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War, deeply intertwined with human existence, overshadows action with impasse and ideals with sterility. Although war results in the facade of victory for one side, no true winner exists, because under this triumphant semblance lies the true cost of this plague, the magnified suffering of the people. In Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley attempt to cultivate an ideal and loving relationship in the midst of war, “the total, irrational negation of love” (Lewis 118). Yet, even after they abandon the battlefield and the war for halcyon Switzerland, they cannot live in peace because of an ineludible tragedy of life: death. Catherine “[has] one hemorrhage after another,” (331), leaving Henry bereft of love and happiness. Thus, their experience reflects both the futility of World War I and the contribution of this war to Henry’s failure of making a lasting separate peace with this malicious world.
Through his observations, Henry depicts the atrocities of war. Instead of alleviating the adverse conditions of humanity, war only catalyzes the advent of death. While on the Italian front, Henry sees his friend, Passini, “biting his arm, the stump of his leg twitching” (55) after a mortar shell hit him. Passini dies needlessly, not in battle defending his beliefs, but while eating “some cheese and [rinses] of wine” (54). Instead of being a heroic Italian soldier who gives his life gloriously on the battlefield, Passini becomes a random casualty of the greed and childishness of both Austria and Italy’s leaders who fail to understand the consequences of war. A mere peon in this game of world domination and self-advancement, Passini represents the many victims “of political incompetence and poor leadership on both sides” (Marthe 109). Each country’s leaders wish to gain territory and pride from this struggle, but after a year’s struggle and the sacrifice of numerous lives, the Italians only manage to capture “the mountain that was beyond the valley” (5). Such a meaningless victory means little to Henry whose experience of “the brutal actualities of war ha[s] taught him to distrust such shibboleths and abstractions as glory and honor” (Grebstein 235). Life and palpable details such as “the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, [and] the names of rivers” (Berryman 271) mean so much more to Henry than the intangible concepts that leaders promote to glorify wars which do little to advance the welfare of mankind.
Unnecessary deaths, such as Passini’s, increase the futility of war, changing it from a political disagreement into the reciprocated slaughter and butchery of the common man. During war, deaths result not only from bullets but also from disease and starvation. On the Italian front, “seven thousand died of [cholera] in the army” (4) during the winter rains. These casualties depict war’s augmentation of humanity’s suffering by causing many unneeded and cruel deaths. War also creates exceptional grieving for innumerable people by depriving them of their loved ones. This “utter lack of meaning and… destruction of everything decent that human beings value [in life]” (Bessie 104) leads to Henry’s disillusionment and his attempt to isolate himself from such meaningless destruction of human life.
During the disorderly retreat from Caporetto, Henry becomes even more disenchanted after witnessing “the moral chaos” (Donaldson 97) of battle police executing officers for not staying with their men. This leads to Henry’s desertion from the Italian army. The battle police decide to shoot Henry for “[speaking] Italian with an accent” (222) while wearing an Italian uniform, because in their state of paranoia, the battle police see Henry as a German spy in Italian uniform. Henry “is vulnerable on both accounts” (Marthe 109), and with no way to refute this claim, he dives into the river to escape execution. This plunge symbolizes cleansing his soul of any true obligation to the war. By taking this dive, “he has forsaken the war and made his ‘separate peace'” (Marthe 109) with the world. Henry’s “farewell to arms” temporarily emancipates him from the obligations of the world and the problems of society, allowing him to elope with his lover Catherine.
Although Henry recognizes that fighting in this war has become a lost cause, his desertion from the army disturbs him greatly. A facet of the duty and the military remains to pester him, causing him to “fe[el like] a masquerader” (243) after returning to civilian life, and thereby upsetting both his seclusion from the war and his attempt to find peace in the turbulent world. Unable to free himself of war completely, Henry comes to “see his [desertion] as an act of truancy – an evasion of the historical realities of the time” (Way 165). His attempts to isolate himself from the war only create haunting memories and the sense of an unfinished task which he must complete one day. Trying unsuccessfully to eradicate all reminiscence of this horrible experience, Henry commands the barman not to “‘talk about the war’ [because it] was a long way away.” (245). However, even attempting to hide mentally while physically separated from the war, Henry cannot liberate himself from his sense of bondage to military life, causing an internal war while he attempts to rationalize his desertion and forget about the war.
Henry’s guilty conscience continues to haunt him even after his reunion with Catherine in Stresa, Italy. She serves as a foil to him, representing one who has successfully detached herself from the world and recognizes that “[life]’s just a dirty trick” (331). Not worried about the abstract concepts of life, such as duty, she observes Henry attempting to rationalize his guilt. Instead of fearing for his life or reprimanding him for desertion, Catherine comforts him by telling him, “Darling, please be sensible. It’s not deserting from the army. It’s only the Italian army” (251). Her view shows a clear understanding of Henry’s character and his struggle to achieve a separate peace. She knows that he “is a survivor who volunteered to participate in war but without any burning reason.” (Reynolds 146). As an American, he had no reason to enlist except for youthful caprice and a misconception about the glory of the war. Thus, Henry should feel neither compelled nor bound by duty to continue to serve Italy if he does not wish to do so.
Strangely, despite his disbelief of any intangible abstraction such as honor, Henry’s mind reflects both an acute memory and a sense of duty and honor which complicates his ability to come to a tacit understanding with the world. Although physically isolated from the war, he continues to brood about it. Even after realizing that “[the war] was over for [him]… [Henry] did not have the feeling that it was really over” (245). This foreshadows Catherine’s death at the end of the book. It also shows that he cannot forget war and death forever, because these essential qualities of mankind will remain with him throughout his life.
As a veteran, Henry cannot hide from the horrors of war that replay themselves in the back of his mind to constantly remind him of his experience. This “turbulence [that] has more presence than actual peace” (Wyatt 291) hovers in Henry’s mind through most of the novel, serving as a constant reminder of the atrocities of war and the eventual demise that each individual faces at the end of his lifetime. These recollections of such a dark and inglorious period of his life plague his daily existence and prepare the reader for the news that the Italian army plans to arrest Henry, forcing him to flee to Switzerland with Catherine in a rowboat.
In Switzerland, Henry and Catherine find temporary shelter from both the war and the sadness which plague human existence. Isolated and living idyllically, the couple “[sleeps] well [and] the war seem[s] as far away as the football games of some one else’s college” (291). At the same time, “the narcotic begins to wear off” (Donaldson 106-107) and when Henry “woke in the night [he] knew it was from only one cause.” (291). The memories of war, ingrained in his mind, serve as a constant reminder of the outside world and the suffering which he has temporarily escaped. These reflections resurface “when Catherine urges him to fall asleep with her, he is unable to do so and lies ‘awake for quite a long time thinking about things'” (Donaldson 107). This shows that Henry cannot be fully isolated from the reality which he tries very hard to forget.
Even with reality attempting to interfere with Catherine and Henry’s life, it remains fairly peaceful and dreamlike, reflecting their temporary peace and isolation from the moral entrapments of the world. In Switzerland, “the winter was very fine and [they] were very happy” (306) with their life until their baby arrives. This rudely interrupts Catherine and Henry’s ideal life in the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland. They reenter civilization to seek medical assistance, thereby ending their temporary solitude and shelter from the harshness of the world.
Upon leaving his shelter, all of the suffering that Henry thought he had escaped comes rushing back to him as Catherine falls victim to “the biological trap” (320). Henry watches “Catherine’s agonies in childbirth, lead[ing] him to conclude that men’s sufferings in life are as pathetically frantic and meaningless as the scrambling of ants on a burning log.” (Grebstein 235). Overwhelmed by this trauma, Henry sees the futility of life and realizes that he can never fully seclude himself from the emotional agonies of human existence. The impossibility of Henry reaching a reconciliation with himself or the world becomes certain when the doctors “couldn’t start [the baby’s] breathing. The cord was caught around his neck” (326). However, the stillborn only begins Henry’s re-initiation into the cycle of “death and destruction [which] are man’s lot in many forms other than war” (Lewis 118). Another farewell remains before Henry is left utterly alone in the world, bereft of all that he values.
After the baby’s birth, Catherine dies. She paid the “price that you paid for sleeping together” (Marthe 208), leaving Henry both physically and emotionally alone to deal with the loss of his lover. He had attempted to make a separate peace with the world, but ended up losing Catherine, the only thing that he cared for. This last farewell shows “that life, both personal and social, is a struggle in which the Loser Takes Nothing” (Young 274). Henry can only think back to the wonderful times he had with Catherine. These bittersweet memories are all that remain for him at the end of the story. For Henry, “Switzerland, an ideal land for confinement, offers asylum only. Exquisite for the short run . . . it provides no shelter at all… [and] once the sabbath is over and the game resumes… [Henry has] everything to lose.” (Wasserstrom 78).
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