Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

"A Powerful Beacon": Love Illuminating Human Attachment in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms

Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

"A Powerful Beacon": Love Illuminating Human Attachment in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms

Article excerpt

Responding to long-term debate over the position and outlook of the love story in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929), this essay argues that love is the centering principle of the novel. Indeed, the narrative posits a world in which love magnetically attracts the characters with its power to illuminate lived experience with a tangible sense of meaning. Deploying actor-network theory and recognizing the retrospective, mediated nature of Frederic Henry's narrative, this essay analyzes the novel for what it tells today's readers about one man's attempt to find meaning after the horrors of the Great War.

KEY WORDS: Love, War, Sacrifice, Selflessness


On the last bittersweet pages of Ernest Hemingway's posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast (1964), he laments the disintegration of his relationship with Hadley Richardson, his first wife, using a striking simile: "When you have two people who love each other, are happy and gay and really good work is being done by one or both of them, people are drawn to them as surely as migrating birds are drawn at night to a powerful beacon" (208). This simile locates love as a palpable thing existing between and within specific people, while also noting the distinctly measurable effect on those near this love. Of course, there is some danger in taking this simile as more than the regretful musings of a middle-aged man--especially since the preface of the non-restored edition warns the reader that A Moveable Feast "may be regarded as fiction." Nonetheless, this poetic figure and its implications about love's concrete capacity to attract and illuminate life provide a useful lens for reading Hemingway's sophomore novel, A Farewell to Arms (1929).

For years now, and particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, critical debate has raged over what sort of love story A Farewell to Arms really is: romantic, nihilistic, pastoral, or tragic? For instance, John Beversluis's "Dispelling the Romantic Myth," in which he claims to "offer a radically different reading" from previous scholarship, argues that Farewell is actually a leave-taking of the "love trap" (18, 24). Protagonist Frederic Henry's peripatetic journey through the novel--through the muddy battle lines of World War I, a whirlwind romance with VAD nurse Catherine Barkley, a dangerous desertion to Switzerland, and the unexpected grief of Barkley's death during childbirth--leaves him disillusioned, convinced that "love is not enough to replace a discarded world" (21). Similarly, Bernard Oldsey notes the narrator's tone is that of a "disappointed, or 'ruined,' romantic," as the narrative details the "immemorial struggle between man's idealization of the world and his reluctant acceptance of brute fact" (178). In sharp contrast, however, Robert Merrill reminds his readers that Hemingway "once referred to the novel as his Romeo and Juliet," and his claim that "we most desire ... and most respect" Henry for "committing himself in love to Catherine Barkley" neatly encapsulates the romantic side of this longstanding critical debate (571-72).

Significantly, twenty-first-century criticism continues to weigh in on the place and role of love in A Farewell to Arms, though scholars have tried to abandon such across-the-board questions by focusing on the finer points of the novel. Randall S. Wilhelm, in his "Objects on the Table: Anxiety and Still Life in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms" compares Hemingway's list-like descriptions to still-life paintings. Wilhelm observes that still-life paintings, which endeavor to distance and objectify what is undeniably an animate experience, became a symbol of anxiety for many modernists. From this perspective, Henry's effort to retell his life with Barkley in a series of "still-life" scenes is a badly concealed attempt to suppress his lack of love for her and "his guilt regarding the tragic outcome of a wartime romance that had been a game all along" (64-65, 76). As another example, Trevor Dodman's "A Farewell to Arms as Trauma Narrative" focuses on Henry's struggle to narrativize himself after the dual traumas of a trench mortar and his lover's death, and Dodman concludes that though Henry and Barkley do enjoy themselves, "Their time together is marked by shame, tension, and uncertainty" rather than the security and love Henry craves during his fantasies (262). …

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