Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

In Uniform Code: Catherine Barkley's Wartime Nursing Service in A Farewell to Arms

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

In Uniform Code: Catherine Barkley's Wartime Nursing Service in A Farewell to Arms

Article excerpt

With scientific precision, I studied the memoirs of Blunden, Sassoon, and Graves. Surely, I thought, my story is as interesting as theirs. Besides, I see things other than they have seen, and some of the things they perceived, I see differently.

--Vera Brittain, Testament of Experience

When former Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse Vera Brittain began penning her own account of World War I, Testament of Youth (1933), she studied the writing of disillusioned soldier-poets such as Edmund Blunden, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves. While Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), the foundational text of World War I literary scholarship, argues that these soldiers were the agents of modernism, Brittain's close study of the male memoirs served to confirm that her experience as a war nurse was fundamentally different from that of a soldier, not only in practical duty but also in perspective and style. (1) Testament of Youth chronologically traces Brittain's engagement with the war, beginning with her joining the nursing service at the same time her brother and fiance enlisted in the army. (2) Through her description of the horrors of wartime hospitals, the deaths of her fiance and brother in combat, and her alienating return to civil society, Brittain shows that war's effects were not confined to the front lines. The Great War rendered both the young men and the young women of the time a "lost generation" crushed in numbers and jaded in spirit. Recent feminist recovery efforts have restored critical attention to the essential work nurses like Brittain contributed to the war effort. (3) However, these examinations almost exclusively deal with the nonfictional tradition, focusing primarily on memoirs like Brittain's as well as those of fellow nurses Mary Borden, Enid Bagnold, Ellen LaMotte, and Irene Rathbone. (4)

The soldiers whose memoirs Brittain studied represent part of a larger group of World War I veterans who suffered from the condition then known as "shell shock." (5) Initially, the malady was thought to be physical, garnering its name from the presumed damage done to soldiers' nerve endings by the blast of detonating missiles. But doctors soon realized what the soldiers suffered from was a psychological condition, one whose reverberations lingered long after the fighting's conclusion. By 1917, it was estimated that "war neuroses" accounted for over one in seven of the men discharged from the army for disabilities.Today, what was then called shell shock would almost certainly be recognizable as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a term that did not enter the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) until 1980, after the Vietnam War. In other words, the psychological damage resulting from experiencing war is itself now recognizable as medical trauma (Higonnet 2001, xiv).This belated insight has led to rereadings of literary World War I veterans such as Virginia Woolf's Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and Rebecca West's Chris Baldry in The Return of the Soldier (1918), characters who embody the difficulty of reintegrating into civilian life rather than of active service. Other famous war-damaged fictional characters include Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams (in various short stories), Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises (1926), and Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms (1929).

Drawing from both these strands of scholarship, this article proposes a return to Catherine Barkley, the controversial female protagonist of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, (6) whose scholarly treatment has largely ignored her position as a volunteer war nurse. The landscape of critical readings of Catherine resembles a battlefield in itself; since the novel's initial publication she has been variously understood as, among other things, the protean manifestation of Frederic's desire, an idealized picture of feminine virtue, a blowup sex doll, and a destructive harpy. …

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