A Farewell to Arms: Apathy or Self Preservation?
Lieutenent Frederic Henry goes through hell in Hemingway's celebrated pacifist novel, A Farewell to Arms, yet as each crisis sweeps him along, it doesn't seem to quite register. He tells the story a decade later which could partly explain the baldness of statements like this one: "But [the cholera] was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army" (4). He describes the horrors of war in bare and matter-of-fact tones while waxing most eloquent about the countryside or food and drink. He often even recounts times spent with Catherine in a flat and uninflected voice. Is he simply a passive observer, content to let the traumas of war buffet him from one place and mindset to another? Perhaps his almost monotone narration is less apathy than a defense mechanism that has allowed him to survive the shattering experiences of war and loss.
The opening chapters focus so intently on the surrounding countryside, the forests and valleys and the villas in which Henry and his fellow ambulance drivers live, that the war almost seems incidental. He even notes the possibility of an Austrian occupation of the town with some complacency, "I was very glad the Austrians seemed to want to come back to the town some time, if the war should end, because they did not bombard it to destroy it but only a little in a military way" (5). This is a man who does his job, doesn't question authority and makes the best of the situation at hand.
It is never explained outright why Henry, an American, is driving ambulance for the Italian army, but mention is made of family disputes and an architectural study in Rome cut short by the war. So this is also a man who seems to take the route of least resistance. When his family is difficult, he simply goes abroad. When war erupts, he finds a fairly comfortable niche from which to ride it out.
His initial feelings for the British nurse, Catherine, are in keeping with the take it-or-leave-it mentality already established. He mouths words of love, but admits to himself that "I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her" (31). This changes after a night of drinking and keeping Catherine waiting when he'd promised to see her. Suddenly he feels that, I had treated seeing Catherine very lightly, I had gotten somewhat drunk and had nearly forgotten to come but when I could not see her there I was feeling lonely and hollow. (41) Just as he begins to love this woman, the war abruptly becomes much more than background noise and he is wounded out at the front. He describes the experience in great, gory detail, yet reveals himself to be stoic and able to withstand the pain and horror by saying "I'd rather wait. There are much worse wounded than me. I'm all right" (58).
It is during his recovery in Milan that the relationship with Catherine becomes central to the story. She gets herself transferred to Milan,...