Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

'A Farewell to Arms' and the Sunday-School Jesus

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

'A Farewell to Arms' and the Sunday-School Jesus

Article excerpt

Subsequent to the publication in 1952 of The Old Man and the Sea--with its climactic image of Santiago, hands lacerated, shouldering his cross-like mast--the role of Christ in the Hemingway canon began to attract critical attention. The Passion, it was said, offered Hemingway an intelligible and powerful metaphor of the human condition.(1) We are all condemned to suffer and to die. What matters is how we conduct ourselves in the face of the inevitable. Hemingway's conception of Christ, it has been suggested, was shaped by once voguish "Lives of Christ," where, in his dying hour, he is "almost invariably portrayed as the arch-exemplar of heroic manhood."(2) This is Ezra Pound's "goodly fere" who "cried not a cry when they drave the nails," or the imperturbable stoic of Hemingway's 1926 playlet, "Today Is Friday." Here, Christ merges with the code hero. Santiago, Nick Adams, Harry Morgan, Robert Jordan, Frederic Henry--each is at some point linked with a stoical crucified Christ.

While the link is significant, it is by no means the only nexus between the Hemingway hero and Christ. In the case of Frederic Henry, a more pervasive link is with what one might call a Sunday-School Jesus--not the supernatural, second person of the Trinity,(3) but the gentle advocate of an ethic of selflessness.(4) Frederic's inability to live up to the ethic produces a recurrent self-loathing and a brooding guilt: "You are the remorse boy," Rinaldi tells Frederic.(5)

In the novel, the ethical ideals of the Sunday-School Jesus are embodied in the priest. Subjected to the men's lewd ribbing, he remains composed, a soft answer his defense against wrath. Frederic, who does not take part in the priest-baiting, is profoundly attracted to the cleric, so much so that Rinaldi kiddingly implies a sexual relationship (p. 65). At mess, in a private communion, the priest and Frederic smile at each other "across the candle-light" (p.8). The priest tutors Frederic in an ethic to self-immolation: "When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve" (p. 72). While Frederic endorses the principle, he has not the priest's success in acting upon it. Self-renunciation is something that, as he puts it, he is "always able to forget" (p. 14).

Frederic is baffled by the inefficacy of moral resolve. He wonders, via St. Paul, why "we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things" (p. 13). When he opts to visit city brothels rather than the priest's homeland, the sacred Abruzzi, which the priest recommended, he feels "badly" about his choice. Dissolute nights produce "strange excitement" but, come dawn, the "niceness" vanishes, and he is "glad to get out on the street" (p. 13). Rinaldi, who knows this "fine good Anglo-Saxon boy" better than Frederic knows himself, advises him that he cannot brush away harlotry or clean his "conscience with a toothbrush" (p. 168). For Frederic, like the incontinent Augustine, the purchased pleasures of the evening are the sins of the morning.

From beginning to end, the diet of self-pleasure leaves Frederic unsatisfied. "Good Christ I was hungry" (p. 232), he says in a characteristic double entendre, but he remains forever "hollow" (p. 156). Ham and eggs, brandy, and beer (demi-blonde) do not assuage his cavernous appetite. "I might become devout" (p. 263), he tells Count Greffi, but he never does.

Throughout the novel, Hemingway invites ironic comparisons between Frederic and Christ. The comparisons tacitly point up Frederic's sense of moral deficiency, the disparity between his reach and his grasp. Just before he is wounded, Frederic enacts a truncated version of the Lord's Supper:

I cut the cheese into pieces and laid them on the macaroni.

"Sit down to it," I said. They sat down and waited. I put thumb and

fingers into the macaroni and lifted. A mass loosened.

"Lift it high, Tenente."

I lifted it to arm's length and the strands cleared. …

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