall of the barn. The barn was gone now and one year they had cut the hemlock woods and there were only stumps, dried tree-tops, branches and fireweed where the woods had been. You could not go back.

(p. 216)

The “separate peace” was made long ago. Again we must note the reference to a congenital disengagement when he says with what only looks like a newly acquired minimalism, “I was not made to think, I was made to eat. My God, yes. Eat and drink and sleep with Catherine” (p. 233). Removing his uniform after his escape, he strips himself of the last vestige of social self. He no longer can interest himself in the war news, as he had in the earlier Milan section, and does not give us summaries of military events. “I had a paper but I did not read it because I did not want to read about the war. I was going to forget the war” he says at the beginning of chapter 34. It is now that he says, “I had made a separate peace.” “Don't talk about the war,” he tells the barman at the hotel. And he reflects, “The war was a long way away. Maybe there wasn't any war. There was no war here. Then I realized it was over for me” (pp. 243, 255). But how committed to this war has he ever been?

The rest is a “fugue” in the technical psychiatric sense of a period during which the patient, often suffering loss of memory, begins another life from which all his past has been drained. Thus, the “all for love” that remains for Frederic and Catherine is qualified by the lovers' knowledge that the whole empire of normal being has been surrendered. “Let's not think of anything,” says Catherine (p. 252). The lover boasts that he has no wish to be separate from his beloved: “All other things were unreal.” He tells her, “My life used to be full of everything. Now if you aren't with me I haven't a thing in the world” (p. 257). Their universe of two is reducing itself further, and their games continue to suggest this constriction. He might let his hair grow longer, she suggests, and she might cut hers short so that even their sexual difference may be lessened. “Then we'd both be alike. Oh, darling, I want you so much I want to be you too.” He says, “We're the same one,” and she, “I want us to be all mixed up. … I don't live at all when I'm not with you.” He replies, “I'm no good when you're not there. I haven't any life at all any more” (pp. 299-300).

These scenes are a drift toward death, which is why the novel must end in death, Catherine's and the baby's, though Hemingway considered allowing the child to survive. Such a survival would have contradicted all that has gone before by introducing a new otherness when its parents are losing the otherness of each other. The two lovers already live on the margin of life. Count Greffi is an even more mythological figure than Mippipopolous in The Sun Also Rises, whom he resembles. The very old man, so close to death, is a fit sentinel upon that border they are about to cross before they pass, by a symbolic boat voyage, out of Italy. Their Switzerland is not on the map, notwithstanding the fact that it resembles the Switzerland of Hemingway's vacation tours. In their chalet, wrapped in the cottony blanket of the winter snow, cared for by their good-natured landlord and his wife, whose lives have a reality with which they make no connection, and in contact with no one else, they are united as before in his hospital bed. Their destiny is out of their own hands as they become, quite literally, patients awaiting surgery, playing bedgames. Perhaps Frederic will pass the time by growing a beard. Their loss of connection with human modes of being produces fantasies of an animal identity, like that of the fox they see in the snow who sleeps with his brush wrapped about his face, curled in the regressive fetal position. What would they do if they had tails like the fox? They would have special clothes made, or “live in a country where it wouldn't make any difference” to have a fox's tail. Catherine says, truly, “We live in a country where nothing makes any difference. Isn't it grand how we never see anyone?” (p. 303). The country is, of course, the country of the dead, toward which she is bound.

If indeed “all fiction is autobiography,” no special demonstration is required to support the idea that A Farewell to Arms expresses the author's inner being, his secret life. Yet there is particular reason to suppose this in the case of this novel which is the presentation of a state of mind, a mood and condition of being. These, it may be arguable, belonged to the writer himself at the time of writing. As a war novel, it is curiously late. In 1929, American society was preoccupied with other things than its memories of the battles of the First World War. Hemingway, already the author of a novel dealing with a later period and married for the second time, had come a long way from the naive nineteen-year-old of 1918. Any such analysis is speculative, but there is reason to suppose that for the writer as for Frederic Henry the barn was gone where he had lain in the hay as a boy: “You could not go back.” This realization must have been particularly acute when this novel was being written. Since 1925 his life had been one of personal turmoil. He had found himself in love with Pauline Pfeiffer, forced to decide between her and the woman whom he still claimed also to love and who had been, he would declare, a faultless wife. In 1927, he had remarried and, in the following year, while Pauline was pregnant, he was struggling to make progress on this second novel, plagued by various accidental disasters—an eye injury, head cuts from a fallen skylight—such as he always seemed prone to. Pauline's baby was delivered by caesarian section after a labor of eighteen hours during a Kansas heat wave. The first draft of A Farewell to Arms was finished two months later, but before Hemingway began the task of revision, his father, Dr. Clarence Hemingway, who had been depressed for some time, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

Beyond the immediate strain and horror of such events must have been their power to intensify Hemingway's most buried anxieties. His remarriage, which he did not quite understand, created a keen sense of guilt in him along with the recognition that he contained compulsive forces he was powerless to restrain. Marriage, moreover, could be destructive not only because it had resulted in pain and divorce in his own case; as a child he had seen its effects in the secret contests of will between his parents. Pauline's dangerous, agonized parturition seemed to confirm his feeling that death as readily as life was the consequence of sexuality. He may well have felt what he had imagined the Indian father to feel before cutting his throat in “Indian Camp”. That early story suggests that Hemingway had always seen something terrifying in the birth process. Now he incorporated a birth process fatal to both fictional mother and child in the conclusion of his novel.

His father's suicide must have awakened further all his most inadmissible emotions, above all his feelings of hostility and guilt toward his parents. Readers of Carlos Baker's biography do not need a review of Hemingway's childhood and youth with its history of rebellions and chastisements.10 The spirited boy, adoring and striving to emulate his father, also incurred this father's disciplinarian severity, and young Ernest's resentment of his punishment was so intense that he would sometimes, when he was about eighteen, sit hidden in the doorway of a shed behind the house drawing a bead on his father's head with a gun while the doctor worked in his vegetable garden.11 Yet it was this same father who had taught him to shoot, initiated him in the craft and passion of killing animals. His feelings toward his mother, whose musical-artistic inclinations might be thought to be the source of his own impulses toward the life of art, would, in the end, prove more bitterly hostile. As he grew to manhood he felt, it would seem, more betrayed by her attempts to control his behavior, especially after the war had proved him a man and even a hero. There is the well-known incident of youthful high-jinks in the woods, shortly after his twenty-first birthday, which resulted in his expulsion from the Hemingways' summer cottage at Walloon Lake. But more hurtful must have been his parents' moralistic censure of his writing. First In Our Time and then The Sun Also Rises received their uncomprehending disapproval, against which he politely pleaded.

Beneath the politeness there was sometimes a threat. After receiving her criticism of his first novel Hemingway wrote his mother with only half-concealed scorn, “I am sure that it [the novel] is not more unpleasant than the real inner lives of some of our best Oak Park families. You must remember that in such a book all the worst of the people's lives is displayed while at home there is a very lovely side for the public and the sort of which I have had some experience of observing behind closed doors.”12 Behind what doors but those closed upon the conflicts he had known between his parents themselves? Hemingway was prone to hint for years that he might write an Oak Park novel that would tell all: “I had a wonderful novel to write about Oak Park,” he said in 1952, “and would never do it because I did not want to hurt living people.”13 After his father's death in 1928 he wrote his mother offering her some advice about how to handle his uncle George, whom he held responsible for his father's money worries, and he also added menacingly, “I have never written a novel about the [Hemingway] family because I have never wanted to hurt anyone's feelings but with the death of the ones I love a period has been put to a great part of it and I may have to undertake it.”14 It is a curious statement, with its slip into the plural “ones” when among his near relatives only his father had died. And was not his mother to be counted among the “ones I love”? There seems to be an unclear implication that she as much as his uncle—whom he had always disliked—might be exposed by his writing. The Oak Park novel was never written. Yet if he rejected the temptation to write about his family life—except in the hints given in such a story as “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife”—he did not stop writing works that might convey his insight into the “unpleasant” and defy his mother's moralistic hypocrisy. And the covertly autobiographic impulse persisted.

From the time of his father's suicide, he must have felt himself to be just such an orphan, though with a living parent, as Catherine and Frederic describe themselves. “My father is the only one I cared about,” he wrote Maxwell Perkins after the doctor's suicide.15 He then may already have believed what he later stated to Charles Scribner, that his mother had destroyed her husband, and his bitter sense of having been unloved by her fused with his identification with his father: “I hate her guts and she hates mine. She forced my father to suicide.”16 But such liberations from filial love are never quite complete. Underneath must have been the longing for approval, for a lost infantile security. Hemingway's own sexual history, that ultimate personal expression, may have taken some shape from the mixture of need and anger which probably composed his emotions toward his mother. The need to reject as well as the need to be wanted again may explain the course of his love life, with its three marriages and, as his life advanced, its rather greater propensity of promiscuity. Promiscuity, of course, may also be based on the fear that one cannot feel at all. Beneath the intensely expressive, even violent personality of the visible Hemingway there may have been a self that was haunted by the demon of boredom. Apathy, which might seem the least likely affliction of this articulate and active man, may have been what he feared most, knowing his own inner indifference. If so, then A Farewell to Arms does have a special relation to the mind of the maker, is autobiographic in a metaphoric way.

Some confirmation of this view may be gained by study of Hemingway's text as the result of revision and excision in accordance with his well-known iceberg theory17 In looking for the submerged element that supports a style so economic, so dependent upon implication rather that explication, one is prompted to consider the nature of what has been pruned away. Obviously, the Hemingway esthetic promotes the elimination of the merely redundant, the detail that adds nothing, the explanation that can be supplied by the reader's own surmise, the additional episode which may thicken the reality of the story but also complicates its meaning too much. Some of this discard may well supply autobiographic clues to the intentional process by which the work was molded. Sometimes, one suspects, the rejected matter comes out of the too-exact transcript of memory.

Even before the manuscript of A Farewell to Arms had been studied, it was obvious that Hemingway might have planned his novel at some earlier stage to include other elements besides those finally selected. Julian Smith has argued that two stories written in 1926 just after the breakup of Hemingway's first marriage amplify the novel so precisely at certain points that they may have been conceived of as part of it at one time.18 One of these is “In Another Country,” whose title, with its reference to Marlowe's Jew of Malta (“Thou hast committed—/ Fornication—but that was in another country; and besides, the wench is dead”), Hemingway once considered using for the novel.19 The second story linked with the novel is “Now I Lay Me,” entitled “In Another Country—Two” in a late draft.20 Both short stories fulfill the title of the collection in which they were printed in 1927, Men Without Women, which attaches them in an interesting way to the novel begun soon after, the novel about the failure, in the end, of the sexual bridge over the gulf of solitude.

Both stories are really about marriage. In “In Another Country” the narrator, recovering from his wounds in a Milan hospital and receiving mechanical therapy—like Hemingway and Frederic Henry—is warned not to marry. An Italian major who has just lost his wife tells him that a man “cannot marry” because “if he is to lose everything, he should not place himself in a position to lose that.” Had Hemingway chosen to include the story as an episode in A Farewell to Arms it might have served to predict Catherine's death as well as the conclusion that nothing, not even love, abides. In “Now I Lay Me” the hero has been wounded in the particular fashion and with the particular sensations Hemingway remembered from his own experience and attributed to Frederic. He does not sleep well—because of the sound of the silkworms and because he is afraid of dying—and passes restless nights thinking about two kinds of boyhood experience: trout fishing and the quarrels between his parents, with his mother's hen-pecking of his father. He is advised by his orderly to marry but does not, and does not intend to, unlike the narrator of the companion story, who tells the major that he hopes to be married.

There are any number of ways in which both stories can be related to Hemingway's personal experience, but it is clear that together they suggest a fear associated with marriage—either one will somehow kill it oneself, as he had done with his own first marriage, or it will kill you, or at least emasculate you, as his mother had emasculated his father. Despite the seemingly positive assurance of the orderly in the second story that marriage will “fix everything,” the effect of both tales is to suggest that death and destruction arrive in the end. Love cannot heal the Hemingway hero who longs to return to some presexual condition in the untainted woods of boyhood.

The connection of the two stories with the novel written so soon after them is a matter of conjecture, but Hemingway's manuscript drafts of A Farewell to Arms may justifiably be searched for evidence of his compositional intentions and his autobiographic sources. The draft indicates that Hemingway had, for example, included a much more detailed version of the description of wounding already used in “Now I Lay Me” and also a more detailed and more emotional description of Frederic's sensations on waking up in the hospital in Milan. The final version screens out autobiographic irrelevance, for Frederic, in the draft, makes on Hemingway's behalf one of those representative comments that show him struggling against the flood of memory: “If you try and put in everything you would never get a single day done and then the one who made it might not feel it.”21 In the end the writer made these occasions consistent with the rest of the novel as a representation of the state of mind that is the grounding of his hero's being. In the first three books, as Reynolds has observed, the revisions nearly efface Frederic as a personality.22 He becomes an almost completely apathetic sufferer. Though self-expression is allowed to emerge in the love affair, it does not really make for reversal of this condition, for in the place of the grand afflatus of love, the language of amorous avowal that these lovers speak is self-diminishing.

A complex revision of a crucial passage is the alteration of the conversation between Frederic and the priest in chapter 11. In the manuscript draft Frederic lists some of the things he loves, and adds at the end, “I found I loved god too, a little. I did not love anything too much.”23 In the revision there is no such list or remark, but there is, instead, the priest's statement: “When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve” (p. 72). Hemingway may be thought to have promoted by this addition the hope of moral growth in his hero, who then asks, in the printed text, “How about loving a woman? If I really loved some woman would it be like that?” He cannot answer his own question nor does the priest answer it, and though, much later, Count Greffi calls love “a religious feeling,” Frederic, still dubious, can respond only, “You think so?” (p. 263). Can we analogize the love of God and Frederic's love of Catherine, in fact? Does human love acquire the highest possible meaning for him? Not really. He cannot be said to attain the priest's ideal of service and sacrifice. Nor does the formula apply to Catherine herself. Her death is not redemptive, is not a true Imitation of Christ. It is not voluntarily offered and does not save Frederic from anything or give him faith. Only irony attends the sequel in which the surrender of self seems the consequence of weakness rather than the bounty of strong love. The revision removes the small assertion of faith that Frederic makes, “I found I loved god too, a little,” and when the priest declares, “You should love Him,” the answer is simply, “I don't love much,” or, as the draft has it, “I did not love anything very much,” which seems a statement of affective deficiency in general, a general inability to donate emotion.

Frederic's estrangement from feeling is not the consequence of any particular wounding or of war disgust, or of any experience of adulthood, but of deeply founded sense of loss. A passage Hemingway took out of the novel gives confirmation. It begins with the opening sentence of chapter 40, “We had a fine life” (p. 306), followed in the finished novel by a brief description of the way the couple spent their days during the last of their winter stay in the Swiss mountains. Hemingway decided not to use the long passage that originally followed this opening sentence in which Frederic reflects, anticipating the tragic conclusion, “wisdom and happiness do not go together,” and declares his reductive certitude: “The only thing I know is that if you love anything enough they take it away from you.” In this discarded passage, as in the rejected ending of the novel, Hemingway felt the need to refer once again to Rinaldi and the priest, those seemingly forgotten mentors of contrary wisdom, and it is plain that Frederic cannot accept the latter's faith, though he says, “I see the wisdom of the priest in our mess who has always loved God and so is happy and I am sure that nothing will ever take God away from him. But how much is wisdom and how much is luck to be born that way? And what if you are not built that way?” Earlier in the novel Gino is described as a patriot because he is “born that way” and Rinaldi is a skeptic for the same reason. But here, in the excised passage, Frederic speaks of himself: “But what if you were born loving nothing and the warm milk of your mother's breast was never heaven and the first thing you loved was the side of a hill and the last thing was a woman and they took her away and you did not want another but only to have her; and she was gone, then you are not so well placed.”24 For Hemingway, too, cannot it have been true that “the warm milk of [his] mother's breast was never heaven”? Is this the underwater knowledge of self which supports the poignancy of what remains in the final text of the novel?

Hemingway's difficulties with the ending can now be seen to have been caused by something besides his desire to be true to life's inconclusiveness. His hero's emotional or philosophic nada threatened the very process of making sense, achieving illumination. Hemingway decided to eschew any hint of apocalypse, rejecting even Fitzgerald's suggestion that he place at the end the passage in which Frederic describes how all are finished off impartially, though the good, the gentle, and the brave go first—as dark a revelation as one could imagine, but still a revelation of sorts. What would do best, he realized, would be simply the hero's numb survival without insight, his notation without catharsis.


  1. The dependence of A Farewell to Arms on Hemingway's research rather than on direct observation is comprehensively demonstrated in Michael S. Reynolds's Hemingway's First War: The Making of ‘A Farewell to Arms’ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).

  2. The Nick Adams Stories, ed. Philip Young (New York: Bantam, 1973), p. 217.

  3. As related, for example, to Guy Hickok: “I felt my soul or something like it coming right out of my body, like you'd pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner. It flew around and then it came back and went in again and I wasn't dead anymore.” “A Portrait of Mister Papa,” by Malcolm Cowley, Life (10 January 1949), repr. Ernest Hemingway: The Man and his Work, ed. John K. M. McCaffrey (New York: Cooper Square, 1969), p. 35.

  4. It is Philip Young's influential thesis that “one fact about this recurrent protagonist [the Hemingway hero] as about the man who created him, is necessary to any real understanding of either figure, and that is the fact of the ‘wound,’ a severe injury suffered in World War I which left permanent scars, visible and otherwise.” Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966), p. 6.

  5. A typical example of such calculated irrelevance might be the sentences that conclude the opening paragraph of chapter 9 which describes the hero's pause, with his ambulance drivers, on the way to the battle location where he will be wounded: “I gave them each a package of cigarettes, Macedonias, loosely packed cigarettes that spilled tobacco and needed to have the ends twisted before you smoked them. Manera lit his lighter and passed it around. The lighter was shaped like a Fiat radiator.” A Farewell to Arms (New York: Scribner's 1929), p. 47. All further references to the novel will be to this edition.

  6. The variant manuscript endings are described by Reynolds (Hemingway's First War) and by Bernard Oldsey, Hemingway's Hidden Craft: The Writing of ‘A Farewell to Arms’ (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979).

  7. Reynolds, Hemingway's First War, p. 22.

  8. Reynolds, Hemingway's First War, pp. 46-47.

  9. The most influential description of the novel as a system of imagery has been Carlos Baker's in Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, rev. ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), pp. 94-96. But Baker's contrasted symbology of mountain and plain suggests a dynamics of psychological and moral movement correlated with physical description. In my own view there is no such movement.

  10. Carlos Baker, Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (New York: Scribner's 1969).

  11. Baker, A Life Story, p. 54.

  12. Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961, ed. Carlos Baker (New York: Scribner's, 1981), letter to Grace Hall Hemingway, 5 February 1927, p. 243.

  13. Charles Fenton, The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Farrar, Straus & Young, 1954), p. 1.

  14. Hemingway, Selected Letters, letter to Grace Hall Hemingway, 11 March 1929, p. 296.

  15. Hemingway, Selected Letters, letter to Maxwell Perkins, 16 December 1928, p. 291.

  16. Hemingway, Selected Letters, letter to Charles Scribner, 27 August 1949, p. 670.

  17. “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” See Death in the Afternoon (New York: Scribner's, 1932), p. 192.

  18. Julian Smith, “Hemingway and the Thing Left Out,” Ernest Hemingway: Five Decades of Criticism, ed. Linda W. Wagner (Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1974), pp. 188-200.

  19. Reynolds, Hemingway's First War, pp. 295, 296.

  20. Cf. Philip Young and Charles W. Mann, eds., The Hemingway Manuscripts: An Inventory (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1969), p. 44.

  21. Reynolds, Hemingway's First War, p. 33.

  22. Reynolds, Hemingway's First War, p. 59.

  23. Reynolds, Hemingway's First War, pp. 286-87.

  24. Reynolds, Hemingway's First War, pp. 40-41.

Robert Merrill (essay date May 1988)

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SOURCE: “Denoting Hemingway: Feminist Criticism and the Canon,” in American Literature, Vol. 60, No. 2, May, 1988, pp. 255-68.

[In the following essay, Merrill asserts that a work of art should not be divorced from aesthetic judgments because of an author's alleged male bias.]

In the “Extra” for March 1987 Lawrence Buell presents a deeply informed overview of what feminist revisionism can do for American literary history.1 As Buell's reasoning and examples are quite persuasive, it will perhaps seem ungenerous for me to take issue with a single comment, offered as a parenthetical illustration. Nonetheless, I think the comment in question points up the dangers of the feminist approach to literary history, so I want to use it as a springboard to discuss what I take these dangers to be.

Toward the end of his essay Buell summarizes what feminist studies can hope to do in reshaping the American canon. The first thing such studies can do is “to foment reorderings in the pre-feminist canon (the demotion of Hemingway, for instance).”2 And why should Hemingway be demoted? Presumably because his works are informed by a crippling sexism, crippling on both aesthetic and cultural grounds. Indeed, this is so “obvious” Buell does not even explain the logic. His remark implies that feminist study has already confirmed the need to demote Hemingway or that such work, when done, will surely justify the demotion. Ultimately, of course, Buell's remark implies that there are a good many canonical figures who need to be demoted or displaced, now that we have a better perspective on their work.

As it happens, I myself think that feminist criticism has proved far more interesting than other recent theoretical movements at the level of practical criticism; unlike deconstruction, for example, feminism has generated a striking number of reinterpretations that are interesting, persuasive, or both.3 But I would like to question Buell's assumption about Hemingway, in order to suggest that perhaps this assumption is too easily made about other luminaries in “the academy's white, male, hetero-sexist curriculum.”4 At any rate, I think we should take a look at what the demotion of Hemingway looks like in actual practice. Once this is done, I want to question the general thrust of feminist revisionism as applied to American literary history.


“If, when using literary materials to make what is essentially a political point, we find ourselves virtually rewriting a text, ignoring certain aspects of plot or characterization, or oversimplifying the action to fit our ‘political’ thesis, then we are neither practicing an honest criticism nor saving anything useful about the nature of art. …”5

In point of fact, there has been very little feminist criticism of Hemingway. Indeed, as Robert Scholes recently remarked, there has been relatively little criticism of Hemingway by women, feminist or non-feminist.6 As a representative feminist critique, however, Judith Fetterley's chapter on A Farewell to Arms should serve our purposes.7 Her book has been approved by almost all feminist critics, and I know of only one feminist rejoinder to her reading of Hemingway's “classic.”8 The extremely forceful statement of a “resisting” reader, Fetterley's chapter should clarify why Hemingway deserves to be demoted.

What Fetterley does instead is to rewrite A Farewell to Arms. Though it might seem that the novel endorses romantic love, Fetterley argues that this is mere appearance: “If we examine Hemingway's novel closely, we will discover that the emotions which in fact direct it are quite opposite from those which are claimed as central. One cannot miss the disparity between the novel's overt fabric of idealized romance and its underlying vision of the radical limitations of love” (p. 48). If Fetterley meant the phrase “the radical limitations of love” to refer to the fate of romantic love in Hemingway's world, then of course we would have to agree with her. In fact, however, she is referring to the inherent and truly radical flaws of the (hetero)sexual relationship itself. Romantic love, we are told, is a process of idealization that disguises hostility (p. 47). Fetterley speaks of the “cumulative hostilities” that Frederic Henry feels toward Catherine Barkley (p. 62), then asserts that Frederic's hostility toward Catherine is at the very “heart” of A Farewell to Arms (p. 67). She argues that Catherine is ultimately a mere scapegoat whose death is necessary if Frederic is to avoid adult commitment and maintain his childish, egotistical ways (p. 47). That these are male “ways” need hardly be stressed.

Fetterley's basic premise is that romantic love disguises hostility for the beloved “object.” Is this Hemingway's view or is it Fetterley's? Fetterley never actually says that it is Hemingway's, indeed she is quite evasive on the issue, but she proceeds to read many of the novel's details as if Hemingway did in fact believe this. She detects Frederic's “obvious” enmity toward women in the scene at the end of the book where he shoves two nurses out of the hospital room where Catherine lies dead (p. 53), as well as in his dislike for Miss Van Campen, the head of the hospital in Milan (p. 54). The second example is arguable, I suppose, though I think that most readers trace his dislike for Van Campen to her chilly legalism, not the fact she is a woman who occupies a position of authority, as Fetterley argues. But the first example is truly stunning: has any reader before Fetterley responded in this way to Frederic's final efforts to be alone with Catherine? Elsewhere, Fetterley claims that the “knowledge” he shares with the priest is that “sex is a dangerous and wasteful commodity and the best world is one of men without women” (p. 52). This is conceivably what the priest thinks, and it is a possible reading of what Frederic believes early in the novel; but it is remarkably misleading as a statement of what he believes at any point after he falls in love with Catherine despite his desire to avoid entangling alliances of any kind. It is the misleading statement of someone who believes that the priest represents the novel's ideal (p. 69). The priest gets this label because he knows that “the only good woman is a dead one” (Fetterley's grim summary of the novel's “message,” p. 71); Frederic's “hostilities” are unconscious, and he only belatedly comes to share the priest's Hemingwayesque wisdom.

Joyce Wexler has already objected to Fetterley's failure to acknowledge the differences between the early Frederic and the later Frederic. As Wexler says, the affair between Frederic and Catherine begins in cynical disillusionment but ends in personal commitment, a form of romantic love that Hemingway would have us see as the one real value in an otherwise catastrophic world.9 To deny that this love is real and meaningful is to deny that the novel's conclusion is tragic, precisely what Hemingway said it was.10 For Fetterley, Catherine's death is “the fulfillment of [Frederic's] own unconscious wish, his need to kill her lest she kill him” (p. 53). For Hemingway and for most of his readers (male and female alike), this “unconscious wish” is Fetterley's creation.

I do not mean to argue that Hemingway has totally realized his intention in A Farewell to Arms. Fetterley is not the first reader to complain about Catherine's insubstantiality, Frederic's early willingness to use Catherine, and his ambivalence about marriage and the commitment it requires (an ambivalence that persists into the novel's final pages). But she is the first critic to discover at the “heart” of Hemingway's novel the protagonist's hostility toward a woman he ostensibly loves more than anyone or anything in life. And having found it, she can proceed to condemn Frederic's creator as well. Anyone wishing to demote Hemingway could hardly improve on this sweeping indictment.

It seems to me that Fetterley has failed to “read” Hemingway in Robert Scholes's sense of the word: “Reading—as a submission to the intentions of another—is the first step in all thought and all communication.”11 Fetterley would no doubt reply that a resisting reader is not likely to see submission as the first step toward anything but tyranny! And Scholes himself sees “reading” as only a first step; beyond “reading” there is what he calls “interpretation” and “criticism.” Roughly speaking, “interpretation” involves generalizing from the specifics of the text (what is often called “thematizing”), while “criticism” is an evaluative process wherein the reader stands back from the text and judges the codes or values that inform it. Scholes's notions are relevant here because he too uses Hemingway to illustrate the advantages of a feminist critique. Indeed, he bluntly insists that Hemingway's sexual views are relevant to any genuine “criticism” of his work: “To justify teaching Hemingway we must make his sexual bias a part of our study, rather than pretend that the matter is inartistic and therefore extracurricular” (p. 59). Scholes proceeds to “criticize” a passage from one of Hemingway's least known (and least representative) stories, “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot.” Because Scholes is practicing what he calls criticism, it is appropriate that he should evaluate the bias of Hemingway's “codes,” sexual or otherwise. The problem is that, like Fetterley, he fails to “read” Hemingway fairly.

The passage in question reads: “[Mr. Elliot] wanted to keep himself pure so that he could bring to his wife the same purity of mind and body that he expected of her. He called it to himself living straight. He had been in love with various girls before he kissed Mrs. Elliot and always told them sooner or later that he had led a clean life. Nearly all the girls lost interest in him.”12 Scholes's commentary includes the following observations: “Mr. Elliot keeps making the same mistake over and over again. His mistake, of course, is based upon a moral code that valorizes ‘straightness’ or sexual innocence and denigrates sexual experience. … This code is held up to ridicule by being measured against another code, valorized by the text itself, the code of a worldly wisdom that grounds itself in ‘reference’ and ‘truth.’ This code says that women may be accorded the place of innocence in American culture but, at bottom, they are sexual creatures and want only men who are sexually experienced enough to please them. … What women ‘really’ want is confirmed by a kind of behavioral test or opinion poll: ‘Nearly all the girls’ prefer what the text will call in the next sentence ‘rotters’. … To appreciate the humor we must accept, at least provisionally, the cultural code of the text: its knowing leer and its opinion of ‘girls’” (pp. 60-61).

Scholes proceeds to attack this code, as well he might. But I would question whether any such “code” is embedded in the quotation from Hemingway's story. Why do all the girls lose interest in Mr. Elliot? Is it because they are sexual creatures who want only men who are sexually experienced, as Scholes suggests? Or is it because they quickly come to see Mr. Elliot as insufferably smug, complacently insisting on his “cleanliness” while warning them (two sentences later) against other men who are “rotters” (his term for the unclean)? Just where is the knowing male leer in this paragraph? Rather than leer at the story's “girls,” we are invited to share their point of view. After all, we all come to adopt a satirical perspective toward the egregious Mr. Elliot. Perhaps we are all to blame for this, and perhaps Hemingway is to blame for writing such a “bitchy” story (as Scholes quite accurately labels it). But this is not a story about a good clean Christian who does not fit into a fallen modern world; rather, it is a story about a hypocritical prig who must finally endure his wife's affair with another woman. The “assumed audience” here is not “clearly male,” as Scholes asserts (p. 61), but anyone who relishes the exposure and debasement of a fool.

I can imagine at least two objections to what I have been doing. One is that nothing is at issue here but my quarrel with two specific interpretations. The second is that Fetterley and Scholes are simply two feminist critics among many.13 I can only say that I take the Fetterley and Scholes readings to be representative. I also take the critics themselves to be more than representative. Scholes is justly considered one of the most distinguished contemporary critics. Like most of us, Fetterley is less known, but I myself think that The Resisting Reader is a powerful book, especially in its readings of Anderson's “I Want to Know Why,” Faulkner's “A Rose for Emily,” and James's The Bostonians. I do not think that Scholes and Fetterley read Hemingway as they do because they are human and therefore err; I think their feminist approach leads them to “see” what is not there. It is very hard to submit oneself to the intentions of another. If one is fully committed to an ideological position, it may be impossible.

At this point a feminist would want to assert that the reader's ideological bias is precisely what she has been trying to point out all along. While admitting that such bias is real, I would still argue that it does not need to dominate critical reading as it dominates Fetterley's and Scholes's interpretations. I might add that I hardly take Hemingway to be “clean” so far as sexism is concerned. Readers of the Hemingway biographies and especially his letters know there is ample evidence of his racism, anti-Semitism, and male chauvinism. Identifying these strains in his work is still a complex matter, however. Consider, for example, his use of anti-Semitism to expose Mike Campbell and Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises, or his extremely sympathetic treatment of the woman's point of view in “Cat in the Rain” and “Hills Like White Elephants.” A feminist might reply that Hemingway exposes Campbell's and Gorton's prejudice but seems uncritical of Jake Barnes's milder version of the same disease, and that a couple of stories do not make much of a balance against the predominantly “male” Hemingway canon. Such a reply, carefully worked out in some detail, might well lead to a serious reassessment of Hemingway. It might even lead to his demotion. For this to occur, however, feminist critics are going to have to do a good deal more than they have done so far.14 And even if their work on writers such as Hemingway is more faithful to the text than has been the case, there remains the question of whether their approach is one that should lead to realignment of these writers within the canon. In my concluding section I hope to clarify what I mean by this question.


“Lest we throw out some fine babies with the bathwater, I ask for a skeptical and even suspicious reexamination of our inherited critical tools and canons. But to expose and reexamine is not always to replace.”15

“We may expect that our next decade will see even more vigorous feminist questioning of our criteria of aesthetic value, and even more drastic reestimations of the old masters.”16 In this statement Elaine Showalter introduces what I take to be two of the three major concerns of feminist criticism. The third, unmentioned concern is to resurrect or reinterpret women writers who have not received their due from the literary establishment. Like most critics, feminist and non-feminist, I believe that feminism's achievements in this area have been profound and permanent. The two cited concerns are more problematical. I have already argued that re-estimations of the old masters may be drastic indeed, if the evidence to date is a good indication of things to come. Let us hope that Showalter's goal—“a complete revolution in the understanding of our literary heritage”17—is not achieved by misreading as well as demoting writers such as Hemingway. Even more important, though, because it is central to the theory of feminist criticism, is the feminist questioning of our criteria of aesthetic value. This questioning is at the heart of the feminist project. It is also its most dangerous procedure.

Notice the interesting ambiguity in Showalter's formulation. Does feminism mean to question the specific criteria that are in place or the use of any aesthetic criteria (as opposed to other kinds, e.g., cultural, political) to determine the canon? The answer depends on the feminist one happens to be reading, for more moderate feminists seem to want revised criteria, while more radical feminists demand an end to aestheticism as the informing principle of our literary histories. I think that Annette Kolodny represents the more moderate position, while Jane Tompkins speaks for the more radical view. In each case, however, our most cherished notions about the aesthetic value of texts are obviously under siege.

All feminists start with the assumption that “every text can be seen as in some sense a political gesture and more specifically as a gesture determined by a complex of assumptions about male-female relations, assumptions we might call sexual poetics.”18 Because this is true, and because all claims to “universal” aesthetic values are wishful thinking, critics such as Kolodny insist that we must reconsider the standards by which we make our canons: “since the grounds upon which we assign aesthetic value to texts are never infallible, unchangeable, or universal, we must reexamine not only our aesthetics but, as well, the inherent biases and assumptions informing the critical methods which (in part) shape our aesthetic responses.”19 As the quotation that heads this section would suggest, however, Kolodny does not think this reexamination will necessarily do away with all the old masters, nor does she argue that we should abandon aesthetic questions altogether. Instead, we should reshape our aesthetic views in the light of what we now believe about “the inherent biases and assumptions” that inform our methods. Such revision will lead to a more comprehensive canon, not an altogether new one. Referring to the new Columbia and Cambridge histories of American literature, Kolodny is quite explicit about this last point: “the success of these projects will be measured not by their finality but by their success in offering information and cognitive skills that enable readers to appreciate a fuller variety of texts than those which now comprise our standard canon.”20 I agree with this goal and much else in Kolodny's argument, which I have only begun to sketch here; but I would add that these projects should also be judged by what they offer concerning the standard canon, those old masters and mistresses (however few) who will now be surrounded by other figures but who will still be major presences. So long as we are engaged with Hemingway (or Emerson, or Thoreau, or Hawthorne, or Melville), we should ask our literary historians to present information and cognitive skills that will help us to understand the aesthetic value of the writer's works as well as their political or cultural implications.

My obvious skepticism about the fate of the old masters in a feminist literary history can of course be dismissed as nostalgic elitism. In any case, what I have just said about understanding the writer's works will certainly be seen as a very old-fashioned aestheticism, for I seem to imply that the political and cultural implications of a work are irrelevant to its value. And in fact I do believe that the aesthetic achievement of most works is only partially conditioned by their political implications. So I am not likely to agree with Jane Tompkins that “works that have attained the status of classic, and are therefore believed to embody universal values, are in fact embodying only the interests of whatever parties or factions are responsible for maintaining them in their preeminent position.”21 Tompkins' book, Sensational Designs, is an extremely forceful plea for this view, reminding us that we speak quite confidently of, say, Melville's “universality” while neglecting the obvious fact that in his own time Melville was not even popular, let alone a classic. Tompkins also reminds us that to some extent a writer's continuing reputation depends on literary assumptions that are always shifting and which therefore produce revised canons—each of which we then see as universal and permanent. Tompkins points out that all anthologists—all canon-makers—agree that their “main” criterion of selection is literary excellence. For Tompkins, this reveals their common misconception of what makes a classic: “while the term ‘literary excellence’ or ‘literary value’ remains constant over time, its meaning—what literary excellence turns out to be in each case—does not. Contrary to what [Perry] Miller believed, great literature does not exert its force over and against time, but changes with the changing currents of social and political life.”22 We take Hawthorne and Melville to be the major writers of the American Renaissance because we have been taught to see them this way. Our anthologists and teachers have devised “universal” aesthetic standards to justify their choices. Fifty years from now they will be championing other figures (perhaps Longfellow's time will come round again); new aesthetic standards will be in place, presumably just as “universal” as those underlying the enshrinement of Hawthorne, Melville, Hemingway, and other white male authors.

Despite the many good points she makes, I cannot agree with Tompkins' conclusions because she takes her relativism so far as to argue that a canon based on aesthetic standards is impossible. As Kolodny remarks in a passage quoted earlier, the grounds upon which we assign aesthetic value to texts are never infallible, unchangeable, or universal. This should make us quite cautious about the conclusions we reach, but why should it force us to abandon them altogether? All values may be relative, as people had begun to suspect long before Foucault and Derrida, but this does not require us to throw up our hands if asked to decide whether Nathaniel Hawthorne or Susan Warner is the better writer. Tompkins argues quite seriously that this question is unanswerable, that Warner's intentions are so different from Hawthorne's they cannot be compared. I agree that Warner's didactic purposes have biased many critics against her work and made useful comparisons with a writer such as Hawthorne virtually impossible. But I cannot see that such comparisons are intrinsically impossible. Once we realize that Warner wrote a certain kind of fiction (apologues) and Hawthorne another kind (dramatic actions), we can proceed to evaluate how well each writer realized the possibilities of his or her chosen form.23 And once we have done that, we can then try to weigh their relative claims as writers of fiction. Let us grant that our standards and assumptions are not ordained by some higher power, critical or metaphysical; let us grant too that our own individual judgments may be culturally biased. Is this really a good argument to stop making such judgments? As critics why must we pursue “ideological codes” instead of aesthetic excellence, as Kolodny says the feminist critic wishes to do?24 The pursuit of ideological codes is perfectly appropriate, but so, I would argue, is the pursuit of aesthetic excellence. So long as the critic gives sufficient indication of what he or she means by such excellence, I can see no reason why we should not continue the serious critical game of assessing those human artifacts we take to be literature.

It follows, of course, that we should also continue to structure our anthologies—our canons—in the light of such assessments. We should be skeptical but not dismissive about the standards involved. Nina Baym is right, for instance, when she argues that the major American literary histories have tended to take “Americanness” as the crucial feature of an American classic while defining “Americanness” in terms appropriate to white males but not to most of the people who are in fact Americans.25 But I think that Baym and others draw the wrong conclusions from her evidence. If we wish to write literary histories in which “Americanness” is the crucial criterion for selection and evaluation, then what we need are better models than those provided in the famous literary histories Baym discusses. Better yet, we might wonder whether the kind of cultural history written by Leo Marx, Henry Nash Smith, and others (no matter how skillful) is truly informed by the criterion of literary excellence. As I understand it, such a criterion might well lead us to dismiss a writer no matter how “representative” he or she is (as I would dismiss Susan Warner, frankly, no matter how popular she was in her own time and no matter how many interesting “ideas” Tompkins finds in her books).

Indeed, the real problem with a feminist literary history is that it does not so much replace the faulty procedures of Marx, Smith, et al., as it offers an even more thoroughgoing cultural approach to the study of literature. Again, the question is not whether this is a legitimate enterprise. The question is whether it is the best approach for a truly literary history of American writing.26 If one agrees with Tompkins and other feminists that literary works should be studied as “attempts to redefine the social order,”27 or as efforts (conscious or unconscious) to embody the cultural codes of a particular time, then one will find feminist literary history an exciting prospect. Those of us who do not value all (or even most) works of literature for these reasons will hardly share Buell's enthusiasm for a feminist revisionism. Aesthetic standards may be elitist and they are certainly relative. But they do allow us to assess the writer's success in embodying his or her intentions, didactic or otherwise. And this, for many of us, will remain the primary, if by no means the only, goal of literary history.

I will close by quoting from Cathy N. Davidson's Revolution and the Word. This book is one of the best products of the feminist movement; anyone interested in the origins of American fiction will find it invaluable. Yet there is something missing in this otherwise excellent study, and I think the missing element is suggested by a late passage in which Davidson lists the reasons many Americans are excluded from American literary histories: “Moreover, a uniform American literature defines a uniform American and, by extension and implication, excludes those who do not fit the definition by reasons of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, class, education, wealth, region, place of origin (as with immigrants or, conversely, Native Americans), or language.”28 This is a version of Baym's argument, for we are again told that many American writers and their texts are excluded from the canon because their contents do not fit the “preferred” critical model. Notice that virtually every standard is included in Davidson's long list except achievement. The real thrust of Davidson's work—and that of most feminist critics—is to protest the use of aesthetic standards to judge some works better than others. Those of us who feel that some works are better than others may be well advised to reconsider the standards by which we arrive at and defend such judgments, but we are very ill-advised indeed by the feminist critic who suggests that we abandon such judgments altogether. Davidson's book is a fine achievement, but it would be better yet if she were more interested in assessing the many works she describes so carefully and analyzes for their cultural implications.

Let me repeat my point. The new canon, like the new Columbia and Cambridge literary histories, will be larger and more diverse, and it will be studied from a broader range of critical perspectives including the cultural or sociological. So be it. But if the new canon should exclude writers such as Hemingway while embracing Susan Warner, then I for one would prefer to leave the teaching of it to others. I say this not because I think there is no value in teaching Warner, or that Hemingway is beyond criticism, but because such teaching would have much to do with culture and relatively little to do with the experience most of us know as literature.29


  1. “Literary History Without Sexism? Feminist Studies and Canonical Reconception,” American Literature, 59 (1987), 102-14.

  2. Buell, p. 114.

  3. I would recommend the following books as especially relevant to the American canon: Nina Baym, Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870 (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977); Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1978); Wendy Martin, An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, and Adrienne Rich (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984); Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985); Cathy N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986).

  4. Adelaide Morris, “Locutions and Locations: More Feminist Theory and Practice, 1985,” College English, 49 (1987), 466.

  5. Annette Kolodny, “Some Notes on Defining a ‘Feminist Literary Criticism,’” Critical Inquiry, 2 (1975), 90.

  6. Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 58-59.

  7. A Farewell to Arms: Hemingway's ‘Resentful Cryptogram,’” The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 46-71. Page references in the next three paragraphs are to this text.

  8. Kolodny, for example, “enthusiastically” recommends The Resisting Reader. See “A Map for Rereading: Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts,” in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985), p. 62, n.35. The feminist reply to Fetterley is by Joyce Wexler, “E.R.A. for Hemingway: A Feminist Defense of A Farewell to Arms,Georgia Review, 35 (1981), 111-23.

  9. See Wexler, pp. 112, 118.

  10. See Ernest Hemingway, “Introduction,” A Farewell to Arms (New York: Scribners, 1948), pp. vii-viii.

  11. Scholes, p. 40. Page references in the next three paragraphs are to this text.

  12. “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot,” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Scribners, 1938), p. 159.

  13. It may seem odd to refer to Scholes as a feminist critic. Indeed, he employs other critical methods throughout the rest of his commentary on Hemingway in Textual Power. Is it an accident that his non-feminist critiques are uniformly excellent, whereas his brief venture into literary feminism seems so dubious?

  14. Mark Spilka's recent work on Hemingway is a good start. See especially “Hemingway and Fauntleroy: An Androgynous Pursuit,” in American Novelists Revisited: Essays in Feminist Criticism, ed. Fritz Fleischmann (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982), pp. 339-70. I would also recommend several other essays in this volume: Nina Baym on Hawthorne, Nina Auerbach on James, and Judith Bryant Wittenberg on Faulkner.

  15. Annette Kolodny, “The Feminist as Literary Critic,” Critical Inquiry, 2 (1976), 829.

  16. Elaine Showalter, “Introduction: The Feminist Critical Revolution,” The New Feminist Criticism, p. 6.

  17. Showalter, p. 10.

  18. Sandra M. Gilbert, “What Do Feminist Critics Want? A Postcard from the Volcano,” in The New Feminist Criticism, p. 31.

  19. Annette Kolodny, “Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism,” in The New Feminist Criticism, p. 151.

  20. “The Integrity of Memory: Creating a New Literary History of the United States,” American Literature, 57 (1985), 301. For statements of editorial purpose concerning these projects, see Sacvan Bercovitch, “America as Canon and Context: Literary History in a Time of Dissensus,” American Literature, 58 (1986), 99-108, and Emory Elliott, “New Literary History: Past and Present,” American Literature, 57 (1985), 611-21, and “The Politics of Literary History,” American Literature, 59 (1987), 268-76.

  21. Tompkins, p. 4.

  22. Tompkins, p. 192.

  23. For these formal distinctions as applied to English novelists, see Sheldon Sacks, Fiction and the Shape of Belief (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1964). For a book-length discussion of modern apologues, see David H. Richter, Fable's End: Completeness and Closure in Rhetorical Fiction (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1974). Tompkins cites neither Sacks nor Richter, but she rather unmistakably treats writers such as Warner and Stowe as apologians. For a discussion of Hawthorne as a creator of dramatic actions, see my article, “Another Look at the American Romance,” Modern Philology, 78 (1981), 379-92.

  24. “Dancing Through the Minefield,” p. 147.

  25. “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors,” in The New Feminist Criticism, pp. 63-80.

  26. On the question of what a truly literary approach to literary history should be, see R. S. Crane, Critical and Historical Principles of Literary History (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971).

  27. Tompkins, p. xi. To be fair, Tompkins here refers to the formal purpose behind a specific body of works, so-called women's fiction of the nineteenth century. But I think there is a strong tendency in feminist criticism to see most all literature in this light.

  28. Davidson, p. 256.

  29. I should add that Tompkins denies that her purpose is “to drag Hawthorne and Melville from their pedestals” (p. 126). As she says elsewhere, “My purpose is not to depreciate classic works but to reveal their mutability” (p. 4). Nonetheless, given the standards that Tompkins recommends we adopt for future study of American literature, writers such as Warner and Stowe must necessarily come to seem more relevant than Hawthorne and Melville. Perhaps this is not to “depreciate” these writers and their “classic works,” but it is certainly to find them less important than they have seemed for at least the last sixty years.

Margot Norris (essay date Winter 1994)

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SOURCE: “The Novel as War: Lies and Truth in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 689-710.

[In the following essay, Norris uses reader-response criticism to argue that Hemingway uses the love story in the novel to turn readers' attention from the brutal realities of war.]

The project of reevaluating Modernism in terms of the political interests that informed its formalistic claims has particularly questioned the aesthetics of the American moderns—Pound, Eliot, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. Hemingway's style has suffered an especially damaging translation into its ideological determinants—for example, Walter Benn Michaels reading the signature of simplicity (“nice” “good” “true”) in Hemingway's miraculously clean prose as the transformation of racism (“breeding”) into aesthetics (196). While revisionary skepticism has, of course, regularly followed praise of Hemingway throughout his publication history, contemporary ideological criticism—in which New Historicism has taken the lead—proposes a much broader challenge of the formalist New Critical canonization (“It is the discipline of the code that makes man human, a sense of style or good form” [Warren 80])1 of Modernism. At this stage a project both impelled by this revisionary impulse, yet poised to challenge its cruder political indictments of Hemingway, might productively launch a sharply focused interrogation of the rhetorical and narrative maneuvers that constitute his troubled and troublesome ethic. By using textualist strategies that revisit the tensions between narrative unreliabilities (that have traditionally been recognized) and their function to alert the reader to their own power of rhetorical manipulation, one can demonstrate in Hemingway's novelistic treatment of World War I a series of thoughtful and shrewd maneuvers to challenge the desires and resistances that readers bring to war novels. By treating plotting and style, narrative and dialogue, as self-conscious exercises by which Hemingway recognizes (and shows that he recognizes) that even novelistic writing is inevitably enmeshed in an ethical function (veracity, lying, self-deception, misdirection, etc.), Hemingway's textual practices lose some of their transparency and take on the self-reflexive sophistication more usually imputed to his modernist contemporaries. While this does not solve the problem of judging the residues of either authenticity or bad faith that survive in writing when the courage to tell the truth is transformed into the courage to betray that one is lying, the Hemingway who writes A Farewell to Arms brings to his text an ethical sophistication that contrasts sharply with that of his character and narrator, Frederic Henry.

In A Farewell to Arms the stakes of “writing truly” take on special seriousness as a fictive witness to the unknowabilities of war. The novel therefore provides an excellent opportunity for testing for patterns of self-reflection that reveal an authorial willingness to problematize the ethical status of modernistic poetics. What can be demonstrated, I believe, is that Hemingway inscribes attention to ethical discourse into speech acts within and outside the narrative—an inscription that relates discrepancies between speaking truly and writing truly to problems of reception that plague ideologically invested fiction—particularly novels of love and war. We can begin by noting in A Farewell to Arms a moment in which Hemingway appears to stage the obverse of Walter Benn Michaels' formulation, when he shows figures transforming aestheticism into racism. When Catherine Barkley produces the lovely Shakespearean locution, “Othello with his occupation gone” (257),2 Frederic Henry transforms her poetry according to the modernistic poetic into the form of the short declarative sentence, whose valued simplicity is here a stark brutality: “Othello was a nigger” (257). But without attempting to separate Frederic's ugly sentiment from Hemingway's own demonstrable racism, this dialogue with its poetic juxtapositions can be read as a complex set of speech acts intended to foreground, rather than ignore or excuse, a hatefulness of character in the protagonist.3 Catherine's Shakespearean lines, intended as a tactful reference to the lassitude brought on by Frederic's desertion, inadvertently places him in a painfully embarrassing moral contrast to the courageous, victorious Moor. The vicious epithet with which he responds is meant to assault and negate the ground of contrast, but serves instead to foreground Frederic's cowardice, desertion, racism, and bad faith. But the dialogue supplements this tacit moral with a generic gloss. Catherine's poetry textualizes Frederic and interpolates him into a Shakespearean play in which—as in A Farewell to Arms itself—the war story and the love story are peculiarly implicated in each other. The allusion complicates the generic question which has plagued the novel since its publication4 by raising the possibility that Hemingway here, as elsewhere, makes a self-reflexive gesture to foreground the mutually seductive relationship of war and love stories that ultimately corrupts and perjures both. Othello and A Farewell to Arms are, of course, opposites: in the former a war story is used for seduction in love; in the latter a love story seduces readers into misreading a war story.

As I will argue in a moment, Hemingway produces, and uses, critical resistance to facing and censuring Frederic Henry's hatefulnesses, in order to demonstrate reception's power to warp and suborn texts—especially fictions of love and war. He thereby has A Farewell to Arms perform, or stage, the lying about war induced by reception, by the desire of listeners or readers to evade its truths, that in earlier war texts he merely thematized. “Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie” (243), Hemingway wrote of the returning veteran in his sketch “Soldier's Home.” In telling and writing his own war story, he feels he faces a similar problem—namely that in order to be listened to, in order to give the novel a popular reception in the United States, he has to mask his war story as a love story. He thereby subordinates his preferred style, the philosophical naturalism he tests in his sketch “A Natural History of the Dead,” to the signature simplicity that seems to disavow rhetorical intentions, by appearing to absorb rhetoric so completely into representation that what remains is a residue of guileless and “true” discourse. In “A Natural History of the Dead,” published three years after the novel as a satirical disquisition in chapter 12 of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway effectively demonstrates why he wrote A Farewell to Arms as he did. One is tempted to construe the essay's displacement, its being somewhat “out of place” in its textual homes (it was later included as a short story in Winner Take Nothing),5 as symptomatic of its moral exile as an unwanted and transgressive text: that should have found its proper place and function in Hemingway's World War I novel.

In its version in Death in the Afternoon, which includes the components of the Old lady, “A Natural History of the Dead” may be read as an allegory of modern reading, supplementing the satirical treatment of the ideologies of eighteenth and nineteenth century naturalists and twentieth century New Humanists, for which the essay is usually read (Beegel). In the mock dialogue with the Old lady, the mock Author sets out to shock her with increasingly horrific descriptions of the physiology of dead male and female bodies, of battlefield trauma, euthanasia, and sadistic doctors, under the guise of empirical objectivity and detachment (“war has been omitted as a field for the observations of the naturalist” [133]). This mock Socratic dialogue is figured as a combat of reciprocal violence between an author prepared to assault the reader's sensibility with brutal truths and little tact, and a passively aggressive bourgeois reader whose complacency insulates her from being disturbed by his story's provocations. In this exteriorized truth-telling of the hidden coercions and aggressions that govern the compact of narrative reception, the author presents a version of the true story of war as he would actually like to tell it, and dramatizes the responses that make it clear why he cannot: readers are less interested in the violence and cruelty that is the truth of war than in their own comfort and pleasure as readers. Thus the Old lady does not much like the title of “A Natural History of the Dead”—“You may very well not like any of it,” (133) he tells her—nor his justification for the graphic descriptions of body fragments he picked from the barbed wire around the exploded Milan munitions factory. To her “This is not amusing” (137), the Author snaps, “Stop reading it then. Nobody makes you read it” (137). But in practice, A Farewell to Arms gives the Old lady exactly the war novel she desires: “I like it whenever you write about love” (138).

However urgent Hemingway's sense of war as requiring a special testimonial veracity—“It was one of the major subjects and certainly one of the hardest to write truly of” (Green Hills of Africa [70])—he perhaps promises less to write of war truly than to write truly about what makes it “one of the hardest to write truly of.” The answer lies deeply embedded in the phenomenology of war itself, and in the essential disjunction between its discourses and its activity, its ideologies and its materiality, its justifications and its facts. “The essential structure of war, its juxtaposition of the extreme facts of body and voice, resides in the relation between its own largest parts, the relation between the collective casualties that occur within war, and the verbal issues (freedom, national sovereignty, the right to a disputed ground, the extra-territorial authority of a particular ideology) that stand outside war,” Elaine Scarry writes (63).6 Hemingway, of course, seems to thematize just this point, when he has his narrator, Frederic Henry, declare “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice … I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it” (184). But we should be wary of trusting Frederic's demystification of patriotic cant, however seductive its allegiance to the hard, concrete words of the modernistic poetic (“Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates” [185]). It fails as a warrant of the kind of truth-telling we feel promised by the fiction of rhetorical self-identity associated with Hemingway's style (“the facts shall be so rightly ordered that they will speak for themselves7”. For all the verbal purity it thematizes, A Farewell to Arms is riven with inconsistencies and ruptures that call attention to themselves—between words and actions, words and words (particularly those of Frederic Henry the character and Frederic Henry the narrator), genres and genres. These inconsistencies are designed, I believe, to test the reader's resistance to other hypocrisies, cant, and bad faith. This ethical focus on war as a rhetorical problem—as a site of contradictions and disjunctions between its language and its unadorned material “reality” as violence—will shape the specialized, and perhaps inevitably reductive, sense of the term “war” as it is used in this essay. Insofar as it belongs to the rhetorical structure of war to mask and disavow its violence and cruelties with sentiment and idealism, the layering of the love story and the war story in A Farewell to Arms can be treated as an analogue to the duplicitous discourses often produced by war. Looked at in this way, A Farewell to Arms becomes less a novel about war than a novel as war, a text whose own relationship between what is said (or not said) and what is shown (or not shown) is constructed on the model of war's own possibilities of bad faith.

In writing A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway achieved a double maneuver whose outcome is a deliberate, if deliberately ineffectual, textual self-betrayal. He will have it both ways, writing the war novel readers want (a love story that transforms war casualties into the more sentimental forms of maternal and infant mortality) while thematizing and dramatizing his “lying” in a way that both discloses and conceals the narrative perjury delivered in its testimony about World War I. “How many had I killed?” Frederic Henry is asked about the Austrians. “I had not killed any but I was anxious to please—and I said I had killed plenty” (94). In fact, he kills (with help) only one man—the Italian sergeant who refuses to help him move his truck. But the narration of that act makes it very clear that this particular war casualty is produced by an act of cold-blooded murder. Readerly resistance to accepting this point (and its larger ramification, that the violence of war permits and produces much such murder) was clearly understood not only by Hemingway, but by Fitzgerald as well. Fitzgerald patently had no compunction about pointing the narration of war in the direction of readerly reception and readerly desire:

I had a long letter sent over by F. Scott Fitzgerald in which among other things he said I must not under any circumstance let Lt. Henry shoot the sergeant and suggesting that after Catherine dies Frederic [sic] Henry should go to the cafe and pick up a paper and read that the Marines were holding in Chateau Thierry. This, Scott said, would make the American public understand the book better. He also did not like the scene in the old Hotel Cavour in Milano and wanted changes to be made in other places ‘to make it more acceptable’.

(Letter to Charles Poore, 23 January 1953 in Baker, 800)8

Fitzgerald was right: the shooting of the sergeant would require much tortured critical apology to keep Frederic a hero, and critics of the 1980's were no more comfortable with the passage than Fitzgerald—“How we meet our fate is everything in Papa's world, and it is unlikely that he would have made his protagonist in this, one of his best novels, anything but honorable. Frederic Henry shoots the sergeant because, by the cold logic of war, that is what is required of him” (Nolan 274).9

Hemingway seems to have set up a double system of testimony in which his style determines its ethical value in a perverse test against readerly desire. Truth is less a fidelity to experience than an act of narrative aggression: a willingness to frustrate and disappoint readers by telling them not what they want to hear, but what they don't want to hear. A story that would make Frederic Henry dishonorable is intolerable to a reader and critic like Charles Nolan. But Papa's concern with how we meet our fate extends to readers as well as soldiers. In his writing, therefore, the warrant of truth is not a historical referent, a fact, but the courage to inflict a cruelty (in the form of a cruel truth) that rhetorically replicates the aggression of combat. Insofar as it embeds this cruel truth in an ideology that American soldiers must, at all costs, be portrayed as honorable, the novel also replicates the “cold” logic (that can mask murder as duty and honor) of war. That is why I say A Farewell to Arms is less a novel about war than (figuratively) a novel as war.

Because “writing truly” seemed to imply claims to historical accuracy, Hemingway's World War I experience has been consistently tested for its ethical reliability as a script to the novel—in spite of Hemingway's own disclaimers (“Remember Charlie in the first war all I did mostly was hear guys talk; especially in hospital and convalescing. Their experiences get to be more vivid than your own. You invent from your own and from all of theirs” [Letter to Charles Poole, Baker, 800]). Hemingway's stylistic ethic was thought to have placed a great burden on the discursive proportion and economy with which war experience is narrated (Beach, 82), because it has displaced the heroic from soldierly action onto writerly action, and situated heroism in the act of truth-telling and veracious witness. James Nagel's 1989 “Hemingway and the Italian Legacy”10 is perhaps the most rigorous and convincing examination of this period of Hemingway's life, and his meticulous sifting of fact and fiction produces much precise information and correction of the biography, and biographical idolatry (compare Ernest Hemingway, Man of Courage). Nagel confirms that Hemingway was not a lieutenant in the Italian army (“Hemingway was in the Red Cross at all times, never in any army or combative position” 252) and “Contrary to many people's impressions, Hemingway did not receive his injuries while serving as an ambulance driver” (22). He was, in fact, a dispenser of refreshments, hit after only six days of canteen service while handing out chocolate to soldiers. Nagel treats as unverifiable Hemingway's account in his 18 August 1918 letter to his parents, that he carried a wounded Italian on his back while his legs were full of shrapnel (“The 227 wounds I got from the trench mortar didn't hurt a bit at the time. … They couldn't figure out how I had walked 150 yards with a load with both knees shot through and my right shoe punctured two big places [sic]. Also over 200 flesh wounds” [Selected Letters 14]). According to Nagel, “Ernest's suggestion that even after he was hit by machine-gun bullets he still assisted a wounded soldier, walking 150 yards, cannot be confirmed with certainty” (221).

Whether or not the wounded Hemingway carried the wounded soldier on his back, he clearly understood—in translating the story to fiction—the ambiguous ethical economy of the equivocal story. Heroism is not served by a perjured testimony that fails to compel belief, and Hemingway decides to have Frederic Henry earn his moral credit by truth-telling rather than by self-sacrifice—“‘They say if you can prove you did any heroic act you can get the silver. … Did you do any heroic act?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘I was blown up while we were eating cheese”’ (63). Frederic's candor earns his narrative a credulity that would serve the reader better by strain—particularly because his motives are themselves undecidable. For example, Frederic may have resisted fabricating false heroic tales because he feared skepticism of their implausibilities—“Gordini says you carried several people on your back but the medical major at the first post declares it is impossible” (63). In the end, in spite of his disclaimers (“I didn't carry anybody. I couldn't move” [63]), Frederic receives the underserved decorations (“‘Did you get the boxes with the medals?’ … ‘The boxes will come later”’ [164]) and like Hemingway (who received his medal in the mail rather than from the hand of the Italian King or from General Diaz, as his brother Leicester claimed [Nagel, 253-254]) he wears them (“I opened my cape so he could see the two ribbons” [164]). Is wearing an unearned decoration a lie? If so, does the falsity of Frederic the character impugn the honesty of Frederic the narrator, to whose credibility we are subject as readers? The question is important because the text continually invites us to match Frederic's words, both as character and as narrator, with his experiences and his deeds, and the two are not always in accord.11

The critical tradition has long invested ethical value in Hemingway's stylistic strategy of verbal economy, whose quantitative calculus is one of reduction and subtraction, and whose qualitative form is one of containment and the prevention of excess or spillage.12 Less is more, in the stylistic morality of the Hemingway discourse, and truth is invested in silence rather than speech. Unlike the voluble Italians in A Farewell to Arms who always say too much, and whose excess produces the inflation and the lie that damage credibility, the laconic Frederic practices a stoicism in which the suppression of truth and its investment in conspicuous silence are simultaneously equated with a manly virtue. “We have heroes too,” Catherine Barkley sniffs at the boasting Ettore Moretti, “But usually, darling, they're much quieter” (124). The problem this specific ethical coding of language creates in the text is that it privileges gaps and omissions as signs of candor and courage by denying their opposite functions as lies or deceptions. The modernistic poetic of simplicity depends on formal principles of selection that are not purely aesthetic and ethically neutral. They depend, indeed, on the rigorous rhetorical control of a variety of unaesthetic contents (pain, excessive feeling, erratic behaviors, filth and poverty, masses and crowds, etc.).13 The equation of verbal form with moral control creates an ethical economy in which truth in the modernistic poetic is itself reckoned as a disfiguring addition—an excess, excrescence, and waste—that must be expelled from discourse and occluded. Hemingway chooses to have the text of A Farewell to Arms perform or act out the thematized relationship between containment and truth.

In the novel, the narrative describing Catherine's preparation of Frederic for surgery rigorously suppresses the procedure named in Hemingway's early sketch for the novel called “A Very Short Story” (“When they operated on him she prepared him for the operating table; and they had a joke about friend or enema” [239]). In describing this operation, the discourse of Frederic the narrator obeys Catherine's injunction that Frederic the character censor his thoughts and words, while Catherine's actions perversely reverse her words: while violating the containment of Frederic's bowels, she enjoins him not to violate his verbal containment—“And, darling, when you're going under the ether just think about something else—not us. Because people get very blabby under an anaesthetic” (103). Instead of describing the action, the enema he receives at Catherine's hands, Frederic doubles or repeats her interdiction: his censorship thus fronts itself with her censorship to shield the reader from an unaesthetic and unerotic image. This novelistic moment might be seen as paradigmatic of the novel as a whole, as the tightly controlled and contained love story—that articulates its own control and containment—is offered to shield the reader from unappealing and appalling images of war. The narration, like the text, enacts a euphemism—(“Now you're all clean inside and out” [104]; “I was clean inside and outside and waiting for the doctor” [105])—to avoid naming the figurative excrements—the moral squalor and cruelties—we would rather deny as a feature of war.

By juxtaposing dirty and clean with truth and lying, the text puts in place a tropology of discourse that constitutes the “clean” prose of Modernism by expelling the dirty and embarrassing truths of love and war, and by expelling the realism of its more vulgar and obscene discourses (“they had a joke about friend or enema”). At the same time, the text does not lie as much as it performs or stages the logic and practice of lying. Thus the narration performs the lovers' discourse at the same time that it thematizes it as a compact of lying. When Catherine asks Frederic how many women he has had, he says “None”:

“You're lying to me.”


“It's all right. Keep right on lying to me. That's what I want you to do. …”


Catherine, of course, wants a lie spoken that she herself does not believe, and she asks Frederic to extend his lying to other discourses of love—between men and their prostitutes, for example—“Does she say she loves him? Tell me that. …” “Yes. If he wants her to.” The complicity of lying is extended to the point where it turns back on itself and can no longer speak a truth. When Catherine asks Frederic if he ever told other women that he loved them, he, of course, lies about having lied to them:

“But you never did? Really?”


“Not really. Tell me the truth.”

“No,” I lied.


The result of the compact of lying between Catherine and Frederic is that he tells her lies that she knows, and desires, as lies.

The echoic structure of the novel's dialogues (like the mirrored structure of some of its incidents, as I will discuss later) makes discourse reciprocal on many textual levels: between the lovers, between the love story and the war story, between the text and its readers as the text tells readers what they want to hear and readers interpret the text as the narration prompts them to interpret it. The structure borrows, as Hemingway is no doubt perfectly aware, from the narcissism of Romanticism—both in its Shelleyan versions of having lovers constructed as siblings, twins, or symmetrical types, and its Victorian revisitations most prominent in the passions of Wuthering Heights (“I am Heathcliff”)—the novel that Catherine and Frederic, in naming their unborn offspring “young Catherine,” appear tacitly to claim as their eponym. By thematizing the lovers' narcissism as constructed on the principle of the mirror and the echo—Catherine's “I do anything you want” [106] and its dialogical version of “I say anything you want” in the novel—Hemingway maps the politics of the male author onto the representations within the text. Female representation (and self-representation) is thematically staged as a product of male desire constructed as a double mirror (men creating women as conforming themselves to male fantasies of women). If Catherine, the character, is a male construction, a male lie about what women say to men, she at least announces that she is a construction of male desire, a product of doing, saying, and being whatever Frederic wants, or whatever she imagines Frederic wants—“I'll be a fine new and different girl for you” (304). The precious quality of some of Catherine and Frederic's “love talk” results from the mirror-like quality of the reciprocity produced by the mandate to say what the other wants to hear. During their tryst in the Milan hotel room before Frederic is shipped back to the front, they engage in a dialogue in which his part consists largely of a catalogue of terms of endearment prompted by Catherine's need to avert the argument (“Oh, hell, I thought, do we have to argue now?” [152]) threatened by her feeling of degradation (“I never felt like a whore before” [152]). Her corrective—“Come over, please. I'm a good girl again” (152)—is repeated by Frederic (“You're my good girl” [153]) and elaborated throughout their talk with a set of aesthetic adjectival variations (“You're a lovely girl”. … “You're a grand girl”. … “You're a fine simple girl” [153]) that Catherine herself affirms at the end of the set, “I am a simple girl” (153). The product of this reductive and repetitive amorous taxonomy is to make Catherine an empty girl, a cipher (Millicent Bell calls her an “inflated rubber woman available at will to the onanistic dreamer” [114]). The text refuses to divulge or even imagine a “true” content for Catherine or to break the discursive containment that makes her a mere vessel for an imagined male desire. Her fate is virtually allegorical: to deliver only a dead male, a male form rather than the reincarnated version of her female self (“young Catherine”) that she desired. Catherine dies as though her only rhetorical content or self had been spilled by her delivery, in a gesture cruelly figurative of her poetic status as male echo in this text.

But my purpose in exploring the mirrored and echo-like structures of the love story and its discourses is less to judge its politics than to make visible the role discursive symmetries and reciprocities play in reception. The lovers are shown creating a set of scripts that textualize their situation, that turn their communications into a poetic dialogue geared to appease each other's sense of aesthetic pleasure, and each other's expectations of how lovers speak in love stories. The ethical issues of the novel's sexual politics are thereby located more interestingly in its manipulation of the reader and the novel's reception than in its role as either representation or behavioral model for the sexes. Furthermore, by focusing the crux of the love story on its effects as a story, I plan to argue that in thematizing itself as an instrument for producing and controlling readerly desire, it makes visible the far more obscure and disturbing politics of the war story's narrative effects. In this way, the love story and the war story can be read against each other, as forming an interpretive system that opens alternatives and challenges to more traditional thematic and philosophical readings. For example, in addition to interpreting love as the “separate peace” that permits escape and redemption in a world of war, or love as entrapment and subjection to the malevolent fate that governs war, love may also be seen as an experience that parallels war in its obligation to conform to the idealistic and aesthetic expectations of those to whom it is told. By treating love and war as narrations by the same voice, the same figure and subjectivity, the reader can test the ideology and philosophy of one against the other, and thereby identify astounding contradictions, disjunctions, and hypocrisies that confound both sentimental and nihilistic readings of the novel's ending.

Specifically, Frederic's narration offers us two intimate testimonies to the fact of death—the Italian sergeant's and Catherine's—that test both his logic and his ethics, his sense of conceptual order and his sense of responsibility and justice. Frederic's failure to acknowledge that both deaths (not only the one he suffers, but also the one he inflicts) must be weighed as evidence in his philosophical meditations on fate and cosmic justice, produces a corresponding refusal and resistance in the reader to deprivilege and demythify certain habits of reading and interpretation. The result is that the novel is read much as war itself is frequently read or understood: with philosophical and ideological rationalizations denying and occluding both violence and responsibility. But before comparing Frederic's comportment toward death in his double role—how he acts, and what he says, in relation to the deaths that surround him—it is necessary to examine three episodes of the Caporetto retreat as tests of self-presentation and narrative consistency: the soldiers and the virgins, Frederic's killing of the sergeant, and his desertion in the face of execution.

By having the love story frame the Caporetto retreat, Hemingway surrounds the war story with the love story in a way that causes the conventions of one to contaminate and distort the conventions of the other. Readers interpret the war incidents through the filter of the love story, and submit both narratives to a moral ideology that conflates eros and agape to equate the lover, the man with the ability to love, with the goodness of the good man. But in A Farewell to Arms, this conventional pressure will warp the moral equation in such peculiar and sinister ways that one overlooks the lover's equivocal relation to wartime rape, and unequivocal relation to wartime murder. Frederic's treatment of vulnerable women at the front participates in a brutal and ugly ritual of war: threatening very young girls with rape. Frederic's narrative account of this incident gives the reader ample information to assess the extent to which the provincial pubescent sisters are being terrorized: “Every time he said the word the girl stiffened a little. Then sitting stiffly and looking at him she began to cry. I saw her lips working and then tears came down her plump cheeks. … The older one, who had been so fierce, began to sob” (196). Yet the text implictly allows Frederic's tenderness to Catherine to carry over as a dubious warrant for their safety, as though he would let nothing happen to the girls. As a result we are barely prompted to remark Frederic's own threatening gestures toward the girls—“’All right,’ I said and patted her knee. I felt her stiffen away when I touched her. … Aymo put his hand on the elder girl's thigh and she pushed it away. He laughed at her” (196). Nor does the text encourage us to notice Frederic's refusal to intervene, as commanding officer, in the menacing conduct of his men, or to grasp the import of his sleepy thoughts: “Those were a couple of fine girls with Barto. A retreat was no place for two virgins. Real virgins. Probably very religious. If there were no war we would probably all be in bed. In bed I lay me down my head. Bed and board. Stiff as a board in bed. Catherine was in bed now” (197). “Stiff” had been used repeatedly by the narration to describe the girls' fear and resistance to the men's vulgar verbal and manual aggressions. “Stiff as a board in bed” therefore alludes to Frederic's discomfort and fatigue without ceasing to serve as a code for a sexual erection, and the virgins' terrified resistance to what he knows they perceived as a threat of rape (“I felt her stiffen away when I touched her” [196]). The girls are saved neither by Frederic's chivalry nor his authority as commanding officer, but by their own mistrustful and fearful instincts—“‘Come on,’ Aymo said to the girls. … The older sister shook her head. They were not going into any deserted house. … ‘They are difficult,’ Aymo said” (200). Frederic, the character, never interferes with the designed rape, just as Frederic the narrator never disapproves. The love story has blotted out or erased the earlier Frederic who patently favored Catherine as a free whore (“This was better than going every evening to the house for officers where the girls climbed all over you” (30), but brings him back, fleetingly, in his unguarded descent into sleep during the retreat. The narrative both disavows and affirms the legitimacy of Catherine's feelings about her ambiguous sexual status (“I never felt like a whore before” [152]) by leaving the unregenerate Frederic in place as a textual memory.

Hemingway further uses the moral credit as a loving and decent man that Frederic's love for Catherine earns him, to work a complex double ethical maneuver in writing the episode of Frederic's killing of the Italian sergeant. Hemingway conjoins two narrative strategies—a detailed and virtually unambiguous description of the action with an utterly impersonal, objective narrative that betrays no emotion. This action without affect places the reader in a position of judgment without a clear moral compass, and with the necessity of judging both an action and an act of narration. Since this episode confronts readers with behavior that violates norms of decency and honor in their protagonist, they are placed under immense hermeneutical pressure to rationalize and justify that behavior if the story is to sustain itself as Fitzgerald's kind of war story: one in which our boys are heroic and gallant, and all the atrocities and cruelties are committed by the other side. Charles Nolan exemplifies this pressure, as he continually begs the question by taking as his premise (“As a decent man and man of honor” [272]; “As a man of honor, Frederic will keep his commitments and do his duty” [273]; “To make Frederic less than heroic is to undercut his character and diminish Hemingway's meaning” [273]) the very point in dispute in reading the episode. The critical situation is thus one of double jeopardy: while the episode places readers under obligation to conduct a hermeneutical court martial of Frederic's acts, readers are themselves placed on trial in a test of their ethics of reading. Hemingway's text functions to act on the reader, prodding readers into committing a series of interpretive outrages that simultaneously allow them to transform A Farewell to Arms into an ideologically acceptable war story, but only at the price of colluding with the specific deeds and their tacit disavowals in the narrative.

By designing the shooting of the sergeant to serve as the mirror image of Frederic's desertion, Hemingway places the reader in the excruciating hermeneutical position of recognizing, yet desperately wanting to resist, the troubling, silent counter text to the war story and the love story that we have come to expect and want. With the killing of the sergeant, the novel splits into the two novels adumbrated by the epigraph from Marlowe's The Jew of Malta—“Thou hast committed—/ Fornication—but that was in another country; and besides, the wench is dead.” Hemingway, who titled the short stories prefatory to the novel “In Another Country,” and “In Another Country—Two” (a late title for “Now I Lay Me”), can be seen as having inscribed two versions of the same novel within A Farewell to Arms. The love story invites us to assimilate Frederic's killing to itself, as an alternate example of the soldier's honor—perhaps the unspecified thing that Krebs in “Soldier's Home,” calls “the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally” (244)—some sort of traditional test of his intestinal fortitude to be able to kill in war when he must. But Frederic's shooting of the sergeant can (and I would argue, ultimately must) also be read and named as the transgression—Murder—committed in another moral country than that of the ideologically ingratiating version of the novel that has, chiefly, been canonized. If one has no brief for exonerating Frederic, every element of the incident can be discerned as carefully chosen to make Frederic's shooting of the sergeant indefensible. The victim is an Italian, an ally, not an enemy soldier. He is an engineer rather than a warrior. He has no military connection to Frederic's small troop, to which he is attached accidentally, temporarily, involuntarily, to hitch a ride during the retreat. He in no way threatens Frederic or any of the soldiers or civilians in his charge, and there is no indication in the narrative that the sergeant is even armed. He is shot in the back while walking, then running, away. The killing is not done in panic, or without premeditation: when the sergeant is not dead, Frederic gives Bonello his gun to finish him off, and when it fails to fire, tells him how to cock it to make it shoot. Although the retreat certainly makes it perilous and stressful, the situation is neither combat, nor self-defense, nor a life and death crisis: Hemingway contrives it to resemble as much as possible a civilian traffic jam (“Still, traffic could tie up in cities when every one was awake” [197]) in which the sergeant is an ungrateful hitchhiker who refuses, in a stressful road emergency, to help the people who gave him a ride. Frederic quite simply shoots in the back a soldier who wants to leave an ad hoc situation that has come to seem very dangerous to him.

There is no ambiguity in the text about the existential “facts” of the killing of the sergeant. What makes the shooting troubling for the reader is the incident's relation to the speech act in which it is embedded. Since neither the Frederic of the action, nor the Frederic of the narration, attempt to interpret the killing or draw it into a symbolic or moral order, the text fails to identify its significance. The “facts” are “cold”—embedded in the silence of an emotional and cognitive vacuum that makes it impossible to apply even Hemingway's hedonistic morality, “what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after” (Death in the Afternoon).14 There is no indication of remorse, regret, pleasure, satisfaction, or even memory past the point of narration in the narrative discourse, and Nolan infers that “To his credit, his action makes him feel bad” (274) purely from Frederic's indecipherable refusal to laugh with Bonello about the killing. The narrative account of the killing stops at an empirical level, giving evidence but no witness, no testimony of the self's vision or feeling that could endow the incident with significance or meaning in the story. Meaning emerges elsewhere—in the text's dialogical manipulation of the plot that obliges readers to adjudicate similarities and differences between two incidents with a sharply reciprocal structure: Frederic's shooting of the Italian, and the Italians' threat to shoot him. The second incident provides us with feelings and principles of action and judgment that can be applied retrospectively to the first. The exercise becomes a court martial of Frederic's good faith as excuse is matched against excuse, outrage against outrage, transgression against transgression.

Hemingway addresses the most compelling justification for the killing of the sergeant, that Frederic lawfully executed a deserter under military law or code, through its narrative reflection in the act of the carabinieri “executing officers of the rank of major and above who were separated from their troops” (224). Frederic's jurisdiction over the two Italian sergeants is no clearer than the battle police's right to discipline him. The sergeant's desertion is as questionable as Frederic's; he too may have been merely attempting to rejoin his unit as surely as Frederic was attempting to rejoin his at Pordenone. Nor does Frederic's action receive ready extratextual support. Although military law in most Western nations provides for summary as well as for judicial punishment of soldiers,15 such discipline is left to the commanding officers of military units (“In the majority of countries, summary penalties can be inflicted only by officers not lower than the rank of captain.”16). Even in case of the most serious breaches of discipline on the battlefield, “mortal punishment” has historically required some sort of tribunal, like the “drumhead court” invoked by analogy in Melville's Billy Budd. Indeed, Hemingway insures that if Frederic mistakenly thought he had an obligation to shoot a deserter under some mysterious military code,17 his action becomes arbitrary and inconsistent when—even before his mistreatment by the carabinieri, he decides not to report the desertion of Bonello. The judicial and transgressive situation of Bonello is much clearer than that of the sergeant: Bonello is formally under Frederic's command, and Bonello explicitly deserts in order to give himself up to the enemy. Piani further makes it clear that in pleading for Bonello, he recognizes that he is asking Frederic to abrogate a military responsibility: “‘Can't you just put him down as taken prisoner?’ ‘I don't know.’ ‘You see if the war went on they would make bad trouble for his family.’ … ‘I won't make a report that will make trouble for his family,’ I went on with our conversation” [219]. This conversation raises the possibility of a troublesome gap in the narrative logic: namely, that Frederic agrees to hush up the desertion of Bonello because he is afraid that Piani (and Bonello) could in turn report him for shooting the sergeant.

The reader is blinded to the ethical perversities of Frederic's acts by the ethical warrant seemingly bestowed on the narration by his silence. Frederic's silence appears to guarantee both courage (lack of justification, defense, apology, or contrition) and truth (lack of self-serving feeling or explanation), while averting other possibilities, such as blind fear and panic. When Frederic is captured by the carabinieri, he loses his cool both as a character (“‘Why isn't there somebody here to stop them?’ I said. ‘Why haven't they blown the bridge up? Why aren't there machine guns along this embankment?”’ [211]), and as narrator (“I was very angry” [211]). Frederic is also very frightened: beneath the mock officiousness of his protest he can't control his voice (“‘What's the meaning of this?’ I tried to shout but my voice was not very loud” [222]). His appeal to military protocol (“Don't you know you can't touch an officer?” [222]) precisely mirrors the sergeant's earlier appeal to him (“You can't order us. You're not our officer” [204]), just as the carabinieri's rationale for killing (“‘A basso gli ufficiali! Down with the officers!” [219]) precisely mirrors Bonello's rationale for killing the sergeant (“all my life I've wanted to kill a sergeant” [207]). In his bitter judgment of the carabinieri, Frederic the narrator delivers—without irony or recognition—a perfect if inadvertent self-indictment of his own comportment in shooting the sergeant, “The questioners had all the efficiency, coldness and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and are not being fired on” (223).

Frederic's narration does not explicitly lie, but its factualism riddles it with holes and blindnesses. For example, his mourning of the desertion of Bonello is marked by a significant oversight that he catches neither at the time of his rumination, nor during its reportage: “It seemed so silly for Bonello to have decided to be taken prisoner. There was no danger. We had walked through two armies without incident. If Aymo had not been killed there would never have seemed to be any danger. No one had bothered us when we were in plain sight along the railway. The killing came suddenly and unreasonably” (218). There was no danger? For the Italian sergeant he and Bonello killed there was surely quite mortal danger, and to the sergeant the killing must have come as suddenly and unreasonably as the killing of Aymo. Frederic's erasure of this shooting in his thinking about the war and about death persists throughout his subsequent narration. In tracking how Frederic processes his experiences philosophically, this erasure or amnesia about the shooting becomes visible as a problem of reading, as Frederic's refusal to assimilate this incident to the remaining text of his war experience. His “separate peace” depends on a reading protocol of his experience that permits him an unruffled self-righteousness. In constructing the critical register of his narrative, Frederic banishes his shooting of the sergeant from the categories of senseless deaths (Catherine's, Aymo's) that become the philosophical “evidence” for his famous stoical fatalism.

The peculiar and suspect philosophical outcome of this selectively multilated reading process is the nihilism that assigns war and death to a motiveless cosmic malignancy: “Now Catherine would die. That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. Or they killed you gratuitously like Aymo” (327). The syntactic peculiarities of Frederic's language—the shift from passive to active constructive (“You died … they killed you”) with its unreferenced pronomial agent—are marked, by the preceding novelistic events, with the silent echo of the grammar of the now perjured truth of agency (“You died” [you were killed]; “they killed you” [I killed him]; “they killed you gratuitously like Aymo” [I killed the sergeant gratuitously]). Frederic's thoughts are textually haunted by the ghost of the counternarrative from another ethical country whose story tells him (and us) that he committed murder, and the man is dead. At the end of the novel, the reader becomes witness to the witness, and catches the witness in a perversion of logic that amounts to a lie about the truth of war. Frederic knows, as the reader knows from Frederic's own account, that the killing of war is not done by an agent-less, will-less, corporate machine—a deific, irresponsible, unresponsive “they” stripped of purpose, necessity, reason, or heart. The killing of war was done, at least in this instance, without purpose, necessity, reason, or heart by the American soldier, Frederic Henry.

The philosophical climax of the novel, Frederic Henry's theological parable about the ants on the burning log, invokes a patently false analogy that uses two modes of dying to illustrate two modes of inadvertency in the killing of people in wartime. The fire represents combat death, with soldiers like ants incapable of directing their movements towards a place of safety where there is no danger. The water Frederic tossed on the log (not to save the ants, but to rinse his whiskey cup) deftly figures his aquatic desertions, alone and with Catherine, his attempts to escape the fires of war by water only to have Catherine ‘steamed’ to death, as it were—the fire of war coloring, or heating, her own fate to die in the rain (“I'm afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it” [126]). Frederic's parable is designed to neutralize agency by absorbing the deaths war produces, or encompasses, into inevitability, inadvertency, and indifference. The novel's philosophical conclusion summarizes the novel's final generic self-contradiction. A Farewell to Arms ends as a love story masking and protecting a war story from the truth of its own violence, and its own lies. If from classical times, literature reflects how war lies about itself—as Wilfred Owen claimed (“The old Lie”)—then Hemingway's own separate peace with his resistant readership is to give us a novel that textually performs just this function of war.


  1. Robert Penn Warren's 1951 essay on Hemingway exemplifies the new critical need to privilege form and style into an ethic (“It is more important because, ultimately, it is a moral achievement” 80). Style supplemented the dreaded nada engulfing the modern world (“This is Hemingway's world, too, the world with nothing at center” 82).

  2. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (New York: Scribner, 1957).

  3. Mine is a more extreme and polemical statement of the disjunction between narrator and text that James Phelan calls distance—“the relation between Hemingway as author and Frederic as narrator; it is a function of the extent to which Hemingway endorses Frederic's understanding of and judgments about the events he reports” (Donaldson 53-54).

  4. See the early reviews of the novel published in Stephens 69-104, which are, in general, marked by the tension of attempting to evaluate the crossing of the war story and the love story, and the strange disjunctions of tone, sentiment, and philosophy this fusion or superimposition produces. My own response to this generic dilemma is to twist Robert Penn Warren's description of A Farewell to Arms as “the great romantic alibi for a generation” (76) by arguing that this operation of the romantic alibi, of translating one kind of story into another so that cruelties or moral bankruptcies can be disguised by romance and love, is immanent in the text and produced by its narrative and stylistic performance.

  5. Susan Beegel's extensive and useful treatment of the piece explores its critical neglect as a generic problem: “Yunck in particular dislikes this combination of genres, and objects to Hemingway's using a short story as ‘a vehicle for miscellaneous criticism”’ (Hemingway's Craft of Omission [Ann Arbor: UMI Research P], 1988), p. 32.

  6. The Body in Pain (New York: Oxford UP), 1985.

  7. Joseph Warren Beach, “Style in For Whom the Bell Tolls,” in Ernest Hemingway: Critiques of Four Major Novels, ed. Carlos Baker (New York: Scribner), 1962, p. 82.

  8. Carlos Baker, ed., Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters (New York: Scribner), 1981.

  9. Charles S. Nolan, Jr., “Shooting the Sergeant: Frederic Henry’s Puzzling Action,” College Literature 11 (3), (Fall, 1984): 274.

  10. In Henry Serrano Villard and James Nagel, eds., Hemingway in Love and War: the Lost Diary of Agens Von Kurowksy, her letters, and correspondence of Ernest Hemingway (Boston: Northeastern University Press UP), 1989.

  11. My argument adds textual incrimination to such excellent readings of the problem of narrative unreliability as James Phelan's, and Gerry Brenner's (“it is because he is preoccupied with his feelings and experience, rather than with our understanding, that Frederic is an inconsiderate, and ultimately an untrustworthy, narrator” (35). My aim is to demonstrate that the text is contaminated by, and replicates, Frederic's narrative pliability as a character—his tendency to tell people what they want to hear—because the narrative issues of love and war exert tremendous ideological pressures both within and outside the text.

  12. See, for example, Smith, Beegel, and Brenner.

  13. Maud Ellmann's brilliant analysis of “The Waste Land” elaborates the implication of the war dead in the obsessional formal strategies (“The text's integrity dissolves under the invasion of its own disjecta” [98]) through which modernism sought to grapple with the abjection of filth, bodily effluvia, and verbal trash.

  14. Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (New York: Scribner), 1960.

  15. “In Great Britain, the United States, and other common-law countries, there is usually a right of appeal against summary punishment awarded through the military chain of command and extending to the highest authority. In other countries, the appeal will lie to [sic] a tribunal” (The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 195).

  16. “Military Law,” The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., Vol. 12 (Chicago: U of Chicago P), 1988, p. 195.

  17. If casual execution, like the sergeant's, is unimaginable for a debatable desertion, still less can it be justified for looting. Hemingway, anticipating that the sergeant's looting would elicit a highly charged response (“Looting, Frederic knows, is a despicable act of greed” [Nolan 271]), carefully writes in Bonello's counter-looting to test the ethics of adjudicating this issue. When Charles Nolan writes “As a decent man and a man of honor, Frederic recognizes the inappropriateness of the sergeant's stealing and reprimands the engineer for it” (272), he fails to note that as a decent man and a man of honor, Frederic does not reprimand Bonello for looting the dead man's pockets. “Bonello, sitting behind the wheel, was looking through the pockets of the sergeant's coat. ‘Better throw the coat away,’ I said” (206). Frederic does not tell him to restore its contents first.

James Phelan (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Voice, Distance, Temporal Perspective, and the Dynamics of A Farewell to Arms,” in Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology, Ohio State University Press, 1996, pp. 59-84.

[In the following essay, Phelan emphasizes the novel's progression in voice which allows Frederic's character to develop gradually into a manifestation of Hemingway's views of the universe.]

This chapter builds on the model of voice outlined in the essay on Vanity Fair by deploying it to reexamine Hemingway's famous style in A Farewell to Arms and to offer an account of how voice contributes to the novel's progression. Although I want to claim some originality for my specific analyses, the overarching goal of the first part of the chapter is quite traditional: to show how the technique is working in the service of the narrative's larger effects. Later, however, I expand my focus from voice to the autodiegetic narration more generally and investigate not just positive contributions of the technique but also some instructive problems and an interesting paradox in Hemingway's use of it. In looking at the problems, I am exploring the space where authorial agency and textual phenomena are in some tension, where intentionality seems to pull in one direction and the textual signs pull in another. In looking at the paradox, which concerns how the knowledge Frederic Henry arrives at through his experience does and does not inform his narration of that experience, I am trying to show how attending to narrative progression helps readers to understand a peculiarity of many autodiegetic narratives.


Taken collectively, critical discussions of A Farewell to Arms are striking in at least two respects: there is considerable consensus about the nature and effect of Hemingway's style, and there is considerable disagreement about the nature and effect of the narrative as a whole. Here I shall try to develop new grounds for consensus about its larger design by disrupting—or better, complicating—the consensus about the style. My contention is that A Farewell to Arms, though marred by Hemingway's characterization of Catherine, traces a coherent process of growth and change in Frederic Henry that culminates, tragically and ironically, in the moment of his greatest loss. Furthermore, I believe that Hemingway's representation of this process cannot be fully appreciated until we combine our attention to style, character, and structure with careful attention to voice. Thus, I will focus on Frederic's voice, with an occasional glance at the voices of other characters, in order to assess how Hemingway's modulation of voices helps to reveal—and contribute to—the novel's gradually unfolding design.

Larzer Ziff offers an apt and characteristic, albeit incomplete, description of Hemingway's style: a predominance of simple sentences; the frequent use of “blank” modifiers such as nice; the restricted use of figures of speech; the frequent use of proper nouns; the frequent use of indirect constructions (e.g., “took a look” rather than “looked”). In an essay subtitled “The Novel as Pure Poetry,” Daniel Schneider adds imagery as an element of style, notes the recurrence of images of rain, desolation, impurity, and corruption in A Farewell to Arms, and offers the strongest statement of its effect: the style creates “the perfect correlative … of the emotions of despair and bitterness. … Virtually every sentence says, ‘Death, despair, failure, emptiness.’ … The novel begins with this state of mind, and it is established so firmly, through the repetition of the central symbols, that any emotions other than despair and bitterness may thereafter intrude only with difficulty” (273-75). In general, discussions of the style assume not only that it is consistent within the narrative but also that it has consistent and predictable effects. One burden of my argument will be to show that similar stylistic features of Frederic's discourse actually create widely divergent effects because they are spoken by recognizably different voices.

The disagreement about the effect of the whole no doubt has multiple causes, but one of them surely is the problem of establishing with any confidence the relation between Hemingway as implied author and Frederic. Some of the different relations posited can be seen in even a brief sampling of critical commentary: Schneider argues that the novel is a lyric expression of despair, failure, and emptiness; just as the speaker in a lyric poem may be distinguishable from the author even as that speaker expresses the author's attitudes, so too Frederic is distinguishable from but a surrogate for Hemingway. Earl Rovit views the novel as an epistemological tale “though not a tragedy”; Frederic learns something as he goes along—in a sense, narrator moves closer to author—but he does not attain tragic stature. Scott Donaldson maintains that the narrative is Frederic's failed apologia; he has taken advantage of Catherine and is now unsuccessfully trying to avoid taking responsibility for his behavior; in Donaldson's reading, author and narrator are consistently distant from each other. Gerry Brenner contends that the narrative is Frederic's unsuccessful attempt to make sense of his experience before he takes his life; on his account, Hemingway and Frederic are miles apart. Given these divergent readings, I want to investigate what happens to our understanding of the author narrator relationship when we try not only to see it but to hear it.

There is just one feature of the long discussion of voice in chapter 2 that I want to repeat here because it bears directly on the author-narrator relationship. When we detect a discrepancy between an author's values and those expressed in a narrator's voice, we have the situation of a double-voiced discourse: the narrator's voice is contained within—and its communication thereby complicated by—the author's. In such situations, I will employ the term distance to refer to the relationship between the authorial voice and the narrative voice.1


Let us listen to Frederic Henry at the beginning of the narrative.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.


This paragraph is often cited (and parodied) as a quintessential example of Hemingway's style, and in fact at least two critics have been moved to recast Frederic's prose into verse.2 Critical disagreements about Frederic himself, however, begin right here. Commenting on this passage and the descriptions of it as emanating from the voice of a “tough guy” (Walker Gibson) or the voice of a “spiritually maimed” individual (John Edward Hardy), Gerry Brenner writes, “Both the ‘tough’ and the ‘maimed’ labels judge Frederic's style upon the basis of the perennial illusion that Hemingway, a crippled tough, a sentimentalist masquerading behind he-man brusqueness, wants his reader to endorse Frederic's values, to emulate his conduct, and to imitate his style” (34). Brenner wants to accept the label “maimed” but to see its consequences differently: Frederic is not maimed and tough, but maimed and “disoriented.” I will try to adjudicate these different conclusions by attending to both the stylistic and transstylistic features of the voice.

As has often been noted, the use of the definite article (“the late summer”) and the demonstrative adjective (“that year”) indicate that there are to be no preliminaries here: we are asked to recognize that the narratee already knows the narrator and the year referred to—or we are asked to conclude that the speaker is disoriented.3 The style of the rest of the passage does not give other evidence of disorientation. Instead, it locates the voice in space (at the window of the house in the village) and gives an orderly description of what can be seen from that window, a description that continues beyond this paragraph as the narrator's gaze moves from the river and the road to the plain and then the mountains. We can conclude, at least tentatively, that the voice addresses an audience that already has some knowledge of the context of the utterance.

Strikingly, however, this shared knowledge between voice and audience does not form the basis for emotional intimacy. As many others have already noted, the voice does not share feelings or evaluations but focuses on the sensual surface of things. The voice, in effect, becomes a camcorder: this is where I was; these are some things I could see; this is what happened as I kept my eye on the passing scene. The clear, controlled style and the evenness that comes with the paratactic syntax—we saw this and this and this—give Frederic's apparent objectivity and neutrality a self-assured, authoritative quality. Nevertheless, the lack of evaluation is conspicuous. This voice could be “tough” or “maimed” or many other things we might project onto it.

Once, however, we consider the trans-stylistic features of the voice and the way that its discourse is actually double-voiced, we can better assess its quality. Behind the paratactic sentence structures we sense another consciousness and thus another voice—Hemingway's—conveying information that the narrator's voice is not aware of. As we move in the authorial audience from the description of the river (“In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels”) to the description of the troops, whose marching disrupts the natural order of things (“and the leaves fell early that year”), we make inferences about the war's negative effect on nature, even in its apparently nonviolent activities such as the marching of troops. These inferences, as I will argue at some length below, are controlled by the authorial voice but not the narrating voice.

Furthermore, what is true about the distance between Frederic and Hemingway in this opening passage remains true for most of the narration in book 1 of the novel. In making this statement, I am parting company with most other critics of the novel, who see Frederic's later experiences coloring his retrospective account of his life.4 In terms of Gérard Genette's distinction between who sees and who speaks, between, that is, vision and voice, I find that Hemingway typically restricts us to Frederic's vision and voice at the time of the action, even though he is narrating after the fact. This technique highlights the limits of Frederic's understanding early in the narrative—and nowhere more so than in the passage at the end of the first chapter: “At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army”(4).

The air of authority and the paratactic structure are again joined here. But the discrepancy between Frederic and Hemingway arises not through any particular linguistic signal but rather through our awareness of the difference in values between them. Frederic is voicing an official party line here, mouthing the military's position on the damage done by the cholera; his personal voice is inhabited by the social voice of the military command. Hemingway asks his audience to recognize the severe limits of the values expressed in that voice: seven thousand lives can be dismissed with the adverb “only” and the lives of those outside of uniform simply do not count. For all the authority of his voice at the beginning of the narrative, Frederic Henry is strikingly ignorant; the implied presence of Hemingway's voice, which gives the sentence its pointed irony, makes Frederic's voice naive. This gap between Frederic and Hemingway is arguably the most important revelation of the first chapter. It establishes a tension between author and narrator that is one major source of our continued interest in the narrative, and it helps define the major initial instability of the narrative: Frederic's situation in a war whose effects and potential consequences he is ignorant of.

Since, as I noted above, this way of hearing the voice is not the one adopted by previous critics and since it has significant consequences for my claims about the larger dynamics of the narrative, I would like to consider the basis of my case more fully. Since Frederic is telling the tale after the fact, we should consider the hypothesis that he, not Hemingway, is the source of the irony in that last sentence of the first chapter: the knowledge he has gained from his experience would inform his discourse, and we would be asked to know that he knows. The problem with this hypothesis is that we have no evidence that his knowledge is informing his narration. The past tense in fictive narration may function as narrative present5—and in the absence of clear signs to the contrary, that is the way it typically functions. Since there is nothing in the chapter—no switch to the present tense, no clue of self-conscious narration—signaling that his vision is that of the man who has lived through these events and now sees them differently, it makes sense to conclude that both Frederic's vision and his voice are those of the time of the action. Indeed, the definite articles of the chapter's first sentence seem designed in part to indicate right from the outset that Frederic is offering his vision at the time of the action: we are back there with him in “the house in the village that looked across the river and trees to the mountains.”

Consider his later statement, also in the past tense, where the relationship between narrator's and author's voices, though perhaps more readily apprehended, works the same way: the war, Frederic says, “seemed no more dangerous to me myself than war in the movies” (37). Again we have the vision and the voice of Frederic at the time of the action, and again the discourse is double-voiced by Hemingway, who has already shown us that the war is dangerous to everybody. An even more extreme statement along these lines that Hemingway at one point placed just after Catherine's arrival in Milan was deleted from the final version of the novel:

The world had always been a fine place for me. I saw the things there were to see and felt the things that happened and did not worry about the rest. There were always plenty of things to see and something always happened. You needed a certain amount of money and you did not need the gonorrhea but if you had no money and had the gonorrhea life was still quite passable. I liked to drink and liked to eat and liked nearly everything. The war was bad but not bad for me because it was not my war but I could see how bad it could become.

(Ms. pp. 206-7)

Hemingway does not need this passage because he has already presented its content in more dramatic fashion, but its unironic presentation of Frederic's clearly limited view is consistent with the effect of the narrative discourse as I have been analyzing it: Frederic's voice conveys his beliefs at the time of the action, while our awareness of Hemingway's voice conveys the distance between narrator and implied author.

The more general issue raised by the question of whether Frederic or Hemingway is responsible for the ironic effects of the discourse is one about Frederic's degree of self-consciousness. To read Frederic's voice in book 1 as if it is infused with the vision he has at the time of the narration is to entail the conclusion that Frederic is a self-conscious narrator, aware that he is presenting double-voiced discourse, aware of the ironic effects he is creating by portraying himself in this way. On this reading, Frederic becomes a kind of Humbert Humbert of the AWOL set, that is, a narrator much like Vladimir Nabokov's self-conscious artist in Lolita, one who carefully constructs his narrative as a work of art. To argue that Hemingway rather than Frederic is responsible for the double-voicing is to entail the conclusion that Frederic is not self-consciously creating the narrative's effects. The control of the effects, in other words, belongs not to Frederic but to Hemingway. The manuscript shows that at one stage of composition, Hemingway thought to have Frederic talk about his difficulty with the narration:

This is not a picture of war, or really about war. It is only a story. That is why sometimes it may seem there are not many people in it, nor enough noises, nor enough smells. There were always people and noises unless it was quiet and always smells but in trying to tell the story I cannot get all in always but have a hard time keeping to the story alone and sometimes it seems as though it were all quiet. But it wasn't quiet. If you try and put in everything you would never get a single day done.

(Ms. p. 174)

Although the passage emphasizes Frederic's lack of control, Hemingway's decision to delete it supports my point. By showing that Frederic was self-conscious about the task of telling his story, the passage interferes with the effects of the narrative discourse Hemingway left. As I have been suggesting, the discourse indicates that Frederic describes the way things looked and the way he felt in a manner that comes naturally to him; Hemingway arranges those descriptions so that we can understand more than Frederic is aware he is communicating.6

There are other places in the early part of the narrative where Frederic's apparently distinctive voice mouths conventional positions that he has not closely examined and that Hemingway clearly disapproves of. I will look at two especially important instances, the first involving his argument with Passini about the justification for the war, the second involving his interaction with Catherine. Just before he is wounded, Frederic debates Passini on the need for the war. Their positions are very clear and very opposed. Passini argues, “There is nothing worse than war,” while Frederic counters, “Defeat is worse” (50). Again Frederic is clear, authoritative—and, in a significant sense, naive. His authoritative tone again depends in part on the paratactic structure and in part on his own confidence in conventional justifications: “They come after you. They take your home. They take your sisters.” “I think you do not know anything about being conquered and so you think it is not bad.” “I know it is bad but we must finish it” (50). Passini's voice of respectful authority, by contrast, is established through its reference to concrete possibilities and its firm but carefully argued rejection of the conventional wisdom:

“War is not won by victory. What if we take San Gabriele? What if we take Carso and Monfalcone and Trieste? Where are we then? Did you see all the far mountains to-day? Do you think we could take all them too? Only if the Austrians stop fighting. One side must stop fighting. Why don't we stop fighting? If they come down into Italy they will get tired and go away. They have their own country. But no, instead there is a war.”


Hemingway shows that Passini has the greater share of wisdom not only by letting him “win” the debate but also by following it with the landing of the shell that kills Passini and wounds Frederic.

The difference in Frederic's voice when he describes the landing of the shell and Passini's death clinches the point: the voice is urgent, anxious, and focused on the concrete; it also makes way for the more urgent and anguished voice of physical pain that springs from the dying Passini. We recognize, though Frederic does not, that his voice of conventional wisdom loses its force when juxtaposed with the voices involved in the concrete rendering of the scene:

and then I heard close to me some one saying “Mama mia! Oh, mama Mia!” I pulled and twisted and got my legs loose finally and turned around and touched him. It was Passini and when I touched him he screamed. His legs were toward me and I saw in the dark and the light that they were both smashed above the knee. One leg was gone and the other was held by tendons and part of the trouser and the stump twitched and jerked as though it were not connected. He bit his arm and moaned, “Oh mama mia, mama Mia,” then, “Dio te salve, Maria. Dio te salve, Maria. Oh jesus shoot me Christ shoot me mama mia mama Mia oh purest lovely Mary shoot me. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Oh Jesus lovely Mary stop it. Oh oh oh oh,” then choking, “Mama mama mia.” Then he was quiet biting his arm, the stump of his leg twitching.


Besides Frederic's relation to the war, the other major instability of the early part of the narrative is his relation to Catherine. Again, one way that Hemingway establishes the instability is through the discrepancy between Frederic's voice and his own. Frederic remains the objective recorder speaking from the time of the action, but one of the things he records is Catherine's dialogue. By skillfully juxtaposing their conversations with Frederic's commentary, Hemingway plays Frederic's voice against Catherine's and double-voices Frederic's narration. Here is Frederic's rendering of part of his third meeting with Catherine:

“You did say you loved me, didn't you?”

“Yes,” I lied. “I love you.” I had not said it before.

“And you call me Catherine?”

“Catherine.” We walked on a way and were stopped under a tree.

“Say ‘I've come back to Catherine in the night.”’

“I've come back to Catherine in the night.”

“Oh, darling, you have come back, haven't you?”


“I love you so and it's been awful. You won't go away?” …

I kissed both her shut eyes. I thought she was probably a little crazy. It was all right if she was. I did not care what I was getting into. This was better than going every evening to the house for officers where the girls climbed all over you and put your cap on backward as a sign of affection between their trips upstairs with brother officers. 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 all right with me. …

[Catherine:] “This is a rotten game we play isn't it?”

“What game?”

“Don't be dull.”

“I'm not, on purpose.”

“You're a nice boy,” she said. “And you play it as well as you know how. But it's a rotten game.”

“Do you always know what people think?”

“Not always. But I do with you. You don't have to pretend you love me. That's over for the evening.”


Clearly, Frederic's commentary is self-indicting in its selfishness, its calculation that playing this game with Catherine is better than going to the house for officers, its indifference to the consequences of his actions. But Hemingway's orchestration of the voices does more than that with the scene. Hemingway shows Catherine insisting that Frederic adopt a particular voice and speak the language of romantic love so that she too can adopt that voice. Yet to speak the language of love on command is to speak without sincerity, to mouth the words but be detached from the feelings they're intended to express. By thus commanding Frederic to speak a language that can never be sincerely spoken on command, Catherine puts herself in a position where her response to Frederic's words must also be at some remove from her feelings. To act as she does is indeed to act “a little crazy.” Then after Hemingway inserts Frederic's voice of selfishness in his address to the reader, the voice of the male on the make, Hemingway returns to Catherine and shows her speaking sincerely and frankly. The movement from her earlier voice to this one is so great that Frederic cannot keep up with it, and he tries to maintain the pretense of sincerity by feigning ignorance. With this move in the play among the voices, Hemingway shows us that Frederic's statement about what he is doing with Catherine is not just extremely selfish but is also woefully inadequate in its understanding of Catherine and what she knows about the way each of them is behaving. Frederic is out of his depth with her just as he is out of his depth in the war.

More generally, by establishing considerable distance from Frederic's commentary and some from Catherine's behavior in the earlier part of the scene, Hemingway is implicitly revealing his beliefs about love. It is unselfish, other-directed, based on honesty; Hemingway expresses some of what is implicit here in the priest's later words, “When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve” (72). Another significant measure of Frederic's distance from Hemingway will be where he stands in relation to this authorial norm.


One of the striking features of A Farewell to Arms is how skillfully Hemingway gradually closes the distance between himself and Frederic and how he uses the narration to signal Frederic's changes. In Frederic's conversation with the priest after he returns from Milan to the front, Frederic articulates one of his traits, which in turn sheds light on Hemingway's general strategy in the novel: “I never think and yet when I begin to talk I say the things I have found out in my mind without thinking” (179). Frederic typically recounts his experiences without commenting on his feelings and thoughts about them. The devices that Hemingway uses to have us assess Frederic's progress are, for the most part, the ones we have seen in the passages already discussed: asking us to see behind what Frederic explicitly says to what he unwittingly reveals; using the dialogue of another character to give us a perspective different from—and sometimes superior to—Frederic's. In addition, by making Frederic more of a recorder than a reflector, Hemingway is able to emphasize those places where Frederic does explicitly reveal his feelings. For example, when Frederic, after engaging in the drinking contest at the mess and then rushing to the hospital only to find out that Catherine could not see him, tells us, “I had treated seeing Catherine very lightly, I had gotten somewhat drunk and had nearly forgotten to come but when I could not see her there I was feeling lonely and hollow” (41), we see the passage as a very powerful signal of his movement past the attitudes expressed in the “I didn't care if she was crazy” passage. The importance of Frederic's feelings here is further emphasized by Hemingway's use of “there.” The adverb indicates that Frederic's vision is shifting in this passage from the time of the action (when he says “to come” he is locating himself at the hospital) to the time of the narration (he steps back and looks at himself “there”) and thereby indicates the importance of the event in his memory.

This passage, however, also illustrates Hemingway's habit of asking us to see more than Frederic tells us. Even as Frederic is moving past his “I don't care if she is crazy” attitude, he remains self-centered. He does not think about Catherine and how she might be feeling, though Ferguson has told him that Catherine is “not awfully well.” He thinks only about himself and his feelings: “I was lonely and hollow.”

In the second half of the novel, after his long convalescence in Milan with Catherine, Frederic does change—and so does his voice. When Frederic returns to the front after his summer in Milan, he discusses the war with the priest.

[Priest:] “I had hoped for something.”

[Frederic:] “Defeat?”

[Priest:] “No. Something more.”

[Frederic:] “There isn't anything more. Except victory. It may be worse.”


Frederic's voice here now echoes Passini's; the conventional wisdom has been replaced by the values of the Italian peasant. Furthermore, as Frederic voices values more in line with Hemingway's, the authoritative quality of the voice is softened to some extent: victory “may be worse.” As I have argued at some length in Reading People, Reading Plots, the main reason for Frederic's change is Catherine. His time with her in Milan has exposed him to a world based on values of commitment, tenderness, and service, values that had been absent from his life before he met her. When he returns to the front, the contrast is sharp enough to shock him into articulate knowledge in this conversation with the priest.

Perhaps the best evidence of the change in his attitude toward Catherine occurs in a scene during the retreat from Caporetto in which her voice inhabits his. Early in the narrative—just before Frederic makes his comment about playing a game with Catherine—Catherine pretends that Frederic is her dead boyfriend, and she asks him to say, “I've come back to Catherine in the night.” She then says, “Oh, darling, you have come back, haven't you.” When Frederic says yes, she continues, “I love you so and it's been awful. You won't go away?” (30). Her voice here is romantic and committed at the same time that its dominant note is wistfulness: she knows she is only pretending, reaching back beyond Frederic for her lost love. During the retreat, Frederic dreams that he is with Catherine again. Still in the dream, he is surprised that they are together:

“Are you really there?”

“Of course I'm here. I wouldn't go away. This doesn't make any difference between us.”

“You're so lovely and sweet. You wouldn't go away in the night, would you?”

“Of course I wouldn't go away. I'm always here. I come whenever you want me.”


This time it is Frederic who says, “You wouldn't go away.” Intermingled with Catherine's voice this way, the utterance here conveys his attachment and dependence, his wistful desire to reach beyond the retreat and be reunited with Catherine.

Just before this part of the dream, we hear Frederic adopt not Catherine's specific words but her voice and its values:

“Good-night, Catherine,” I said out loud. “I hope you sleep well. If it's too uncomfortable, darling, lie on the other side,” I said. “I'll get you some cold water. In a little while it will be morning and then it won't be so bad. I'm sorry he makes you so uncomfortable. Try and go to sleep, sweet.”


This is Catherine's voice of solicitude and service, a voice that we hear Frederic using for the first time in connection with Catherine's pregnancy. Away from Catherine but slowly moving back to her (“You could not go back. If you did not go forward what happened? You never got back to Milan” [216]), Frederic shows more concern for Catherine's pregnancy than he did at any time in Milan. Living in the gap between his life with her and his life at the front, Frederic is learning what Catherine already knows: what it means to be in love. Again, as he learns, his voice moves closer to Hemingway's.

Both Frederic's changed understanding of the war and his commitment to Catherine undergird his decision not just to save his own life by diving into the Tagliamento but also to defect from the Italian army. This development resolves the instabilities surrounding Frederic's relation to the war, but those instabilities now give way to those surrounding Frederic and Catherine's attempt to construct their own haven from the malevolent world. In effect, they seek to establish a world based on the values of her voice. As they set about this task, there are further changes in Frederic's voice, but I will restrict my focus for now to those involving Frederic's relationship to and understanding of that larger world because in that way I will be best able to assess Frederic's voice at the very end of the narrative.

Soon after he and Catherine are reunited, Frederic speaks from the time of narration; his voice merges temporarily with Hemingway's and he articulates what his experience has taught him about the world:

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these things you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.


The effectiveness of this famous passage is partially hindered because Hemingway's voice overrides Frederic's to some extent. The passage gives us a voice that is too great a departure from any of the voices that we have heard Frederic use to this point. Although the syntax is characteristic of Frederic, the sententiousness of the language is not. The passage sounds a little too much like a set piece of Hemingway's.7

Frederic's voice is more authentically his own as he tells us his thoughts in the hospital after he learns of the baby's death: “That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. They threw you in and didn't tell you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. Or they killed you gratuitously like Aymo. Or gave you the syphilis like Rinaldi. But they killed you in the end” (327). Given everything that the narrative has shown us to this point, from the rain and the cholera to the disastrous retreat, from Passini's death to Aymo's, Frederic's response here seems appropriate: he is articulating a vision of the world that Hemingway has presented as true. Nevertheless, through the repetition of the phrase “they killed you” and especially through its first disruptive appearance in the baseball metaphor (“the first time they caught you off base they killed you”), Frederic's voice also carries a heavy tone of frustration and complaint. It has not yet fully merged with Hemingway's; indeed, a distinctive element of the “If people bring so much courage to this world” passage is that, instead of a complaining tone, it incorporates a kind of ironic acceptance: “if you are none of these, it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

Now consider the final sentence, the ending that Hemingway produced so many alternatives to. “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain” (332). The emphasis on sequence and the use of coordination with and recalls a significant feature of the style of the opening paragraph: this happened and this and this. But the relation of Frederic's voice to Hemingway's is substantially different here. Just before this sentence, Frederic has told us about his attempt to say a melodramatically romantic good-bye to Catherine:

“You can't come in now,” one of the nurses said.

“Yes I can,” I said.

“You can't come in yet.”

“You get out,” I said. “The other one too.”

He is imperious here because of the strength of his romantic fantasy. But the reality of Catherine's death destroys the fantasy: “But after I got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn't any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue” (332). The shift to honest, matter-of-fact assertion beneath which lies very deep feeling sets up the last sentence.

If the voice of the first passage was naive in its lack of evaluation, the voice of the last sentence is wise in that lack. If the author of the first passage spoke behind the style to reveal that naïveté, he speaks here to reveal a strength in the face of knowledge. Frederic now knows the destructiveness not only of the war but also of the world; indeed, he has experienced that destruction firsthand in the most excruciating way imaginable. The world has destroyed his life by destroying Catherine. He has no illusions about the finality of the destruction. But as the voice speaks and as we hear Hemingway's voice behind the sentence, we see that Frederic is not really destroyed. Despite what he knows he acts. Despite what he knows he speaks without frustration and without complaint. Both the voice and the action are slow and deliberate, controlled and dignified (compare Hemingway's version to “Then I headed back to the hotel in the rain”). He has no reason to live, no hope for the future: “That was what you did. You died.” But the control in the voice and the deliberateness of the action signal a refusal to be crushed by that world. Furthermore, in sending that signal, the control and the deliberateness also signify that Frederic has taken the final step in his remarkable growth from authoritative spouter of conventional wisdom to understated but informed source of Hemingway's own values. The final sentence is one of the times Hemingway got it just right.


I have argued that by making Frederic a character who is not much given to reflection on his experience and a narrator who is an unselfconscious but faithful recorder of those experiences, Hemingway has communicated more to us than Frederic realizes in two main ways. Hemingway double-voices Frederic's narration and he uses the dialogue of other characters to offer perspectives whose significance Frederic does not fathom. I turn now to consider the limits of what Hemingway can accomplish with this technique by focusing on two problematic segments of the narrative: Frederic's shooting the Italian sergeant and Frederic and Catherine's interlude in Switzerland.

As I briefly indicated above, one of Hemingway's tasks in his representation of the retreat from Caporetto is to trace Frederic's gradual evolution from a committed, competent leader of the ambulance corps to a justified fugitive who makes his separate peace. Early in the retreat, we see Frederic at his most decisive and most active: leading Aymo, Bonello, and Piani, he decides that Aymo can bring the virgins, that they can give a ride to the sergeants, that they should ride in a certain order, when they should ride, when they should eat, when they should rest, when they should get off the main road. In short, he is dedicated to carrying out their orders to get to Pordenone. He is also dedicated to certain group values: they share the food they find, they help each other out, they do not harm the young women, they help the sergeants, they do not plunder the farmhouse where they stop for food. The sergeants, on the other hand, violate many of these values: they take the ride, but they want to save their own skins; they enter the farmhouse to see what they can steal from it; having eaten, they don't care whether the others eat. Their greatest violation occurs when the ambulance gets stuck and they take off. All this comes through Frederic's narration very clearly. The problems arise when Frederic reacts to their greatest offense by shooting at them and wounding one, who is then killed, with Frederic's approval, by Bonello.

How much distance is there between Hemingway and Frederic at this point? Does Hemingway want us to see Frederic's response as justified in some way? Or is the shooting a sign that the violence of the war is infecting Frederic as well? What is the significance of the placement of the incident so soon after Frederic's dream about being together with Catherine again? How does the incident fit in with the two other shootings during the retreat—Aymo's by the Germans, and those by the carbinieri at the Tagliamento? Developing satisfactory answers to these questions is an extremely murky business, and the murkiness is inextricably wound up with Hemingway's particular deployment of the autodiegetic narration.

Just as we can be confident that Hemingway does not endorse the values behind the assertion at the end of the first chapter, we can be confident that he does not fully endorse Frederic's reaction here. Given Hemingway's attitudes about the war's destruction, we can infer that shooting to kill under these circumstances is overdoing it. One sign of Hemingway's disapproval is that he slightly distances Frederic from the killing by having Bonello fire the fatal shot. If Hemingway wholeheartedly endorsed the shooting, it would make sense to have one of Frederic's shots kill the man. Bonello's dialogue also provides a clue to Hemingway's values here. Bonello is proud of what he has done, but his boasting reveals the problems with his viewpoint: “all my life I've wanted to kill a sergeant” (207). His joke about what he will say in confession, “Bless me, father, I killed a sergeant,” also underscores this reading of Frederic's action. When we recall the standard way of beginning a confession, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned,” we can see how Hemingway is double-voicing Bonello's utterance here. Bonello is not just melding the language of war onto the language of religion. He is also transforming the confession of guilt into a source of pride—bless me, I did something good in killing the sergeant. By asking us to read the religious formula underneath Bonello's line, Hemingway reminds us that Bonello has in one sense “sinned.” Significantly, Bonello's joke does not succeed with Frederic; he reports not that “We all laughed” but that “They all laughed” (208). Frederic's inability—or unwillingness—to laugh is a further sign that he has overreacted. Although Frederic never reflects on the incident, we see that one source of his uneasiness is that he has been operating by the same code of war that sanctions Bonello's actions and Bonello's comments. The code says that a commanding officer has the right to command obedience; violations of that command are punishable by death. Despite other moves Frederic has been making away from the war, he is still bound by the military mentality.

But Hemingway apparently wants to communicate other things with the scene as well. His representation of the sergeants as consistently violating the values of sharing and respect being honored by Frederic and the others suggests that the scene is also showing Frederic taking some kind of stand about those values. This issue is important because Frederic has earlier been someone who simply did what was easiest. By showing Frederic reacting so strongly to the sergeants' violations of the group's values, Hemingway seems to be showing—or trying to show—some significant change in Frederic as well. Again, Hemingway's technique for conveying this aspect of the incident is the use of another character's dialogue. Immediately after the shooting, Piani delivers a judgment about the sergeants whose accuracy we must recognize: “the dirty scum” (204). Later he returns the group's conversation to Frederic's action, saying with approval, “You certainly shot that sergeant, Tenente” (207).

Viewed in this way, the incident becomes an important checkpoint by which to measure the alterations Frederic undergoes during the retreat. When he shoots the sergeant he is simultaneously entrapped in the code of the military and committed to values that will eventually move him to make his separate peace. The subsequent events of the retreat, especially the shooting of Aymo and the executions at the Tagliamento, push him finally and completely away from the military code.

The trouble with this view of the incident is that I am not sure it is fully substantiated by the narration. The reading hangs heavily on the few lines of dialogue given to Bonello and Piani—and even more on my sense of how what Hemingway is doing with Frederic in the rest of the novel has implications for what he needs to do with his character here. The dialogue of the minor characters, especially Piani's, seems susceptible to alternative interpretations: Piani can be seen as closer to Bonello than my reading suggests; Piani does, after all, laugh at Bonello's joke. The more positive side of Frederic's action may not really be built into the incident. But then Hemingway's previous choices in representing the sergeants and in showing Frederic's commitment to certain values seem problematic. This second-guessing of my reading is not meant to dislodge it, only to indicate that I do not believe it can be as well substantiated as the earlier interpretations I have offered. The larger point is that if Hemingway had given Frederic different traits as a narrator and a character, if Frederic not only recorded but explicitly interpreted the incident through reflecting on it, Hemingway would be able to communicate its complexities far more firmly than he can through Frederic's tight-lipped, recording, time-of-the-action perspective. But to alter Frederic that way would be to lose much of the power of the rest of the book.

The situation with the events in Switzerland is both similar and different. Hemingway again wants to accomplish something complex: to show that Frederic and Catherine have reached a place that is both idyllic and impossible to maintain; to show also that Frederic and Catherine sense that their life has no future; to show further that if the world were different, Catherine and Frederic would always be very happy, and that the reason they are only sometimes so lies not with them but with that world and their knowledge of it. All these effects will serve the larger purposes of his narrative. By showing that their union is very attractive, he will increase the sense of loss we feel in Catherine's death. By showing that they have no real future, he will reinforce his thematic point about the malevolence of the world. By showing that they sense their own plight, he will add another dimension to their situation and will be able to make a further thematic point about how best to respond to a knowledge of the world.8

Part of Hemingway's strategy in chapters 38 to 40 is to use Frederic's narration to achieve these different effects at different times, but there are places where the effects interact. Consider the end of chapter 38. Frederic reports that he and Catherine awaken in the night. She had been thinking, she says, about the time when they first met and she was a “little crazy”; she insists that she is no longer crazy, just “very, very, very happy” (300), and she proposes that they both go back to sleep at exactly the same moment. The disturbance underneath her waking and her proclamation of happiness prevents Frederic from going back to sleep when she does. “I was awake for a long time thinking about things and watching Catherine sleeping, the moonlight on her face” (301).

Why should Catherine wake? Because she, who has known about the world all along, knows that their idyll can't last and she is disturbed by that knowledge. Why should Frederic not be able to fall back asleep? Because he senses what she knows. He makes a similar point at the end of chapter 40: “We knew the baby was very close now and it gave us both a feeling as though something were hurrying us and we could not lose any time together” (311). But earlier in chapter 38, Hemingway has also used Frederic's record of a long conversation with Catherine to show that she is worried about his feelings for her, a worry that also comes from her recognition that they have no real future. In the conversation, Catherine asks Frederic whether he is bored or restless, asks him about his having gonorrhea and says that she wished she'd had it, says that she wants to be exactly like him. Hemingway's sexism comes through clearly here, but so does a rather different consequence of Catherine's worry about their future. Her fear of what's coming also makes her somewhat desperate about the present: there seems to be some lack in the here and now that she wants to fill. Thus, when she wakes at night and proclaims that she is very, very, very happy, we can't help inferring that she protests too much.

But how do I know that it is her fear of the future that makes her desperate about the present? One could plausibly argue that her desperation is a sign of Frederic's present inadequacy and her own endless insecurity. Again, I think that what has happened is that Hemingway has run up against the limitations of his narrative perspective, only here those limitations become even stronger because of the sexism. Just as Hemingway turns in the shooting incident from Frederic's recording to the dialogue of Piani and Bonello to create his effects, he turns here to Catherine's dialogue. In addition to the limits Hemingway faces as a consequence of Frederic's tight-lipped recording, he faces the problem of the way the narrative perspective constrains our view of Catherine. Because the perspective allows us to see Catherine only from outside—and because Hemingway has conceived her character in a sexist way—her conversation can give rise to interpretations that the trouble with their life in Switzerland is not the world but the two of them. Such interpretations alter our view of Catherine's death: it becomes not the culmination of the tragedy but a convenient way for Frederic to escape from this sterile, constricted relationship. Although I think that the larger progression of the narrative finally calls such interpretations into question, I would also suggest that the limits of the autodiegetic narration make them appear more plausible.


I turn finally to the way in which much of what I have been saying about Frederic's narration implies that it is built on a paradox. Strikingly, this paradox has the potential to undermine the novel's illusion of realism, yet that potential is never realized. The paradox arises from three features of the narration, two of which I have already discussed explicitly. (1) With few exceptions, Frederic speaks from his perspective at the time of the action. (2) The growth or change in Frederic's character occurs at the time of the action, not during the time of the narration or through the act of narration. Thus, when I read the last sentence of the novel (“After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain”) as a sign of Frederic's growth, I am also understanding that the growth occurred then. The understated style is capturing Frederic's control during his walk, not a control that he has acquired through the act of writing. (3) Frederic is a recorder, not a self-conscious narrator. He is intent on telling his story, but he is no artist, no Humbert Humbert trying to render the most artistically effective narrative that he can muster for some rhetorical purpose that serves as his motivation for telling the story.

Since it is always possible—even easy—to find confirmation for the hypothesis that Frederic is self-consciously crafting the narrative (it's clearly his story, and his story clearly shows evidence of careful crafting), I want to pick up once again the issue of how we determine whether a homodiegetic or autodiegetic narrator is self-conscious. One of the conventions of homodiegetic narration is that unselfconscious narration is the unmarked case: that is, we take the homodiegetic narrator as unselfconscious unless we are given reason to do otherwise. Thus, we assume that the homodiegetic narrator is not the source of such things as foreshadowing, patterns of imagery, parallelism of incidents, the lyricism of a particular style—unless we have some signal that calls our attention to the narrator's self-consciousness. For example, when Huck Finn describes the sunrise over the Mississippi in sentences with impressive poetic power, we don't marvel at Huck's artistic prowess and his selective display of it; instead, we see Huck as the window through which Twain's artistry is being revealed. On the other hand, when Nabokov wants to create Humbert Humbert as a self-conscious narrator, he has Humbert frequently comment on his own narration: in chapter 1, he says, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” (11); later, he says, “Oh my Lolita, I have only words to play with!” (34); and finally, of course, Humbert talks about his narrative—and its artistry—as an attempt to compensate for the crimes he has committed against Lolita: “I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art” (285). “One had to choose between [Clare Quilty] and H. H., and one wanted H. H. to exist at least a couple of months longer so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art” (311). Frederic is clearly more like Huck than like Humbert.

The second reason that I want to argue for Frederic as recorder is the internal evidence of the narration. In addition to the evidence I have discussed earlier, I would like to add a final example, one in which Frederic does fluctuate between his perspective at the time of the action and his perspective at the time of the narration. In chapter 7 just before Frederic proclaims that the war “was no more dangerous to me myself than war in the movies” (37), he mentions that he had met two British gunners when he was on his leave in Milan. “They were big and shy and embarrassed and very appreciative together of anything that happened. I wish that I was with the British. It would have been much simpler. Still I would probably have been killed. Not in this ambulance business. Yes, even in the ambulance business. British ambulance drivers were killed sometimes. Well, I knew I would not be killed” (37, emphasis mine). The passage indicates Frederic's habit as a recorder: his reactions here arise out of the stream of his recollections rather than being motivated by his conscious artistic purpose. When he thinks of the British gunners at the time of narration, he jumps to his wish of having been with them because it would have been much simpler. But then he catches himself up by thinking of the possible negative consequences of that situation, then he has a short dialogue with himself about whether he would have been killed, then he quickly ends that by giving his view that the war was not real to him. To say that Frederic has planned all these shifts for some artistic purpose of his own is to make an interpretive leap for which the narration provides no spring.

The paradoxical consequence of these three features of the narration can be effectively illustrated by returning to my reading of the sentences ending the first chapter. “At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.” The rub in seeing Frederic as the victim rather than the source of the irony is that if unselfconscious Frederic has learned about the war and the world at the time of the action, then this knowledge should always be a part of his perspective as he retells the story. In other words, Frederic writes as if he does not know what he in fact knows—and he is not deliberately suppressing his knowledge or manipulating our understanding of his knowledge for any conscious artistic purpose of his own.

Genette has noticed and named this phenomenon of homodiegetic narration, calling it a paralipsis, a narration in which less information is given “than should presumably be given in terms of the focalization code governing the narrative,” as Gerald Prince describes it in his Dictionary of Narratology.9 But neither Genette nor Prince has analyzed the rhetorical logic of paralipsis's paradoxical nature—as I now propose to do for the case of A Farewell to Arms.

Although there is a sense in which Frederic's paralipsis seems to violate the conventions of mimesis, it does not actually destroy the mimetic illusion. Why? First, because the narration makes artistic sense and, second, because it makes sense in such a way that there is no reason for the reader to register the paradox during the actual temporal experience of the narrative. Hemingway, in effect, wants to write a Bildungsroman with a tragic twist. If he were to do that from a heterodiegetic perspective, there would be no problem in showing that the protagonist started out in ignorance and ended in knowledge. The narrator and the audience would start out ahead of the character, but eventually he would catch up to and perhaps surpass the audience. But to tell such a story from the perspective of a protagonist who would unselfconsciously record his experiences and some of his judgments and beliefs at the time of the action would have some significant advantages. Such a narration would allow the audience to have a deeper, more intimate relationship with that protagonist, and such a relationship might be necessary for the audience to maintain partial sympathy for him in the early stages of the narrative. Such a narration would also necessarily involve the audience in a great deal of inferential activity that would in itself be a source of the narrative's pleasure. Furthermore, although this procedure would entail the paradoxical situation described above, it would not be noticed. It would not be noticed because as the audience reads the early chapters—and indeed, the middle and later chapters—it does not know whether the narrator will attain any more knowledge than he has at the time of the narration. Thus, when we read the last sentence of chapter 1 in the temporal progression of the novel, we are not aware of the paradox because we do not know that Frederic comes to an understanding of the war and the world that would make it impossible for him to utter such a sentence without being ironic.

If the analysis of this chapter has been at all persuasive, then I think it suggests several noteworthy conclusions about Frederic's narration. First, it indicates the subtlety and skill with which Hemingway handles that narration. As Hemingway carefully constructs a progressive action in which Frederic works through his unstable relations with the war, with Catherine, and finally with the destructive world, he also develops a highly nuanced but clearly discernible progression of voice. Though Frederic's style does remain recognizably the same from beginning to end, his voice does not. Instead, as Frederic takes on features of Passini's voice and Catherine's, he is gradually moving closer to the values of the Orchestrator of the voices, Hemingway himself. Second, in showing that the technique has limits as well as powers, the analysis offers an account for some of the interpretive disagreement about the novel that accuses neither Hemingway nor his critics of being butchers. The disagreements stem not from sloppiness but from divergent inferences that naturally arise as Hemingway bumps up against the limits of his technique. Third, in showing that according to the standards of naturalistic probability Frederic could not logically tell his story as he does, the analysis suggests something about the conventions of homodiegetic narration. We will overlook the mimetic impossibility to allow Hemingway to tell the story in the most effective way—provided that the awareness of the impossibility is not foregrounded by the narrative itself. Taken together, these conclusions suggest that the smooth surface of Hemingway's prose belies the dynamic interaction of voice, character, and action that we must attend to in order to feel the progression of the narrative.


  1. I borrow the term from Wayne C. Booth, who uses distance in The Rhetoric of Fiction to denote the relations between unreliable narrators and implied authors.

  2. See Reynolds, Hemingway's First War, 56; and Oldsey, Hemingway's Hidden Craft, 64.

  3. Behind this sentence is the assumption, now somewhat familiar to readers of this book, that in reading a fictionalized narrative we are asked to join two distinct audiences—the narrative audience that exists on the same fictional plane as the narrator and the authorial audience that seeks to understand the whole communication from the author, including the functions of the narrative audience. The question about voice here is tied up with a question about how the authorial audience is asked to relate to its simultaneous participation in the narrative audience. For more on these audiences, see Rabinowitz, “Truth in Fiction.”

  4. For a discussion along different lines of Frederic's “retrospective narration,” see Nagel.

  5. For more on this point, see Hamburger and Fleishman.

  6. There are, of course, a few occasions when Frederic shifts from past to present and speaks with the vision he has at the time of narration: most notably when he talks about the priest knowing what he (Frederic) “was always able to forget” and when he articulates his knowledge of how the world kills everyone. But the vision and voice of these passages do not carry over into the rest of the narration, and they do not indicate that he has become a self-conscious narrator.

  7. For further discussion of the passage, see Reading People, Reading Plots, 177, 184-85.

  8. For another view on chapters 38 to 40, see Robert Lewis, Hemingway on Love.

  9. The binary opposite of paralipsis is paralepsis, a narration defined by Prince as one “giving more information … than should presumably be given in terms of the focalization code governing a narrative.”

Ben Stoltzfus (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms Pronominal Shifts and Metaphorical Slippage,” in Lacan and Literature: Purloined Pretexts, State University of New York Press, 1996, pp. 66-89.

[In the following essay, Stoltzfus presents a complex analysis of the use of language in A Farewell to Arms, with particular reference to the way in which Hemingway's use of metaphor and shifting pronoun references masks the primal story of Frederic's (and the author's) unconscious separation anxiety.]

The realization of perfect love is a fruit not of nature but of grace—that is to say, the fruit of an intersubjective agreement imposing its harmony on the divided nature that supports it.

Jacques Lacan, “The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis”

Who, then, is this other to whom I am more attached than to myself, since, at the heart of my assent to my own identity it is still he who agitates me?

Jacques Lacan, “The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud”

Three years after The Sun Also Rises appeared, Scribner published Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929), a novel about two star-crossed lovers whose perfect love is destroyed by war, circumstance, and the incompetence of doctors. The pronominal shifts and metaphorical slippage of Frederic Henry's narration reveal the presence of an Other within the interstices of language. A Farewell to Arms is the story of a young man who narrates certain events. Frederic writes about the war, his love for Catherine Barkley, and her death, in order to sort through the devastating nature of his experience.

Although Frederic is ostensibly telling his own story, the narrative contains two simultaneous voices, Frederic's and Hemingway's. Together, they give us the simultaneity of a sliding discourse—a simultaneity that allows Hemingway to superimpose two time schemes: one corresponding to the events as they first occurred, and the other to hindsight.

Although the novel is written in the first person, on five different occasions Frederic shifts from the first-person pronoun “I” to the second-person “you.” In these passages he is not addressing another character, as we might expect, nor is he using “you” in the general sense of “one.” Is this a narrative lapse on Hemingway's part, or is the opacity deliberate? Furthermore, in addition to the “I/you” shifts, there are also at least four passages in which Hemingway uses the pronoun “we” in a context that does little to clarify to whom, besides Frederic, the “we” refers.

These pronominal shifts are embedded in a discursive weave that contributes to the opacity. It is not until Chapter 5 that the narrator is identified, an American in the Italian army, and not until Chapter 12 that his first name is mentioned in Italian: Federico. The narrator's full name, Frederic Henry, does not appear until Chapter 13. Meanwhile, he has been wounded at the front and is convalescing in a Milan hospital. Why, we wonder, has Hemingway deferred naming his narrator, and why has Frederic, repressed his own name? Part of Hemingway's strategy is to force the reader to ask who is telling the story, but also, as Gerry Brenner points out, Frederic “is unsure of who he is.”1 Even after his identity is established, the pronominal shifts continue to destabilize it. Names imply differences, and indeed there is a difference between the innocent lieutenant of Book One and the educated Frederic Henry of Book Five. The narrative does not only defer identity. It multiplies the differences among Hemingway, Frederic, and Frederic's two selves.

On the biographical level, Frederic's narrative can be construed as Hemingway's displaced version of his love for Agnes von Kurowsky, the American nurse with whom he fell in love in the Milan hospital after he was wounded on the Italian front during World War I. According to her, Hemingway left Europe thinking that she would soon join him in the United States and that they would be married.2 Carlos Baker, quoting Marcelline, Hemingway's sister, says that after Hemingway's return home from Italy, his brooding about Agnes reminded her of someone “put in a box with the cover nailed down.”3 When Hemingway finally received Agnes's “Dear Ernest” letter, he “ran a temperature and was obliged to go to bed.”4 Clearly, he felt her loss acutely, and, although unlike Frederic, he does not sit down immediately to write their story, he does, in time, do exactly that. Also, unlike Frederic, Hemingway had had time to assimilate the experience in order to write about it with a detachment that enabled him to structure it not only as the telling of a story but as the story of telling. A Farewell to Arms is a novel about writing. It is not simply Frederic trying to muddle through an experience that has left him devastated; Hemingway's narrative foregrounds the writer as artificer. The rain motif, for example, which many commentators have analyzed, and whose role as an objective correlative adumbrates the tragedy of Catherine's death, is one of many devices that belies innocent storytelling.

Innocent or not, some readers believe that Frederic is selfish, irresponsible, and infantile, whereas others argue that he is caring and even committed to his relationship with Catherine. Some argue that Frederic is running from his obligations, whereas others believe in his deep involvement. Robert W. Lewis, Jr., for example, argues that Frederic escapes to “the simplicity, isolation, and irresponsibility of an idyllic life with his beloved,” but that “in the depths of his mind Henry is really glad that Catherine dies.”5 Ray B. West, Jr., also believes that Frederic tries “to escape from the obligations which life imposes.”6 Scott Donaldson emphasizes Frederic's immature attitude, his selfishness in love, and the heresy of Catherine's words when she says “you're my religion.”7 Faith Pullin maintains that Catherine “is crippled by self-hatred and by the sexual nausea that pervades the novel as a whole.”8 West, on the other hand, sees Catherine's love for Frederic as fundamentally moral, as does Jackson J. Benson, who defends the depth of Frederic's and Catherine's commitments to each other and the caring nature of their love.9

Robert Penn Warren suggests that these divergent views fit into a larger context. He says that A Farewell to Arms is a love story that establishes a connection between secular love and divine love. He defines Frederic as “the sleepless man, the man haunted by nada,” the man who evolves from sensory love as appetite and discovery to another kind of love in which one does things for others: “The priest's role is to indicate … the true meaning of love, the wish to do things for.” After he leaves, Frederic “muses on the high, clean country of the Abruzzi, the priest's home that has already been endowed with the symbolic significance of the religious view of the world.”10 This is the same “home” to which Benson refers. Thus Benson and Warren argue that the purpose of the novel is to make Frederic's and Catherine's secular love equal in value to the priest's divine love. This is the equivalence that emerges from Catherine's statement to Frederic (“You're my religion.”) and the priest's statement concerning love, service, and sacrifice. Arguably, Frederic and Catherine in Switzerland establish this oneness of love—a oneness that Reynolds describes as “the spirit of the flesh.”11

Despite these divergent views, there may be a way to reconcile and even transcend the contradictions—contradictions that are based on the belief that Frederic and Catherine are real people. If we think of them as flesh-and-blood characters, in accordance with the canon of classic realism, then we judge them accordingly. Edmund Wilson, among others, laments the fact that Hemingway “has not shown any very solid sense of character or … any real interest in it.”12 Indeed, Frederic and Catherine are not real; they are fictions, mere metaphors within Hemingway's discursive web. Because, according to Lacan,13 metaphors veil the presence of the unconscious, critics should perhaps not judge these characters' moral failings or virtues, but, instead should analyze Hemingway's linguistic and artistic patterns that subsume them.

Whether Frederic and Catherine are or are not shallow characters, and whether they can or cannot love properly, may be less important than the narrative Hemingway structures around them, because his pattern of pronominal shifts, deferral, and metaphorical slippage casts special light on the changes that are taking place within Frederic. The language of love and death, of desire and loss, of the conscious and the unconscious reveals, if we borrow Freud's dream terminology, both latent meaning and manifest content.14 Metaphors, slips, and gaps in the text—the text's manifest level—veil its hidden meaning. Therefore, the metaphorical resonance of the title embedded in the text requires readerly participation if meaning is to be heard. But the shifts, although not hard to detect, are not always easy to explain. Nonetheless, it is this essay's purpose, within a Lacanian and a reader-response context, to try to make sense of the pronominal shifts, metaphorical slippage, and structural gaps. A Lacanian reading always focuses on discourse, and because in this case the discourse is Hemingway's, any analysis of Frederic and Catherine must necessarily pull aside the veils they cast on the author who weaves them.

Not all commentators approve of such a critical strategy. Indeed, despite the fact that the first full-length Freudian study of Hemingway's works appeared seven years after Hemingway's First War, Reynolds believes that the vein of psychoanalytic exegesis has been overworked.15 He urges a return to the use of old critical tools, and, in using them himself, he provides valuable and useful historical and biographical information concerning Hemingway's role at the Italian front in 1918 and on his writing of A Farewell to Arms in 1928. Reynolds also provides important details to support his contention that Hemingway researched portions of the novel in order to give it geographical, meteorological, historical, and military accuracy.16 He points out that Hemingway never allowed reality to interfere with his fiction, that whenever art and biography were at odds, Hemingway “would change the remembered experience to fit the needs of his writing.”17

The point that Reynolds makes, nonetheless, is that the author's need to write fiction is psychological, as evidenced by the fact that Hemingway changed reality to suit his needs. For example, although both Frederic Henry and Hemingway were blown up at the front, Hemingway was wounded while distributing chocolate at a forward listening post along the Piave river, whereas Frederic was eating macaroni and cheese in the trenches. Although Agnes von Kurowsky and Catherine Barkley were both nurses at the Milan hospital, Agnes had short brown hair, whereas Catherine had long blonde hair. Furthermore, Catherine is a composite character of Agnes, the nurse, Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife, and Pauline Pfeiffer, his second. Hemingway spent an idyllic winter in Montreux with Hadley, and he suffered through Pauline's eighteen-hour labor, followed by caesarian delivery of a healthy child. Pauline did not die, as Catherine does, nor did the baby.18 Hemingway's novel corroborates certain facts and contradicts others. In this connection Reynolds's book provides essential information for source hunters, and it says a great deal about Hemingway's working methods. However, a return to the use of old critical tools19 may say less about the internal meaning of A Farewell to Arms than strategies grounded in linguistics, psychoanalysis, and reader-response criticism.

Reynolds is correct to stress the fact that it is dangerous to read Hemingway's fiction as biography.20 However, there are two kinds of biography: one kind tracks the places, events, and relationships of a person's external life, whereas the other records the internal passage. In the second kind, art is the autobiography of the mind and the emotions because it traces a psychic voyage. Thus, Lacanian readings of works of fiction, such as A Farewell to Arms, do not concern themselves with the accuracy of historical detail but with language, because language contains metaphorical displacements that correspond to the psyche's affective states. Tropes dramatize the artist's inner world—and its meaning—as opposed to the external, visible world through which the artist moves.

With reference to A Farewell to Arms there are, therefore, psychologically speaking, three fundamental questions: What is the meaning of Hemingway's and Frederic's wound, what is the meaning of Hemingway's and Frederic's loss, and what is the meaning of defeat? Some background information will set the stage for our inquiry. Before Hemingway began writing A Farewell to Arms, he and Hadley returned to Fossalta, Italy, in search of the spot where he was wounded by the exploding shell in 1918. Although Hemingway was unable to find the exact location, Reynolds sees this return as Hemingway's ritualistic “attempt to make sense out of the trauma of his wounding.”21 The wounding at the front is the first of three key events in the novel. The second one concerns the massive retreat and defeat of the Italian army at Caporetto. This is the setting for Frederic's arrest and desertion. Why, therefore, although Hemingway was wounded on July 8, 1918, did he choose to set the novel during the two-year period between 1915 and 1917? Reynolds believes that Hemingway must have chosen not to use the Italian victory at Vittorio Veneto in 1918, because “he wanted to place Frederic in the midst of a beaten and partially paralyzed army, not a victorious one.”22 For the Italians, “Caporetto stood for the entire war experience, and that experience was defeat.”23 Although Reynolds gives a cogent historical reason, for Lacan, a sense of defeat always accompanies the infant's state of mind after the so-called mirror phase. The father's Law that separates the child from the mother is interiorized as defeat, castration, and death. Whether historical or psychological, defeat is the bedrock of human experience, and loss is the sine qua non of the human condition. All people carry within them, not only the invisible stigmata of the primal repression but also the gnawing awareness of contingency, death, and finitude. Reynolds senses this when he says that “A Farewell to Arms is a massive defeat; there could be no sentimental hope left at the end.”24 The end, the third key element in the novel, is, of course, Catherine's death. Her death and the death of the baby dramatize, symbolically, the defeat of the ego after the father's prohibition. Defeat resonates throughout the novel both for historical and psychological reasons.

It is perhaps not insignificant that in his youth Hemingway was attracted to older women. On July 21, 1918, when he turned nineteen, Agnes was twenty-six. Later, when he married Hadley, she was seven years his senior.25 An interesting pattern asserts itself in Hemingway's early years, although, as he grew older, the reverse would be true: he would be attracted to younger women. There is also the parallelism between an older Agnes who nurses him back to health in the Milan hospital and the role of the mother nursing the child. The novel mirrors this relationship. Indeed, when Catherine dies, and only Frederic remains, we have, replayed, the dramatic sense of the primal triad in which Catherine, the mother, is for all intents and purposes lost, and the baby (i.e., the self) dies, both events replicating a child's inner sense of loss and death when the Law intervenes. Only Frederic's wounded ego remains, a silent witness, in the rain, to the massive defeat that has occurred.

If death is a metaphor for separation (absence) as A Farewell to Arms most emphatically proposes, then the loss of Agnes, or Catherine, or the mother, in Lacanian terms, echoes the hurt of the child's primal loss when the phallus (the Law) represses desire and precipitates the child's accession to language. The consequences of this separation, which are also repressed, are that death and desire for on the basis for the discourse of the Other. The discourse of the other surfaces whenever there is metaphoric or metonymic interplay. Frederic's desertion from the Italian army corresponds to a rejection of the Law and the paternalistic order for which it stands. This order is violent and irrational and it will subsequently be equated with death. Indeed, one of the novel's themes is that death, in its symbolic forms, must be resisted, even though, ultimately, Frederic recognizes it as a force over which man has no dominion. In the final analysis, Frederic's and Catherine's behaviors are symptoms of a metaphoric displacement. The name-of-the-father, which separates the infant from the mother, is interpreted as a form of death—a death that is repressed but that nonetheless is an accompanying and unconscious piece of psychic baggage. Death and desire are the two components of the Law.

The novel begins with Frederic and Catherine in the Red Cross on a front they have chosen but which is not of their making. She is there to forget and perhaps to serve, and he for no better reason than that he is in Italy and speaks the language. Frederic, as Benson points out, acts like a naive tourist visiting the front.26 As for Catherine, she behaves the way she does because her fiancé has been killed in the war. She is a person already brutalized by forces that will eventually also kill her. Frederic, in contrast, despite the fact that initially he behaves like a fraternity boy bent on seduction, undergoes a gradual change that will put him in the spot Catherine was in when they first met. He too will have been brutalized. Although, at the beginning, Catherine may have been a “little crazy,”27 she does truly fall in love with Frederic, and, eventually, he with her.

Whatever their private motives for being at the front, their presence appears useful and morally responsible. Ironically, this altruism goes unrewarded and is even punished by fate, ignorance, and incompetence. In due course Frederic says farewell to the bungling strategists who are directing the war, and he bids farewell to Catherine, who dies in the delivery room in the hands of incompetent doctors. The novel's title reveals that the linguistic detonator for the succession of tragic events is the word “farewell.” Indeed, the trauma of loss explains both Catherine's behavior and Frederic's behavior, because death deprives each of them of the person loved.

At first, Catherine's behavior, due to her “crazy” outbursts, seems puzzling: she slaps Frederic for kissing her, then relents, and in no time is calling him “darling,” as though he had become the instant and living substitute for her dead fiancé. Although she is not as calculating as Frederic, she, too, plays the game of love, alternately attracting and repulsing him, even as he fantasizes that she will pretend he is the boy who was killed in the Somme. Catherine understands Frederic's motives and she even sees through his artifice, telling him not to lie. She also has insight into her own behavior and she comments objectively about her first irrational lapses. One evening, having almost forgotten his date with her, Frederic experiences a lonely and hollow feeling because she is ill and not available. Suddenly, her unavailability heightens his love interest. The nature of their sporadic encounters gives her a fugitive and unpredictable role. There are obstacles and a distance which, Marcel Proust says are guaranteed to whip a suitor's love into a frenzy.28 However, it is Frederic's brush with death, more than “the vicissitudes of the heart,” that accelerates his nascent love for Catherine. This brush with death mirrors the death embodied in the primal repression. When the Austrian shell explodes

there was a flash as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing of wind. I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself, and I knew I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died. Then I floated, and instead of going on I felt myself slide back. I breathed and I was back.29

Frederic has, literally, come back from the dead. His concussion is real and is not without its affective consequences—consequences that are both conscious and unconscious. Whereas the father's prohibition, which is a form of death, deprives the child of the mother, thus frustrating desire, Catherine's appearance in the Milan hospital is like a gift from heaven. When Frederic sees her, everything turns over inside of him and he says: “When I saw her I was in love with her.”30 Why should Frederic's brush with death change the game of love into actual love when his initial goal was to seduce Catherine? How can we explain such an abrupt change? In view of the child motif embedded in the text, a Lacanian reading may provide some answers.

For Lacan all discourse is always dual because of the repression of desire at the time of the primal scene when the Law cleaves the infant/mother relationship. During the mirror phase, before the separation and irrevocable exile of the self, the mother/infant unit is experienced as a oneness—a longing for the primal oneness that is subsequently incorporated into desire. This sense of exile manifests itself in terms of a paradise lost and as a form of death (castration). The combination of loss and repressed desire (for the mother) coexists throughout life influencing all behavior and all decisions. This loss is also perceived as an absence. Frederic's need to write his story, in the light of the Fort!/Da!, is a form of repetition triggered by the similarities between his recent experiences and the forces of the primal scene.

Desire for the mother, due to the incest taboo, is repressed, but coming back from the dead seems to have intensified Frederic's desire, and it now focuses on Catherine. She “looked fresh and young and very beautiful. I thought I had never seen any one so beautiful.”31 The “little stick” of the dead fiancé never was and certainly now is no match for Frederic's convalescing ardor, and so, he and Catherine consummate their love—their pretense of a marriage—thus unconsciously perpetuating the illicit and unconscious taboo of desire. In nursing his wounds, Catherine fulfills a maternal role and, although it is a hospital, their nocturnal trysts give the place a semblance of a hotel and the allure of a love that is forbidden.

Although hospitals and nurses, generally, in their treatment and language (as when using the pronoun “we”) tend to cast patients in the role of the incompetent, or talk to them as children, Frederic's nascent identity, in addition to this hospital syndrome, emerges in a context that is suggestive of childhood. Rinaldi, the doctor at the front, repeatedly calls him “baby.” When Frederic asks when the Milan hospital doctor will arrive, Miss Gage, one of the nurses, answers: “Hush. Be a good boy and he'll come.”32 When the doctor finally arrives, he too says, “be a good boy.” The child motif carries over to Catherine who says, “I'm good. I do what you want.”33 These verbal exchanges equate goodness with obedience, and obedience is, generally, what adults expect from a child, or what an officer expects from his enlisted men. However, there is nothing in Frederic's demeanor and behavior, except for his wound and the fact that he is in bed, to suggest that he is a child, or that he acts like one. He is young, but he is, nonetheless, a lieutenant; he answers firmly, he holds his own against overbearing nurses, he pays the porter to bring him cognac, he insists on seeing another doctor when the three incompetent ones advise a six-month delay for the operation on his knee so that the synovial fluid can form, he makes love to Catherine, and he convalesces. Although he is cast in the role of a child, he does not behave like one: he is not obedient, and he opposes the paternalistic order that treats him as an unthinking minor. Nonetheless, death, the concussion, and the child motif, from the reader's point of view, reinforce the return of the repressed, the helplessness of childhood, and desire, since desire for the lost mother (the one who nurses) is continuously displaced and renewed.

At some point in Frederic's convalescence, Catherine conceives. Although it is not clear which contraceptives she might have been using (Frederic apparently used none), she says that her pregnancy has occurred in spite of her preventive measures. These protestations are perhaps suspect, but Frederic is too much in love to care or to notice. Although Catherine's conception violates the moral code of the day, they decide not to marry, fearing they will be separated. But this illusion of togetherness is aborted after his wounds have healed, because Frederic is sent back to the front in order to support the paternalistic order from which his wounds have given him a reprieve. His return is not without irony, however, since the unit has continued to function well in spite of his absence. Moreover, the law he serves and in whose name the war is being fought, almost kills him a second time when he is arrested by the battle police. On the unconscious level, because the ultimate threat is death, these events will be interpreted as the law's renewed attempt at castration. The sexual implications of linking death and desire point toward Frederic's growing love for Catherine, as well as his determination to endure. Although he endures and survives, he has difficulty adjusting to the events that are gradually overwhelming him.

The passages containing the pronominal shifts reflect Frederic's dilemma and disorientation. I agree with Brenner who states that “the novel hangs together best when heard on the heels of Catherine's death.”34 In retrospect, the “we” of the opening paragraph makes special sense if we reread it after finishing the novel. “In the late summer of that year we [my emphasis] lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.” The similarity in tone and description of this first paragraph with the opening paragraphs of Books Three and Five (particularly the latter) is striking: “That fall the snow came very late. We lived in a brown wooden house in the pine trees on the side of the mountain.”35 Leaving aside the fact that the rain and the snow (the metaphors of fear and death) come from the mountains, it is indisputable that the “we” in the brown wooden house on the side of the mountain are Frederic and Catherine.

Who then is the “we” of Book One? It can't be Catherine, because she and Frederic have not met. Does it include the other male members of the Red Cross unit? Bernard Oldsey says that the “we” signifies “we the noncombatants, the onlookers not as yet engaged in action,”36 and that reading makes sense. However, when rereading the novel, and keeping all the pronominal shifts in mind, a more complex view emerges. Could the stylistic similarities in the opening paragraphs of Books One and Five mean that the “we” of Book One refers to an absent Catherine? If so, it reflects an imperious need to write about her and their Swiss idyll when they were as one and lived only for each other. Catherine says: “Oh, darling, I want you so much I want to be you too.” To which Frederic answers: “You are. … We're the same one.”37 If Frederic begins writing his story immediately after Catherine's death, as I believe he does, then their oneness during the last months of her pregnancy explains his use of “we” in the book's opening paragraph. Frederic needs to understand why she has died and what has happened to him, and in writing the story of their love (she is still too much with him; he cannot dissociate himself from her) Hemingway invites the reader's participation in deciphering Frederic's motives and feelings.

For example, after deserting and after rejoining Catherine at the Grand-Hôtel & des Isles Baromées in Stresa, Frederic says that he feels guilty like a truant schoolboy. Also, “I feel like a criminal. I've deserted from the army.”38 Feelings of guilt surface, attesting a certain vacillation, despite his earlier anger that “was washed away in the river along with any obligation. … it was not my show any more.”39 In civilian clothes he feels like a masquerader. “I had been in uniform a long time and I missed the feeling of being held by your clothes”40 [my emphasis]. This use of the possessive pronoun “your” (one of the five passages referred to earlier) alludes to his military self, as opposed to his civilian self. Because Frederic is in dialog with Henry, the clothes are the outward sign of an inner duality. His name, made up of two first names, Frederic and Henry, connotes this difference. Circumstances (the retreat of the Italian army, his brush with death) force him to desert and to reject the paternalistic order in favor of love, Catherine, and his future child. Frederic is obliged to choose new, radically different responsibilities—confusing responsibilities that are difficult to harmonize with the fraternal order of men with whom he has been fighting.

The degree to which he himself had espoused the authoritarian system is illustrated by the fact that he shoots a soldier who would desert the truck that is stuck in the mud. Nonetheless, although Frederic is a man who believes in the system, the paternalistic order treats him like a child, punishing him for making decisions that affirm his manhood. These circumstances and these events explain, in part, Frederic's dilemma, his fragmented self, and his need to tell his story. Catherine's death affirms the dominion of a chaotic authority that is allied with fate. It is “they” who punish Catherine and Frederic for having loved each other. Before dying she says, echoing an earlier passage: “I'm all broken. They've broken me.”41 And Frederic says, “They killed you in the end. … Stay around and they would kill you.”42 Within a Puritanical context (Hemingway's family background in Oak Park, Illinois), Catherine's death and their stillborn child can be construed as punishment for an illicit love, because they are not married and have engaged in an elaborate act of pretense in which a hotel room becomes their home and their love affair is called a marriage. Indeed, Frederic and Catherine behave like children playing at love, and when that love is threatened, they blame the world for the afflictions visited on them. Their tragic affair ends in death and separation, and A Farewell to Arms is the narrative of the circumstances surrounding the lovers and the feelings engendered by their relationship.

The dialog between Frederic's civilian and military selves (the “we”) refers to a discourse that is trying to sort through the conflicting ideologies of opposing identities. The pronoun “we” carries with it at least three voices (four when we add the Lacanian discourse of the Other): one is realistic, two are imaginary, and one is displaced. The realistic “we” is plausible, chronological, and conventional. It refers to Frederic and his associates at the front. It is the two imaginary “we” voices (Catherine's and Frederic's two selves) that disrupt the narrative conventions of time and plausibility, because they require that readers keep in mind previous readings of the novel. If the “we” refers to Frederic and the death of Catherine, then her haunting presence dictates Hemingway's narrative strategy. If Frederic writes because he has to reconcile his civilian and military selves, then this additional duality is also incorporated into the “you” passages that follow. This splitting of Frederic's identity fits into a Lacanian analysis.

In writing the story of his love for and loss of Catherine, Frederic is also recovering the wholeness and the unity of the pre mirror phase—an unconscious phase—but one which, nonetheless is now replicated through Catherine's death and the triumph of the Law (“they”)—the phallus. A Farewell to Arms thus conforms to certain classical phases of Lacanian theory. Frederic truly experiences an ordeal by (Austrian) fire (power) that initiates him into manhood. He is wounded, he falls in love, he recovers, and he returns to the front. Significantly, the shell that almost kills him also deprives him of his pistol (symptom of castration and loss of the phallus). Nonetheless, the “broken baby boy,” with Catherine's help recovers his manhood, even as he convalesces, and before returning to the front he buys a secondhand pistol to replace the one that was lost. The metaphorical value of the pistol is obvious. Its phallic charge is comparable to the little stick—the toy riding crop—that her fiancé's mother sent Catherine after he was killed.

“Now we're fully armed,” says Frederic,43 in a context in which “I'm fully armed” would have fulfilled the requirements of narrative realism. Why the “we”? Is it rhetorical? Or is it, as I tend to think, the reflection of a renewed identity and purpose stressing the fact that his civilian and military selves are still one, that they have not yet been sundered, that he still believes in the paternalistic cause that prompted him to enlist in the Red Cross and serve in the Italian army. He does not realize that the enduring enemy is not the Austrians and the Germans, but the Law—a Law that is peremptory, ignorant, and incompetent. Frederic's wound, his rite of passage, was a passport to the war-torn country of the Law—the paternalistic system of bourgeois values. Unwittingly, Frederic begins his farewell in the massive retreat during which “the whole country was moving, as well as the army.”44 This is when Frederic is arrested by the battle police and, in spite of his protestations, is condemned to be shot as a German infiltrator. He has more to fear from the battle police, who are shooting “deserters,” than from the Austrians and Germans. His earlier statement that “now we're fully armed” has an ironic echo as he is literally and symbolically disarmed while reaching for his pistol. In the ensuing struggle, the battle police pull his arm up “so that it twisted in the socket.”45

Frederic says nothing about losing his pistol a second time, and the reader has to infer that he does, because there is no other reason for the battle police to pull his arm up and twist it. So it turns out: after pulling himself out of the river, he reveals that “they had taken my pistol at the road.”46 This first omission, considering the pistol's phallic connotations, is not insignificant. On a conscious level the omission reflects Hemingway's iceberg theory of writing. On an unconscious level Frederic's repression of it corresponds to the repression and loss of memory of the primal scene when the father's prohibition (the Law—in this case the battle police) is perceived as a form of death. Frederic is forced to bid farewell to his arm, that is, his weapon, that is, his military self—his superego. It is this loss that forms part of the “I/you” dialog. The painful impact of each loss has its psychic reverberations that will be felt metaphorically up to the very end, when Frederic has to bid farewell to Catherine's arms, as he was once forced by the Law to bid farewell to his mother's arms.

The title, as every college student knows, and as Oldsey points out, “says good-bye to military arms and to love's embrace.”47 However, A Farewell to Arms was not Hemingway's working title, since, according to Oldsey he rejected thirty-three projected titles before choosing the one derived from George Peele's poem. The novel incorporates three motifs—war, love, and the education of the protagonist—as overlapping categories within the rejected titles. Contrary to the idealization of love and honor in Peele's “A Farewell to Arms,” Oldsey notes that Hemingway's title gives ironic emphasis to the fact that “there is very little glory or honor on the field of battle, and that human love dies in the flesh.”48 Clearly, A Farewell to Arms as a title reflects a deliberate and conscious choice on Hemingway's part—a choice that reflects the novel's themes. However, there are unconscious dimensions within the title that reflect the Law (encratic language and the military) and repressed desire (Frederic's displaced love for Catherine).

The pistol scene is a pivotal passage in which the word “arm,” as in the title, has two signifieds. The dual reference, to pistol and to a part of the anatomy, illustrates Lacan's theory of the repressed. It is at junctures such as this one—metaphorical junctures—that the unconscious reveals itself through verbal play. Because the unconscious is structured like a language, Lacan insists that we can see it at work, or, at the very least, experience its presence through the play (articulation) of language. Metaphors are symptoms, and in this symptomatic language we (the readers) can decipher the intentions of desire. Frederic is disarmed (his pistol and his arm), and he is dealt a symbolic blow that, in time, will also kill the woman he loves. The battle police, whose peremptory attitudes and self-arrogated justice are sources of instant judgment and execution, adumbrate the powers of ignorance that are responsible for Catherine's death (the two doctors at the Lausanne hospital). “The questioners [the battle police] had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it.”49 They speak in clichés, using phrases such as “the sacred soil of the fatherland” and “the fruits of victory.”50 They are the quintessential embodiment of the Law, be it real or symbolic, and their thinking is encratic. Firing squads constituted by ignorance are no different than the doctors' death-dealing ministrations of incompetence. Catherine's death forces Frederic to do without the consoling warmth of her embrace. His farewell to arms reinforces the metaphoric significance of the title—a title that contains the two poles articulating the novel's structure: love and death. “It was like saying good-by [sic] to a statue.”51 Catherine cannot respond, and a statue does not embrace.

The lesson that Frederic learns is that the world kills: “It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.”52 What he has to sort through, however, are the differences among the battle police, the doctors, biology, and fate, “they” into which these categories fall, and the world that incorporates all of them. If the world kills indiscriminately, then the absurd consequences of this existential premise are significant. What is also significant is that from infancy on we repress the fact that one of the components of the Law is death—a death whose implications Freud explores in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

In addition to Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud's treatise on the interpretation of dreams enabled Lacan to show that the operations of the unconscious are themselves linguistic processes. Like the iconic nature of dreams, language and narration have a manifest and a latent content. In dreams, condensation and displacement disguise the content of the unconscious in the same way that metaphor and metonymy veil the pulsive forces of the author's or the narrator's desire, whenever language is being used. All discourse contains repressed material that structures a never-ending dialog with the Other—a two-tiered identity made up of the Imaginary and the Symbolic. The Symbolic is the Law (the father, the army, the battle police). The Imaginary is the displaced self that has to come to terms with the postponement of satisfaction, the repression of desire, the nurturing of discontent—in short, the maturation and acculturation that mark the passage from adolescence to adulthood. Although Frederic's transition from one to the other has been accelerated by the war, he copes competently and even heroically with adversity and change. Still, the pronominal shifts in the narrative reveal cracks in the facade of endurance.

Frederic is always portrayed as bigger than life: he knows his wines, his foods, his women, and his American family, which he rejects. He expounds knowledgeably on guns, birds, fish, brandy, and people. He falls in love. He is not unread. The ninety-four-year-old Count Greffi seeks out his company, and they philosophize about life and death. Frederic is also the confidant and friend of doctors, porters, nurses, enlisted men, hotel clerks, and even strangers. He survives in an icy river, and when he emerges he spends hours in wet clothes (he wrings them out, but they are still wet) in temperatures that would have knocked an ordinary mortal out with hypothermia. He rows thirty-five miles across a lake from Italy to Switzerland in one night in stormy weather. He endures and he survives—a tribute to his stamina and his resourcefulness. Perhaps because of the exaggeration, we recognize the attributes of Hemingway's code-hero, and we admire him for his extraordinary attributes. He is one of the initiated.

However, the crack in the facade can be revealed only through language, and it is Frederic's account of his exploits that unveils other selves beneath the one we see. The shifting nouns and metaphors are the gaps and clues that open up the narrative. Metaphors, like condensation in dreams, are paradigmatic. They go from a sign that is present to others that are absent. Reading a trope thus involves a series of operations that occur simultaneously whenever there is an overlapping of meaning. Figure 4.1 may be useful in detailing the process:

(Denotes) Signified PISTOL (Army) (Denotes) Signified2 ARM(S) (Anatomy)
(Connotes) PHALLUS (repressed) Signifier ARMS (Connotes) LOVE (repressed desire for the mother) (conscious love for Catherine)

The solid arrows point to the telling of the story, whereas the broken arrows mark the gaps in the story of telling. The signifier ARMS has two signifieds (S1 and S2), each of which connotes a latent and repressed referent. Although the sign (signifier + signified) remains distinct from the repressed referent, the referent, in its contextual and extratextual functions, dramatizes the presence of the repressed. The reader constructs meaning by tracing such metaphorical relationships. Thus, the title, A Farewell to Arms, although not a premeditated working title, acts as an unconscious generative cell from which the novel emerges, and, like the work itself, the title has both manifest and latent meanings. The manifest meaning is the telling of the story, and the latent meaning corresponds to the story of telling. Frederic needs to tell his story in order to come to terms with loss. Catherine's death is a conscious loss, but it is superimposed on the repressed loss of the primal scene. The novel, in fact, derives its evocative power from this perfect congruence of manifest content and latent meaning, both of which elicit oedipal feelings in every reader.

In addition to its metaphoric displacement, the word “farewell” has homonyms that slide into the novel's themes. The world treats Frederic and Catherine harshly. She dies, and he loses the woman he loves. The world, according to Frederic, is not fair, because it breaks the strong and kills the innocent. The world is not fair, and neither protagonist fares well. They are both trapped, but the trap is as much existential angst, stemming from the certitude of death, as it is the biology of love. Only critics with severe Puritan tendencies could focus on the sexual aspect of the biological trap to the virtual exclusion of its metaphysical resonance.

John Killinger, among others, cogently develops the idea of “the absurd” in Hemingway's works.53 Philosophers of the absurd, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, believe that men exist in a contingent world devoid of a priori meaning.54 The biological trap, in existential terms, posits that all men are mortal and that immortality is an illusion. In Camus's play Caligula, the protagonist states it bluntly: “Men die and they are not happy.”55 The death of Caligula's sister, Drusilla, is the beginning of Caligula's madness—a madness that reminds us of Catherine's craziness. Indeed, the death of a person we love (actual or symbolic) cannot be dismissed as readily as many commentators have dismissed Frederic's love for Catherine.

Furthermore, Camus asserts that men strive for immortality in a world that denies such longing. In this context, the absurd is defined as the discrepancy between desire and reality. The notion of the absurd leads to the conclusion that all is not well in a world in which men want happiness only to find that happiness is denied to them. It is not only bunglers, incompetents, and ignorant zealots—the battle police who arrest Frederic and the doctors who perform Catherine's caesarian—who are responsible for premature or accidental death; it is when death is perceived as a biological trap that it affects man's view of the human condition. At such times life is perceived as tragedy. Frederic and Hemingway can then state ironically that the cholera has killed only 7,000. War and cholera are not dissimilar: they both kill. Thus, men are exposed to the vicissitudes of battle, disease, chance, the biological trap, ignorance, and incompetence. All is not well in this world, and God is not in Hemingway's heaven.

Because the world in A Farewell to Arms is sick, the hospital is a metaphor structuring the novel's symmetry. Moreover, as William Wasserstrom puts it, “An affair that begins in a hospital bed in Milan is foredoomed to end in a hospital bed in Lausanne.”56 There is an inversion that takes place from the Red Cross flag to the Swiss flag which, as Brenner points out, is consistent and appropriate.57 The slippage from “farewell” to “well” to “sick” to “hospital” to “wound” occurs naturally and consistently. Frederic's “wound” is tripartite: he is wounded at the front, he is aware of the biological trap as existential angst, and he writes in order to recover the object of his loss, whether mother or Catherine. On the unconscious level, Frederic's wound is Hemingway's wound, and both men write in order to recover an absence. The wound-psychic-scar idea is also a theme that Philip Young pursues in the “Adventures of Nick Adams.”58 The metaphoric and homonymic slippages and connotations of the words “farewell” and “arms” lift the veil of the unconscious, thereby giving us glimpses of the wound—the primal repression—from which the novel emerges.

The novel's generative cell, the oneness of the mother/infant unit (Frederic's and Catherine's idyll in the Alps), is recaptured provisionally in Switzerland. But because Catherine is as much Hemingway as Frederic is, they both manifest their author's desire. Catherine's quest for oneness with Frederic should not be dismissed, because her need is a facet of Hemingway's desire, namely the repressed nostalgia for oneness that is part of every sexual union. A Lacanian analysis suggests that Catherine's death and the death of the baby enable Hemingway to relive the symbolic death of desire. He, the artist, like the child in Freud's Fort!/Da! game, repeats and relieves the masquerade of retrieving the loss of the mother. The artist plays with reality, must in fact play with it, in order to soothe the demands of the unconscious.

Although the game metaphor, as Benson points out, is “a method for ethical dramatization,”59 it also mirrors the absurd and the unconscious. Although not foregrounded in his work as in that of such postmodern writers as John Barth, Robert Coover, and Alain Robbe-Grillet,60 Hemingway's verbal play is nonetheless present. The freedom to play with language and to invent dramatic roles for his characters emphasizes Hemingway's metaphysical and ethical strategy. Lewis points out that A Farewell to Arms foregrounds many situations of masquerading and playacting. Frederic is an American in Italian uniform. He compares love to a game of chess and cards. Catherine pretends Frederic is her dead fiancé. The war itself is ridiculous and a bit theatrical. Patriots, singers, and doctors are not what they appear to be. Frederic hides empty cognac bottles even as he and Catherine conceal their lovemaking. They go to a fixed horse race. It is rumored that Germans are wearing Italian uniforms. After deserting, Frederic disguises himself first as an enlisted man, then as a civilian. In Switzerland Frederic and Catherine say they are cousins, and then they say they are married. In the delivery room Frederic wears a doctor's mask.61 Life is theater, life imitates art, and not everything is what it appears to be. From a Lacanian point of view, art is a disguise that enables the writer to relive the truth of an experience that never took place but that, nonetheless, affects the subject with an intensity that is felt to be real. Although Frederic and Catherine are fictitious characters, together they function as Hemingway's metaphor for loss and desire.

For Lacan, the quintessential paradigm of the narration is Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, where Oedipus says: “It is now that I am nothing, that I am made to be a man?”62 Indeed, he has nothing left to tell but his desire, and it is Oedipus' telling and retelling of his drama that prompts Lacan to say that “it is natural that everything would fall on Oedipus, since Oedipus embodies the central knot of speech.”63 It is Oedipus' tacit recognition and Lacan's conscious exposition of the indissoluble linkage among repression, death, and language that leads to symbolic formulation. “To symbolize,” says Felman, “is to incorporate death in language, in order to survive.64 Hemingway's novels are the manifestation of his will to survive, and Frederic's story is the symptom of his will to carry on.

Why, we may ask—because the use of “you” and “we” as an alternate discourse is such an effective device—did Hemingway not use it more frequently in order to dramatize conflicting sensibilities? Is it because he used it only at critical psychological moments—moments that articulate the text by giving it metaphorical weight? Or do these shifts correspond to some thought process going on within Frederic? There are important passages in which there are no pronominal shifts. There is none when the shell explodes, almost killing Frederic, nor when he is on the verge of being shot by the battle police. Although these passages are central, they are moments of physical action and survival—moments that precede or preclude thought. The pronominal shifts occur only when Frederic is thinking, observing, fantasizing, or remembering. It is thought, coupled with a pronominal shift, that gives special weight to otherwise prosaic passages. Buying the pistol prompts the observation that “now we're fully armed,”65 thus foregrounding it as an important purchase that might otherwise go unnoticed.

The first use of the pronominal “you” occurs when Frederic fantasizes he is in a Milan hotel with Catherine:

I would put the key in the door and open it and go in and then take down the telephone and ask them to send a bottle of capri bianco in a silver bucket full of ice and you would hear the ice against the pail coming down the corridor and the boy would knock and I would say leave it outside the door please. Because we would not wear any clothes because it was so hot and the windows open and the swallows flying over the roofs of the houses and when it was dark afterward and you went to the window very small bats hunting over the houses and close down over the trees and we would drink the capri and the door locked and it hot and only a sheet and the whole night and would both love each other all night in the hot night in Milan. That was how it ought to be.66

A straightforward, uncomplicated passage would have had Frederic state, “I would hear the ice against the pail,” not “you would hear the ice against the pail.” The “you” could be construed alternately as an appeal to the reader's auditory involvement, to the generalized “one hears,” to his military self (because he is now writing as a civilian), and to Catherine, because he says, “we would not wear any clothes.” The “you” incorporates all of these possibilities and gives the passage a density that it would otherwise not have. The passage becomes more complex when Hemingway shifts from the conditional tense, “I would,” to the past tense: “you went to the window,” from which he sees the bats hunting over the houses. This is evidence that Frederic is writing after the fact, since the past tense shows that he remembers how it was, when in fact the passage is supposed to be a fantasy of desire. Such ambiguity gives the discourse a simultaneity that combines the past and the present into an ongoing oneness that melds the different voices. The clearest evidence to corroborate the fact that Frederic is remembering while he writes concerns the loss of the Saint Anthony that Catherine had given him. In this passage he refers to the wounding that has not yet taken place: “After I was wounded I never found him. Some one probably got it at one of the dressing stations.”67

Another pronominal shift occurs in the first three paragraphs of Chapter 32. Frederic has escaped from the battle police, he has emerged from the river, and he has hopped a train to Milan:

Lying on the floor of the flat-car with the guns beside me under the canvas I was wet, cold and very hungry. … I could remember Catherine but I knew I would get crazy if I thought about her … lonesome inside and alone with wet clothing and hard floor for a wife.

You did not love the floor of a flat-car nor guns with canvas jackets and the smell of vaselined metal or a canvas that rain leaked through, although it is very fine under a canvas and pleasant with guns; but you loved some one else whom now you knew was not even to be pretended there; you seeing now very clearly and coldly—not so coldly as clearly and emptily. You saw emptily, lying on your stomach, having been present when one army moved back and another came forward. You had lost your cars and your men as a floorwalker loses the stock of his department in a fire. There was, however, no insurance. You were out of it now. You had no more obligation. If they shot floorwalkers after a fire in the department store because they spoke with an accent they had always had, then certainly the floorwalkers would not be expected to return when the store opened again for business.68

Several identities emerge from these pronominal shifts: (1) Frederic, the writer, who remembers the event as he writes about it, thereby conjuring the feelings and thoughts of a past self; (2) a civilian self writing about a military self which has “no more obligations” because floorwalkers who might be shot are not expected to return to the store when the fire is not of their making; and (3) a loving self, because his love for Catherine reinforces his civilian identity and its different responsibilities. The sentence “You did not love the floor of a flat-car,”69 combining the “you” and the past tense, argues strongly for a narrative after the fact, for a civilian Frederic somewhere, writing the story of his experiences. It reinforces the hypothesis that the “we” of the opening paragraph of Book One is also these two selves living together in the house in the village “that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.” However, as he watches the men passing on the road, with their cartridges bulging forward under their capes, he says that they “marched as though they were six months gone with child.” The comparison, in its incongruity, is grotesque. It can only be prompted by Frederic's remembrance of Catherine's recent pregnancy thus supporting the hypothesis that the “we,” in the beginning, includes Catherine.

Perhaps the most dramatic use of Frederic's “I/you” dialog occurs at the end, when Catherine is in labor and Frederic is afraid she might die:

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. … So now they got her in the end. You never got away with anything. 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 husbands thought. Yes, but what if she should die? … She can't, I tell you. Don't be a fool. It's just a bad time. … But what if she should die? She won't. She's all right. But what if she should die? She can't die. But what if she should die? Hey, what about that? What if she should die?70

This is the dialog of two antithetical selves: one is responsive to the moral code of the day and feels guilty for not marrying Catherine. The other self considers such a code irrelevant to what is happening and rejects the idea that they are being punished for violating it. One self tries to minimize the gravity of the situation even as the other one cannot forget the danger. The fear-of-death-self ends the dialog as the doctor comes into the room. In this passage Hemingway makes effective use of monologue by splitting it in two, thus heightening the suspense while dramatizing Frederic's dialogic selves.

Having explored these aspects of Frederic's different identities, it is safe to say, I think, that they belong to Hemingway's conscious manipulation of narrative strategy, as opposed to any unconscious symptom they may be revealing. The Lacanian discourse of the other is not involved in the deliberate pronominal shifts from “I” to “we,” or from “I” to “you.” There is nonetheless, although distanced, a hint of a mirror phase, mother/infant unit, when Catherine, who has no official religion, says that love is her religion: “There isn't any me. I'm you.”71 Although this is her desire speaking, not Frederic's, as characters, they are both extrusions of Hemingway's psyche. Together they manifest his unconscious desire, a desire that, unless transcended, as it is in The Garden of Eden, where another Catherine appears, will, because of the nature of the primal wound, always be tragic. As metaphors of the primal unit and of loss and severance, Frederic and Catherine, in their striving for oneness and happiness, unconsciously recreate the bond that is prohibited by the Law, and whose punishment is symbolic death.

The novel rewrites the primal scene because the compulsion to repeat is the symptom of symbolic displacement. Frederic is the symbolic child who experiences death and loss. The letter of the unconscious—writing—is the symptom and the return of the repressed. Chronologically, the novel writes itself backward, since we (Hemingway) return to the metaphors of primal loss: the death of the baby is the death of oneness, and the death of Catherine is the loss of the mother. The Law (they) intervenes to cleave their oneness. The end of the novel is thus the symbolic displacement of the primal event. Difference is that indelible primal inscription that accompanies the unconscious meanderings of the mind. It is a difference born of separation, the difference of an identity that strives to recapture the oneness of the past by inscribing it in the present. It is the chronological simultaneity of discourse and it is motivated by desire: desire to recapture the past, to endure, and to inscribe the difference through deferral.

The discourse of the self, which is always a discourse of desire, seeks to retrieve the lost object. For Frederic, on the conscious level, it is Catherine, whereas, on the unconscious one, as it is for all of us, it is the mother. Our language is our mother tongue, and in using language, as Barthes points out, we unwittingly recover the loss of the mother.72 Frederic writes his story in order to tell us about it, because that is all that he has left. Hemingway has thus given us two simultaneous discourses: the conscious one that Frederic provides and the unconscious one—the discourse of the Other—that accompanies it, and which Hemingway's narrative strategies veil and unveil.


  1. Gerry Brenner, Concealments in Hemingway's Works (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983), 35.

  2. Michael S. Reynolds, Hemingway's First War: The Making of A Farewell to Arms (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 207.

  3. Carlos Baker, Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (New York: Scribner, 1969), 78.

  4. Ibid., 81.

  5. Robert W. Lewis, Jr., Hemingway on Love (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965), 48-49.

  6. Ray B. West, Jr., “The Biological Trap,” in Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert P. Weeks (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962), 139-51.

  7. Scott Donaldson, By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Viking, 1977), 155-56.

  8. Faith Pullin, “Hemingway and the Secret Language of Hate,” in Ernest Hemingway: New Critical Essays, ed. A. Robert Lee (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1983), 172-92.

  9. Jackson J. Benson, Hemingway: The Writer's Art of Self-Defense (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969), 84-85, 110-11.

  10. Robert Penn Warren, “Ernest Hemingway,” in Modern Critical Views: Ernest Hemingway, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea, 1985), 35-62.

  11. Reynolds, Hemingway's First War, 43.

  12. Edmund Wilson, “Hemingway: Gauge of Morale,” in Modern Critical Views: Ernest Hemingway, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea, 1985), 17-34.

  13. Lacan, Écrits I, 264-67; see also Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire: Livre II. Le moi dans la théorie de Freud et dans la technique de la psychanalyse, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Seuil, 1978); see also Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, 156-59.

  14. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 277-338.

  15. Reynolds, Hemingway's First War, 283. Brenner's Concealments was published in 1983. Reynolds's book was published in 1976.

  16. Reynolds. Hemingway's First War, 136.

  17. Ibid., 170.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid., 283.

  20. Ibid., 15-16.

  21. Ibid., 281.

  22. Ibid., 104.

  23. Ibid., 282.

  24. Ibid., 46.

  25. Ibid., 175.

  26. Benson, Art of Self-Defense, 82.

  27. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (New York: Scribner, 1957), 300.

  28. Marcel Proust, Du Côté de chez Swann, vol. 1, in A la recherche du temps perdu (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), 188-383. “Swann in Love” is a clinical case description of jealousy and the vicissitudes of love.

  29. Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 54.

  30. Ibid., 91.

  31. Ibid.

  32. Ibid., 87.

  33. Ibid., 106.

  34. Brenner, Concealments, 34.

  35. Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 289.

  36. Bernard Oldsey, Hemingway's Hidden Craft: The Writing of A Farewell to Arms (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979), 66.

  37. Hemingway, 299.

  38. Ibid., 251.

  39. Ibid., 232-33.

  40. Ibid., 243.

  41. Ibid., 323.

  42. Ibid., 327.

  43. Ibid., 149.

  44. Ibid., 218.

  45. Ibid., 222.

  46. Ibid., 228.

  47. Ibid., 31.

  48. Ibid., 34. Reynolds (Hemingway's First War, 64) prefers one of the rejected working titles, namely A Separate Peace, in lieu of A Farewell to Arms, because the homonym of the word “peace,” that is, “piece,” “would have been a sardonic statement about the love affair.” The word “peace,” like the word “arms,” also connotes war and love, but unlike the caring resonance of “arms,” a “piece of ass” has a pejorative meaning that radically alters the reading of the novel.

  49. Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 224-25.

  50. Ibid., 223.

  51. Ibid., 332.

  52. Ibid., 249.

  53. John Killinger, Hemingway and the Dead Gods: A Study in Existentialism (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1960). In Hemingway's First War Reynolds reproduces pages cut from the published version of A Farewell to Arms. These passages clearly reveal the existential dimensions of “the biological trap” (40-41).

  54. See Jean-Paul Sartre, L'Existentialisme est un humanisme (Paris: Nagel, 1952); see also Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (Paris: Gallimard, 1942).

  55. Albert Camus, Caligula and Three Other Plays, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Random, 1958), 112.

  56. William Wasserstrom, “A Farewell to Arms: Radiance at the Vanishing Point,” in Ernest Hemingway: New Critical Essays, ed. A. Robert Lee (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1983), 64-78.

  57. Brenner, Concealments, 28.

  58. Philip Young, “Adventures of Nick Adams,” in Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert P. Weeks (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962), 95-111.

  59. Benson, Art of Self-Defense, 74.

  60. See John Barth, Letters (New York: Putnam, 1979); see also Robert Coover, Spanking the Maid (New York: Grove, 1982); see also Alain Robbe-Grillet, La Maison de rendez-vous (Paris: Minuit, 1965). Although James Joyce is considered a modernist writer, works such as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake adumbrate the linguistic play of postmodernist writing.

  61. Lewis, Hemingway on Love, 41-42.

  62. Sophocles, “Oedipus at Colonus,” scene 3 in The Complete Greek Tragedies, vol. 1, trans. David Grene, eds. David Grene and R. Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), 105.

  63. Lacan, Le Séminaire: Livre II, 269.

  64. Shoshana Felman, “Beyond Oedipus: The Specimen Story of Psychoanalysis,” in Robert Con Davis, ed., Lacan and Narration: The Psychoanalytic Difference in Narrative Theory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 1029.

  65. Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 149.

  66. Ibid., 38.

  67. Ibid., 44.

  68. Ibid., 231-32.

  69. Ibid., 232.

  70. Ibid., 320-21.

  71. Ibid., 115.

  72. Barthes, Roland Barthes, 119.


A Farewell to Arms


Critical Overview