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Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms features the numbing experiences of Lieutenant Federico Henry while serving in Italy during World War I. Despite serving as such a dismally despondent milieu, the war actually acts as a powerful catalyst.
In Chapter 4, Frederic Henry, an American, explains to Miss Barkley shortly after having met her that he is not really in the Italian army, but in the ambulance corps. When she presses him about why he joined the ambulance corps, he says, “There isn’t always an explanation for everything” (page 15). Later, in Chapter 5, when Miss Barkley presses him again, he explains that he was in Italy when the war broke out and he spoke Italian. His Italian is good, and it is also clear that Frederic Henry likes the Italian people and culture. Rinaldi says to him, “You are really an Italian…You only pretend to be an American” (page 57). Frederic Henry has close friends in the Italian army and clearly cares what happens to the country. In addition, at the point of the war when the book takes place, the Americans have declared war on Germany but not on Austria. Therefore, the Americans are just coming to where Frederic Henry is fighting and is wounded, and he could not have fought with the Americans in Italy at the time when he joined the Italian ambulance corps. The conversation between Frederic and ninety-four-year-old Count Griffin is illuminating and reveals some similarities between them despite the great difference in their ages. They talk easily together, and neither Frederic nor the Count hesitates to share thoughts and feelings quite openly with each other.
Like Frederic, who has made his own “separate peace” with the war and deserted from the Italian army, the Count thinks the war is “stupid”. Both men see war as never-ending. The Count explains that young nations win wars, after which they become older nations–implying that new young nations will then defeat them, a continual process. Earlier in the novel, Frederic had observed that “There is no finish to a war”, implying that a war really never ends because it leads to the next one. For both Frederic and Count Griffin, war is a stupid exercise in never-ending violence.
In his desperation and despair, he prays, but his prayers do not save her. Frederic stays with Catherine until she dies, and then demands time alone with her to say goodbye: But after I had got them [two nurses] out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while, I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.
And with this passage, the novel ends. It could be interpreted that love enables Frederic to stay by Catherine’s side throughout her suffering and even after her death, even though doing so causes him the most intensely emotional and spiritual anguish. He “survives” this experience in that he goes through it with her until it is over.
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