A career as distinguished as that of Ernest Hemingway cannot simply be condensed into a handful of words. If one were to make the attempt anyway, no choice seems to be more fitting than “love, death and women”. These topics are constant companions throughout all of his work and indeed, his life. His 1929 masterpiece, “A Farewell to Arms”, is a particularly good example of this. In this paper, I will show how these recurring subjects – the fascinating interplay between Eros and Thanatos and the depiction of women – help shape this seminal work.
To fully appreciate the tale told in the novel, and to better understand the aforementioned, seemingly inadequate three-word summary of Hemingway’s life, some key events in his biography should be made known. Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois. In his high school years, he wrote for the school newspaper and would go on to work for the Kansas City Star; these early journalistic experiences would influence his distinctive writing style. In 1918, he signed on to become an ambulance driver in war-torn Italy.
On July 8, he was severely injured by a mortar shell and received a medal for bravery. During his sixth-month recuperation, he fell in love with a Red Cross nurse; after deciding to get married, she left him for an Italian officer. This traumatic experience would decisively shape his view of women. (“Wikipedia”) Hemingway would endure further trials throughout his life; shortly after the particularly difficult delivery of his son in 1928, he received word of his father’s suicide, foreshadowing his eventual demise by his own hand on July 2, 1961.
Until then, he suffered through severe alcoholism, multiple divorces, crippling accidents, bouts of depression and dangerous war coverage. (“Wikipedia”) Taking this eventful existence into consideration, the importance of both Eros and Thanatos and the noteworthy depiction of women in “A Farewell to Arms” come as no great surprise; it is the latter which I will first examine more closely. Hemingway and, by extension, his works, have often been accused of misogyny; “A Farewell to Arms” is no exception (Wexler 111). Catherine, the main female character, “defines herself in terms of men” (Fetterley 67).
When her late fiancee goes to war, she joins him as a nurse because of the “silly idea he might come to the hospital where [she] was [,] [w]ith a sabre cut […] [or] shot through the shoulder [;] [s]omething picturesque” (Hemingway 19). Later on, her stereotypical wish to nurse her lover back to health even comes true when Frederic is placed in her care (Fetterley 67). She also shows a significant need for reassurance: “You are happy, aren’t you? Is there anything I do you don’t like? Can I do anything to please you? ” (Hemingway 105).
Her self-loathing and unhealthy self-image also reveals itself in this telling passage: How many [girls] have you […] stayed with? […] It’s all right. Keep right on lying to me. That’s what I want you to do. […] When a man stays with a girl when does she say how much it costs? […] I do anything you want. […] I want what you want. There isn’t any me any more. (Hemingway 95-96) This section is a particularly damning example of misogyny; in effect, Catherine is asking Frederic how to be a whore, demeaning both herself and her entire sex in her quest to please her beloved at any cost (Fetterley 68).
Catherine is far from the only victim of the sometimes debasing treatment of women in the book. During the retreat, the “girls from the soldiers’ whorehouse” (Hemingway 168) are loaded into a truck; one of the soldiers present remarks: “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. ” (Hemingway 168-169) This stunning disdain of female dignity makes apparent the utter disregard the soldiers have for women as human beings.
A passage later on exemplifies this victimization and objectification of women during war even more clearly; when the retreating convoy picks up two virgins, their fearful demeanor leaves no doubt: there are only two roles for them on the battlefield – “whores if they are picked up by their own side, victims of rape if they are captured by the enemy”. (Fetterley 50) The contempt of the fair gender does not stop at the disparagement of women themselves; the very thing that makes them female is attacked. When the “gray leather boxes heavy with the packs of clips of thin, long 6.
5 mm. cartridges” are described as making the troops look “as though they were six months gone with child” (Hemingway 4), deadly implements of war are directly linked to pregnancy. This paints an unsettling picture of female biology itself as a source of death, not life, culminating in Catherine’s passing in the final chapter (Fetterley 62-63). This depiction of women as subservient to men, trying to fulfill their every need, is almost Puritanical in nature, hearkening back to the earliest, primary incarnations of the American myth.
The fact that sexual gratification, not conception and childbirth – which is indeed presented as a “biological trap” (Hemingway 125) and, eventually, a death sentence – is extolled as the primary reason for a relationship shows, however, that Hemingway’s work is firmly in the subversive consummatory phase. Thankfully, the view of women presented in the novel is not wholly sexist. Catherine in particular manages to distinguish herself as a strong woman both in the beginning and the end of the novel, despite losing her identity to Frederic in the middle.
Frederic’s courtship of Catherine starts with a literally stinging rejection; when he first tries to kiss her, he is rewarded with a “sharp stinging flash” of a slap (Hemingway 24). Thus, Catherine asserts her dominance, taking control of their early relationship. After Frederic manages to make her laugh, however, she quickly accepts his advances. (Wexler 114) Frederic’s intentions towards Catherine are less than noble to begin with: “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” (Hemingway 29). Catherine, however, is not only aware of the deceptive nature of their faux-relationship, but actively addresses it: “This is a rotten game we play, isn’t it? […] You don’t have to pretend you love me. ” (Hemingway, 29-30) With the mutual acknowledgment of their pretense, Catherine is using Frederic just as much as he is using her – where he seeks to escape the horrors of the war with carnal gratification, Catherine needs someone to fill the hole left by her late fiancee. (Wexler 114-115)
Despite the loss of self and neediness experienced by Catherine throughout most of the middle of the novel, her strong, confident side manages to reassert itself before her unfortunate demise in childbirth. Even though she faces her imminent death, the only thing on her mind is reassuring her husband: “Don’t worry, darling, […] I’m not a bit afraid. It’s just a dirty trick” (Hemingway 292). This serenely selfless behavior is far removed from the desperate need to please she displayed earlier. As has hopefully become apparent, both death and life (or love, both physical and romantic) play a crucial role in “A Farewell to Arms”.
In the following section, I will take a closer look at this compelling relationship between Eros and Thanatos. Since the novel takes place during the uncompromisingly brutal conflict that was World War I, Thanatos is always active. Eros always manages to weave its way into the proceedings, however, even gaining the upper hand at one point in the novel. In the beginning, however, Thanatos prevails (Flores 29). The reader is presented with uncompromising scenes of violence and carnage, but the horrors of war are met with stoicism by the protagonist Frederic Henry.
The death of thousands barely qualifies for a single paragraph: “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. ” (Hemingway 4) Frederic also seems to have no particular reason for even being in the war; being in Italy seems to be enough (Flores 29). He is not driven by any particular ideological reason, either: “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.
”(Hemingway 165) Almost every character in the novel also engages in self-destructive behavior – excessive drinking. Seeking oblivion instead of actually facing the horrors of war, alcohol is a constant companion to all throughout the book (Flores 31). Even when Eros touches the characters in the beginning, it is only in its basest forms. The flirtatious Rinaldi seems incapable of real love, seeking only sexual gratification (Ganzel 587). And, as mentioned above, even the relationship of Frederic and Catherine starts out as a lie, filling a need in both of them not with love, but lust.
As the story unfolds, however, the grip of Thanatos on Frederic begins to weaken. Following his injury on the battlefield, his stoicism and aloofness are only slightly fazed (Ganzel 594). During his extended period of recuperation in the hospital, Frederic and Catherine start developing real feelings for each other; learning about her pregnancy in particular shakes him to his core: “Her conception forces him into a continuum in which the death of another can subtract from his own life. ” (Ganzel 579)
During the Italian retreat, Thanatos tries to reassert its grasp on Frederic – but after not only witnessing, but being directly responsible for a number of deaths in a harrowing experience, he finally slips its grasp (Ganzel 595). Having truly fallen for Catherine, his new commitment to Eros is confirmed in his baptismal “farewell to arms” in the river. Frederic voices these new life-affirming thoughts after escaping the river: “I was not made to think. I was made to eat. My God, yes. Eat and drink and sleep with Catherine.
”(Hemingway 206) Thanatos reclaims his power at the end of the novel after the deceptively light-hearted stay in Switzerland; in a cruel twist of fate, it is childbirth, the ultimate expression of Eros, that takes Catherine’s life, springing the biological trap and leaving Frederic to trudge out into the rain, forlorn (Ganzel 581). He poignantly laments his fate: “Poor, poor dear Cat. And this was the price you paid for sleeping together. This was the end of the trap. This was what people got for loving each other. ” (Hemingway 283)
Frederic is not the only one affected by an insidious turn of events like that, however; Rinaldi also becomes a victim of the biological trap, falling prey to syphilis (Hemingway 289). Thus, Thanatos is not only able to turn the lofty side of Eros – romantic love – against its followers, but even manages to turn its basest side into death. Thus, Frederic Henry is “the first completely developed example of what was to become Hemingway’s dominant motif: a man […] who is forced to recognize the inevitability of death and the concomitant frustration of trying to secure something of value from its onslaught” (Ganzel 577).
The “good soldier”, protected from feelings of loss and fear by an uncaring stoicism, loses his “gift” through love, only to reach the tragic realization that his newfound feelings can be turned against him. (Ganzel 578) This portrayal of life and death, distinctive of the “Lost Generation” of modernist authors, stands in stark contrast to earlier, romantic and playful depictions. Where Whitman is able to confidently boast “And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me” (“Song of Myself” 1289), Hemingway’s view of death paints a much more sobering picture:
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. (Hemingway 222) Even spring, once the ultimate symbol of hope and life flourishing anew, is turned into a mockery of itself.
As Eliot aptly puts it: “April is the cruelest month“ (“The Waste Land” 1), bringing only death and desperation to Frederic and Catherine. Winter, on the other hand, once the harbinger of struggles and hardship for the first pilgrims that reached the shores of America, is shown as peaceful, quiet, serene: “It was a fine country and every time that we went out it was fun. ” (Hemingway 269) The future, once viewed with optimism, a “Manifest Destiny” to look forward to, suddenly looked much bleaker, an outlook colored by a war that defied belief.
Compassion and courage were nowhere to be found, but cruelty abounded, as illustrated in this passage: “’If there is a retreat, how are the wounded evacuated? ’ ‘They are not. They take as many as they can and leave the rest. ’” (Hemingway 167) In conclusion, I hope that the importance of the changing influence of Eros and Thanatos and the questionable portrayal of women in “A Farewell to Arms” has become obvious. These topics appear in all of Hemingway’s works, with varying importance. Much of the novel becomes clearer when viewed through the lens of Hemingway’s biography.
Taking into consideration some of the key points of his life I mentioned in the introduction, the autobiographical tendencies of the book should emerge – perhaps helping to make his overt machismo understandable, if not palatable. Most importantly, “A Farewell to Arms” does an excellent job of showing the reader the sheer insanity and, through the author’s unique style, the stark reality of war. Hemingway himself put it quite succinctly: “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.
”Bibliography: * Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land. Project Gutenberg. http://www. gutenberg. org/files/1321/1321-h/1321-h. htm (Last accessed: 13. 08. 2013) * Fetterley Judith. The resisting reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1978. * Flores, Olga Eugenia. Eros, Thanatos and the Hemingway Soldier. American Studies International, Vol. 18, No. 3/4 (Spring/Summer 1980), pp. 27-35. * Ganzel, Dewey. “A Farewell to Arms”: The Danger of Imagination.
The Sewanee Review, Vol. 79, No. 4 (Autumn 1971), pp. 576-597. * Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. London, Arrow Books, 2004. * Wexler, Joyce. E. R. A. for Hemingway: A Feminist Defense of “A Farewell to Arms”. The Georgia Review, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Spring 1981), pp. 111-123. * Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. University of Toronto RPO. http://rpo. library. utoronto. ca/poems/song-myself (Last accessed: 13. 08. 2013) * http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway (Last accessed: 13. 08. 2013)
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