A Farewell to Arms

by: Ernest Hemingway

Catherine Barkley

I was going to cut it all off when he died. . . . I wanted to do something for him. You see I didn’t care about the other thing and he could have had it all. He could have had anything he wanted if I would have known. I would have married him or anything, I know all about it now. But then he wanted to go to war and I didn’t know. . . . I didn’t know about anything then. I thought it would be worse for him. I thought perhaps he couldn’t stand it and then of course he was killed and that was the end of it.

When Frederic meets Catherine, she is still mourning her fiancé, who died fighting in France. Frederic admires her hair, so she mentions that she had thought of cutting her hair short as a gesture of mourning and then expresses regret for not giving her fiancé “the other thing,” meaning sex. Her revelation to Frederic comes across as strangely intimate for a first meeting, but as she says, waiting to do anything important seems foolish since death could strike at any time.

“This is a rotten game we play, isn’t it? . . . You’re a nice boy,” she said. “And you play it as well as you know how. But it’s a rotten game. . . . You don’t have to pretend you love me. That’s all over for the evening. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?... Please let’s not lie when we don’t have to. I had a very fine little show and I’m all right now. You see I’m not mad and I’m not gone off. It’s only a little sometimes.”

After Frederic returns from duty for two nights, Catherine seems agitated, wanting to hear that he loves her. He thinks she may be “a little crazy” as he considers his wooing merely a game. After brief thought, however, Catherine returns to herself and shows uncanny agreement with Frederic. She agrees that their romance is a game, and now she prefers to interact truthfully. The fantasy of her relationship with Frederic may have helped her forget her late fiancé, but fundamentally Catherine thinks and feels like a realist.

There’s no way to be married except by church or state. We are married privately. You see, darling, it would mean everything to me if I had any religion. But I haven’t any religion. . . . You’re my religion. You’re all I’ve got. . . . Don’t talk as though you had to make an honest woman of me, darling. I’m a very honest woman. You can’t be ashamed of something if you’re only happy and proud of it.

Catherine and Frederic are lovers and in love. Frederic thinks they should probably get married in case Catherine gets pregnant. But here Catherine makes clear that she truly does not care about marriage. She does not believe that premarital sex or an out-of-wedlock child is a sin. Moreover, she understands that if they married or even began planning to do so, they would be separated by her employer. After losing her previous fiancé to war, Catherine refuses to allow any delay to happiness.

“Do you like this?” Catherine asked. . . . “It’s all right, I suppose,” she said. “But, darling, I can’t stand to see so many people. . . . Those last four boys were awful. . . . And, darling, let’s back a horse we’ve never heard of and that Mr. Meyers won’t be backing.” We backed a horse named Light For Me that finished fourth in a field of five. We leaned on the fence and watched the horses go by. . . . “I feel so much cleaner,” Catherine said. . . . “Wouldn’t you like a drink? We could have one out here and see the horses.”

Some nurses and patients have gone to watch horse racing. They bet on some horses on the advice of an acquaintance but never make as much money as they expected, and they entertain a constant stream of “very mannered” Italian men. Eventually, Catherine reveals that she has had enough of the event. Although Frederic enjoys the rather seedy atmosphere and company, Catherine finds both distasteful. Readers may note, however, that even while asserting her own preference, Catherine still tries to make sure Frederic feels happy.

“Let me row awhile,” Catherine said. [“]It would be good for me. It would keep me from being too stiff. . . . Rowing in moderation is very good for the pregnant lady.” . . . She rowed very well but the oars were too long and bothered her.

As Frederic knows he is about to be arrested for deserting the Italian army, he and Catherine attempt to escape Italy via rowboat. They must travel 35 kilometers, or 22 miles, overnight to reach Switzerland, where they should be safe. The water is rough due to a storm, but the wind blows in the right direction. In asking for a turn rowing, Catherine displays courage, toughness, and outdoor skills, three traits Frederic particularly values. This trip enhances his admiration for Catherine.

Wouldn’t you like to go on a ski trip somewhere by yourself, darling, and be with men and ski? . . . I should think sometimes you would want to see other people besides me. . . . I’m having a child and that makes me contented not to do anything. I know I’m awfully stupid now and I talk too much and I think you ought to get away so you won’t be tired of me.

Frederic, as the narrator, recalls Catherine suggesting he take a trip without her to spend some time around other men. Frederic appreciates the gesture as generous and understanding of his need for excitement. Whether he also recognizes Catherine’s underlying insecurity remains unclear. Catherine’s words reveal that she worries that he is or will become bored with her, especially now that she unable to do everything he can. She encourages Frederic to take a break from her in order to keep him happy and thus, she hopes, with her long term.

You know, darling, I’m not going to cut my hair now until after young Catherine’s born. I look too big and matronly now. But after she’s born and I’m thin again I’m going to cut it and then I’ll be a fine new and different girl for you. We’ll go together and get it cut, or I’ll go alone and come and surprise you. . . . You won’t say I can’t, will you? . . . And maybe I’d look lively, darling, and be so thin and exciting to you and you’ll fall in love with me all over again.

While planning for the future, Catherine once again reveals her insecurity about her place with Frederic. She expects him to become bored with her, so she intends to renew his interest by becoming a different woman after the baby arrives. Here, Frederic reflects on Catherine’s words after her death, so her intention to change for him may stand out as particularly poignant, especially given that Frederic never displays any interest in other women after falling in love with Catherine.

The pains came quite regularly, then slackened off. Catherine was very excited. When the pains were bad she called them good ones. When they started to fall off she was disappointed and ashamed. “You go out, darling,” she said. “I think you are just making me self-conscious.” Her face tied up. “There. That was better. I so want to be a good wife and have this child without any foolishness. Please go and get some breakfast, darling, and then come back. I won’t miss you. Nurse is splendid to me.”

Catherine feels determined to deal with childbirth as she has dealt with all of the couple’s trials thus far: with brisk practicality and no nonsense. She believes that Frederic appreciates these qualities in her, but she also values them herself. Thus, she feels happy with large painful contractions, believing they get her closer to her goal. At the same time, she feels disappointed in herself when her body does not comply with her plan and labor pains seem to weaken and fade. Either way, she states that Frederic need not concern himself.

“I’m not afraid. I just hate it. . . . You won’t do our things with another girl, or say the same things, will you? . . . I want you to have girls, though. . . . Don’t worry, darling,” Catherine said. “I’m not a bit afraid. It’s just a dirty trick.”

Catherine accepts that she is dying. Her lack of religious belief is genuine, so she fears no afterlife. But she feels angry at what she will miss out on. With her last words she tries to comfort Frederic and gives permission for him to move on. She is the only person in the room dealing with her death realistically. Both Frederic and the doctor linger in denial, but Catherine shows herself to be practical to the end.