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Frederic Henry runs the show, and the past, in A Farewell to Arms. And he does it from the future – his future, anyway. The good news is, Frederic doesn’t need a fancy time machine to go back in the past. He uses the oldest trick in the book: the first-person, past tense narrator. When you see a first-person, past tense narrator, you can usually count on two things:
Pretend for a moment that you want hang out with Frederic, and you have to convince your parental figure or figures that they don’t have to worry. You start with the basic facts: his name, address, phone number, age, occupation, income level, marital status, etc… We’re sorry, but you should probably plan on spending a quiet evening at home in your room, because you just don’t have this information. You can tell them his name (so long as you’ve read to Book Two, that is), but not much else. In fact, you can’t even provide a physical description. (Did you meet this guy on the Internet, or what?). The narrator never reveals his age, his current occupation, his whereabouts, marital status, or any of the other stuff that parental figures want to know. He doesn’t even tell us how much time has passed since the events he’s narrating have occurred.
So, to escape the room, and get to know Frederic better, you’ll have to do some fancy talking and explain that Ernest Hemingway’s "theory of omission" (see our "Style" discussion for tips on explaining) is at work here, and that the narrator is reliable precisely because he doesn’t give us current information about himself. As we discuss in "Sex," and "What’s Up With the Ending," sometimes material is omitted because it is private, or even "sacred."
But that’s not what’s happening here. Think back to what we discuss at the beginning of this analysis – memory and confession. If someone was going to memorialize you, would you want them to be all "me, me, me," about it? Probably not. And if you were going to confess, wouldn’t it be tedious and beside the point to talk about what you’re doing now? In this case, Frederic’s omission of his current story adds to his reliability as a narrator, and focuses our attention on Frederic the character. As such, we’ve only looked at the tip of the reliability iceberg.
The good news is, you have your play date, you’ve established a preliminary trust of the narrator, and now you’re ready to conduct a reliability test of your own, on Frederic the character. It’s paradoxical. Because there are two of them, we are constantly questioning and weighing Frederic the narrator against Frederic the character. If either of them seriously lets us down, they both fail. So let’s go meet Frederic the character!
Before we go any further, we have to talk about Frederic the character’s age. The rotten narrator doesn’t give it to us. It just never comes up. The people he’s interacting with have a basic idea of how old he is from looking at him and talking to him, and the narrator either doesn’t remember it being discussed, thought about, or doesn’t think it’s important to mention. It’s not necessary to our understanding of the narrative.
Still, some people get hung up on wondering about it so we want to present you with the commonly accepted answer: He’s under thirty, and probably under twenty-five. He’s a student, a possible fictional of version of Hemingway in Italy when he was under twenty, and people are always calling him "baby" and "good boy." You’ll have to look hard to find real evidence that he’s over thirty. But enough of that — let’s get back to our reliability test. What do we know about Frederic?
Frederic is a good friend to his friends (he will risk his life to feed them), a sweet boyfriend to Catherine (they never fight, he’s never mean to her). He’s a valiant and brave ambulance driver, risking his life to care for soldiers wounded in World War I. Also, he was studying to be an architect when the war broke out, and put his studies on hold to make a difference to the suffering soldiers. He’s always reading the paper, and knows what’s going on in the world. He’s willing to listen and chat with anyone. But that’s not all.
Occasionally, he’s a liar. (He tells Catherine he loves her before he really does. He tells the doctor he’s killed enemies in battle when he hasn’t.) He consumes alcohol constantly (open the novel at random and you’ll probably find evidence). Before Catherine, he slept with prostitutes, and even got gonorrhea. And he killed that Italian sergeant. Sure he was provoked, but it goes against his whole deal (he’s supposed to be caring for the wounded, not doing the wounding). Oh, yes, and he’s a deserter from the army, and perhaps even a fugitive. Wow, what a mass of contradictions!
When we look at how multifaceted Frederic is, it becomes obvious why almost everyone he meets likes him (think of all the friendly conversations he has) and why his friends love him (think of Rinaldi and the priest bringing him presents). They like him because they can find some shared experience with him – "bad" or "good." And this is good news for our reliability test. If we were hearing only about "good" Frederic the character or "bad" Frederic the character, then we would have to suspect that the narrator isn’t giving us the straight dope, and we’d have to kick ‘em both to the curb. Instead, we can get past the surface of the two Frederics and into something deeper.
So, we said in the beginning of this analysis that Frederic is both memorializing the dead by telling us their story, and confessing something, including a feeling that he’s responsible for the deaths in the novel. That first one is pretty straight forward and obvious, but what did Frederic the character do that was so bad, and why on earth would he think he’s responsible for the deaths in the novel?
Well, he might be feeling guilty about deserting the army. He even calls himself a "criminal" when he finds Catherine. And he’s probably feeling pretty bad about killing the sergeant. The sergeant was everything Frederic was against. He abused his power by stealing from houses abandoned during the retreat (remember the lamp Frederic makes him return), and he wouldn’t help them try to free the ambulance from the mud. That doesn’t sound too horrible, but if he is was acting like that during the retreat, he was probably abusing his power even more in his role as sergeant during other parts of the war. All of this must have brought out Frederic’s anger. And, as we know from what Frederic tells the X-ray doctor in Milan, he was the first, and probably the only person Frederic ever killed.
In some ways, at that moment, Frederic became every thing he’s been fighting against during the war. He becomes the one who kills and wounds, instead of the one who saves people from death and helps the wounded heal. The act of telling about it is the act of confession, confession that he became, for that instant, "those who would make war," instead of "those who would not make war."
He’s also confessing about Catherine. As we’ve said, he was nice to her, and didn’t fight with her. He also helped her stay comfy and well cared for during her pregnancy, and there is no indication that she was anything but totally pleased with him. But, since she’s dead, he’s going to think of how he could have done better, been better to her.
A few moments come to mind. First, when he and Catherine first meet, he thinks it’s a game. She fell in love with him, at first sight it seems, but he was just lying to her about his love (as the narrator confesses to the readers), and she knew it. She even tells him, "You don’t have to pretend you love me. […] let’s not lie when we don’t have to" (6.44, 46). And then, when he gets drunk (see "Bacchus" under "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory") and stands her up, Frederic the narrator says, "I had treated Catherine very lightly" (7.89). When you love someone, and that someone dies, you are going to feel guilty about treating that person lightly.
One last example before we move on. When Frederic is moved to the hospital in Milan and Catherine comes to be with him, he does start to love her, no doubt about that. But, as Helen Ferguson has to point out to him, he lies in bed all day, and then has Catherine all night, but Catherine has to work in the day and the night so she can be with him, making her tired. Frederic the narrator confesses that Frederic the character treated Catherine "lightly" again, even after he’d fallen in love with her. Again, because she is dead, this seems like a really big deal to Frederic. Picking out moments where he let her down makes her death that much more tragic for him.
There’s another thing that Frederic is confessing. As we see in the "Character Analysis" for the Baby, Frederic indicates, both in the dream sequence and in the scenes at the hospital, that he’s downright resentful of the baby. We can understand that he might think that Catherine would still be alive if the baby hadn’t magically appeared in her belly. But he expresses the resentment he feels before Catherine dies. Or does he? When we remember this is a past-tense narrative, we can suspect that at least some of the resentment is being inserted much later, during the telling of the story.
Either way, we can understand why Frederic wants to confess it. Being resentful of a dead baby is pretty bad, at least in his mind. And it also, oddly enough, contributes to the reliability of the character and the narrator. We may not like that Frederic is and/or was resentful of the kid, but he has no reason to lie about something like that. As we’ve noted, when he tells us something that could be interpreted as shameful, it helps us believe the other things he tells us.
Now, here’s the tricky part. We said that Frederic is confessing because he feels responsible for the death of Catherine, the baby, and even the deaths of the soldiers in the war. How do we know this? From an odd passage at the end of the novel, that’s how. After Frederic tells us about the baby’s death, he tells us about being "in camp," and placing a log on the campfire only to discover it was full of ants:
Some [ants] got out, their bodies burnt and flattened, and went off not knowing where they were going. But most of them went toward the fire and […] finally fell off into the fire. I remember thinking at the time that it was the end of the world and a splendid chance to be the messiah and lift the log off the fire and throw it out where the ants could get off […]. But I did not do anything but throw a tin cup of water on the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whiskey in […](41.226).
Now, it all comes clear. We’ve already seen that Frederic tries to be all things to all people. He wants to be the messiah, he wants to save the world, but something stands in his way. Though we don’t hear much on how Frederic feels about his drinking, this passage suggests that he feels that it actually stands in the way of saving the ants (or soldiers) that are blindingly going into the fire (or the war). This also ties into his possible guilt over deserting from the army. He must feel he deserted the ants (or soldiers) he was supposed to save. We know he did all he could, but if you are the guy trying to save the world, and you fail, you will always think you could have done more.
The passage also suggests that he thought or thinks he could have done something to save the baby (a little ant) from the "fire," if you will, of death, but didn’t. Again, we know he could do nothing to prevent it, but if he thinks he’s the failed messiah, of course he will blame himself. So what does he do? He goes and drinks six beers, comes back to Catherine, and then she dies. If we apply what we’ve learned so far from the passage, he must feel like he drank beer instead of doing something to save Catherine. He is the failed messiah. He wanted to take on the burden of all of humanity, but he just didn’t have the stuff, and possibly let his drinking stand in the way of saving the world. Frederic sure is hard on himself.
So, look how far reliability testing has taken us! Now what do you think of Frederic the narrator, and Frederic the character?