A Farewell to Arms
Analysis of Major Characters
In the sections of the novel in which he describes his experience in the war, Henry portrays himself as a man of duty. He attaches to this understanding of himself no sense of honor, nor does he expect any praise for his service. Even after he has been severely wounded, he discourages Rinaldi from pursuing medals of distinction for him. Time and again, through conversations with men like the priest, Ettore Moretti, and Gino, Henry distances himself from such abstract notions as faith, honor, and patriotism. Concepts such as these mean nothing to him beside such concrete facts of war as the names of the cities in which he has fought and the numbers of decimated streets.
Against this bleak backdrop, Henry’s reaction to Catherine Barkley is rather astonishing. The reader understands why Henry responds to the game that Catherine proposes—why he pledges his love to a woman he barely knows: like Rinaldi, he hopes for a night’s simple pleasures. But an active sex drive does not explain why Henry returns to Catherine—why he continues to swear his love even after Catherine insists that he stop playing. In his fondness for Catherine, Henry reveals a vulnerability usually hidden by his stoicism and masculinity. The quality of the language that Henry uses to describe Catherine’s hair and her presence in bed testifies to the genuine depth of his feelings for her. Furthermore, because he allows Henry to narrate the book, Hemingway is able to suffuse the entire novel with the power and pathos of an elegy: A Farewell to Arms, which Henry narrates after Catherine’s death, confirms his love and his loss.
Much has been written regarding Hemingway’s portrayal of female characters. With the advent of feminist criticism, readers have become more vocal about their dissatisfaction with Hemingway’s depictions of women, which, according to critics such as Leslie A. Fiedler, tend to fall into one of two categories: overly dominant shrews, like Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises, and overly submissive confections, like Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway, Fiedler maintains, was at his best dealing with men without women; when he started to involve female characters in his writing, he reverted to uncomplicated stereotypes. A Farewell to Arms certainly supports such a reading: it is easy to see how Catherine’s blissful submission to domesticity, especially at the novel’s end, might rankle contemporary readers for whom lines such as “I’m having a child and that makes me contented not to do anything” suggest a bygone era in which a woman’s work centered around maintaining a home and filling it with children.
Still, even though Catherine’s excessive desire to live a lovely life may, at times, make her more archetypal than real, it is unfair to deny her the nuances of her character. Although Catherine alludes to her initial days with Henry as a period when she was slightly “crazy,” she seems perfectly aware of the fact that she and Henry are, at first, playing an elaborate game of seduction. Rather than being swept off her feet by Henry’s declarations of love, she capably draws the line, telling him when she has had enough for the night or reminding him that their budding love is a lie. In fact, Catherine’s resistance holds out much longer than Henry’s: even after Henry emphatically states that he loves her and that their lives together will be splendid, Catherine exhibits the occasional doubt, telling him that she is sure that dreadful things await them and claiming that she fears having a baby because she has never loved anyone. Privy only to what Catherine says, not to what she thinks, the reader is left to explain these infrequent lapses in her otherwise uncompromised devotion. Her premonition of dreadful things, for instance, may simply be a general alarm about the war-torn world or residual guilt for loving a man other than the fiancé whom she is mourning as the book opens. While the degree to which Catherine is conflicted remains open to debate, her loyalty to Henry does not. She is a loving, dedicated woman whose desire and capacity for a redemptive, otherworldly love makes her the inevitable victim of tragedy.
Rinaldi’s character serves an important function in A Farewell to Arms. He dominates an array of minor male characters who embody the kind of virile, competent, and good-natured masculinity that, for better or worse, so much of Hemingway’s fiction celebrates. Rinaldi is an unbelievable womanizer, professing to be in love with Catherine at the beginning of the novel but claiming soon thereafter to be relieved that he is not, like Henry, saddled with the complicated emotional baggage that the love of a woman entails. Considering Rinaldi’s frequent visits to the local whorehouses, Henry later muses that his friend has most likely succumbed to syphilis. While this registers as an unpleasant end, it is presented with an air of detached likelihood rather than fervent moralizing. It is, in other words, not punishment for a man’s bad behavior but rather the consequence of a man behaving as a man—living large, living boldly, and being true to himself.