A Farewell To Arms Frederic Henry Analysis Essay
Frederic Henry runs the show, and the past, in A Farewell to Arms. And he does it from the future his future, anyway. The good news is, Frederic doesnt need a fancy time machine to go back in the past. He uses the oldest trick in the book: the first-person, past tense narrator. When you see a first-person, past tense narrator, you can usually count on two things:
- The narrator is remembering important things from his or her past. In this case, the narrator is remembering his tragic love affair with Catherine, and the tragic events he witnessed and experienced in World War I.
- The narrator wants to communicate and even confess these memories to.Who? Well, unless the narrator is addressing a specific character in the novel, which is not the case here, anyone who will listen, meaning, by default, the readers. And, as we promise to make clear in the "Ants on a Log" section of this analysis, he wants to confess because he seems to feel responsible for the tragic ends met by those he loved.
Whats the difference? They are the same person, after all. Everything that happens to the character has happened to the narrator, too, right? Good thinking! Thats true, and important to keep in mind. And that also gets at the crucial difference between the two: Frederic the narrator is remembering the events and knows everything that will happen, from beginning to end.
On the other hand, Frederic the character is living the action, and he doesnt know how it will end. Hes as much at the mercy of Frederic the narrator as the rest of the characters. So, whether or not we trust the narrator, and his motives for telling the story, determines how much we believe we are getting the real scoop on Frederic the character. So, before we dig in to Frederic the character, lets put Frederic the narrator through a reliability test.
Frederic the Narrator and the Reliability Test
Pretend for a moment that you want hang out with Frederic, and you have to convince your parental figure or figures that they dont have to worry. You start with the basic facts: his name, address, phone number, age, occupation, income level, marital status, etc Were sorry, but you should probably plan on spending a quiet evening at home in your room, because you just dont have this information. You can tell them his name (so long as youve read to Book Two, that is), but not much else. In fact, you cant even provide a physical description. (Did you meet this guy on the Internet, or what?). The narrator never reveals his age, his current occupation, his whereabouts, marital status, or any of the other stuff that parental figures want to know. He doesnt even tell us how much time has passed since the events hes narrating have occurred.
So, to escape the room, and get to know Frederic better, youll have to do some fancy talking and explain that Ernest Hemingways "theory of omission" (see our "Style" discussion for tips on explaining) is at work here, and that the narrator is reliable precisely because he doesnt give us current information about himself. As we discuss in "Sex," and "Whats Up With the Ending," sometimes material is omitted because it is private, or even "sacred."
But thats not whats happening here. Think back to what we discuss at the beginning of this analysis memory and confession. If someone was going to memorialize you, would you want them to be all "me, me, me," about it? Probably not. And if you were going to confess, wouldnt it be tedious and beside the point to talk about what youre doing now? In this case, Frederics omission of his current story adds to his reliability as a narrator, and focuses our attention on Frederic the character. As such, weve only looked at the tip of the reliability iceberg.
The good news is, you have your play date, youve established a preliminary trust of the narrator, and now youre ready to conduct a reliability test of your own, on Frederic the character. Its paradoxical. Because there are two of them, we are constantly questioning and weighing Frederic the narrator against Frederic the character. If either of them seriously lets us down, they both fail. So lets go meet Frederic the character!
Frederic the Character
Before we go any further, we have to talk about Frederic the characters age. The rotten narrator doesnt give it to us. It just never comes up. The people hes interacting with have a basic idea of how old he is from looking at him and talking to him, and the narrator either doesnt remember it being discussed, thought about, or doesnt think its important to mention. Its not necessary to our understanding of the narrative.
Still, some people get hung up on wondering about it so we want to present you with the commonly accepted answer: Hes under thirty, and probably under twenty-five. Hes a student, a possible fictional of version of Hemingway in Italy when he was under twenty, and people are always calling him "baby" and "good boy." Youll have to look hard to find real evidence that hes over thirty. But enough of that lets get back to our reliability test. What do we know about Frederic?
Frederic is a good friend to his friends (he will risk his life to feed them), a sweet boyfriend to Catherine (they never fight, hes never mean to her). Hes a valiant and brave ambulance driver, risking his life to care for soldiers wounded in World War I. Also, he was studying to be an architect when the war broke out, and put his studies on hold to make a difference to the suffering soldiers. Hes always reading the paper, and knows whats going on in the world. Hes willing to listen and chat with anyone. But thats not all.
Occasionally, hes a liar. (He tells Catherine he loves her before he really does. He tells the doctor hes killed enemies in battle when he hasnt.) He consumes alcohol constantly (open the novel at random and youll probably find evidence). Before Catherine, he slept with prostitutes, and even got gonorrhea. And he killed that Italian sergeant. Sure he was provoked, but it goes against his whole deal (hes supposed to be caring for the wounded, not doing the wounding). Oh, yes, and hes a deserter from the army, and perhaps even a fugitive. Wow, what a mass of contradictions!
When we look at how multifaceted Frederic is, it becomes obvious why almost everyone he meets likes him (think of all the friendly conversations he has) and why his friends love him (think of Rinaldi and the priest bringing him presents). They like him because they can find some shared experience with him "bad" or "good." And this is good news for our reliability test. If we were hearing only about "good" Frederic the character or "bad" Frederic the character, then we would have to suspect that the narrator isnt giving us the straight dope, and wed have to kick em both to the curb. Instead, we can get past the surface of the two Frederics and into something deeper.
Ants on a Log and the Failed Messiah
So, we said in the beginning of this analysis that Frederic is both memorializing the dead by telling us their story, and confessing something, including a feeling that hes responsible for the deaths in the novel. That first one is pretty straight forward and obvious, but what did Frederic the character do that was so bad, and why on earth would he think hes responsible for the deaths in the novel?
Well, he might be feeling guilty about deserting the army. He even calls himself a "criminal" when he finds Catherine. And hes probably feeling pretty bad about killing the sergeant. The sergeant was everything Frederic was against. He abused his power by stealing from houses abandoned during the retreat (remember the lamp Frederic makes him return), and he wouldnt help them try to free the ambulance from the mud. That doesnt sound too horrible, but if he is was acting like that during the retreat, he was probably abusing his power even more in his role as sergeant during other parts of the war. All of this must have brought out Frederics anger. And, as we know from what Frederic tells the X-ray doctor in Milan, he was the first, and probably the only person Frederic ever killed.
In some ways, at that moment, Frederic became every thing hes been fighting against during the war. He becomes the one who kills and wounds, instead of the one who saves people from death and helps the wounded heal. The act of telling about it is the act of confession, confession that he became, for that instant, "those who would make war," instead of "those who would not make war."
Hes also confessing about Catherine. As weve said, he was nice to her, and didnt fight with her. He also helped her stay comfy and well cared for during her pregnancy, and there is no indication that she was anything but totally pleased with him. But, since shes dead, hes going to think of how he could have done better, been better to her.
A few moments come to mind. First, when he and Catherine first meet, he thinks its a game. She fell in love with him, at first sight it seems, but he was just lying to her about his love (as the narrator confesses to the readers), and she knew it. She even tells him, "You dont have to pretend you love me.  lets not lie when we dont have to" (, 46). And then, when he gets drunk (see "Bacchus" under "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory") and stands her up, Frederic the narrator says, "I had treated Catherine very lightly" (). When you love someone, and that someone dies, you are going to feel guilty about treating that person lightly.
One last example before we move on. When Frederic is moved to the hospital in Milan and Catherine comes to be with him, he does start to love her, no doubt about that. But, as Helen Ferguson has to point out to him, he lies in bed all day, and then has Catherine all night, but Catherine has to work in the day and the night so she can be with him, making her tired. Frederic the narrator confesses that Frederic the character treated Catherine "lightly" again, even after hed fallen in love with her. Again, because she is dead, this seems like a really big deal to Frederic. Picking out moments where he let her down makes her death that much more tragic for him.
Theres another thing that Frederic is confessing. As we see in the "Character Analysis" for the Baby, Frederic indicates, both in the dream sequence and in the scenes at the hospital, that hes downright resentful of the baby. We can understand that he might think that Catherine would still be alive if the baby hadnt magically appeared in her belly. But he expresses the resentment he feels before Catherine dies. Or does he? When we remember this is a past-tense narrative, we can suspect that at least some of the resentment is being inserted much later, during the telling of the story.
Either way, we can understand why Frederic wants to confess it. Being resentful of a dead baby is pretty bad, at least in his mind. And it also, oddly enough, contributes to the reliability of the character and the narrator. We may not like that Frederic is and/or was resentful of the kid, but he has no reason to lie about something like that. As weve noted, when he tells us something that could be interpreted as shameful, it helps us believe the other things he tells us.
Now, heres the tricky part. We said that Frederic is confessing because he feels responsible for the death of Catherine, the baby, and even the deaths of the soldiers in the war. How do we know this? From an odd passage at the end of the novel, thats how. After Frederic tells us about the babys death, he tells us about being "in camp," and placing a log on the campfire only to discover it was full of ants:
Some [ants] got out, their bodies burnt and flattened, and went off not knowing where they were going. But most of them went toward the fire and  finally fell off into the fire. I remember thinking at the time that it was the end of the world and a splendid chance to be the messiah and lift the log off the fire and throw it out where the ants could get off . But I did not do anything but throw a tin cup of water on the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whiskey in ().
Now, it all comes clear. Weve already seen that Frederic tries to be all things to all people. He wants to be the messiah, he wants to save the world, but something stands in his way. Though we dont hear much on how Frederic feels about his drinking, this passage suggests that he feels that it actually stands in the way of saving the ants (or soldiers) that are blindingly going into the fire (or the war). This also ties into his possible guilt over deserting from the army. He must feel he deserted the ants (or soldiers) he was supposed to save. We know he did all he could, but if you are the guy trying to save the world, and you fail, you will always think you could have done more.
The passage also suggests that he thought or thinks he could have done something to save the baby (a little ant) from the "fire," if you will, of death, but didnt. Again, we know he could do nothing to prevent it, but if he thinks hes the failed messiah, of course he will blame himself. So what does he do? He goes and drinks six beers, comes back to Catherine, and then she dies. If we apply what weve learned so far from the passage, he must feel like he drank beer instead of doing something to save Catherine. He is the failed messiah. He wanted to take on the burden of all of humanity, but he just didnt have the stuff, and possibly let his drinking stand in the way of saving the world. Frederic sure is hard on himself.
So, look how far reliability testing has taken us! Now what do you think of Frederic the narrator, and Frederic the character?
A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway
The following entry presents criticism on Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (). See also, Ernest Hemingway Criticism.
A giant in the field of American literary modernism, Ernest Hemingway has long been called an important spokesman for the “lost generation” of disillusioned, war-wounded young Americans after the First World War. His novel A Farewell to Arms, a tragic love story about an American ambulance lieutenant and an English nurse, was based on Hemingway's own experiences on the Italian front. In the novel, Hemingway uses his characteristic unadorned prose, clipped dialogue, and understatement to convey an essentially cynical view of the world. Critics were at first skittish about Hemingway's linguistic and sexual frankness but soon began to regard him as a pioneer in establishing a writing style that came to dominate realistic writing for many decades. Although feminist critics have denigrated Hemingway's alleged male bias, and others have found the love story unsatisfying, A Farewell to Arms remains a powerful statement about the effects of the horrors of war on ordinary people.
Plot and Major Characters
A Farewell to Arms is autobiographical in that Hemingway himself was with the Red Cross ambulance corps in Italy and also had a romance with a nurse after he was wounded by shrapnel. His protagonist, Frederic Henry, is a young American who joins the Italian ambulance corps, only to be wounded and sent to a hospital in Milan. He soon falls in love with his English nurse, Catherine Barkley, who then spends a happy summer with him in the country while he recuperates. In the fall, Catherine reveals that she is pregnant but refuses to marry Frederic, fearing that she will be sent back to England and asserting that the two are “married” in all but a legal way. A depressing scene ensues, with Frederic back at the front commiserating with his despondent comrade Rinaldi. With him he shares the further disappointment of the retreat from Caporetto. Discouraged and disillusioned, Frederic deserts, finding his way back to Stresa, to which Catherine has been transferred. Although in civilian clothes, Frederic fears detection, and he and Catherine flee to Lausanne to await the birth of their child. After a traumatic childbirth scene, both Catherine and the child die. Frederic walks away alone in the rain, chastened by his experiences and feeling alone in the universe.
An overarching theme in A Farewell to Arms is the hopelessness of war and the futility of searching for meaning in a wartime setting. Further, Hemingway suggests that the only true values people can cling to are in individual human relationships, not in abstract ideas of patriotism or service. A Farewell to Arms is above all a story of the development of Frederic Henry, who begins as a rather rootless character who does not really know why he joined the war effort. His own wound, however, teaches him to value life and prepares him to enter into a love relationship with Catherine. When Frederic makes his “separate peace” by deserting, he begins to take responsibility for his own actions. By the end of the novel, with love and hope seemingly dead, he has come to an understanding that one must be engaged in life, despite the vicissitudes of an indifferent universe.
Early critics of the novel emphasized its realistic picture of war and disagreed over the effectiveness of Hemingway's laconic literary style. A number of critics were squeamish about the frank language and sexual situations Hemingway presented. A Farewell to Arms was in fact banned in Boston in its first serialization in Scribner's Magazine. By the s, however, proponents of the New Criticism had begun to do closer textual studies of A Farewell to Arms, finding it rich in language, symbolism, and irony. Other critics praised Hemingway's narrative structure and explored themes such as the conflict between abstract ideas (like honor and service) and concrete experience with love and death.
The s and early s saw a new flurry of Hemingway scholarship after his papers and manuscripts were opened to the public at the John F. Kennedy Library, allowing insight into Hemingway's processes of composition. In the early s, feminist critics began to lambast Hemingway for his treatment of the character of Catherine, whom they saw as little more than a projection of male needs and desires. Her relative lack of development, compared with Frederic's evolution as a character, was called a weakness in the novel. In answer to feminist critics, others argued that one should not judge the novel from a particular ideological framework. In the s and s, criticism shifted back to close analyses of the text itself and explorations of the ways in which Hemingway's life and the culture in which he lived influenced the novel. Reader-response critics sought to infer what Hemingway expected from readers, psychoanalytic critics delved into the character of Frederic, and deconstructionists noted subtle uses of language, which often masked deep meanings not at first evident.