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Beyond the "Sex Kitten" Stigma: Catherine Barkley as "Code Hero"

-- 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 separated—she 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 retrospective—the 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 traits.

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.

Amy Lerman
Kishwaukee College


Works Cited

Baker, Carlos. Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Collier, 1969.

Bell, Millicent. "Pseudoautobiography and Personal Metaphor." Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms." Ed. George Monteiro. New 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. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.

Gladstein, Mimi Reisel. The Indestructible Woman in Faulkner, Hemingway and Steinbeck. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1986.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribner's, 1929.

Hutchison, Pery. "Love and War in the Pages of Mr. Hemingway." Rev. of A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. The New York Times 29 Sept. 1929: 5.

Lewis, Robert W. "A Farewell to Arms": The War of the Words. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Lynn, Kenneth. Hemingway. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1987.

Nagel, James. "Catherine Barkley and Retrospective Narration." Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms." Ed. George Monteiro. New York: Hall, 1994. 161-74.

Spannier, Sandra Whipple. "Catherine Barkley and the Hemingway Code: Ritual and Survival in A Farewell to Arms." Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 131-48.

Spofford, William K. "Beyond the Feminist Perspective: Love in A Farewell to Arms." Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual 1978. Eds. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Richard Layman. Detroit: Gale Research, 1979. 307-12.

Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. Rev. ed. New York: Harcourt, 1966.