Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A Farewell to Arms

The impact of Hemingway's Catholicism can be seen in A Farewell to Arms but not, in my view, in the obvious places: neither in his sympathetic portrayal of the priest nor in the description of the narrator's near-death experience on the Italian front line but in the journey the protagonist undergoes during the course of the novel.

This is particularly clear if we examine two of the parallel episodes in the plot. One of these - and, in some ways, one of the most shocking episodes in the book - is when Frederic Henry shoots one of his comrades in the back as he runs away and then shows no remorse whatsoever. It is a scene which is thrown into sharp relief later in the novel when Henry himself is shot at by his own side for apparently abandoning his company. 

What we make of these parallel episodes is very much left up to us. As Hemingway put it elsewhere"I don't like to write like God." His narrative technique - the starkness of the style, the absence of all extraneous details, the refusal of the detached first-person narrator to pass judgments - forces us to plunge into the morally murky world he describes.

However, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Henry himself comes to believe that to do as you are done by is an inescapable law of life. The bare narrative continues throughout the novel but the narrator does not remain entirely detached to the end. In fact, it is the journey he goes on - "pilgrimage" would perhaps be too strong a word - which brings us closest to the author's incipient Catholicism. 

As an ambulanceman at the front line, Henry had to allow his senses to become dulled; he was unable to respond emotionally to the deaths of so many of his comrades in arms. However, he also slowly found himself being overtaken by love. Emotional detachment was therefore no longer possible when, at the end of the novel, he was confronted by the possibility of death, the death of his "wife". 

The passages which describe his inner turmoil as he waits in a Swiss hospital are among the finest in this wonderful novel. But bleak as they are, they do not plunge us into an abyss of hopelessness for Henry himself has changed, not wholly but enough to suggest that, as someone else once wrote, the great fisherman "let him wander to the ends of the world [and still brought] him back with a twitch upon the thread." 

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