“There, darling. Now you’re all clean inside and out. Tell me. How many people have you ever loved?”
“Not even me?”
“How many others really?”
“How many have you—how do you say it?—stayed with?”
“You’re lying to me.”
“It’s all right. Keep right on lying to me. That’s what I want you to do. Were they pretty?”
Soon after Henry arrives at the American hospital in Milan, his relationship with Catherine Barkley becomes passionate. Initially a means of alleviating the pain of war and private grief, their affair continues to serve the very practical purpose of masking life’s difficulties. As this passage from Chapter XVI illustrates, their game of love distracts them from unpleasant circumstances—here, a procedure wherein Catherine “cleans out” Henry’s insides to prepare him for his operation. Indeed, Hemingway washes over the details of the procedure by having Catherine say, “There, darling. Now you’re all clean inside and out.” At this point, however, the couple’s game, though acknowledged by Catherine as a lie, is becoming more complicated. The reader is unsure of the depth of feeling that inspires Henry’s declaration of love and his honesty about sleeping with other women. This dialogue establishes the importance of illusion in Catherine and Henry’s budding relationship.
I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
When Henry meets the young patriot, Gino, on the ruined Bainsizza in Chapter XXVII, the two have a conversation that confirms Henry’s ambivalence about war. Gino prattles on about the sacredness of the fatherland and his own willingness to die for his country. To Henry, such abstractions as honor, glory, and sacrifice do little to explain or assuage the unbelievable destruction that he sees around him. What matters, he decides, are the names of villages and soldiers, the concrete facts of decimated walls and dead bodies. He believes that in order to discuss the war honestly, one must dismiss artificial concepts and deal with terms grounded in the reality of the war. He tarnishes the romanticized ideal of the military hero by equating the “sacrifices” of human lives in war with the slaughter of livestock. He further compares romantic riffs about honor and glory to burying meat in the ground. Nothing can be sustained or nurtured by such pointlessness.
When we were out past the tanneries onto the main road the troops, the motor trucks, the horse-drawn carts and the guns were in one wide slow-moving column. We moved slowly but steadily in the rain, the radiator cap of our car almost against the tailboard of a truck that was loaded high, the load covered with wet canvas. Then the truck stopped. The whole column was stopped. It started again and we went a little farther, then stopped. I got out and walked ahead, going between the trucks and carts and under the wet necks of the horses.
In this passage from Chapter XXVIII, Hemingway opens his description of the Italian army’s retreat. The prose is indicative of Hemingway’s style: bold, declarative sentences; a sharp eye for detail; and a rhythm that underscores the physical and emotional movement being described. Here, the rhythm of the two long opening sentences, which fluidly describe the great convergence and crawling pace of the retreating troops, is interrupted by short bursts that detail the action accurately. The repetition of “stopped” in “Then the truck stopped. The whole column stopped” jars the reader, as does the jerky motion of the subsequent “It started again . . . then stopped,” brilliantly mimicking the stop-and-go action of the troops.
But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together. I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started. But with Catherine there was almost no difference in the night except that it was an even better time. If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
These musings from Chapter XXXIV, when Henry lies in bed with Catherine after their reunion in Stresa, cast a long shadow from which the couple cannot escape. Henry’s thoughts here are initially positive, focusing on how Catherine’s presence alleviates his feelings of loneliness. He stresses an important aspect of their relationship: together, they manage to overcome the great sense of fear and loneliness that they feel in the presence of other people. Henry’s rapturous thinking about Catherine, however, disconcertingly switches to a dark philosophy that maintains that the world was designed to kill the good, the gentle, and the brave—all terms that Henry has used or will use to describe Catherine. This unforced glide from contentedness into pessimism seems to reflect the inevitable inability of such positive forces as love to neutralize the grim reality of life. Indeed, from this point on, Henry and Catherine seem to be running from a force that means them harm and that, soon enough, catches up with them.
Poor, poor dear Cat. And this was the price you paid for sleeping together. This was the end of the trap. This was what people got for loving each other. Thank God for gas, anyway. What must it have been like before there were anesthetics?
Several times in the novel, as in this moment from the final chapter when Henry watches Catherine suffer through the agony of delivering their child, Henry performs the narrative equivalent of shaking his fist at the heavens and cursing the universe. This passage is significant for two reasons: first, it can be used to explain Hemingway’s sometimes problematic treatment of the relationships between men and women. Hemingway tends to depict women as cold and domineering or as overly sweet and submissive. Some readers complain that Catherine falls into the second category. Henry’s profound sense of loss and impotence—never welcomed among Hemingway’s male characters—suggests that one of the motivations behind these somewhat stereotypical representations might be a belief that women possess an inherent “unmanly” helplessness.
The second facet of this quotation’s significance lies in Henry’s declaration, “Thank God for gas, anyway.” Throughout the novel, characters have sought whatever means possible to shield themselves from the pain of the world. Rinaldi finds comfort in sex, the priest in God, Catherine and Henry in love, and almost everybody in alcohol. Each of these things acts as a form of anesthetic, a temporary dulling of a pain that, in the end, cannot be conquered.