Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview

Frederic Henry's Escape
and the Pose of Passivity

Scott Donaldson

Sheridan Baker distinguishes between the early Hemingway hero, a passive young man somewhat given to self-pity, and the later, far more active and courageous hero. Nick Adams is a boy things happen to, Robert Jordan a man who makes them happen. This neat classification breaks down, however, when applied to the complicated narrator-protagonist of A Farewell to Arms. Frederic Henry consistently depicts himself as a passive victim inundated by the flow of events. "The world" was against him and Catherine. "They" caught the lovers off base—and killed Catherine as one of "the very good and the very gentle and the very brave" who die young. But Frederic, who survives, belongs to another category, and his determinism is hardly convincing. Assign blame though he will to anonymous scapegoats, he is still deeply implicated in the death of his lover.

It is the same in war as in love. At the beginning, Frederic tells us, he simply goes along. An American in Rome when World War I breaks out, he joins the Italian ambulance corps for no particular reason: "There isn't always an explanation for everything." He falls into the drinking and whoring routine of the other officers at Gorizia largely out of inertia. He follows and gives orders as required, but hardly as a consequence of patriotism or dedication to any cause. He suffers a series of disillusionments—his wound, the "war disgust" of his comrades, the overt pacifism of his men, the theatricality and incompetence of the Italian military generally, the final moral chaos of the retreat from Caporetto—which

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From Hemingway: A Revaluation, edited by Donald R. Noble. © 1983 by Whitson Publishing Co.

-97-

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