On the surface, Frederic Henry is the quintessential unreliable narrator. He’s always boozing, he’s going through severe trauma, and he admits to lying to other characters in the novel, while at the same time supposedly telling us how he really feels. Does Shmoop believe him? Yes and no, as we discuss in his "Character Analysis." Each reader is called upon to assess Frederic’s reliability, and each reader will respond differently. Still, there a couple of key aspects of Frederic Henry’s narrative voice that can take us a long way in analyzing his reliability, and in discovering what makes this novel tick.
First, it’s in the past tense. Everything is known at the beginning. The events in the story are being told after they’ve occurred, though how long after we can only guess. In a present-tense narrative, the narrator is describing the feelings and events as they occur. In Frederic’s narrative there is a time gap between the action and the telling of the action.
Second, Frederic never claims to be a writer, never claims to be writing anything but postcards and whatever he has to sign. So we can’t say that Frederic was writing stuff down when it was happening, or that the story he’s telling is being written down. Of course, we know that for Hemingway, and for us, this story is actually a book, but for Frederic it’s something different.
So…what is it? It’s a memory, and a memorial to Catherine, the baby, and all the others dead he talks about. It can also be thought of as confession. Why do you think Frederic is always trying to get the priest to come up to his room and talk? Because he respects him and likes him, of course, and because he wants to ask him questions. But, he also wants to confess. Frederic doesn’t directly say he feels guilty about things, but his desire to talk to the priest is symbolic of confession.
But the priest is too busy to listen to Frederic’s long confession, so he has to go to the bar and find you. (Of course, Frederic never says he’s in a bar confessing his story. He never says where he is at all. We base our suspicion on his previous bar-going behavior discussed in the novel). It’s lonely to be the last man standing, the guy that’s left with the ghosts. By confessing his memory of what went down, Frederic simultaneously offers himself up for judgment, and, through the act of sharing, preserves the memories of his loved ones.