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In the 1970s and 80s, critics Judith Fetterly and Millicent Bell argued that the character of Catherine in A Farewell to Arms helps prove that Ernest Hemingway was sexist and a misogynist: in short, that he hated women and that the character of Catherine proves it. Later female critics, most notably, Sandra Whipple Spanier, argue the opposite – that Catherine helps prove that Hemingway loved women and understood them deeply, and that Catherine is even the real hero of the story.
Fetterly's claim is that Catherine’s death at the end of the novel proves that Hemingway thought that "the only good woman is a dead woman." We find this a bit of a stretch. Women die all the time in books, and that doesn’t make their authors women-haters. And way more men die in the novel than women. Does that make Hemingway a man-hater, too?
Now Bell’s argument is a bit more interesting. She claims that Catherine is "a sort of inflatable woman only available to the onanistic dreamer." An onanist is, in plain language, a masturbator. Bell is arguing that there is no "real" Catherine. That the most real she gets is when Frederic is dreaming about her or imagining her.
According to views like these, Catherine is just a blow up doll with nothing inside her but Frederic’s fantasy. Maybe there is something to that, but we take a kinder view toward Catherine, as do other critics. To think that Catherine is just Frederic’s fantasy dehumanizes her, makes all the good she did mean nothing, and makes the tragedy of the novel a mere joke. But, these criticisms don’t just come out of thin air. And before we know what we really think, we must examine Catherine more closely. So here goes…
In Catherine’s defense, she is much more than the novel’s love interest. She’s a brave woman, as Frederic says to her so many times. She’s traveled to a foreign country to help take care of wounded men. She tells Frederic that her initial move to Italy was out of solidarity for her dead fiancé, but that doesn’t change the fact that she works tirelessly throughout most of the novel, and most of her pregnancy, tending to the men wounded in the war. She is fiercely independent and can take care of herself in foreign countries, with or without Frederic.
So why do some critics think this beautiful and brave nurse is merely a male fantasy? Why do they think she’s not her own person and that she gives up her own identity to get Frederic to love her? Um, maybe because she kind of tells Frederic stuff like that all the time. Here are a few examples:
On religion: "You’re my religion. You’re all I’ve got" (19.37).
On her pregnancy: "I’ll try and not make trouble for you. I know I’ve made trouble now. But haven’t I always been a good girl until now?" (21.68).
On her self: "There isn’t any me. I’m you. Don’t make up a separate me." (18.21-21)
Whew. Catherine really is what those critics say! She totally worships Frederic like a god and will do anything to get him. She thinks her pregnancy is "trouble" because it isn’t part of Frederic’s fantasy of her. And she admits she’s not "real," but rather just a part of Frederic.
But, wait a minute. At one point early in the text, Helen Ferguson tells Rinaldi, "You mustn’t take everything so literally." We think Helen’s advice can help us view Catherine in a more humanizing light.
First of all, Catherine is extremely romantic, she loves being in love, and she does want to please Frederic. She’s also desperately lonely when she meets him. She really does want to be "one" with him. She wants a special love, and she wants it more intensely because she sees gloom and doom all around her.
As we mentioned, critic Sandra Whipple Spanier argues that Catherine is the hero of the novel, that her willingness to love Frederic entirely is heroic because it saves her from going crazy with grief. When everything is exploding all around you, everything takes on more urgency. It’s normal that she feels so intensely for Frederic, and that she thinks of unusual and even poetic ways to express this love. And she doesn’t fall apart without him when they are separated, but just keeps on trucking and hoping. She doesn’t need Frederic for anything but love. And so what if she goes a little overboard. Isn’t she entitled? Who are we to dictate how another person should love?
And there is even more evidence that Catherine is a complex women who thinks for herself. And if that’s a male fantasy, so what? As long as it’s good for her, why should we complain? Her complexity is probably a big part of what attracts Frederic to her in the first place. He doesn’t want a blow-up doll. Catherine’s views on marriage are one good example of this complexity. They demonstrate her conflict between not following the social norms she doesn’t care about, and conforming to such norms because doing so makes life easier.
When Frederic first meets her she laments that she didn’t marry her fiancé before he died. She says that they were engaged for "eight years," and that they "grew up together." She tells Frederic she didn’t marry her fiancé because she "thought it would be bad for him," that it would trap him. And Frederic tells us that he and Catherine "told each other [they] were married the first day she had come to the hospital" (19.15). Frederic does want to be married but Catherine thinks this would keep them from being together during the war. When he pressures her, she says, "We’re really married. I couldn’t be any more married." She keeps up this attitude until near the end of her pregnancy, when she says, "I suppose if we have this child, we should really get married" (38.17). Frederic says, "Let’s get married now" (38.18). But Catherine says no, no let’s wait until I’m nice and skinny again after the baby’s born. She wants the commitment of marriage, but is very suspicious of it as an institution.
This aspect of Catherine shows that she if she is a male fantasy, she’s a pretty good one – she has her own thoughts and opinions about things and isn’t afraid to share them. And now that we have a better idea of Catherine, let’s look a bit deeper and see what she means to the novel as a whole.
Sorry, Bob Dylan, but your lyrics are just so handy. Rain is important to the novel, and especially to Catherine. It rains practically the whole time. Part of this is historical accuracy. It really did rain that much. And Hemingway ingeniously weaves this historical detail in to the narrative.
But, what we want to know is, why is Catherine so afraid of the rain? Isn’t rain a symbol of rebirth and springtime, and cozy lovers snuggling, and all that jazz? Yes, but when a war is on, even the simplest symbol is turned on its head. In this novel, rain most often means gloom and loss and pain and destruction. Lucky for us, Frederic wants to know why Catherine is afraid of the rain too. When he presses her on the point, she finally gives her reasons: