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.
More characters from A Farewell to Arms
Take a Study Break!