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…
…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.