Self-Absorption in A Farewell to Arms Catherine Barkley and Frederick Henry, the main characters in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms are two of the most self-absorbed characters I have ever come across. Frederick Henry thinks only of what he wants while Catherine worries only about what Frederick thinks and wants. They are constantly thinking only about themselves, which is why I believe that it was a good thing that the baby died. They are too absorbed in themselves to think of anyone else. Shortly after meeting Catherine, Frederick attempts to get her into bed. By complimenting her hair, admitting that she had every right to slap him, and holding her hand, he uses these words and actions to get a kiss, the first step towards his goal. He does not stop to think that she might still be grieving for her lost boy and so he should take it slowly. Instead, he plunges right into trying to get her into bed without thinking about how she might feel. When he is hurt and in the hospital, he demands that the nurses pay attention to him although they are not ready for an injured soldier. He gets upset because they do not want to do anything without the doctor’s permission. They were trying to do their job and he just made it more difficult for them. He also did not notice that Catherine was getting tired from working so much. All he saw was that they got to spend time together and so did not think that she might be wearing herself down. It was only with a lot of convincing that he finally saw that she needed some time off. Catherine did not even realize herself that she was getting worn down because of how absorbed she was in Frederick. She put his needs and desires before her own and believed that if she did and said what he wanted, then he will love and stay with her. “I’ll do what you want and say what you want and then I’ll be a great success, won’t I?” (Hemingway, 105). When she finally tells him that she is pregnant, she is more concerned about how he will take the news than how it will affect her. “It doesn’t worry me but I’m afraid to worry you.” (137). Once she begins to show, she does not want him to look at her because she is ashamed of how she looks. “She was beginning to be a little big with the child and she did not want me to see her.” (266). She also refused to get married because she was pregnant and fat. “I’ll marry you as soon as I’m thin again.” (294). This desire to stay good looking for Frederick is shown many times throughout the book. Back in those days, it was said that having alcoholic drinks would keep the child small. This was supposed to be good for women with small hips, but Catherine, who hardly drank before she became pregnant seems to drink more than is necessary while pregnant. “The doctor says beer will be good for me and keep her small.” (291). She used this excuse often throughout the rest of the book, “The doctor said I was rather narrow in the hips and it’s all for the best if we keep young Catherine small.” (294). Although she drinks more beer than is probably necessary, she is very hesitant about eating food because it will make her fat. “Could I eat a chocolate bar? Or is it too close to lunch? I’m always hungry.” (297). This shows how much more concerned she is about her appearance than about her child’s health. Being concerned for the unborn child and to be prepared are two of the most important things that parents make sure to do before the child is supposed to come. Yet Catherine realizes almost too late that they did not have any baby items, nor did she know what she needed. “There aren’t many people reach my time without baby things. … That’s what I’ll do to-morrow. I’ll find out what is necessary.” (308). It is ridiculous that she has already planned what she is going to do with herself after the baby is born, but hardly thinks about what to do for the child. “…after she’s born and I’m thin again I’m going to cut it [her hair] and then I’ll be a fine new and different girl for you.” (304). Even while giving birth, she is more concerned with not being any trouble and doing her “job” as a woman by having the child quickly and easily than about the child’s health. “I so want to be a good wife and have this child without any foolishness.” (315). She assumed that the child was in good health although she did not see him after the Cesarean. Most mothers would have demanded to see their child immediately after returning to their room. She did not think to ask. “It makes trouble and is born and then you look after it and get fond of it maybe.” (321). This statement by Frederick summarizes how both he and Catherine feel about the child. They loved each other very much, but they did not want to include anyone else in that love. Catherine was more concerned with being a good wife than being a good mother. Frederick just did not seem to think of anything that was not Catherine or himself. They did not think much about the child before it was born and said things like “She won’t come between us, will she? The little brat.” “No. We won’t let her.” (304). They were too wrapped up in themselves to worry or care about anyone else. If the child had been born alive, it probably would have been neglected or not treated as well as it should be. “Aren’t you proud of your son?” “No, he nearly killed his mother.” (325). The hostility that Frederick shows is evident of how the child would have been treated if it had actually lived. Works Cited Hemingway, Ernest. “A Farewell to Arms” Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1929.
Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms – Apathy or Self Preservation?
A Farewell to Arms: Apathy or Self Preservation?
Lieutenent Frederic Henry goes through hell in Hemingway’s celebrated pacifist novel, A Farewell to Arms, yet as each crisis sweeps him along, it doesn’t seem to quite register. He tells the story a decade later which could partly explain the baldness of statements like this one: “But [the cholera] was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army” (4). He describes the horrors of war in bare and matter-of-fact tones while waxing most eloquent about the countryside or food and drink. He often even recounts times spent with Catherine in a flat and uninflected voice. Is he simply a passive observer, content to let the traumas of war buffet him from one place and mindset to another? Perhaps his almost monotone narration is less apathy than a defense mechanism that has allowed him to survive the shattering experiences of war and loss.
The opening chapters focus so intently on the surrounding countryside, the forests and valleys and the villas in which Henry and his fellow ambulance drivers live, that the war almost seems incidental. He even notes the possibility of an Austrian occupation of the town with some complacency, “I was very glad the Austrians seemed to want to come back to the town some time, if the war should end, because they did not bombard it to destroy it but only a little in a military way” (5). This is a man who does his job, doesn’t question authority and makes the best of the situation at hand.
It is never explained outright why Henry, an American, is driving ambulance for the Italian army, but mention is made of family disputes and an architectural study in Rome cut short by the war. So this is also a man who seems to…
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…d States after the war. The war has returned to background status and is only mentioned as something that is read about in the papers; Henry’s feelings about this are mentioned, but not extensively.
In the tragic closing of the story, as he comes to realize that Catherine is dying, again he retreats to recounting meals, drinks, who he sees in the tavern, in marvelous detail. Even as he agonizes “But what if she should die? She won’t die. She’s all right. But what if she should die?” there’s still that sense of detachment (321). After she has died, he sees her as a statue and saying good-by “wasn’t any good”(332). He walks out into the rain, having sown the seeds of his survival by remaining somewhat apart from the mayhem and the passion and the need for connection.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribner’s, 1929.