A Feminist Criticism of a Farewell to Arms Essay
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After finishing A Farewell to Arms, I found it difficult to reconcile Judith Fetterley’s feminist attack of the novel with my own personal opinions. I agree that Hemingway does kick women to the curb in his portrayal of Catherine, but my reasons for pinning this crime on Hemingway are different from hers’. Although she means well, Fetterley makes the ridiculous claim that by portraying Catherine as an angelic, selflessly loving “woman to end all women,” Hemingway disguises misogynistic attitudes and a deep-seeded hatred towards the XX chromosome.
This claim is not supported by the text.
If we look at Hemingway through the lens of his own words, we find that his misogyny does not spring from a “too good to be true” portrait of Catherine, but rather in his tendency to cast her down into the dirt-Catherine is a dependent, baby-manufacturing trap that stifles Lieutenant Henry: “Poor, poor dear Cat. And this was the price you paid for sleeping together. This was the end of the trap” (320). It is his penchant for sex and his need for womanly comfort that keeps Henry coming back to Catherine, not some notion of “love” or true connection.
This is Hemingway’s misogyny, however unintentional, unmasked. But to get a true sense of this “anti-Fetterley” feminist view of the novel, it is important too look at the specifics of Hemingway’s construction of Catherine-facts that stand in direct opposition to Fetterley’s stated attacks. First of all, Catherine is not Fetterley’s unique and unattainable goddess-she is an object in Henry’s universe, a feast of sensations but nothing more. She is akin to good food and good drink: “‘I was made to eat. My God, yes.
Eat and drink and sleep with Catherine'” (233). Indeed, Henry’s thoughts about Catherine, both when he is at the front or by her side, mingle with longings for good wine and reflections on sumptuous meals. In Henry’s world, a good Capri would be nice, a nice hunk of cheese would be grand, and sleeping with Catherine would be sublime. These things all equate to the satisfaction of basic human needs. Every now and then, Henry feels a grumbling in his loins-a periodic hunger for the “cheese” between Catherine’s legs.
Hemingway dissolves Catherine into the least common denominator-the object, devoid of meaning or real importance (when Henry isn’t hungry). How can Catherine be an angel, as Fetterley claims, when she is merely an object, a small, rocklike satellite orbiting Planet Henry? This leads us to another aspect of Hemingway’s treatment of Catherine. In the novel, she is a completely dependent and subservient slave to Henry and his desires-she is placed firmly under his heel. This is evident from her dialogue: “‘I’m good.
Aren’t I good? You don’t want any other girls, do you?… You see? I’m good. I do what you want'” (106). Through her words, we get a sense that the only thing that concerns Catherine is the level of Henry’s satisfaction. She needs his approval; he is the beginning and end of her world. This dependency resurfaces many times in the novel. In Milan, Catherine works herself to the bone all day, so that she can have sex with Henry all night. Throughout this period, her greatest worry is that she doesn’t tack up to the girls that he has had in the past: “‘I’ll say just what you wish and I’ll do what you wish and then you will never want any other girls'” (105).
When she is pregnant, her thoughts and concerns continue to center completely around Henry’s happiness: “‘But after she’s born and I’m thin again I’m going to cut it (her hair) and then I’ll be a fine new and different girl for you'” (304). Even during her long and arduous labor, Catherine’s single worry is that she is a burden on Henry: “‘Oh, I wanted so o have this baby and not make trouble, and now I’m all done and all gone to pieces and it doesn’t work'” (322). Fetterley might claim that this amounts to “selfless-love,” but I think this phrase gives Catherine (and Hemingway) too much credit. Catherine, as portrayed in the text, seems more like an obedient dog then a virtuous, unselfish being of light; she is like a mutt that serves its master because it has no one else and cannot survive on its own. By the end of the novel, Hemingway succeeds in portraying Catherine as both an object and a docile subject in Lieutenant Henry’s kingdom.
This construction diminishes Catherine’s character and allows Henry (and Hemingway) to view her and the baby completely in terms of the burden they entail. They are a “trap”-flames that burn the log that “Henry the ant” scurries around on. This makes it much easier for Hemingway to kill off Catherine and wash Henry’s hands of all responsibility-the final pieces in his misogynistic puzzle. This harsh take is a more tenable alternative to Fetterley’s feminist attacks on the novel.