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The romance between Frederic and Catherine in A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway parallels humanity’s struggle between superstition and religion. Their relationship starts merely as a façade based on physical attraction, but quickly grows into a deeper love. At its commencement, Frederic and Catherine feel the need for something substantial to cling to in the rapidly changing world around them. They assume that they are in love, much as people in any society cling to their superstitions in times of great difficulty, not truly grasping the fundamentals of the religion on which those superstitions are based.
According to Reverend John Nicola, a renowned authority on Catholicism and an adjunct professor of theology at Yale University, superstition “ignores the findings of science, seeing empirical reality as shallow and meaningless; it focuses on unseen spiritual realities,” and interjects “irrational fears and senseless preconceived notions.” On the other hand, religion “incorporates spiritual dimensions of reality through theological and philosophical considerations.” A superstitious person uses a ritual or symbol that denotes an aspect of his religion as an integral piece of worship, when in fact it remains only a small part of that religion. In this way he never takes the time to gain a deeper understanding of what that rite represents. In context, the Italian society does not understand the war. Its people use superstition to ease their fears about the death that surrounds them. They focus on one aspect of the religion and use that to ward off any ill-fated events, choosing to ignore any real religious basis.
The fact that their relationship is founded in the heart of a war, as well as that it is constantly faced with the imminent possibility of death, pushes Frederic and Catherine into a romance that neither would necessarily have had under different circumstances. While Italy is changing around them, they use each other to shield themselves from the fear of the unexpected tomorrow. The couple develops rituals in conversation and interaction. Often, Frederic will make a statement then Catherine will follow it. He will repeat himself, each time letting Catherine say something different. One such conversation begins with Frederic saying,
” ‘Maybe I won’t talk.’
‘That’s true, often people don’t talk.’
‘I won’t talk.’
‘Don’t brag darling. Please don’t brag. You’re so sweet and you don’t have to brag.’
‘I won’t talk a word.'” (104)
This ‘ritual’ allows them to have a unique method of interaction, spurring their romance on, but also, they use it to block out the rest of the world. They use their rituals to allow themselves to feel that life is continuing as usual much as superstitious worshipers use their superstitions to supplant their true religions. Catherine starts off as one of these; she gives Frederick a St. Anthony medal to keep him safe. She has no concept of the medal’s religious significance, only that it can be used to make herself feel better about the outside world. In a conversation with Frederic, Catherine says,
” ‘You see, darling, it would mean everything to me if I had a religion. But I haven’t any religion.’
‘You gave me the Saint Anthony.’
‘That was for luck.'” (116)
Her insistence that the medal has no actual religious meaning to her is contradicted by its offerance as a good luck charm. Though she bestows upon the item some form of power, she does not understand its application to religion.
This relationship of superficial understanding versus deep comprehension can be noted in her association with Frederic as well. At first, she uses a ‘romance’ as an escape from the hardships of the war, but eventually it grows into a intimate devotion. Throughout the novel, Catherine slowly ebbs away from her already weak religious beliefs, and turns to her developing love for Frederic instead. She replaces her already shaky convictions with her more tangible feelings for him. Because of this alteration to her perceptions, she is able to understand herself, and so her romance is transformed into her religion. Frederic says to her,
” ‘Then nothing worries you?’
‘Only being sent away from you. You’re my religion. You’re all I’ve got.'” (116)
Through Frederic, she grasps the true purpose of religion; she gives up the superstitions she no longer needs in exchange for her love with Frederic. He, though, is more reluctant to put away his superstitions. He insists “I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had I any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards,” (30). Nevertheless, he learns, as well, that there is more to spirituality than St. Anthony medals and rainstorms. He eventually does fall in love with Catherine, just as she falls in love with him. Because neither Frederick nor Catherine needs protection from his or her fears any longer, (love is enough) they forsake the unnecessary accoutrements that bog them down. Not until Catherine is in the hospital dying does Frederic really give over, though. It is there that he breaks down and prays. And finally, he has reason to pray. He prays for Catherine’s life. “I knew she was going to die, and I prayed that she would not. Don’t let her die. Oh, God, please don’t let her die. I’ll do anything for you if you won’t let her die. Please, please, please, dear god, don’t let her die.” (330) Unlike his prayers before, which were never founded in any real expectations of reciprocation, he bares his deepest desire: that Catherine should live. At that moment he finally understands religion.
A Farewell To Arms contains a theme that is symbolic of a common human condition. People often accept situations at face value, and refuse to delve deeper into the meanings behind them. This keeps us from knowing life, where nothing is what it seems, and deeper comprehension must be sought to truly embrace any idea. Despite great tragedy, both Frederic and Catherine have an opportunity to realize their love for one another, and through it subrept themselves, elucidating the meaning in their lives.
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