Catherine Barkley: Character Analysis in A Farewell To Arms

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A Woman of Exquisite Qualities

      Catherine Barkley has been portrayed in the novel as a woman exquisitely beautiful and charming in the true sense of the word. Her beauty and charm are just of her physical body but she is beautiful from inside too. She is exquisitely simple, extremely gentle, deeply sincere, intensely emotional, and amicably brave. Towards the end of the novel, Catherine becomes a character of even heroic status. She is woman without any negative feelings. She doesn’t harbor ill-feeling against anyone, she has no malice or spite in her, except maybe a touch of jealousy towards the girlfriends Henry previously courted. Aggressive and assertion, the qualities of the twentieth-century woman are unknown to her. For her love means a complete surrender of the self to one’s lover. In love with Henry, she becomes one with him, totally merging herself with him. In this regard, we can say that she lacks individuality but her sincere love and devotion to Henry compensate. She is an unforgettable woman, unique because nowhere else in literature do we find a woman who so completely loses herself in love.

Initially a Bit Crazy About Love

      As the novel opens, Catherine Barkley an English nurse is introduced to Frederic Henry the American in the Italian army, by the Italian surgeon Rinaldi. Rinaldi, a womanizer himself had interested to woo Catherine, as he liked her, but he gives up the idea as he noticed that both Catherine and Henry seem to have an attraction toward one another. At this stage, Catherine has just lost a much-loved fiance in the war and is mourning him. She had been so depressed she had wanted to cut off all of her beautiful hair as a sign of her grief. And Henry gets the impression that she is somewhat “crazy”. Later on in the story, she herself admits that she had been somewhat ‘crazy’ due to her intense grief over her fiance’s death as she had loved him for so long.

An Emotional Void Filled by Henry

      Henry comes to Catherine with the notion of playing a game. A game of love. At their second meeting, he takes her hand and tries to kiss her. Catherine reacts by slapping him hard. However, her anger quickly subsides when he apologizes. Then she allows him to kiss her and suddenly as he kisses her she breaks down, crying. She wants to know if he would be good to her they were going to have a strange life. It is as though there had been something missing from her life and suddenly Henry has come into her life, filling it and she knows that they are now bound by a strange tie.

A Sincere Attitude to ‘Love’

      As their affair begins, Henry was to go away for two days to the front. When he comes back Catherine feels that he has been away for a long time and he should have told her about it. She says, repeatedly, that she loves him and wants to know if he loves her too. Henry casually replies in the affirmative. Suddenly she seems to realize his casual attitude and frankly tells him that he is a nice boy but its “a rotten game” meaning pretending to be in love, that they were playing. She very obviously realizes that he is simply not in love with her and is merely indulging in a part-time. She is hurt and bluntly tells him that he needs not pretend to be in love with her or tell any lies about it. Here, we can see that her kind of love is the sincere and intense. That her sentiments are true and intense and that her cares can be seen in her act of giving an image of saint Anthony to Henry to wear as a charm to protect him from death.’

A Deep and Intense Love

      In the Hospital in Milan where Henry is recuperating from his wounds, they are thrown together as Catherine is also transferred there. Henry begins to feel the love for the first time but for Catherine, it is a culmination of her love. They are happy to be get together and even though Henry lay wounded, their love is consumed. Catherine does not object because at this stage she is deeply and intensely in love with Henry.

      She lavishes all her intention on Henry. She arranges it so that she is on right duty all the time so that they can spend all their nights together. They are now both in love but she loves him so much that she doesn’t want anybody else to even touch him so she doesn’t even allow the other nurses to touch him or administer to him. She questions him about his past girlfriends and he denies ever having any. She knows he is lying but she is pleased by his lying because she doesn’t really want to know about them and too, she thinks that Henry is sparing her the pain of knowing that she is just another woman in a long line of girlfriends.

Total Self-effacement and Surrender

      Catherine’s love for Henry reaches its zenith during the summer that they spend together in Milan. This zenith is her complete self-surrender. She is there to do his bidding and only that which he wishes her to do. She expresses this quite a number of times. For example, at one point she says, “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?”

      Later she says, “I’ll do what you want and say what you want and then I’ll be a great success, won’t I?” the same sentiment is repeated.” You see, I do anything you want.” There isn’t anyone anymore. Just what you want.” That she is happy and satisfied in surrendering herself is again evident in her words. “You see? I am good. I do what you want”. Later she also says to Henry. "Darling don’t make up a separate me, I am you.” Thus, we see that Catherine has completely effaced herself, she wants, needs etc. She exists in and only for Henry.

Official Marriage Not an Issue

      As Henry also begins to realize his growing love for Catherine, he proposes marriage. But in spite of her attitude of total self-surrender, she refuses marriage on practical grounds. This shows that though Catherine seems completely lost in love her feet are firmly planted on the ground and her head firmly fixed on her shoulders. She says marriage between them would mean a separation rather than a union. If she became the wife of an officer, the authorities would send her away from the front to a safer place. And if she went back to Ireland there would be no way how he could come and visit her during his leave. Henry says, he wants to marry her because he is worried about her and what would happen if something happened to him. But Catherine says “There isn’t anyone. I’m you. Don’t make up a separate me.” And she says that she is married. She is already married to him. She even goes to the extent of saying. “You are my religion. You’re all I’ve got.” Thus, her identification with him is so complete that she doesn’t need a formal state or church marriage to legalize their relationship or to feel married that is to feel that they belong to one another.

Further Instances of Her Complete Self-surrender

      The above attitude also shows that Catherine is the personification of an adoring and worshipping lover. She has obliterated herself to the extent that she has no existence apart from Henry. Her identification with Henry is complete. Even her duties as a nurse are now focused first on Henry and then the others are accordingly carried out. On the other hand, she needs constant measurement from her lover that he too loves her as much. And as she expects she also assures Henry that she shall never leave him, come what may. She can find no peace away from him, she prefers him and him only to what the rest of the world has to offer. She is the happiest when they are alone together. Instances in the story show how Henry is caught by her sexuality and loves her sexuality as such. But the physical and the worldly do not concern Catherine. She even says “Vou have a splendid rank. I don’t want you to have any more rank. It might go to your head. Oh, darling, I’m so awfully glad you are not conceited. I’d have married you even if you were conceited, but it’s very restful to have a husband who’s not conceited.” This shows that Catherine loves Henry as a person. Material things are of no concern to her.

Her Pregnancy

      As Henry is about to leave for the front, his convalescent leaves are over. Catherine informs him that she is pregnant. She is in fact three months pregnant and she had known about it all the time and yet kept silent because she did not want Henry to worry. Now, as she tells him not to worry and that she shall manage everything. Henry had always been worried about this and had wanted to marry her but she says ‘‘Everybody has babies. It is a natural thing.” The prospect of being an unwed mother does not in the least affect her. She is more concerned about the effect of her pregnancy on Henry. She doesn’t want him to feel that she had purposely got herself pregnant in order to face him into marriage. She wants to know therefore if he feels “trapped.”

Feeling like a Whore

      Catherine has been having a physical relationship for so long and she is also pregnant and unconcerned about that but as Henry takes her to a Gandy hotel room before he leaves her to go back to the front, she is suddenly uncomfortable and she says that she feels like a whore. Henry too is embarrassed. However, she quickly gets over her feeling of embarrassment and mood. This shows that Catherine is a simple girl and she takes her relationship with Henry as a true marriage but the fact that they came to a hotel room for sex, scares her and makes her realize that their relationship could easily have been a casual relationship. But her belief comes back. That is the beauty of her character. She believes and again assures Henry, ever telling him that they might even have several babies before the war finally got over. Her innocence and simplistic attitude to life is evident. She ever expresses the wish to do something really sinful. Henry describes her as a fine and simple girl and she admits that she is a simple girl.

Full Faith and Trust in Henry

      Catherine and Henry are separated for an interval during which Henry goes to the front, gets caught up in the retreat and finally deserts the army. They meet again in Stresa. Catherine is now visibly pregnant. As Henry comes up to Catherine and Ferguson, he receives a lashing from Ferguson for the awful situation into which he had put Catherine and for the way he was treating her, i.e. not marrying her. But instead of Henry, it is Catherine who tries to reason with Ferguson. She says she doesn’t mind and only smiles knowingly at Henry. This shows the extent of our trust, how she has complete faith in him. She is still as submissive and gentle as she was in the beginning and. as anxious to indulge and carry out every whim and desire. She is willing to accompany him anywhere. Lovers usually say “For you I’ll do anything, go anywhere”, but almost always mean it is in the metaphorical sense. But Catherine is such a woman and lover that she actually does it. She doesn’t see anything bad in his deserting the army either. She says he is not a deserter because the army is just the Italian army. But it is not as if she is not intelligent. She has read and found out that undue American law, the moment she married Henry, her / their child would become a legitimate child. During the night when the bartender comes with the news that Henry is going to be arrested the next day, Catherine is up and ready in a jiffy to accompany Henry. This shows her loving concern for him. This concern is again evident during the trip. As Henry strains himself rowing all night, she is shown repeatedly telling Henry that she would row and relieve him ever saying that rowing in moderation might be good for the child.

Love in the Mountains

      After escaping to Switzerland, Catherine and Henry settle down in a mountain cottage. They lead an idyllic life. There, Catherine reveals that she is rather narrow in the hips and so she should try to keep her child small. However, this does not worry them too much and they have a very happy life in each other’s sole company. Again Catherine’s wish to become completely and absolutely one with Henry is brought out when she says, that she would like to cut her hair short and he grows a bit so that they would look exactly like one another and then says “Oh, darling I want you so much I want to be you too.” Henry assures her that they are one and she replies: “I know it. At night we are.” However, she is still anxious to keep Henry happy and sensing that he might be bored suggest that he grew a beard as that might give him something to do. And then she is worried that her pregnant state might have made her look less attractive to him. He answers her that he still loves her as much but she insists that after the birth of the baby she was on going to cut her hair and make herself over into a new and more beautiful Catherine so that he would fall in love with her all over again. Catherine’s immense love for Henry is clearly evident. Everything she does or thinks about doing is centered around Henry.

Enormous Endurance and Strength

      Even as she undergoes a long and difficult labor, we come across another Catherine. The soft, forever submissive Catherine is now like a tigress fighting to bring her child out. She is in enormous pain and she has been undergoing it for long hours but when Henry comes, she tells him to go and eat or rest or some such thing. She doesn’t allow him to get upset or worry about her.

      Later, Catherine realizes that she is about to die. However, she never complains. She is not nervous about dying. She is not hysterical. She calmly and stoically accepts her impending death. She cries but not because she fears death but because she feels that she is creating problems for Henry. She cries that she had wanted to have the baby and not make any trouble for Henry but now she couldn’t bear it anymore but still she goes on. She is not afraid of death and says “Don’t worry, darling. I am not a bit afraid. It’s just a dirty trick,” and Henry calls her “You dear, brave sweet” Catherine dies fighting till the end.

Catherine’s Friendship with Ferguson

      Catherine’s portrayal in the novel is not one-sided, i.e., it is not just her love for Henry that is depicted. Even though it is not developed a strong and loyal friendship with Heles Ferguson is also portrayed. Catherine and Ferguson are deeply attached to one another. Ferguson takes up her Gidzels against Henry when she feels that Henry was treating her wrongly. And Catherine also feels sorry that Ferguson would be upset to discover that they had escaped to Switzerland without telling her. As Catherine is capable of genuine love, she is capable of genuine friendship. However, Catherine dislikes a man’s tendency to brag of his achievements. She doesn’t like Ettore Moretti because he talks too much. She tells Henry that they had war heroes too but they were generally quiet and refused to Ettore as a “dreadful boy” for being too talkative and conceited. Thus, her character is given another aspect. Her dislike of Ettore makes her character more rounded.

Fear of the Rain

      Catherine who is brave and courageous has one fear. She is afraid of the rain. Henry presses her and she reveals that she is afraid of the rain because sometimes she saw herself dead in the rain and sometimes she sees Henry dead in the rain. She cries and doesn’t want to be afraid of the rain. That Catherine is afraid of the rain is important as rain is a symbol of disaster in the novel. It is a foreboding, a warning of her eventual death, As she dies it is raining and Henry walks away in the rain.

Catherine as a Symbol of Home and Hearth

      In the novel, there are various symbols and Catherine herself functions as a symbol. She stands as a symbol of home, domesticity and comfort, Henry comes away from the brutality of war to her. And then they escape to a quiet life in the mountains. This is therefore important in the larger schemes of the book wherein Hemingway deals with the issue of what is it that man should choose between war and love.


Two Types of Women

      Hemingway usually tends to portray women of two distinct types in his novels. These two types embody two opposite extremes. One is the submissive and docile type and the other is the strong, independent and kind. The later type is embodied in the heroines of Hemingway.

      Other novels are The Sun Also Rises, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber etc. These women are portrayed as selfish, predatory and depraved women who bring ill-luck to the men they associate with. They are women with strong shades of negativity though portrayed as one of the main protagonists of the novel. They are however usually round characters. On the other hand examples of the former category and with which we are more concerned can be seen in Catherine Barkley and in the heroine of For whom the Bell Tolls, Maria. These women are usually pictures of the impossible ideal. They are most of the time embodiments of the perfect wife, perfect lover from the male point of view. Hence they are also the projections of the male’s erotic dream ideal. They are extremes of Romanticism. Seen from this point of view then, the later category fails in giving us realistic portraits of women. Women do not exist as either black or white characters in real life. All women stand in between and are usually characterized by grey shades. They occupy an intermediate ground. Therefore, Catherine Barkley is not a convincing human personality, she is an idealization, the abstraction of a lyric emotion, at least during their idyllic stay in the Swiss mountains.

Catherine Personification of Hemingway’s “Norm-women”

      Hemingway possesses a distinct masculine outlook toward women. His attitude can be interpreted as chivalric and yet with an ironical undertone. He shows hardly any interest in the “prosaisms” of the female world. He goes on in his own way. He usually paints an ideal woman through whom he establishes a moral norm of womanly behavior and then Hemingway uses this established norm or portrait to compare and contrast and to bring out the varying degree of departure followed by other women from it. To readers however, this woman may not be in the least bit exciting. They might also be not very convincing and hence may appear uncredible than the other type of heroine. These temptresses are usually more alluring and interesting than the normal and dull women. Hemingway’s heroines are mostly an aspect of the poetry of things. His Chivalric outlook prevents him from writing off his women as mere rags and bones. He refrains from treating his heroines in a reductive manner. His heroines are meant to show a symbolic or ritualistic function in the service of the artist and in the service of the man. They are also placed in a special kind of accelerated world one is his heroes. They are never placed in the hum drums of normal everyday life for example a woman is, never portrayed as a harassed mother. Their movement, therefore, is presented as a pre-marital connection, war and revolutions, the inevitable enemies of peace and denuticity, set the adrift or destroy their life's.

      And yet they bring to mind the idea of the none, the idea if not the actuality of the married state, they are such women that where they are in the home.

Catherine’s Character: Lacking in Realism

      As an inference from the above statements, Catherine is not a convincing personality. Her characterization lacks realism. However, the notion that her love affair seems to be a mere abstraction of lyric emotion can be explained by the fact that as characters both she and Henry are basically rootless as are many other characters in the earlier works of Hemingway. These characters do not seem to have no previous biographies and are devoid of any antecedents. There are a few exceptions like for example the priest. It is clearly mentioned that he has come from Abruzzi and there is a lengthy description of the beauty of the place and a further description of the beautiful, serene life lead by his father. Compared to this we do not even know where Henry and Catherine have come from.

      Apart from their respective countries, little else is given about their background. The same can be said of the other characters in the novel. They are all rootless. They seem to come from nowhere and depart to another which is hazy and unknown. It is however, not as if they lack substance, they have substance but they lack perspective and we hardly get to know them in depth. We have to accept them not as they are hut as in according to what they do. They are men and women of action and the meaning of their lives can be seen in their actions. Catherine therefore is to be judged from this viewpoint. As a human personality, we do not find any background to her character and she is not convincing because of this. But judged through her actions this notion can be easily driven away.

Hemingway’s Emphasis on Action

      There are two reasons behind the characters being portrayed described above. Hemingway worked on the assumption that character is revealed through action. Therefore an in-depth characterization was sacrificed and given up in favor of the demands of the narrative movement. The other reason may be that it was deliberate or Hemingway’s part to portray all the important characters as “displaced persons”. They are all either man fighting the war, far away from their home or men in foreign countries whose ties with what they, have known before are now severed.

Hemingway’s Characterization

      However, to say that Catherine is not convincing enough does not mean that Hemingway was in any way incapable of drawing fully rounded characters. All the minor characters in the novel are proof enough. For example, Count Greffi, the surgeon, nurses and doctors, the Meyers etc. These characters occupy only a scene or two in the novel and yet in that short space, they are living, breathing characters. He went only so much into their background so as to facilitate the narrative. He did not need superfluousness. He drew the characters according to the need of the narrative.

An Element of Abstraction

      Again, in this novel, there is a tendency which in a way validates the opinion that Hemingway has somehow failed in his attempt to present Catherine as a credible characterization. As the novel moves from concreteness to an abstractness is a large and general way, the element of abstraction renders Catherine an incredible character. This can be seen in a consideration of the opening chapters which is so wonderfully complex and a consideration of the happenings of the final chapter. The story is projected in concrete and actualization terms. This fact, however, should not obscure the symbolic myth on which it is built nor should it through a will open the great emotional pours of the novel which comes from this symbolic myth. Catherine may be interpreted as an English girl who has a Juliet-like experience with Henry or we can read the novel as a naturalistic narrative of the story of a group of people on the Italian front during the first world war.

Catherine: A Symbolic Role

      Catherine has a symbolic role to play in the central antithesis between the image of life, love and home manifested in the mountain symbol and that of war and death manifested in the plain symbol. Therefore, as the novel moves towards the denouement, it becomes an essential requirement that Catherine becomes more of an abstraction of love rather than a more concrete picture of a real woman in love and in pain. That she is a woman will not escape the truly sympathetic reader. However, the agreement is that there is a need for the movement of the character to an abstraction, as this then symbolically and emotionally justifies the tendency of the novel. When in the end Henry closes the door to be alone with her, one last time, he learns the finality and totality of his loss. It is the loss of a life, of a love and of a home. Saying goodbye is like saying goodbye to a statue. In death, she has become an abstract and initial in age of her living self. The flesh and blood, loved woman has become a marble memorial to all that has gone without hope of recovery. The symbolic structures of the novel turns full circles with her death. The novel becomes the beautifully constructed edifice of tragedy that it is. This structure is essentially poetic in conception and execution and is achieved without any obvious labor through the symbolic character of Catherine.


      Various critics have given their views regarding her character. The following are the main points of the critics.

Mixture of Opposite Qualities

      Catherine is a mixture of opposing characteristics. And she is glorified by these characteristics which Hemingway would idealize in a woman. In the beginning, she is easy and yet irrevocably pure. She is morally very strong and yet in the hotel room, she cannot bear it as she feels like a whore. She is soft and gentle but crudely muses about life being better if the oar ‘poked’ her belly. She is tender-hearted and fragile and yet she bears enormous physical pain during her labor. She is afraid of the rain because she sees herself and sometimes Henry dead in it but when death comes to her she is calm and fearless.

Her Perseverance During her Pregnancy and Labour

      Her pregnancy is something that she clearly doesn’t want. She freely admits that she couldn’t help it. That she had taken everything but it had not worked. But she accepts it gracefully and neither does she use it as a tool to get Henry to marry her. However, she feels life would have been easier if she had not become pregnant as she expresses this as they row away to Switzerland saying it would be so much better if the oar hit her tummy. But she preserves and carries the baby till the end of its term and further persevering through the long hours of labor during which she undergoes excruciating pain.

Strong and Firm in her Last Moment

      Catherine is a pleasant companion, tough and independent to an extent to make her a suitable version of the woman as a partner. These very qualities however, render her survival during the war days possible. She is feminine enough too, she feels ashamed and embarrassed and feels like a whore, when Henry takes her to a hotel room before leaving for the front. Then when she rigs her Schedule at the hospital to be able to stay with Henry, we suspect an efficient, business-like detachment. On the other hand, her pregnancy guarantees, the sincere intensity of her passion for Henry. She complains about seeing Henry dead in the rain, and she is naive also considering her token bet at the race course, she also complains about her pregnancy at trying times, like during their escape by boat. On her death bed, she pleads with Henry not to do the things they did together with another girl. As she yearns for reassurance from her lover, her complexity crystallizes for the readers. And yet we must remember that she demands it. It shows the strength of her character and the strength of her relationship. All her daily experience she has been able to particularize and in the final moments of her death, her identity is that of a firm, strong woman. But the irony is that she is destroyed not because she is weak or by war or any other external factor but due to her small hips. Her small hips would have killed her, no matter where she had gotten pregnant. Her death is due to her fate something uncontrollable and completely out of human hands.

Catherine in Comparison to other Hemingway heroines

      A comparison of Catherine with Brett, Hemingway’s heroine in The Sun Also Rises is called for. There are various similarities between the two women. Both are English women, tall, blonde and beautiful. They are both sad due to having lost their loved one, early in life, and that also in war. They are also both, a little crazy due to their similar bereavement. Here, their similarity ends. Brett is not a one-man woman like Catherine. She is neurotic and that drives her from bar to bar and from man to man and from city to city She is not ‘good’ for the men she meets. Romero wants to marry her, wants her to grow her hair, become more feminine but the basis abnormality in her, rules out such feminization. She dresses and behaves like a man and hardly has any girlfriends. She doesn’t like other women and doesn’t wish to have any women friends. She is happy in the midst of the masculine world.

In Contrast Catherine a Complete Woman

      On the other extreme, we have Catherine who is utterly feminine. She is half mother half lover to Henry, dependent and independent all at the same time. She is devoted solely to him. She wants him and him only. She even wants to be with him excluding the rest of the world. She drinks in a restricted manner and hardly has Brett’s geographical restlessness and she is where the home and hearth is. Even the garish room in Milan, decorated in red and mirrors which makes her feel like a whore, is transformed into their home after a little while. Henry’s room at the hospital had also become home, in a like manner She is a ‘good girl’ from within. A pure woman who pities and comforts, who sustains and is a companion to Henry. She doesn’t shut out other women like Brett. She has a very good girlfriend Helen Ferguson but she is happy only with Henry.

A Woman after a Man’s Heart

      Catherine is such an ideal woman that she would have made any man on earth a happy and contented man. She is the kind to give a man all her love freely and yet not be the clingy type. Throughout the novel, she is trying to please Henry. Everything she does is an attempt to make Henry happy—she is a very simple and decent woman. She is forever anxious that something might make Henry anxious. She doesn’t reveal her pregnancy for a long time because she didn’t want him to worry. And then as her body undergoes physical changes she is worried that Henry might not find her attractive anymore and so plans to make herself into a brand new Catherine after childbirth.

Self-effacing Attitude

      Some critics are of the opinion that Catherine has no self and has very little depth as a fictional character. However, the agreement is that Hemingway needed such a character and created her accordingly. That he can draw lifelike, realistic and rounded characters. So far as Catherine is concerned she is a woman who desires to lose herself in her lover. Individuality and self-assertion are necessary to be loved and to love, but Catherine is scared of herself as a separate being. She wants to completely identify with Henry and Henry only. She says, to Henry “please don’t make up a separate me” they are one and the same for her. She wants to be with Henry all the time, going where he goes, doing what he does. If he is to be with Catherine then she doesn’t mind anything. She doesn’t mind anything that Henry wants, in fact, she will be what Henry wants. She even wants Henry to grow his hair a bit and she shall cut hers and then they shall even look alike. She doesn’t exist, if he is not there she says. Catherine is therefore every living man’s fantasy and therefore hardly credible. On a realistic level, one can only take her to be hopeless romantic or an incurable neurotic. But the thing to do is to take her as a deliberate stylization on Hemingway’s part. Her love is a destructive love that excludes the world. And in making her die is the subtle wish that such a destructive love should also die. Her love which so very much device the self is an attempt at complete and selfish possession of the other and it is such a love that leads no where beyond the bed. Her death carries the hope that such a love should be destroyed.

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