A Farewell to Arms: Hemingway’s “Puzzling Passage”

 by Trudy Martinez


When most males enter military service, they are boys on a quest for manhood. The same holds true for Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms. John Beversluis, however, declares, “He is a man . . . at the outset of the novel” (19). Not all critics agree that Frederic “is a man” or that he even wants to reach manhood. For instance, Judith Fetterley, a feminist, insists “Frederic Henry’s true aim . . . is to . . . [evade] . . . growing up . . . “(47). She contends that Frederic is so set on “remaining forever a boy” that he strives toward “eliminating the agent that threatens to force adulthood upon [him]” (47). In her estimation, that “agent” is none other than Catherine, Frederick’s beloved. The intent of this paper is to explore Frederic Henry’s position in relation to others within the social order of the novel. In doing so, his status of man or boy will be established and his vindictive or childish character uncovered. Both Beversluis and Fetterley support a portion of the narrative, contributing a retrospective clue. Beversluis calls the narrative “the puzzling passage”. The passage hints of Frederic’s shortcoming, disclosing his inner most thoughts, and a lesson he must learn:

“ . . . We were still friends, with many tastes alike, but with the differences between us. [The priest] had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget. But I did not know that then, although I learned it later (14).”

John Beversluis asserts what Frederic, the man, learns is “that spending his leave in the city instead of at the Abruzzi was symptomatic of his whole way of life” because “he continually failed to do what he really wanted to do” (24). Fetterley alleges, on the other hand, what the priest “knows” that Frederic “doesn’t know” is “that sex is a dangerous and wasteful commodity and the best world is one of men without women”(52). I contend Frederic is a child on a pilgrimage toward manhood. Along the way, he learns the main difference between himself and the priest is that the “certain knowledge” the priest has: the words of truth build lasting relationships. Frederic tries to explain how wanting to do something makes it “almost all right” (13). Frederic wants to tell the truth but he also wants excitement, this is evident when he tells himself:

“There was more to it than that. Yes, father. That is true, father. Perhaps, father. No, father. Well, maybe yes, father. You know more about it than I do, father. The priest was good but dull. The officers were not good but dull. The King was good but dull. The wine was bad but not dull. It took the enamel off your teeth and left it on the roof of your mouth (38 – 39).”

The wine serves as a symbol, paralleling the lies Frederic tells Catherine. Frederic considers the wine not dull. He considers it invigorating and continues drinking, even though the wine works like a fire in his mouth, burning away the enamel. Frederic wants to be invigorated. His lies, burning like a wild-fire, bring about a similar furor in his relationship with Catherine. However, their relationship lacks truth and Frederic is left defiled. When Frederic learns not to defile himself by lying, “he was always able to forget” and continues to lie when it suits his purpose or gains him the acceptance he needs and the excitement he wants. As a result, he is made to suffer and sacrifice his beloved even though he willingly puts away his childish ways to become a man.

Beversluis supplies no evidence of Frederic, the man, failing to do “what he really wanted to do” other than his not going to Abruzzi. Then again, how could he? Frederic never “failed to do what he really wanted to do.” He “tried to explain” and the priest “understood” what Frederic offers are mere excuses that are anticipative of what he feels the priest wants to hear. He maneuvers most people like pieces on a chessboard. In other words, his strategy is similar to the strategy used in war. To Frederic, a friend is someone who accepts him unconditionally while surrendering to his stratagem. In most cases, he gets angry like a spoiled child when he doesn’t succeed by reaping an unconditional surrender.

For instance, Miss Barkley slaps him because he ignores her refusals; he admits, “I was angry and yet certain seeing it all ahead like the moves in a chess game” (26). His maneuvers are planned and calculated, while at the same time, predictive of his opponent’s strategy. When Miss Barkley expresses concern she may have hurt him, he lies and says, “I don’t mind at all.” He uses his speculative power to gain her pity by apologizing. When she accepts his apology and replies, “You are sweet,” he tells the truth: “No I’m not.” As a result, of practicing the old adage: “When all else fails tell the truth,” he advances, gains consent, and ultimately seizes his objective: He positions his “arm around her as [he] had before and kissed her.” Once he considers he has won and gets to do what “he really wants to do,” he regards her as his friend (26 -27).

As Friends, Frederic and Catherine share passion in the form of romantic love. Their passion for each other is what Fetterley suggests the priest “knows” to be “a dangerous and wasteful commodity.” She ascertains “the best world is one of man without women” by way of the priest’s “asexuality.” The assumption here is because the priest refrains from sexual passion and remains asexual he is able to love and the only way Frederic can attain such a love is to live in a world without women. Fetterley attempts to justify her assertion by stating, “The priest has access to a certain knowledge and stature that the men who remain sexual do not have and secretly admire.” She assumes because the men in the mess constantly bait their priest “they are expressing’ not only “their sense of his difference and their uneasiness in face of it (51-52)” but also Frederic’s sense of the priest’s difference. Consequently, she transfers the men’s sense of the priest’s difference on to Frederic even though he is not guilty of baiting the priest.

Although Fetterley is correct when she says, “The priest alone is able to carry out the full implication . . . ,” she errs when she implies this is justification to assume it is because of the priest’s cultural “attitude toward sex” (52). Evidence in the text suggests the priest’s “attitude toward sex” is not a determinant of the difference between the priest and Frederic. Thus, to view it as such is perverse. For example: when the priest visits Frederic in the hospital, the topic of their conversation centers on some of their differences: The priest loves God whereas, Frederic fears God “in the night sometimes.” In addition, they are opposites in personal experience: the priest knows the meaning of love even though he has not experienced passion; in contrast, Frederic knows passion but has not experienced love (72). The priest considers the nights Frederic speaks of as “passion and lust.” He tells Frederic, “When you love, you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve” (72).

In this respect, the priest not only “wished to serve” he did serve: as a model for Frederic. The priest’s acceptance of the kidding from the men in the mess makes it less difficult for Frederic not to let the men prevail upon his beliefs. The priest’s main concern is to safeguard Frederic from deterioration because the men’s words are like poison to his soul. Consider the conversation that takes place in the mess:

“ . . . The major said . . . “I am an atheist.”

“Did you ever read the ‘Black Pig’? Asks the lieutenant. “I will get you a copy. It was that which shook my faith.”

“It is a filthy and vile book,” said the priest. “You do not really like it.”

“It is very valuable,” said the lieutenant. “It tells you about those priests . . . “he said to [Frederic]. [Frederic] smiled at the priest and he smiled back . . .

“Don’t you read it,” he said.

“I will get it for you,” said the lieutenant.

“All thinking men are atheists,” the major said . . . (7 – 8).

Not until the men begin divulging to Frederic where he should go on his leave, did the priest mention: “I would like you to see Abruzzi . . . “(8). Hence, the priest shows more interest in segregating the boy from the men who are without faith and who are striving to convert him to atheism.

Two characters, the priest and Rinaldi, vie to show Frederic distinct paths in life. The priest may be seen as simulating a Christ figure who is constantly being tempted through the harassments of Rinaldi to stray from the path of righteousness. Rinaldi the main instigator of the priest’s harassment, on the other hand, mimics Satan by inviting the priest to go against his morals.

Rinaldi admits he is “the snake of reason” in a conversation with Frederic (170). He says, “. . . I can say this about your mother . . . that about your sister. . . All my life I encounter sacred subjects” (169 – 170). The allusion drawn here is of the Garden of Eden. Instead of “the snake” tempting Eve (Catherine), “the snake” is tempting Adam (Frederic). Frederic is not too cooperative; he tells Rinaldi, “You are better when you don’t think so deeply,” causing Rinaldi to reflect: “You puncture me. . . But I know many things I can’t say” (170). Rinaldi is wounded by Frederic’s over protectiveness of his love for Catherine, his “sacred subject.” Rinaldi reveals he cannot maintain a friendship with a married couple “if they love each other,” suggesting he is incapable of love (170).

Later when Rinaldi tempts the priest, he shows he is unable to maintain a friendship with anyone capable of love. In addition, he builds on the “many things [he] can’t say” by drawing attention to St. Paul:

“Drink some wine, priest,” Rinaldi said. “Take a little wine for your stomach’s sake. That’s Saint Paul, you know.”

“Yes I know,” said the priest politely. Rinaldi filled his glass.

“That Saint Paul,” said Rinaldi. “He’s the one who makes all the trouble.” The priest looks at [Frederic] and smiles. [Frederic] can see the baiting did not touch him now.

“That Saint Paul,” said Rinaldi. “He was a rounder and a chaser and then when he was no longer hot, he said it was no good. When he was finished he made the rules for us who are still hot. Isn’t it true Federico?”

The major smiles. . .

“I never discuss a Saint after dark,” [Frederic] said. The priest looks up from [his dinner] and smiles at him (173).

Consequently, the treatment of the subject of wine communicates through Rinaldi that the books of Corinthians, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle, establishes “the rules” for those who are “hot”. Frederic is “hot”.
Beversluis claims “Our first acquaintance with him discloses that he is a man. . . “(19). However, I Corinthians 13: 11 maintains if you speak, understand, and think like a child, you are a child–to become a man you must put away childish things. Frederic thinks, understands, and speaks, and even reacts like a child.

As a child, Frederic thinks he must lie to be accepted. For example, Rinaldi said, “Miss Barkley prefers you to me. That is clear. But the little Scotch one is very nice.” When Frederic answers in the affirmative: “Very,” the narrative uncovers the actual truth by way of his confession: “I had not noticed her” (21).

Not only does Frederic not notice things around him he also doesn’t understand. He confesses, “I did not understand the word” after his friend tells him: “You have that pleasant air of a dog in heat.” Then when Rinaldi calls him a “little puppy,” he reacts like a child: “I knocked over his candle with the pillow and got into bed in the dark” (27).

And then again, Frederic speaks like a child when Rinaldi teases him about Catherine. He tells Rinaldi to “Please shut up, if you want to be my friend” (169). In other words, he considers his friendship conditional: If he doesn’t get his way, he finds it necessary to resort to emotional blackmail. Rinaldi, however, doesn’t accept these childish maneuvers. This can be seen by his unconditional response: “I don’t want to be your friend . . . I am your friend” (169). Through Frederic’s behavior, his status of a child is confirmed. The character of Rinaldi clearly provides a contrastive view of the variation between the behavior a man and a boy.

But whether Rinaldi, the man, serves as the best mentor for Frederic, the boy is another matter. By his own admission, Rinaldi alludes to an impossibility of becoming better: “We are born with all we have and we never learn . . . “(171). Beversluis would agree “we need to be clear about the sort of person [Frederic] is . . . “(19). To determine what short of a person Frederic is may be accomplished through I Corinthians 03:13: Every man’s work shall be made manifest: the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work for what it is. The day that declares Frederic’s work is Catherine’s day of delivery and death. On that day, Frederic reminisces about the ants on the log:

“ I remember thinking . . . It was the end of the world and a splendid chance to be a messiah and lift the log off the fire and throw it out where the ants could get off onto the ground. But I did not do anything but throw a tin cup of water on the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whiskey in before I added water to it. I think the cup of water on the burning log only steamed the ants (328).”

Consequently, through Frederic’s thought, action, and lack of action in this scenario, it is clear Frederic is selfish and his interests are only in himself; he envisions himself as god in his own thoughts.

The major said, “All thinking men are atheists” (8). Frederic is always thinking although he is not yet a man. He had thought “the night was better.” After all, there is this “. . . strange excitement of . . . not knowing . . . not caring” (13). Throughout the novel, he is constantly thinking, that is, until he is faced with the possibility of Catherine dying. Then he suddenly changes:

“. . . I did not think. I could not think. I knew she was going to die and I prayed that she would not. Don’t let her die. Oh, God, please don’t let her die. I’ll do anything for you if you won’t let her die. Please, please . . . Please God . . . I’ll do anything you say if you don’t let her die. You took the baby . . . That was all right. . . Please, please, please, dear God, don’t let her die (330).”

Frederic’s thinking stopped. But what good is his prayer? The prayer is conditional, calculating, selfish, and self-serving.

Frederic is just as self-serving when his anger is washed away in the river along with any obligation to the war. Then he said, “I was not made to think. I was made to eat, drink, and sleep with Catherine” (232-233). Here it appears Hemingway drew the words of Frederic from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes 2: 24: There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also . . . Is from the hand of God. Paul Smith points out in “Almost All is Vanity: A Note on Nine Rejected Titles for a Farewell To Arms” that the first few words of this verse, Nothing Better For a Man, was considered by Hemingway as a title before choosing A Farewell to Arms (74-75). Ironically in Old Testament beliefs as well as in Frederic’s belief, God is to be feared. The fear of God arises because man places obligations to himself over that of God. Frederic did the same when he says to God. I will do this only “if” you will do what I want. Did he envision emotional blackmail working on God?

In the prayer, he tells God it is all right that the baby died. But he did not sacrifice because of the baby’s death. The baby’s death did not matter to him. He is self-serving, living in a dream world and wishing his life away. His thoughts communicate he is a babe himself. This is reflected when he says, “. . . I wished the hell I’d been choked like that.” Then he counters his lie with the truth: “No I didn’t” (327). The admission discloses somewhere in his background there is a Christian foundation that reinforces his fear of God. By virtue of his confession, there lies a sense of “hope” for him. “But he did not know what the priest knew then” that lies are “deadly poison” that desecrate all efforts toward real love and happiness “although he learned it later” when he is faced with losing his beloved.

When he leaves the restaurant to return to his beloved at the hospital, there is an allusion to a baptism as he “walked through the rain (329).” Frederic didn’t change instantly; there is a learning process: A war is going on within him. In the war itself, Frederic said, “Well, I knew I would not be killed. Not in this war . . . “He reasoned:”. . . It did not have anything to do with me (37).” However, the other wars going on within himself and in his romantic love relationship with Catherine did have something to do with him. Fetterley recognizes “love and war appear together” as twin themes “because romantic love is a form of war” (49). Here she is right. When Frederic interjects his thought: “maybe she would pretend that I was her boy . . . (37),” his childish war-like strategy emerges.

However, Frederic is not the only one that resorts to war-like strategic maneuvers. Catherine does too. She plays the game well, knowing he will conform to her rules if he wants to play house with her:

“And you love me?”


“You did say you loved me, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” I lied. “I love you.” I had not said it before . . . (30).

“Say, I’ve come back to Catherine in the night.’”

“I’ve come back to Catherine in the night.”

“Oh, darling, you have come back haven’t you?”

“I love you so and it’s been awful. You won’t go away?”

“No. I’ll always come back.”

“Oh, I love you so . . . . “

“. . . I turned her so I could see her face when I kissed her and I saw her eyes were shut. I kissed both her shut eyes. I thought she was probably a little crazy. It was all right if she was . . . I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge . . . You had to pretend you were playing . . . for some stakes (30-31).”

Both acted like children bent on getting their way. Frederic didn’t want to go “to the house for officers where the girls climbed all over you . . . “and Catherine didn’t want to be lonely. She wants to pretend Frederic is her lost love. She acknowledges awareness of the circumstances when she remarks, “This is a rotten game we play . . . .” And then she says, “I had a very fine little show . . .” and when Frederic presses “her hand” and says, “Dear Catherine,” she replies: “It sounds very funny now–Catherine. You don’t pronounce it very much alike (31),” it is apparent she manipulates Frederic into playing the part she wants him to.

Much later, she tries to redeem herself through Frederic for where she feels she failed in her relationship with her dead lost love. She previously told Frederic:

“I wanted to do something for him. You see I didn’t care about the other thing and he could have it all. He could have had anything he wanted if I would had known. I would have married him or anything. I know it now. But then he wanted to go to war and I didn’t know . . . I didn’t know about anything then. I thought it would be worse for him. I thought he couldn’t stand it and then of course he was killed and that was the end of it (19).”

In her relationship with Frederic, she wants things to be different. She also fears being sent away from the hospital where Frederic is a resident. She said, “They’ve too many nurses here now. There must be some more patients or they’ll send us away . . . I hope some will come (103).” Catherine wants only to please Frederic. Therefore, she questions him on what he wants and how he reacts when he is with other girls. She wants to be foremost in his mind. This is evident in their conversation when Catherine asks:

“She says just what he wants her to?”

“Not always.”

“But I will. I’ll say just what you wish and I’ll do what you wish and then you will never want any other girls, will you?” She looks at me very happily. “I’ll do what you want and say what you want and I’ll be a great success, won’t I?”


Because of the pain she feels when she lost her love; she relinquishes her individuality to Frederic to please him. But Frederic is also at fault because he allows her to. Consequently, she became his “sacred subject” and he became her religion. (115).

It is not until Frederic returns to Catherine’s room to tell her good-bye after she dies that he realizes the magnitude of his error. Frederic had said, “God knows I had not wanted to fall in love with her” (93). But he did fall in love with her. Unfortunately, “Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were (31)” in the little war game of romantic love. When Frederic made himself glance back into the darkness after he “. . . turned off the light . . . [he saw] . . . It wasn’t any good . . . It was like saying good-bye to a statue (332). “ He worshiped Catherine like an idol. He molded her into his own image as if she were a lump of clay. Therefore, he receives his just reward for his labor.

His just reward is not the death of the baby that leaves Fetterley with “the nagging suspicion that Frederic Henry sees himself in the dead fetus which emerges from Catherine’s womb . . . (52).” Frederic had no feeling for [the baby] . . . [The baby like the war] did not seem to have anything to do with . . . [him]. . . He felt no feeling of fatherhood (325).” Therefore, how could he see himself in the dead fetus? The image of strangulation produced by the cord around the baby’s neck merely serves as an indicator that the romantic love relationship between Frederic and Catherine has no hope of living. Catherine’s death is not “. . . the fulfillment of his own unconscious wish, his need to kill her lest she kill him (52)” as Fetterley claims. He doesn’t want Catherine to die; he begs God to let her live. Her death is Frederic’s just reward for his labor of molding her like clay into his own image. Frederic didn’t need to kill Catherine; he needs to kill his selfishness. Catherine is no longer Catherine. She had said to Frederic, “There isn’t any me. I’m you (115).” Hemingway’s portrayal of Frederic produces a mythological allusion of Pygmalion, molding the clay. Catherine is the clay; she turns “very gray” (326). Emotional Blackmail is the tool that reshapes her individuality. Their romantic love reflects what Frederic perceives love to be, selfish and self-serving. As a result, they both lose their identity: Frederic became a god; Catherine (the statue) became Frederic’s creation. Frederic obsesses with his creation, a reflection of himself, (Narcissus). Catherine is just as much at fault as Frederic. She makes the choice. She responds to him perfectly (just like Echo). But as she does, she loses her own identity. Their relationship is doomed–because in the end it is only one-sided: Catherine no longer exists. She is dead long before she dies.

Before Catherine dies, Frederic became a man because he puts away childish things. His adulthood is not forced upon him by Catherine as Fetterley alleges. Instead, his decision is his own. Their last meaningful conversation is very enlightening:

“Do you want me to do anything, Cat?” Can I get you anything. ”

Catherine smiled, “No,” Then a little later, “You won’t do our things with another girl, or say the same things, will you?”


“I want you to have girls, though.”

“I don’t want them.”

Frederic didn’t lie when he answers her question with “Never;” he had no need to confess anymore. He is suddenly considerate of her needs because he learns what he “was always able to forget” that lies set on fire the course of nature. Rinaldi had said, “That Saint Paul . . . he made the rules for us . . . “(173). The books of Corinthians, The epistles of Paul the Apostle, establish “the rules” Rinaldi spoke of, something Rinaldi could not say. I Corinthians 7: 3-4 serve as an instruction for those wanting a lasting and loving relationship: Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. In other words, a lasting, loving relationship requires that both individuals retain their individuality. Now that Frederic is no longer hot. It is his obligation to follow “the rules: Consequently he discovers the kind of love the priest had spoken of: that “when you love you wish to do things for” your beloved. “You wish to sacrifice for” your beloved. “You wish to serve” your beloved (72). Gajdusek describes the results of the process “as an internal imperative” that harmonizes with “external actions and” necessitates “the virtue of selfless gestures” (26).

Unfortunately in their relationship, Catherine is not granted due benevolence or the benefit of selfless gestures until it is too late. In the end, the precept, “the rules,” eliminates the mythology of romantic love; the simile, “like a statue,” replaces the metaphoric allusion of the myth; and when Frederic leaves the hospital, “the rain” extinguishes the fire Frederic set on the course of nature with his lies.