Ever wondered who invented wine? Why the mythological god Bacchus, of course. And since we can find him in the text, we can use him to understand the never-ending wine drinking in the novel. Here’s part of the big Bacchus passage:
The major said he had heard a report that I could drink. I denied this. He said it was true and by the corpse of Bacchus we would test whether it was true or not. Not Bacchus, I said. Not Bacchus. Yes, Bacchus he said.
"You better not go up there drunk."
"I’m not drunk, Rinin. Really."
"You better chew some coffee."
"Chew those, baby, and God be with you."
"Bacchus," I said (7.61, 66-71).
Like wine, there are many sides to Bacchus. Wine can take the edge off and let the creative juices flow, and, like its god, it is a symbol of spring, rebirth, art, fertility, sexual freedom, and orgiastic divine ecstasy. But, too much Bacchus and you get the flip side: death, senseless violence, and destruction. Like everything else in the novel, wine and its god are a complicated business.
In the section we are examining, wine first represents a momentary respite from the pressures of war. And it’s funny to read, unlike much of the novel. On the other hand, the spirit of Bacchus, once evoked, possesses Frederic, makes him hurt Catherine and himself by showing up late for their evening rendezvous, and keeps him from getting see her at all that night. This represents the destructive element of Bacchus. But, missing Catherine that night did in some ways awaken Frederic to his love for her. Or maybe that was the coffee beans he was chewing…. Hmm….
As you know, most of the men in the novel drink constantly. And often, when they do, wine seems to represent survival. They don’t get stinking drunk, like above, when they are on the actual battlefield, but the wine makes the experience, not really tolerable, but almost bearable, at least for the moment. It keeps them from cracking up. And here Bacchus gets complicated. As we’ve seen, one side of Bacchus is senseless violence and destruction – we’ve heard it and seen it a million times: too much booze leads to violence. But it wasn’t booze that caused World War I. And in A Farewell to Arms, booze, usually wine, often operates as a temporary buffer against something it is said to produce – senseless violence and destruction. The novel doesn’t exactly condone hard drinking, but it argues that it has its place. And everybody’s going to have a different opinion about this complicated and controversial aspect of the novel.