Eros, Thanatos and the Depiction of Women in “A Farewell to Arms”
A career as distinguished as that of Ernest Hemingway cannot simply be condensed into a handful of words. If one were to make the attempt anyway, no choice seems to be more fitting than “love, death and women”.
These topics are constant companions throughout all of his work and indeed, his life. His 1929 masterpiece, “A Farewell to Arms”, is a particularly good example of this. In this paper, I will show how these recurring subjects – the fascinating interplay between Eros and Thanatos and the depiction of women – help shape this seminal work.
To fully appreciate the tale told in the novel, and to better understand the aforementioned, seemingly inadequate three-word summary of Hemingway’s life, some key events in his biography should be made known.
Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois. In his high school years, he wrote for the school newspaper and would go on to work for the Kansas City Star; these early journalistic experiences would influence his distinctive writing style. In 1918, he signed on to become an ambulance driver in war-torn Italy. On July 8, he was severely injured by a mortar shell and received a medal for bravery. During his sixth-month recuperation, he fell in love with a Red Cross nurse; after deciding to get married, she left him for an Italian officer. This traumatic experience would decisively shape his view of women. (“Wikipedia”)
Hemingway would endure further trials throughout his life; shortly after the particularly difficult delivery of his son in 1928, he received word of his father’s suicide, foreshadowing his eventual demise by his own hand on July 2, 1961. Until then, he suffered through severe alcoholism, multiple divorces, crippling accidents, bouts of depression and dangerous war coverage. (“Wikipedia”)
Taking this eventful existence into consideration, the importance of both Eros and Thanatos and the noteworthy depiction of women in “A Farewell to Arms” come as no great surprise; it is the latter which I will first examine more closely.
Hemingway and, by extension, his works, have often been accused of misogyny; “A Farewell to Arms” is no exception (Wexler 111). Catherine, the main female character, “defines herself in terms of men” (Fetterley 67). When her late fiancée goes to war, she joins him as a nurse because of the “silly idea he might come to the hospital where [she] was [,] [w]ith a sabre cut […] [or] shot through the shoulder [;] [s]omething picturesque” (Hemingway 19). Later on, her stereotypical wish to nurse her lover back to health even comes true when Frederic is placed in her care (Fetterley 67).
She also shows a significant need for reassurance: “You are happy, aren’t you? Is there anything I do you don’t like? Can I do anything to please you?” (Hemingway 105). Her self-loathing and unhealthy self-image also reveals itself in this telling passage:
How many [girls] have you […] stayed with? […] It’s all right. Keep right on lying to me. That’s what I want you to do. […] When a man stays with a girl when does she say how much it costs? […] I do anything you want. […] I want what you want. There isn’t any me any more. (Hemingway 95-96)
This section is a particularly damning example of misogyny; in effect, Catherine is asking Frederic how to be a whore, demeaning both herself and her entire sex in her quest to please her beloved at any cost (Fetterley 68).
Catherine is far from the only victim of the sometimes debasing treatment of women in the book. During the retreat, the “girls from the soldiers’ whorehouse” (Hemingway 168) are loaded into a truck; one of the soldiers present remarks: “I’d like to be there when some of those tough babies climb in and try and hop them. […] I’d like to have a crack at them for nothing. They charge too much at that house anyway. The government gyps us.” (Hemingway 168-169)
This stunning disdain of female dignity...
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* Fetterley Judith. The resisting reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1978.
* Flores, Olga Eugenia. Eros, Thanatos and the Hemingway Soldier. American Studies International, Vol. 18, No. 3/4 (Spring/Summer 1980), pp. 27-35.
* Ganzel, Dewey. "A Farewell to Arms": The Danger of Imagination. The Sewanee Review, Vol. 79, No. 4 (Autumn 1971), pp. 576-597.
* Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. London, Arrow Books, 2004.
* Wexler, Joyce. E. R. A. for Hemingway: A Feminist Defense of "A Farewell to Arms". The Georgia Review, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Spring 1981), pp. 111-123.
* Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. University of Toronto RPO. http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poems/song-myself (Last accessed: 13.08.2013)
* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway (Last accessed: 13.08.2013)
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