Man's Search for Certainty & Meaning in A Farewell To Arms

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Love Story with a Problem

      A Farewell to Arms is a compelling love story. But this is so only at a personal and superficial level, the whole story takes a huge turn becoming even more compelling and significant than before as Hemingway draws the lovers in the background of the war, and therefore the milieu of the novel is formed by a disintegrating world. On the surface, A Farewell to Arms is a story about two lovers but on closer analysis, it is a story about man’s, here Henry’s quest for meaning and a bedrock, an area of certainty in a life and world that seems to be devoid of it and filled only with nothing, the concept of nada. This is a problem and Hemingway’s aim is to find a solution to it.

Two Diverse Views on Love

      In Book one of the novel, Hemingway established two divergent views on love and Henry’s reaction and relationship to both. Henry is in the war front and he and the other officers dine together at the officer’s mess. Here, the other officers indulge in baiting the priest. They accuse him of being sexually active and of having girls and going to the brothels etc. Frederic Henry on his part refrains from doing so. He is only a spectator. The importance of this episode is that here two diverse points are established. The officers invite Henry to come with them to the brothel and Henry is advised as to where he should go if he wanted to have the best girls during his furlough. The priest on the other hand urges Henry to go to the mountain of Abruzzi, his home town in Capracotta. The issue of the novel is clearly stated here. Henry is to choose between the life offered by the cities, the casual sex and meaningless relationships, and the peace and beauty of life in the mountains.

Henry’s Initial Choice

      Henry in the beginning chooses the brothels, the casual sex. He goes to the officer’s brothel and during his leave goes to all the major cities of Italy spending his holiday drinking in cafes and bars, and indulging in casual sex so much so that sometimes he forgot who he was with. Therefore, Henry is seen leading a life of random sensuality giving vent only to his physical and sexual appetites and in a quest to satisfy his needs of the same. Henry does not care for anything. He is beyond caring. However, there lurks a disgust and a dissatisfaction. When he returns from his furlough and on meeting the priest Henry says that he had really wanted to go to Abruzzi but had not been able to. Henry thus expresses that he had wanted to go to Abruzzi, which symbolizes a peaceful, serene, call peaceful of beauty and kind hospitable people. This place symbolizes therefore a kind of life completely different from the one Henry is leading. It is another aspect of the world that is being shown here. Henry then tells himself He understood that I had really wanted to go to the Abruzzi but had not gone and we were still friends, with many taste alike, but with the difference between us. He had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget. But I did not know that then, although I learned it later”. Henry is here talking about real love which the priest defines and he later comes to know and feel real love with Catherine and more than that the truth behind life and of the forces controlling the world.

Love as the Priest Defines It

      This is however not stated at the beginning. Hemingway does not follow the pattern of stating the theme or problem at the outset and then setting out to resolve it or absorbing the theme into the action as the novel progresses. The theme of the novel appears later, in stages at very crucial points of the story and thus also serves to define the line of meaning of the text. The presence of the priest establishes the religious background of the novel. In all the chapters in which the priest appears, he is shown in conversation with Henry. In the first instance, he is seen urging Henry to go to Abruzzi, in the next meeting later, when Henry is wounded and he comes to visit him bearing thoughtful gifts the priest again talks about Abruzzi. He had been rather depressed by the long drawn war and he expresses his wish to return to his native place and serve God. He tells Henry that “But there in my country it is understood that a man may love God. It is not a dirty joke”. Then he inquires if Henry loved God? And Henry replies that he didn’t but he was afraid of God at night sometimes. Henry insists that he cannot love much when the priest urges him to love God. Then the priest tells him: “Yes you do. What you tell me about in the nights that is not love. That is only passion and lust. When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve”. At this Henry again insists that he doesn’t love. But the priest expresses his conviction that one day Henry will come to love. He says, “You will. I know you will. Then you will be happy”. A little later Henry wants to know, “If I really loved some woman would it be like that?” This conversation between the priest and Henry reveals two very significant points. Firstly, love as love should be defined and established. And uptill now Henry has been shown as a man given to sensual pleasures. The priest has then indicated the kind of love towards which Henry shall move. The true meaning of the love story between Henry and Catherine has not yet been formed, they are at stage when their love is only a “rotten game” but the next stage when love shall become of the ‘sacrificing’, ‘serving’ kind has been put forward through the priest. The priest also indicates the stage by drawing parallels between secular and sacred love. The second point here is that Henry in his answer says that he believes in sleep, implying nothing when asked by the priest what he believed in, is brought out as a man who believed in nada, the concept of nothingness. But that he is moving on, from both the stages as mentioned above is brought out in his musings about the beauty and serenity of Abruzzi and the kind of people who inhabited the area. This is therefore, an affirmation that Henry is moving on in a search of meaning and servitude in his life.

Love Matures into a Religious Sentiment

      Henry and Catherine come together as a wounded Henry is shifted to the American hospital in Milan and Catherine too is shifted there. Here, Henry falls truly in love with her and the summer in Milan is a chronicle of their love story. Their love begins to acquire hues of the kind of love as defined by the priest. A religious connection begins to be associated with their love when Catherine tells Henry, that she didn’t want to get formally married because she felt they were already married and she didn’t have any formal religion either to believe in a marriage made by the church. Henry however tells her that she had once given him Saint Anthony for luck, she says that it had just been something given to her by someone. Later, she tells him “Vou are my religion. You’re all I’ve got.” Then she says, ‘I will be so faithful. You will be sick of it” and ‘Is there I can do to please you ?” Clearly, Catherine already loves Henry in the way defined by the priest.

      That it becomes the same kind of love for Henry is revealed much later in book four, during his conversation with Count Greffi. Count Greffi wants to know if Henry believed in God or devout. Henry replied that he was, but only at night. Count Greffi wants to know what Henry values most in life and Henry answers that he valued someone he loved. Then Count Greffi expresses the wish that since he had not been able to become devout Henry should please pray for him. And Henry says “I might become very devout” and when he tells the Count that at that time his religious feelings came only at night, then the Count says “then too you are in love. Do not forget that is a religious feeling”.

The Code of Endurance

      Henry gives, up the war. He deserts the army and sets up an idyllic existence with Catherine but Catherine dies not as a result of any ill deed etc. but because of a natural defect. Her hips are narrow and this causes problems in the delivery of the child and later complications lead to her death. Her death makes Henry realize that he had been searching for some meaning and certainty in their relationship but now her death throws back the fact that such a quest in a cruel universe is futile. It is doomed to fail as life is liable to any accident that nature may freely impose. Human being are mere ants running back and forth on a burning log with God watching over, and even a light hearted attempt at anything ends up scorching them. Death in such a life is just a “dirty trick”. However, the point is that Henry makes the attempt and in the end stoically endures the calamity.

Contrast Between Rinaldi and Valentini

      In order to fully discuss and understand this code of stoic endurance, of the Hemingway Hero, Henry, in this case, we shall go back to the beginning of the book when Rinaldi appears and a little later in book two where Dr. Valentini makes his appearance. The novel presents a group of characters in contrast with one another. In the first book of the novel, a contrast between the officers of the mess and the priest has already been signified. It is clear that Hemingway means to divide the men who are aware of the issue of life from those who are ignorant of it. It is a contrast that highlights those who are disciplined and those who are not. The priest clearly stands on the side of the disciplined, aware and initiated group. On the other side stands Henry, Rinaldi and others. Rinaldi accompanies Henry and the officers to the brothels. He is also one of those who indulge in teasing the priest through sexual innuendoes. But on a closer analysis of the private relationship that he shares with Henry, he appears closer to the priest than the opposing group. This can be seen in the importance he gives to his work. He says that: “I’m only happy when I am working” and this reveals that he is a disciplined man committed to his work. Now, this is later to be seen in contrast with doctors in the Hospital in Milan who are all incompetent and given to shirking responsibility, incapable of decision making. Rinaldi is also to be compared and contrasted with Dr. Valentini. He and Rinaldi are drawn along very similar lines. He is a bantering person who likes drinking and chatting but he is committed to his work and is a disciplined and competent doctor.

The Opposing Group and Henry’s Quest

      The two opposing groups of character in the novel are therefore the group who is disciplined, competent, aware and initiated into the realities of the war and thus the world. On the other group is of those undisciplined, unaware and imitated people such as the incompetent doctors, the officers of the mess, Ettore Moretti etc. who do not realise what is at stake. To the former group belongs the priest, Rinaldi, Valentini, Count Greffi, ambulance drivers and later Henry and Catherine themselves. This group is the one responsible for providing the context and meaning of the novel and thus the context which serves as the starting point from which Henry moves on his quest towards a final and complete awareness that is achieved through Catherine’s death.


      This final calamity, that is, Catherine’s death is the final awareness that Henry achieves and on receiving which he is thrown back upon his private discipline and his private endurance and his will and capacity to suffer and yet take it. Frederic Henry, from a casual stance grows into active participant which results in realization. This realization is achieved in the Coparetto Retreat and then he cuts himself away from the confused chaotic world in his desertions. Now, his plunging into the river in his bid to escape can be interpreted as a “rite” as sort of “baptism” into the world of the imitate and aware. It is as though he were reborn into another world, a world where each individual stands for himself, unsupported by anybody, alone, independent or supported by society. He has made a separate peace and goes on to establish another life with Catherine. It is a completely isolated but extraordinarily blissful existence. He seems to be trying to achieve meaning and certainty in life with her but this blows up in his face as Catherine dies. Therefore, the novel plainly shows how through the love story and the story behind it, Henry makes an attempt to establish meaning and servitude in the world.

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