My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Aside from a cursory skim of his short story collection “In Our Time” while I was cramming for my grad school comprehensive exams, this is my first foray into Hemingway. Not a single one of my professors assigned him, and in my 20-plus years in the classroom, I’ve never taught him. So I tried to approach this novel with an open mind and a respect for its place in American literature, American war literature in particular. However, on the whole, Hemingway disappointed me. If it wasn’t for the brutal and understated three chapters that deal with the retreat of the Italian army, some stunning and heartbreaking insights into what is essentially man’s isolation, and that gut-kick of a final paragraph, this novel would be unmemorable. When Hemingway is writing about war, he’s amazing, but his depiction of the so-called great love affair with Catherine just didn’t work; it’s cliched, and written by someone who seriously couldn’t write a three dimensional female character if she fluttered down from above and landed in his lap. In the rain.
So let’s start with Catherine. When Catherine and Henry meet she’s mourning the loss of her fiance of eight years, a relationship that wasn’t consummated. This loss of her fiance haunts her and she obviously uses Frederic Henry as a stand-in for that one. She makes the choice to fall in love with Frederic. It’s a game, one that they both admit they are playing. He flat out says, “I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her,” and she says a page later, “You don’t have to pretend that you love me” (26-7). So this affair is a game to both of them. One could argue (and many have) that the brilliance of all this is that Frederic Henry joins the Italian army on a lark just because he is there, that he isn’t invested in the war and only has some vague idea of romantic heroism in mind at first. So he is playing at being a soldier, just like he is playing at being in love with Catherine. It’s only when the war totally disintegrates and with it all semblance of right, wrong, and heroism, that his relationship with Catherine becomes real.
And I could accept this reading if Hemingway didn’t depict Catherine as being so flat and saccharine. For instance, when she tells him she’s pregnant she says, “You mustn’t mind, darling, I’ll try and and not make trouble for you. I know I’ve made trouble now. But haven’t I been a good girl until now?” Her voice and vocabulary come across as so insipid and they just reek of male fantasy. Catherine really isn’t anything more than a romantic stand-in for Frederic. She’s compliant, she wants nothing more than to be him, to merge fully with him, or as she says when they’re living their idyllic life in Switzerland, “Oh darling, I want you so much, I want to be you too” (257). The sentiment itself isn’t unbelievable: the merging of bodies and beings into one is what love constantly strives for, and great writers are always trying to get at the heart of this paradox. However, Hemingway just paints it shallowly, and I can’t tell if it’s a product of the times (all those “darlings” feel like the heated cheek presses in old black and white romance films) or if it’s indicative of his general treatment of women throughout the novel. He couldn’t be more dismissive of the government funded prostitutes that are also being evacuated. Lt. Henry notes that two of them are crying, and Bonello callously quips that “I’d like to have a crack at them for nothing. They charge too much at that house anyway. The government gyps us” (164). And the two girls they pick up during the evacuation are obviously terrified of being raped by the soldiers and painfully cringe each time one of them grabs their knees. There just seems to be a general disregard for the women in this novel. They are nothing but blank, empty vessels.
But there’s a general disregard for life and loss in this novel, and that lies at the heart of the tragedy. As things fall apart and Lt. Henry’s truck is stuck in the mud, he casually and without a hint of remorse shoots one of the Italian soldiers for refusing to help dig it out. The senseless carnage continues as the defeated Italian army begins to turn on all the officers, blaming them for their defeat, shooting them without a thought. There truly is no honor or point to any of it. What sums all of this up is Lt. Henry’s thoughts as he’s listening to Gino spout off on his patriotic ideals: “I had seen nothing sacred and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it” (161). At least the dead animal carcasses feed people.
It’s this strain of nihilism that runs through the whole novel. None of it matters: “The world breaks every one and afterwards many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially” (216). And it killed Catherine and their baby and the untold millions of soldiers and civilians who didn’t start this war and to use Frederic’s words “had nothing to do with it.” Hemingway is at his best when he is dealing with these hard truths and his stark writing style highlights them painfully. The edition I read has many of his infamous thirty-nine versions of the ending, and I have to say that my favorite (aside from the one he chose) is what is referred to as “The Nada Ending.” I will leave it at that: “That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.”
Now who needs a drink?