Often times in literature a theme of anguish or trauma is present. Characters face tribulations that affect them even before the story itself has began, and these events that have helped shape the character are frequently forgotten because the reader did not live through the hardships with them. These unremembered events cause leisure readers and critics alike to forget about the suffering of the characters they read about and causes the text itself to lose much of its deeper meaning. A prime example of one such neglected character is Catherine Barkley, the female lead in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. She is commonly dismissed as being unaffected by the hardships around her, but it is only through her desperation, love, and strength that she manages to overcome the trials she has faced.
*Catherine’s strength begins with her weakness. In the beginning of A Farewell to Arms, Catherine is a broken woman, destroyed by grief after the loss of her fiance to the war. She feels regret and guilt because she neither married him nor slept with him, even stating: “He could have had anything he wanted if I would have known. I would have married him or anything. I know all about it now. But then he wanted to go to war and I didn’t know” (Hemingway 19).
The guilt she feels, although misplaced, breaks her down and vaguely destroys her mind. Catherine is a woman who joined the army with her fiance, imagining their future together as she envisions him coming in with a “picturesque” wound. Instead, he was blown up in an explosion, and she is forced to stay behind and care for men with the same kind of wounds she had dreamed her fiance would come to her with.
Catherine is likely reliving this trauma again and again, wishing that each man she cares for were not the man he is, but rather her lost love come back to her. Hence why she tells Lieutenant Henry to say he has returned when they are beginning their relationship. Charles J. Nolan eloquently states, “As these scenes show and as Frederic reflects, Catherine is emotionally disturbed, even to the point of trying to turn him into her dead fiance” (108).
In the beginning of the novel, Catherine Barkley is definitely suffering, but she is still mentally capable of understanding her own actions. Her actions are a game–a game that must simultaneously cut the wound of loss open again and put a salve on it, and while she may have believed at first that the “rotten game” would help her heal, she eventually came to understand that it would truly do her no good because having the man before her pretend to be her fiance would only hurt her more.
*When understanding finally dawns on her and she knows that her pain will not lessen with this act, Catherine begins to heal. She shows her strength through letting go of the lie and attempting to find something new and far more real. The real shift occurs when she lets Frederic know that she is aware of their act, of their pretending to love one another for their own purposes. To make Frederic aware of this change, Catherine says, “This is a rotten game we play, isn’t it?” (Hemingway 31). She is aware that in this moment, he does not love her.
Frederic is using her for a cheap thrill, a change from the prostitutes that he is usually with, and Catherine is using him to replace the love she lost. They use one another, and it seems that for now, they are ultimately getting nothing from it. He is not getting what he wants from her body, and she is not getting back her love. The only thing they have is a relationship built on a foundation of lies. However, these lies keep them together and eventually lead to a devoted–and rather dysfunctional–relationship. She perpetuates the unhealthiness of their relationship by playing the acquiescent woman.
Catherine uses her identity as a submissive and nearly one-dimensional woman as a way to find balance in a world that seems to be crumbling around her and to escape the conventions that have failed her (Traber 29). Before the war, Catherine was a woman who followed traditional conventions and even believed in them. She had morality, religion, and patriotism, all shown by her actions before her story with Frederic began. None of these structures saved her from hardship, and none of them helped to lift her up out of her pain, so she quit relying on them.
Instead, she relied on Frederic, and as stated by Aaron Drucker, “Love, intentional or not, proffers the hope for survival.” The world in which they live–one of death, violence, and destruction–is a lonely world that overtakes and destroys its inhabitants. Their devotion and dysfunctionality are what help Catherine cope with the empty world she has been left in. She finds her strength in relying on him, using Frederic to help her put the pieces of her life back together, even if they will never quite fit the way they once did.
*While, Catherine is beginning to heal and find strength in Frederic, she has not quite accepted that their “love” is a better place to draw her strength than her desperation and pain. As the saying goes, she is taking two steps forward and one step back. Catherine is holding on to both Frederic and her desperation by saying, “There isn’t any me. I’m you. Don’t make me a separate me” (Hemingway 115).
For so long her desperation was the only thing truly keeping her head above the water, so she is still struggling to allow “love” to heal her and take away her anxiety. Relationships, especially unhealthy ones, are terrifying, but the thought of losing this hold in the darkness is even more so, so she resigns herself to a life of anonymity. According to Joel Armstrong, the only meaning Catherine Barkley finds in life is in the love she and Frederic share (88).
Everything that was important to her was destroyed by the war, so only something created by the war could save her from her complete and utter destruction. She needed something in her life that proved to be at least somewhat good, something that at least appeared real, and Frederic was that something. His “love” was all she had during the war, all she had to help her give meaning to life, so of course when she was still surrounded by nothing but him and the war, as she was throughout the whole novel, it only makes sense that that is all that would give her life meaning.
*As Catherine and Frederic’s relationship progresses, they slowly develop actual feelings for one another. The feelings are neither wholesome nor undisturbed, but they are still present, and they allow her to share some of her inner thoughts such as why she fears the rain. She admits to Frederic that she sees the both of them dead in the rain (Hemingway 126). It is not that she fears the actual rain will kill them; Catherine is neither insane nor unreasonable.
It is more likely that she is scared of what rain often represents: isolation. The cold, gray clouds remind her of how alone she was before, and just as she is powerless to stop the rain, she was powerless to stop the death of her fiance. It could feel to her like the rain is the outer world showing her inner turmoil and fears, and she now fears losing Frederic just as she lost her previous love. She is scared to lose him to the icy hand of death or the soft touch of a new lover. In the article “Re-reading Women: The Example of Catherine Barkley, Jamie Barlowe-Kayes says that for men, particularly Hemingway himself, women are sexual objects for bettering the lives of men (27).
Catherine’s character has this same idea, believing that if she can act demure, submissive, and as an object of desire that Frederic will not leave. He will stay with her, not leave for danger or desire, if only she can tempt him enough, make him want her enough, “ruin” him enough. She’s no longer showing weakness through holding on to him as a replacement for love; she is showing her strength by holding on to what she wants with both hands. While her method for this may not be considered “strong”, it is the idea itself that has strength.
*Catherine is a woman considered weak and helpless because of her actions, but it is her actions that show her hidden strength. There are small moments that show her true character throughout the novel: when she slaps Frederic for attempting to kiss her, when she laughs as they are escaping through the border, and most prominently, when she says “I’m going to die… I’m not afraid. I just hate it” (Hemingway 330).
When she says this, she is on the brink of death. She is pregnant with an illegitimate child, in the middle of childbirth, and about to die because of complications from this already complicated situation. However, she never falters. She never breaks down and cries, never loses her composure. The closest she gets to this is getting intoxicated off of the pain-numbing gas and telling Frederic not to touch her, both understandable under the circumstances.
She is in extreme pain, and if she had not met Frederic, she would not be dying from labor. No one could say it better than John Unrue who said, “Catherine Barkley not only is a strong and fully realized character, she is the one character in this novel who exemplifies in the widest range the controls of honor and courage, the “grace under pressure” that have come to be known as the “Hemingway code.”
Other than her occasional cynicism, Catherine in no way acts out due to her circumstances. When Frederic is angered, he goes as far as to shoot a man, but Catherine’s only show of discomposure is to tell Frederic not to touch her when she is dying in the hospital. She doesn’t even yell; she merely tells him not to do so, and almost immediately after she takes back her statement telling him he can touch her. Catherine Barkley is a pillar of strength, showing nothing but equanimity in a situation deserving far worse behavior.
In conclusion, Catherine Barkley is a woman wronged by society missing her most important moments. She is strong, capable, and has a grace and composure that far exceeds expectations. Without her, the story in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms would have been far different as would the experiences of Frederic Henry. He never would have changed, just as Catherine wouldn’t have grown, without her own strength, the strength of a submissive woman.
- Armstrong, Joel. ”A Powerful Beacon’: Love Illuminating Human Attachment in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.’ The Hemingway Review, vol. 35, no. 1, 2015, pp. 78-96. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/docview/1758156313?accountid=41449.
- Barlowe-Kayes, Jamie. “Re-Reading Women: the Example of Catherine Barkley.”Hemingway Review, vol. 12, no. 2, 1993, pp. 24–35.
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