A Farewell To Arms Analysis
Throughout the novel A Farewell to Arms the main characters search for some type of tranquilizer to help them deal with the war. Each character is search of something that will make them feel better about the horrors of the war going on around them. Hemingway shows how the cruelest realities can permeate and destroy the illusions that the characters construct to alleviate their pains. The story takes place during World War I; which is a time full of disillusion, sadness and loneliness.
The protagonist, also serving as the narrator, is Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver serving in the Italian war. Frederic is a classic Hemingway male character. He is a man of stoic action with his own convictions of honor. In the beginning of the novel he displays these many attributes, but he eventually evolves in the course of the reading. He gives up his macho pretentiousness and womanizing ways in return for a life with Catherine. Catherine Barkley is an English nurse that Frederic falls madly in love with. Rinaldi, is a surgeon and also a friend of Henry’s and finally there is the Priest, that becomes in some way a confidant to Frederic. The novel principally is a love story that describes the transformation of Frederic and Catherine’s feelings of flirtatiousness to a deep enduring love. The war itself serves as an instrument for bringing them together as well as temporary separating them.
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The war caused many types of damage to those it affected, whether it was emotional, physical, or psychological. As the story progresses, we see the different types of strategies the characters use to ease his or her own personal torment. Many involved were trying to find ways to escape and cope with the harsh realities. The characters in A Farewell to Arms seem to epitomize this struggle. They turn to their own personal coping mechanisms to sustain the illusion that they were actually finding comfort. They each try to close their eyes to their fears of the realities they were facing thus allowing them some sort of peace.
Frederic Henry is established as having a sense of detachment from the war in the beginning.
“At the start of 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” (Hemingway 10).
Losing seven thousand soldiers in a war is horrible, but losing them to something other than combat is even worse. Henry’s use of the term “only” shows the reader his complete indifference to the losses. Because he is an American, he is already at a disadvantage with the Italian soldiers, in that he does not share their passion for winning the war. Henry comes across as a person that does not give much regard to the patriotism that inflames the Italians. It is as if nothing really matters to him, until he comes in contact with Catherine.
Henry relies heavily on alcohol throughout the novel to alleviate his pain, both physically and emotionally. From beginning to end the reader can see his fixation with alcohol, even going so far as to think how great whiskey is.
Good whiskey was very pleasant. It was one of the pleasant parts of life.
“What are you thinking, darling?”
“What about whiskey?”
“About how nice it is” (Hemingway 278).
He even has the porter in the hospital sneak him alcohol “I told him to get me a bottle of Cinzano at the wine shop” (Hemingway 84). “And I was pitying you having jaundice. Pity is something that is wasted on you. I suppose you can’t be blamed for not wanting to go back to the front. But I should think you would try something more intelligent than producing jaundice with alcoholism.” “With what?” (Hemingway 133)
He does not cease drinking even after contracting jaundice. Henry knows this is not good, yet he does not stop. His desire to find some respite is so strong that he is willing to risk the physical pain and possible death, for the minute amount of comfort. This characteristic shows up again, when Catherine is giving birth and Frederic is drinking. As the pain Catherine is feeling intensifies, he drinks more. Prior to Catherine being given anesthesia for her C-section, Henry drinks some more. It is as if he needs to be sedated even before she does. It is clear that Henry needs the alcohol to deal with the strain.
In addition to the alcohol, Henry also uses his relationship with Catherine as another method for managing his issues. In the beginning Henry uses it as a game to divert him from the reality of their disillusionment–Henry’s with the war and Catherine with the loss of her fiancï¿½. After Henry sustains his injuries, Catherine is there to take care of him. Before long, their flirtations turn to true feelings for one another. The love that began as a diversion for the both of them, becomes something powerful that helps to keep them going. Their bond helps provides both of them as a means of escaping the harsh realities that surround them.
Catherine is a compelling character in the story. From the beginning, the reader is made to believe that she is to some extent, insane. When she divulges the loss of her fiancï¿½, we then can understand her behavior is associated with her grief. Catherine uses her physical attributes to seduce men as her coping mechanism. Like Henry, she originally views the relationship as a flirtatious diversion, but quickly comes to view it as a powerful force in her life. The love that they share eventually allows them to move forward. At some point, however, instead of being a comforting force, it also becomes something that they need to find a distraction from. Henry tries to keep his mind off of Catherine when he is in the process of running away.
I could remember Catherine but I knew I would get crazy if I though about her when I was not sure yet I would see her, so I would not think about her, only about her a little. (Hemingway 209).
There love is all consuming. Nothing else is important to them when they are together, creating illusions. They ultimately decide to escape to Switzerland, with the notion of having a perfect life together. With the turmoil that surrounds them, the normalcy they once felt is gone. New feelings surface that neither has ever had to confront. The war forces them to act in a way that neither felt they would ever have to do. The two of them desire some way to split from reality, so they turn to each other and create something they feel is more realistic.
Rinaldi, Henry’s friend is another person that uses diversionary tactics to inhibit his realities. He like Henry, turns to alcohol for everything throughout the novel, in fact, in almost every scene he is in, it involves drinking. Like Henry, he does not seem to realize that alcohol is a problem for him he is willing to jeopardize his health and career to drink. Unlike Henry, however, Rinaldi also suffers from an addiction to women. He is continuously referring to the brothels that he visits. In his case, sex is a way of showing his physical prowess and a form of escaping his realities. Rinaldi only has three things that are important to him, drinking, sex and his work.
In the end, Henry ponders what happened to his friend, did he pay a price for his careless lifestyle.
“What are you thinking about now?”
“…I was wondering if Rinaldi had the syphilis.” (Hemingway 269)
The reader is also left without knowing the true fate of Rinaldi. He speaks about a lack of interest in the quality of his life, he is mainly interested in enjoying every moment he has. His requirement for sedation is so severe, that he is unaware of what it is costing him.
The priest is the last character in the novel that is looking for relief. Although unlike the rest of the characters, his diversionary tactics are not harmful. He looks to his faith in God to sustain him. While interacting with the other soldiers he is constantly under attack about his faith, but he remains true to it. In the end, he grapples with the points that Henry raises about the humanity, and his faith seems to fail him. In the final part of his exchange with Henry he expresses grief over the situation
“That’s why I never think about these things. I never think and yet when I begin to talk I say the things I have found out within my mind without talking.” (Hemingway 165).
The priest frantically wants to hold true to the belief that the war will soon come to an end and there is goodness in everyone. His coping mechanism makes him sightless to the realities that are actually occurring around him. When Henry opens his eyes to the harsh truths, the priest does not know how to react and becomes disheartened.
In the end we find that there is truly no consolation just fleeting moments of release. In relationship to the war, Hemingway show how even idealistic notions such as glory and honor will fade when a person is faced with the futile realism of war. There is no true no true escape. It is always there, just not as a foremost reality. The idea is both love and war lead to sadness from which there is no escape. Actions and words that lead to some relief are only temporary. In the end, none of it really matters. Catherine says it best when she says “it’s just a dirty trick” (Hemingway 296). The most tragic part of the story is that when Catherine and Henry finally escaped the war to live a life they had dreamed of in Switzerland, Catherine and the baby die in childbirth. In the end, Henry realizes that everything falls short.
No one comes away in the end with any time of new knowledge or control, we only come away broken and lost. He tried to alleviate Catherine’s labor pains by increasing the gas higher and higher, but the end result was still the same, she died. It is evident throughout the novel that he to tries to “turn up the gas” on his own life when things became too much to bear, but eventually he too ended up alone in the rain. The need for escape is evident with all of the characters in the book, but they all end up “dead” in some way. Rinaldi and Catherine actually die physically and Henry and the Priest die emotionally. The final result is that no matter how much you try to escape, ignore, and relieve pain, there is no actual escape. Life is cruel and we all must face its harsh realities.