-- Amy Lerman
In the last book of A Farewell to Arms, when
the pregnant Catherine Barkley is having painful contractions, Frederic Henry, the
narrator and protagonist of the novel, reminds his "wife" that she is "a
brave good girl" (FTA 313). A day later, after undergoing a caesarian section and
giving birth to a stillborn baby boy, Catherine proves just how brave she is; though she
knows she is dying, she still has the dignity and strength to accept such a fate. In fact,
she finds herself in the (unfair) position of trying to comfort her distraught lover. With
death approaching, Catherine's candor is remarkable since her final words to Frederic
suggest she possesses some sense or understanding of her own mortality and of what is soon
to come: "I'm not a bit afraid. It's just a dirty trick" (FTA 331). The
"it" Catherine refers to is presumably death, but, in fact, the indefinite may
be referring to life, a process Catherine views as a "rotten game" (FTA 31),
since so much about it is left to chance and death is always the end. Such an insight
advanced by Catherine is not at all unusual, for, from the time she and Frederic first
fall into love and up until the time of her death, Catherine repeatedly reveals her
inherent heroic qualities, especially in the way she reflects the Hemingway "code
hero" criterion of "grace under pressure."
Yet critics have repeatedly misunderstood Catherine since the time of the novel's
publication some seventy years ago. Those engaging in distinctly feminist analyses over
the past twenty-five years have been particularly harsh on Hemingway's characterization of
Catherine, viewing it as patronizing and shallow. In her response to the phallocentric
canon of American literature and the corresponding way that women have been conditioned to
read it, Judith Fetterley, in The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American
Fiction (1977), accuses Catherine of suffering from "compulsive apologizing"
(70) and faults her for submissively "tak[ing] upon herself the burdens of Frederic's
sins and [for dying] for him" (47). Millicent Bell is no less biting in her article
"Pseudoautobiography and Personal Metaphor" (1984), where she calls Catherine
"a sort of inflated rubber woman available at will to the onanistic dreamer"
(150). And Mimi Reisel Gladstein, in The Indestructible Woman in Faulkner, Hemingway,
and Steinbeck (1986), furthers the anti-Catherine argument by insisting that Catherine
is "definitely other, object not subject. She is reduced to playing the role of
functionary in man's fulfillment" (50).
Moreover, in those few defenses of Catherine where critics actually praise Hemingway's
insight and sensitivity in his female characterization, she still cannot completely escape
tough critical scrutiny and thus remains misconstrued. Biographer Kenneth Lynn
acknowledges Catherine's beauty, yet he also mentions that she possesses a "jittery,
neurotic manner" (386). In "A Farewell to Arms": The War of the
Words (1992), Robert W. Lewis, who credits Catherine for her insight and heroic
nature, nevertheless feels that she is, in a way, a "one-dimensional pasteboard
figure" (69). Nancy R. Comley and Robert Scholes round out the attack on Catherine's
character in Hemingway's Genders: Rereading the Hemingway Text (1994). Although
their study is aimed at assessing Hemingway's female characters for their complexity and
strength, they still include the following statement: "Catherine willingly abdicates
from what little self she has to give herself over to [Frederic's] desires" (39).
Catherine does sacrifice on behalf of her "husband"; however, Comley and
Scholes's critique may cause readers to misinterpret Catherine Barkley because it does not
make a very important distinction about Catherine's character. Catherine does not have a
"little self" because she is shallow and weak, but because she is a selfless
individual who recognizes that others--like Frederic Henry--need more of her than she
needs of herself.
But Catherine should not be reduced to such simplifications, for she is indeed a
complicated character. She does have purpose in and of herself; she does have a strong
sense of who she is; she does have a presence as significant as her lover's; she does have
a sensual appreciation of life; and, most of all, she understands "it,"
"the code," the entire "rotten game" (FTA 31). As Sandra Whipple
Spanier notes in "Catherine Barkley and The Hemingway Code: Ritual and Survival in A
Farewell to Arms" (1987), "the code demands a lust for life and a cheerful
disregard of doom" (136). This is what Catherine exhibits and this is who she is.
Hence, Catherine seems to embody yet simultaneously defy Philip Young's idea of the
"code hero." According to Young, such a character is a man who is usually but
not always associated with Hemingway himself in some way; who is skilled; who does not
think or talk about "it," regardless of what "it" might be; and who
takes great pleasure in life, in the forms of food, alcohol, and sex. For Young, he who
possesses the code knows--the controls of honor and courage which in a life of tension and
pain make a man a man and distinguish him from the people who follow random impulses, let
down their hair, and are generally messy, perhaps cowardly, and without inviolable rules
for how to live holding tight (63).
Why Young has limited his definition only to include women is puzzling. Certainly, with
her experience and maturity, Catherine is closer to being the "code hero" than
Frederic Henry is. He may be the apprentice, learning to deal with "it," but he
has not yet graduated to this stage of gallantry. If anyone understands the code in A
Farewell to Arms, it is Catherine Barkley.
One might wonder if the mystique surrounding Catherine Barkley emanates from the verity
that she was based on real people whom Hemingway knew and loved. Hemingway never denied
that Catherine was the fictional counterpart of two distinct women whom he loved, namely
Agnes von Kurowsky and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. (Some critics contend that
Catherine also resembles Hemingway's mother, Grace Hall. According to Mimi Reisel
Gladstein, all of Hemingway's female "characters" are amalgamations of Grace,
Agnes, and Hadley: they "are projections of his responses to the three main women in
his life during the years when his understanding of the female sex was being formed"
(58). In addition, many readers are quick to mention how Catherine's caesarian delivery in
the novel is analogous to Hemingway's second wife's (Pauline) with son Gregory in 1931;
however, Hemingway's son, unlike Catherine and Frederic's, did survive.
Since she was a Red Cross nurse who worked in an American hospital during World War I,
von Kurowsky more closely corresponds to Catherine--because she too holds the same
position--than did Hemingway's eventual wife, though there is noticeable evidence of
Hadley in Catherine's characterization and experiences. (For example, Hadley and Ernest
spent time in the same Swiss locations that Catherine and Frederic do.) Like the fictional
Lieutenant Henry, Hemingway incurred "profound wounds to the left and right thigh and
left and right knee and right foot" (FTA 59) while working on the Italian front, and
von Kurowksy tended to him at Ospedale Crose Rossa Americana in Milan. There grew a
gradual attraction between them, and the two did become close, though they eventually
separatedshe volunteered to work at a hospital in Florence while he remained in
Milan. Later, after he had returned to the States, she sent him a "Dear John"
letter, and Hemingway was crushed: "he was in a black rage over her perfidious
conduct . . . [and] hoped she would stumble . . .and knock out all her front teeth"
(Baker 59) when her boat docked in New York on her later return trip to America. Without a
doubt, Hemingway molded Catherine Barkley on Agnes von Kurowsky, though the fictional
scenario ended far "better" than his own affair did.
Because A Farewell to Arms is what reviewer Perry Hutchinson called in the
September 29, 1929, issue of The New York Times a "war novel" (5),
complete with a narrator who serves as the commander of a group of ambulance drivers on
the Italian front, readers and reviewers have regularly interpreted the novel to be
Lieutenant Henry's story. Such a reading is understandable, since the structure of the
novel is retrospectivethe narrative begins after Frederic has deserted his wartime
post, and after Catherine and their baby have died--so the story is Frederic's, since it
is told from his subjective vantage point. But, as he editorializes during the telling of
his experiences, he reveals how drastically his life has changed as a result of meeting
and falling in love with "the lovely girl" (FTA 99) and, in turn, does not
provide an autobiography, but rather reports the story of Catherine Barkley, a committed
nurse, a loyal and loving wife, and a strong and confident woman.
James Nagel, in his article "Catherine Barkley and Retrospective Narration"
(1987), elaborates on Frederic's instinctively eulogistic narrative: "Catherine
Barkley exists in the novel only in the memory of Frederic Henry, only in the reflections
of a man who came to love her, who lost her, and who grieves and assesses his behavior a
decade after she has died" (162). Catherine affects Frederic so deeply that his sense
of self, his very identity, is the product of her handiwork. In fact, William P. Spofford,
in his article "Beyond the Feminist Perspective: Love in A Farewell to Arms,"
a quasi-supporter of feminists and their reactions to Hemingway's fiction, argues that
power and control are not issues in Catherine and Frederic's relationship, primarily
because the two characters are equally needy of one another: " . . . just as
Catherine's identity is totally dependent on Frederic, Frederic's identity is totally
dependent on Catherine. The mutual love of Frederic and Catherine degrades neither;
rather, it elevates both together" (308).
Spofford recognizes how critical Catherine is to Frederic's development. Yet one could
expand upon Spofford's argument, noting, for instance, how Catherine---unlike
Frederic--already knows who she is. As she and Frederic immerse themselves in their
newfound romance, she declares to her lover, "There isn't any me anymore. Just what
you want" (FTA 106). Catherine has loved before, so she knows when she's experiencing
the same kind of emotion(s) again. Here she is not surrendering herself to Frederic but
giving Frederic the opportunity to explore and to feel their love, emotions and feelings
with which she is already familiar. Thus, it seems as though Hemingway has posited
Catherine--not Frederic as many critics have claimed over the years--in the role of
"code hero" in this novel; ultimately, Frederic proves to be the passive
recipient of her knowledge and experience, for when she dies, "everything [is] gone
inside of him" (FTA 330).
Occasionally some critics have recognized the importance of Catherine to Frederic and
to the novel, but many remain skeptical because the motivations prompting Catherine's
behavior can be difficult to decipher; her words and actions often seem erratic. When
Frederic and Catherine first become involved, for instance, Catherine responds to
Frederic's attempt to kiss her by slapping him, yet only moments later she tells him,
"You are a dear. I'd be glad to kiss you if you don't mind" (FTA 27). The
superficial reader might assume that Catherine is either being a tease, or that she is a
little crazy, or possibly, that she is a little of both.
However, Hemingway justifies Catherine's actions by including crucial exposition,
namely, concerning the detail of her fiancee's recent death while away at war, and by
intimating that Catherine is somewhat reluctant to become romantically involved with
another man. Nancy R. Comley and Robert Scholes suggest that Catherine succumbs to
Frederic's advances because she "uses him as a substitute for the dead man"
(26). This is debatable, for, if she is indeed "using" Frederic, is she
conscious of being so manipulative? Comley and Scholes never say. But, in their chapter,
"Mothers, Nurses, Bitches, Girls, and Devils," they do suggest that too many
episodes between the two principal characters in the novel are misinterpreted, and
consequently, Catherine, they argue, appalls many (feminist) readers because she is
seemingly so compliant towards Frederic and their relationship. Catherine does not
sacrifice or abdicate herself to her lover, however, but acts the part she thinks will
help to strengthen the bond they share:
[Readers] might . . . see Catherine not as erasing herself so much as assuming a role
in a game of sex and love that allows her to transfer her affections to a man other than
her dead fiancee. She assumes the role of whore as means of escaping profoundly
restrictive cultural codes . . . [and] switching back to her role as nurse, she becomes
the ministering angel. (37-38)
Comley and Scholes are right to recognize Catherine's role-playing, though Catherine
never seems fully accepting of her role as "whore." In their hotel room,
Frederic tells Catherine she is not a whore, and her response to him is, "I know it,
darling. But it isn't nice to feel like one" (FTA 152): she wants to be more to her
lover than a sexual commodity in spite of the fact that she engages in sexual relations
with Frederic before they ever marry. I contend that there is something even more crucial
about Catherine's behavior than her various impersonations; not only can she transform
herself at whim, but her ability to do so suggests she--not Frederic, the man--possesses
the power in their relationship. Inexperienced in love and life, Frederic must follow
Catherine's lead, for she knows when to be naughty or nice and directs Frederic
appropriately. Catherine reminds Frederic that they must be cautious during their nights
in the hospital: "We have to be awfully careful. You'll have to be careful in front
of other people" (FTA 92). Later in the novel, after Frederic has deserted his post
but does not want to think about the possibility that the Italian police could come after
him, Catherine reminds him, "Darling, you're liable to be arrested here any time. I
won't have it" (FTA 251). And in her final moments of love, Catherine tells Frederic
not to touch her because she knows she is dying, and she is trying--in her brave and true
way--to distance herself so Frederic might be spared some pain. Each time Catherine
"instructs" Frederic, he heeds her advice willingly.
I contend that Catherine's erratic behavior actually contributes to the possibility of
her being "code heroic" since it indicates that she understands what Frederic
does not, namely, that everyone makes choices. In one key scene, Frederic takes
Catherine's hand, "put[s] [his] arm under her arm, and then, in spite of her
protests, tries to get even more intimate: he "[leans] forward in the dark to kiss
her" (FTA 26). She responds by slapping "a sharp stinging flash" across his
face, for she "just couldn't stand the nurse's-evening-off aspect of it" (FTA
26), and she does not want to be treated or viewed as perhaps another of his
"whores." Not only is she concerned about her identity, but Catherine
understands that there are consequences to actions; just as Frederic should be prepared to
be slapped by Catherine since he has chosen to place his arm on hers against her wishes,
Catherine should likewise expect "to have a strange life" (FTA 27) since she
decides to "be" with Frederic.
Thus Catherine shares this sense of understanding with the priest, a man Frederic very
much admires and cryptically describes: "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" (FTA 14). The priest, for instance, foresees the
inevitabilities of Frederic Henry's life. When he visits Frederic after Frederic has been
wounded, the priest feels "very low" (FTA 70), for the ravages of war are
beginning to take their toll on his hopeful heart. The priest asks Frederic if he loves
God, and Frederic claims that he does not "love much" (FTA 72); still, the
priest reassures him that someday he will experience and understand love: "You will.
I know you will. Then you will be happy" (FTA 72). And indeed, his prediction proves
true, for Frederic falls so deeply in love with Catherine that at the end of the novel,
when she seriously hemorrhages, Frederic, knowing Catherine might die, thinks to himself,
"Everything was gone inside of me" (FTA 330). Both Catherine and the priest know
enough not to talk about this "it," and thus they both possess code-heroic
Not only do Catherine and the priest better understand the essence of life than
Frederic, but so does his close friend Rinaldi. A jovial man who enjoys a good drink,
Rinaldi also possesses great insight. When his conversation gets too philosophical for
Frederic's tastes, Rinaldi humors Frederic in telling him, "You puncture me when I
become a great Italian thinker. But I know many things I can't say. I know more than
you" (FTA 170). He continues to pontificate further, the exemplar to Frederic's
apprentice: "We never get anything. We are born with all we have and we never learn.
We never get anything new. We all start complete" (FTA 171). Rinaldi understands the
"it" of life--that is to say, the key to good living--and he, like the priest
and Catherine, tries to share this knowledge with Frederic, though Frederic's
comprehension develops slowly, if at all.
While Catherine knows all along that the power of choice determines what people do and
experience, Frederic's realization of such an important truth is belated. Nevertheless, as
Judith Fetterley has aptly noted in The Resisting Reader (1977), "Catherine
has always made the critics uneasy" (66). Oftentimes, they have alleged that
Catherine is deliberately vacuous and flat so she can act as Frederic's attendant, or if
they have defended her, typically it has been in limited ways. Even Frederic, who surmises
about the nature of war and its victims, is oblivious to how poignantly his words apply to
his own wife's exceptional sense of knowledge and courage: "If people bring so
much courage to this world the world has to kill them. The world breaks every one and
afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that it will not break it kills.
It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially" (FTA 249).
The fact that Catherine Barkley confuses and eludes many of her readers is a testimony to
the author's talent for creating a complicated and courageous female character; critical
uncertainty (in this case) translates into kudos for Hemingway.
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Bell, Millicent. "Pseudoautobiography and Personal Metaphor." Critical
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York: Hall, 1994. 145-60.
Comley, Nancy R., and Robert Scholes. Hemingway's Genders: Rereading the Hemingway
Text. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994.
Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction.
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