Hemingway's Relationship with Religion

Categories: Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway’s perplexing and enigmatic behavior was not only apparent in the way he chose to lead his life, but also in his literature, a particular case being one of his most famous works A Farewell to Arms (1929). Hemingway’s writing was affected by his religious beliefs – and in some cases, nonreligious – and influenced the overall progress developed throughout the course of this novel. Considered a Catholic while at other times a strict naturalist, Hemingway’s characters reflected his mindset throughout the course of the novel and ultimately influenced their decisions and thought processes.

His use of religion regarding the character’s outlooks on their life can be related back to our own individual outlook in many ways, no matter one’s view on religion.

When reading A Farewell to Arms (1929), it is difficult to avoid the topic of religion, as it is frequently discussed between the characters and within the main character himself. To say that Hemingway’s novel was entirely based on his Catholic or nonreligious beliefs would be difficult, as evidence for both can be derived from the text.

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Conversations between two or more characters and even the characters themselves can lead many to speculate what Hemingway’s beliefs actually were. Had he been criticizing religion or simply been using religion as a means for character development? Does it matter if this development’s ultimate outcome was positive or negative? While many believe Hemingway to be a rather “passive” Catholic (Cadegan 87), others found evidence in the text for Hemingway’s characters being “active” in their religious beliefs (87).

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One example of this is in the beginning chapters, when Henry receives a Saint Anthony and begins to carry it with him (Hemingway 37). Whether one believes he kept it for luck or not, it is hard to argue that the Saint Anthony was not at all important to the character at the time. Another example might be when Henry claims that in dire times people tend to turn towards religion (156). This foreshadows Henry’s own turn towards a serious form of religion at the end of the novel, when Catherine is dying and Henry begins to beg God not to take her away (282).

These are only a few examples, but each one definitely points towards Henry believing – even if just a little – in some sort of religious entity. If not, what reason would he have for wanting to have baptized his recently deceased child (279)? Not to mention, those who believe that A Farewell to Arms favors the Catholic faith have proof in Hemingway himself, as he was once considered Catholic (Pratt 80) and knew many of the faith’s traditions (Hertzel 78). Though there is evidence that points towards a favorable view of Catholicism in A Farewell to Arms (1929), there are those who disagree. This is not so much in the sense that Hemingway intentionally demeaned the religion, but instead that he saw religion as mundane rather than otherworldly (Hertzel 78). Such is the case as when Catherine dies. Though Henry prayed fervently to God (Hemingway 282), never was there a time that his prayers had been answered. While speaking with the Priest, Henry explains that he fears God rather than loving Him (62). This, of course, can help support the idea that Henry was indeed religious, as to fear something one needs to believe to some extent that it is real. But on the other hand, further into the novel Henry makes it very clear that he dislikes words such as “glorious” and “sacred,” which are words often associated with religion. Never has he witnessed anything “sacred” or “glorious,” nor has he felt revived or encouraged by those hallow words that seemed to have no meaning (161). In many ways, religion is just as vacant and hallow as these words are to him. Without evidence for a spiritual presence throughout the novel, Hemingway seems to paint the picture of religion as anything but incorporeal.

In regards to the other characters in A Farewell to Arms (1929), it seems as if Catherine has similar views on religion as Henry does. She affirms that she is not Catholic when giving Henry a Catholic medal (37), and later on states that instead he is her religion (100). This not only reconfirms that religion in this novel is rather mundane, but also that religion is adjustable depending on the circumstance. Count Greffi sounds as if he is only strengthening this viewpoint as he says love in and of itself is a “religious feeling (227).” Overall, Catherine had no religion in the beginning and as a result she later on creates her own. The major also seems to have similar views, albeit a bit more extreme. The lieutenant brings up a book called the “Black Pig,” which is hinted towards as being a novel able to turn a faithful man into an atheist. The major states that “all thinking men are atheists,” all the while taunting the Priest for his faith (7). Though these two characters seemingly have a more severe outlook on religion than Henry does, I would say he can relate much more so towards their outlooks rather than the Priest’s. Although, he does appear to respect the priest, and even wishes to have a similar mindset as him (11, 12). Overall, religion undeniably plays an important role in the character’s mindsets and beliefs. It is no wonder that each character is diverse in regards to religion, as Hemingway himself seemed to be present and at the same time passive in his own religious ideology. What makes this argument interesting is the fact that Catholics debate each other on whether or not Hemingway accurately depicted the Catholic religion, and the nonreligious vise versa. Henry’s religious ideology does have quite a bit of growth throughout the novel it seems, right alongside his love of Catherine.

However, upon Catherine’s death, not only does the religion the two created among themselves diminish but the Catholic tradition does as well. For the Priest, religion is his livelihood. He is adamant and determined even when faced with opposition and taunting (8). For Henry and Count Greffi, religion is sought after, even after knowing that it might not at all existence in a spiritual sense. For Catherine, it was her love for Henry (100). This only leads to the belief that religion itself is situational and not at all one dimensional – that not only does each person have their own definition of religion, they have their own practices too. Henry became religious in times of distress, whereas the Priest kept his faith no matter the circumstance. The Priest’s view of religion differs from Catherine’s, whereas hers was more situational. Relating back to a text we have read earlier in this course, Of the Religion of Deism Compared with the Christian Religion, and the Superiority of the Former over the Latter (1804) by Thomas Paine provides good evidence regarding the possibility of Hemingway being a deist rather than a Catholic. Whereas Catholics see their God in their otherworldly views of Him, deists tend to look more towards nature itself (Paine 490). Throughout A Farewell to Arms (1929), God never makes Himself know spiritually. A deist might write in this manner also when describing God’s presence, as nature is to them (490) what otherworldly miracles are to the Catholics. Looking further into Hemingway’s other texts, his views on religion are stated clearly in his Neo-Thomist Poem (1927). A parody of a popular biblical scripture, this remake has a completely opposite meaning from the original. Though Hemingway is debatably Catholic, it is not unusual for him to critic religion itself in A Farewell to Arms (1929) and his other works. As stated before, the God in his novel never makes Himself know spiritually, not once responding to any of Henry’s prayers.

In Hemingway’s Neo-Thomist Poem (1927), he states he “does not want” God, eluding to the speculations of his possible nonreligious beliefs. If Hemingway truly did not believe in a God, then A Farewell to Arms (1929) could be read much differently than it could if it still favored the religious. For Hemingway, whether or not he was religious does not necessarily matter in this context. He writes of religion humbly and is most often sympathetic with each character’s individual views (Pratt 84). The reader can view it in any context they wish, but I do believe that most people can agree on the fact that each character is relatable in some way. Whether the reader is similar to the Priest or Henry himself, each person can find someone to relate to, or an ideology that relates back to their own. Overall, religion is discussed throughout A Farewell to Arms (1929) similar to how it is discussed in our modern world. Often those who religious find themselves doubting their faith, while the nonreligious also begin to doubt their beliefs, much like Henry did throughout the novel. This not only made the discussion applicable in Hemingway’s own life, but in the reader’s life as well.

One can find evidence that favors Catholicism while another can do the same with naturalism, but I hope the majority can recognize it is much more than that. This was not so much a debate as it was a representation of an aspect in our lives that is rarely talked about. No matter if one believes religion is mundane or spiritual, I think many of us can agree that we have questioned our beliefs in a similar fashion to what the character’s did in A Farewell to Arms (1929).


  1. Cadegan, Una M. ‘Hemingway’s Dark Night: Catholic Influences and Intertextualities in the Work of Ernest Hemingway by Matthew Nickel (Review).’ American Catholic Studies, vol. 125, no. 4, 2014, pp. 87-88.
  2. Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribner, 1929. Print. Hemingway, Ernest. “Neo-Thomist Poem.” Complete Poems, edited by Nicholas Gerogiannis, UNP – Bison Books, 1992, p. 83.
  3. Hertzel, Leo J., and Marquette University Press. ‘The Look of Religion: Hemingway and Catholicism.’ Renascence, vol. 17, no. 2, 1964, pp. 77-81.
  4. Paine, Thomas. “Of the Religion of Deism Compared with the Christian Religion, and the Superiority of the Former over the Later.” Early American Writing, edited by Giles Gunn. Penguin, 1994, pp. 490-494.
  5. Pratt, John C. ‘My Pilgrimage; Fishing for Religion with Hemingway.’ The Hemingway Review, vol. 21, no. 1, 2001, pp. 78-92.

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Hemingway's Relationship with Religion. (2021, Aug 16). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/hemingway-s-relationship-with-religion-essay

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