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Catherine As Code Hero In Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms

3359 words - 13 pages

Catherine as "Code Hero" in A Farewell to Arms

 
      In the last book of A Farewell to Arms, when the pregnant Catherine Barkley is having painful contractions, Frederic Henry, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, reminds his "wife" that she is "a brave good girl" (FTA 313). A day later, after undergoing a caesarian section and giving birth to a stillborn baby boy, Catherine proves just how brave she is; though she knows she is dying, she still has the dignity and strength to accept such a fate. In fact, she finds herself in the (unfair) position of trying to comfort her distraught lover. With death approaching, Catherine's candor is remarkable since her final words to Frederic suggest she possesses some sense or understanding of her own mortality and of what is soon to come: "I'm not a bit afraid. It's just a dirty trick" (FTA 331). The "it" Catherine refers to is presumably death, but, in fact, the indefinite may be referring to life, a process Catherine views as a "rotten game" (FTA 31), since so much about it is left to chance and death is always the end. Such an insight advanced by Catherine is not at all unusual, for, from the time she and Frederic first fall into love and up until the time of her death, Catherine repeatedly reveals her inherent heroic qualities, especially in the way she reflects the Hemingway "code hero" criterion of "grace under pressure."

 

Yet critics have repeatedly misunderstood Catherine since the time of the novel's publication some seventy years ago. Those engaging in distinctly feminist analyses over the past twenty-five years have been particularly harsh on Hemingway's characterization of Catherine, viewing it as patronizing and shallow. In her response to the phallocentric canon of American literature and the corresponding way that women have been conditioned to read it, Judith Fetterley, in The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (1977), accuses Catherine of suffering from "compulsive apologizing" (70) and faults her for submissively "tak[ing] upon herself the burdens of Frederic's sins and [for dying] for him" (47). Millicent Bell is no less biting in her article "Pseudoautobiography and Personal Metaphor" (1984), where she calls Catherine "a sort of inflated rubber woman available at will to the onanistic dreamer" (150). And Mimi Reisel Gladstein, in The Indestructible Woman in Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck (1986), furthers the anti-Catherine argument by insisting that Catherine is "definitely other, object not subject. She is reduced to playing the role of functionary in man's fulfillment" (50).

 

Moreover, in those few defenses of Catherine where critics actually praise Hemingway's insight and sensitivity in his female characterization, she still cannot completely escape tough critical scrutiny and thus remains misconstrued. Biographer Kenneth Lynn acknowledges Catherine's beauty, yet he also mentions that she possesses a "jittery, neurotic manner"...

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