"Going All to Pieces": A Farewell to Arms as Trauma Narrative

By Dodman, Trevor | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

"Going All to Pieces": A Farewell to Arms as Trauma Narrative


Dodman, Trevor, Twentieth Century Literature


    Bullet wounds do not cause severe bleeding unless they happen to
    injure some large trunk or smash one of the larger bones. Wounds
    caused by fragments of shells or bombs tear larger holes in the skin
    and lacerate the muscles and are, therefore, more often the cause of
    serious bleeding.
    --Injuries and Diseases of War (15)

In the final chapter of A Farewell to Arms, the narrator and main character, Frederic Henry, describes the protracted labor of his partner, Catherine Barkley. When the attending physician recommends a cesarian section, Frederic anxiously inquires about the dangers associated with the procedure. Assuring him that the risks should not exceed those associated with an "ordinary delivery," the doctor responds to Frederic's question regarding the potential aftereffects of the operation: "There are none. There is only the scar" (321). Although this reply suggests that what remains will be of no lingering concern, A Farewell to Arms nonetheless testifies to the persistence of wounds, both visible and invisible. Frederic's particular narration of the events and experiences that mark his wartime years must be understood in such terms, for his entire narrative--no "ordinary delivery"--inscribes a continued struggle with the debilitating aftereffects associated with shell shock. He suffers from the compulsion to remember and retell his traumatic past from the standpoint of a survivor both unable and perhaps unwilling to put that very past into words; the novel stands as a record of his narrative collision with the violence of trauma. (1)

Frederic's troubled recollections find expression in apparently embodied and disembodied ways: as pain that registers at the level of the body, breaking apart the perceived unity of the physical self in the presence of terrific bodily suffering; and as trauma that registers at the level of consciousness, breaking down time, language, and the perceived unity of the subjective self in the face of incomprehensible violence. However, in staging an ongoing dialogue between inside and outside, A Farewell to Arms also challenges us to reconsider the mind/body dualism that keeps the wounds of the body separate from the wounds of the mind. For Frederic's narration--of his body, his memory, his wounds--destabilizes such distinctions in an effort to hold together a broken past that remains, in the present, a nexus of uncertainty and contestation. In accord with Tim Armstrong's emphasis on the interpenetration of machine and human in the modernist period, and with his identification of the "prosthetic thinking" (3) involved in the repair and augmentation of bodies in the face of radical disruption in warfare, Frederic'ss narration enacts a kind of prosthetic thinking: he repairs and augments his past as a countermeasure for the pain and trauma that plague him still. (2)

Looking back on events, reconstructing his memories, Frederic reveals a desire for a whole and perfect retelling of the past; his narration functions as a prosthesis meant to stave off a sense of the self as a disarticulated scar. His embodied subjectivity, like the wounds he suffers to represent, calls out for prosthetic completion. But as Elaine Scarry notes, "what is remembered in the body is well remembered" (112), and Frederic's narrative prosthesis cannot hold the wound closed. His traumatic memories bleed into and disrupt his present; his narration operates both as scar and wound, as tissue stitched together and lacerated apart. Though his prosthetic version of events insists on the potential for a "separate peace" (243), Frederic's telling of his past instead goes "all to pieces" (322) in the enduring presence of pain and trauma too "well remembered" to be left behind.

For years, analysts of the novel understood that Hemingway himself was doing the remembering--the author recalling his Great War experiences through his cipher, Frederic Henry. (3) While it seems to me simply impossible to imagine anyone's being wounded in war and not having it affect his or her writing of a novel about war memories and characters who are wounded, I am not principally interested in either the text or the trauma of Hemingway's life but rather in the text of his narrator's trauma. …

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