Ernest Hemingway’s Portrayal of Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms

Ernest Hemingway’s portrayal of Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms is one of the triumphs in the sphere of characterization. Henry is made to live truly and we get the feeling that we have really met the man. He is drawn not only from external traits but also from the inside domain of his personality. In other words, his inner nature, the working of his mind, his thoughts and ruminations, the negative and positive aspects of his personality, his reactions to people and things—these are skillfully analyses. What Hemingway gives us is a realistic and convincing hero.  

 At the very beginning of the novel we become acquainted with some of the basic facts of Henry’s life and character. We learn that he is rootless, that he has a stepmother somewhere in America, that he has quarreled so much with the family that hardly he had any communication with them. He manner he spends his life shows his complete lack of purpose. He was a disinterested student of architecture. Frederic is an American serving the Italian army as an ambulance driver. The war and his involvements in it are as unreal experience to him as anything else in his meaningless and unconnected life. He is a non combatant and is more of a spectator than a participant in the war. Speaking of the war, he says: “it did not have anything to do with me. It seemed no more dangerous to me myself than war in the movies.”

Frederic Henry's story reveals his education by various 'tutors': the priest, Rinaldi, Catherine, the mechanics, and the war. Each try to impress upon Frederic a different lesson but he merely reacts to each. For example, the priest tries to persuade Frederic onto a moral and Christian path. In doing so, he extends an invitation to Frederic to visit his family. Frederic accepts, but instead chooses the more typical adventures of an officer on leave—he goes drinking and visits the brothels. He tries to explain his decision to the priest, saying, 'we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things.' Ultimately, Frederic must learn from his experiences and, thus, his education is self-instructed. That is, from his beginning as a rootless boy, he gains such experience that even in his position as reactor; he must react to his own collection of experience. It is this that he must finally face in Catherine's death and which leads him to write it out, like an essay in answer to a test question. It is from this position that his retrospective narration is told.

The central emptiness of his character is emphasized as it is already hinted through the views of Rinaldi and the priest. Rinaldi tells Henry, “.. And you are just like me underneath. You are really an Italian. All fire and smoke and nothing inside.”  The priest tells him that he does not love god and that he does not love a woman either.—“what you tell me about in the nights. That is not love. That is only passion and lust.”

Again throughout the novel Frederic maintains his curious outsider status. He is an American who volunteered. 'It did not have anything to do with me. It seemed no more dangerous to me myself than war in the movies,' he says early in Chapter VII. Thus, as a foreigner, he finds it possible to observe the Italians without direct involvement, but then he is wounded. He is part of it as much as an ambulance driver is a part of any war. This position, as well as his forced reaction to his various tutors, leads Frederic into his separate relation with the world and this, in turn, affords him the ability to make a separate peace with the war and withdraw his involvement. Still, though he decides this is a possibility for him, there remains the fact that Henry is a reactor to events. That is, in the key moment that ends his belonging in the Italian army, he is merely risking his life to avoid summary execution. He decides, in his first bold move of the book, to jump into the river rather than face the stupidity of the guards.

Henry has rejected social responsibility and social concern. He is leading a private life as an isolated individual. He even avoids personal relations of any depth or intimacy. Though he is perfectly informal with Rinaldi and though there is some kind of affinity him and the priest, yet he keeps his contacts with more or less on superficial level. He leads a routine life attending to his duties completely but showing no fervour or enthusiasm.

 Actually, there is an intimacy beneath the indifference which Henry affects. He strives not to feel but an indifference maintained in the face of strong underlying emotion can not last and so in his case it breaks down when he meets Catherine Barkley but not at once. At first he merely flirts with her, thinking her an easy prey to his lust and he plays a game with her, a game like bridge. He falls truly in love with Catherine and wonders at this developments: “god knows I had not wanted to fall in love with her. I had not wanted to fall in love with anybody.” From now Catherine becomes the centre of his emotional attachments.

Henry’s desertion from the Italian army is very significant. He has tried his best to take the ambulance cars to the base but has failed; he has shot a sergeant; and he is confronted with Italian military force. Feeling certain that he will be executed on charge of being a German in Italian uniform, he takes a shift decision and plunges into the river Tagliamento. He is out of war. We get another peep into his character when he thus reflects upon his present condition: “I was not made to think. I was made to eat. My gods, yes, eat and drink and sleep with Catherine.”

Henry returns to Catherine, but not to the society or to the world he had rejected. His escape to Switzerland confirms our impression that Henry is not only a reflective man but a man of action. After a period of idyllic life at a mountain villa, Henry is confronted with the greatest ordeal of his life: Catherine’s prolonged and painful childbirth which ends in her death. The Hemingway hero generally faces defeat and death but he endures these like a man with courage and fortitude. Henry finds himself saying good bye to a statue. That is all that left to him of his gamble with love. Death is the end of everything. The initiation of Henry comes gradually. He learns about war, love and finally death. Catherine’s death is the final initiation.

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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

"Dear Readers/ Students, I am a huge fan of books, English Grammar & Literature. I write this blog to instill that passion in you." 

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