Ma-ri-a! He just met a girl named Maria! And we really do mean just met. Maria and Robert Jordan know each other for three and a half days, and sleep with each other what, maybe eight hours and fewer than one hundred exchanged words after meeting? Yet all it takes is a single evening in the pine-needles and they are meant for each other. My, wasn't that quick?
There is definitely something about Maria, though, because everyone seems to be in love with her. Pablo is in love with her, in a creepy-ish kind of way. Agustín is in love with her too, in a romantic, almost knightly kind of way – he doesn't say anything because he respects her vulnerability (and because Pilar would probably kill him), and offers to "serve" Robert Jordan and Maria however he can once Robert Jordan comes on the scene. Pilar is in love with her in a motherly kind of way, taking care of her from the moment of her arrival and teaching her "womanly things." Joaquin is in love with her in a teenage boy crushing on girl kind of way. And Primitivo's at least curious about how she is in bed. So, basically, everybody loves Maria.
What is it about Maria that's so loveable? Maria represents something delicate, something that has been horrifically damaged by war (losing her family, being raped, being imprisoned). When the band first rescues Maria during a train raid, she is traumatized, and no doubt it's pity and sympathy which make them all take an interest in her, and maybe the fact that Maria is very attractive. However, at first "she would not speak and she cried all the time and if any one touched her she would shiver like a wet dog" (2.180).
After she starts to recover from the trauma, though, Maria becomes warm, open, and lively – and this happens shortly before Robert Jordan arrives. Something about her is still naïve, delicate, unblemished, and enchanting, in spite of all that's happened to her. Factor in that all of the people around her are in an otherwise bleak and miserable situation, which seems to steadily be growing worse, and Maria is a light in the gray. No wonder everybody's taken with her.
In her own way, you might say Maria ties the group together with hope. In spite of all that's been done to her, she's able to recover and somehow remain a sweet, merry, naïve, innocent teenage girl. That recovery is apparently completed when she meets Robert Jordan. Through their love (and specifically their love-making), she finds that it's as if "what was done to her never happened."
Maria, and her relationship with Robert Jordan, are a breath of the happy, normal life beyond war. That's why Pilar is so eager to bring Maria and Robert Jordan together – their young love offers something hopeful and ultimately untarnished by war.
Well, we've just discussed the sympathetic take on Maria. There's also a more cynical one. You see there's this problem with Maria. She's very important to many of the characters around her, and she's "symbolically" important as a redemptive symbol of purity. But when it all comes down to it, is there really that much to Maria herself?
Feminist readers of Hemingway have argued that he creates weak, formulaic female characters who have only one purpose: clinging to, and sexually gratifying, their man. (For a great discussion, for example, check out Catherine Barkley's "Character Analysis" in Shoomp's guide to A Farewell to Arms.) The same could be (and has been) said of Maria. She just jumps into Robert Jordan's sleeping bag before we know her, and no sooner is she in there with him than she's all "Let me be your woman for the rest of my life!" Even though he's not willing to commit to anything yet. As in:
"And now I am happy that I did not die. I am so happy that I did not die. And you can love me?"
"Yes. I love you now."
"And I can be thy woman?"
"I cannot have a woman doing what I do. But thou art my woman now."
"If once I am, then I will keep on. Am I thy woman now?"
"Yes, Maria. Yes, my little rabbit." (8.99-104)
It's bad enough that Robert Jordan calls her rabbit, since we all know the one thing rabbits (or "bunnies") love to do – Maria clearly likes to do it too. What's worse, Robert Jordan seems to value Maria mainly for one thing: her body. Whenever Maria feels down and out about her short hair, which makes her feel ugly, how does reassure her? Not her personality: "Thou hast a lovely body […] The loveliest in the world" (13.38), the "magic" of which he then goes on to talk about. Is there really anything to this relationship other than naked, unadorned, at times earth-shaking lust?
Another point along these lines: not only is Maria quick to offer herself as Robert Jordan's "woman," she also has pretty traditional ideas about what this means: she wants to shave his beard, light his cigarettes (no joke), tend his wounds, and make his coffee (just have a look at Chapter Thirteen). A little bit of less-traditional stuff too: she wants to clean his gun, shoot him if he needs to be shot, and even "hold his machine gun" while he fires.
It's not that hard to come to the conclusion that, as scholar Gerry Brenner puts it (incoming jargon alert), Maria is "a nubilized princess, the fantasized dream maiden whose infantilized dependency and submissive eroticism caters to all that feminists find most reprehensible in the male gaze" (source).
It is true that, plot-wise, Maria doesn't do a whole lot besides help to transform and enrich Robert Jordan. So if you want to defend her character and go in search of her hidden depths, you kind of have to look at their relationship. What makes their love tick? It's certainly not that they know each other well. On their last night, when Maria's not quite feeling up to sex, Robert Jordan says, "Let us talk together. I know thee very little from talking" (31.12). You've got that right, Robert. So what's the deal?
We can think of a couple possible answers. One is that there really is some kind of "magical" connection between the two which just locks into place as soon as they meet each other. Being magical, we can't quite understand (and hence might find totally unbelievable). Robert Jordan himself, who does find a lot that's "magical" in it, can't quite understand it either, and frequently questions their love, though he always ends up admitting it's real.
Maria claims to perceive their connection instantly, when on the first night, having barely known Robert Jordan, she says, "Then you and me we are the same […] Now I know why I have felt as I have" (6.45-47). All of this stuff about being the same, or being one, is essential to their romance (and, we might add, any Hemingway romance, right down to the language). Yet what provokes her to notice their deep "sameness" is a brief conversation they have about their fathers, who have precisely two things in common: they were Republicans (one in Spain, one in America), and they died in tragic ways. And beyond that, we're not really given any idea of what else they have in common.
The cynical way of looking at their relationship is that they're both blowing their feelings out of proportion. Maria's just your average teenage girl, she's been scarred by her past, she's lost her family and feels alone, and she's never been with a man she desired. Along comes a handsome, older foreigner who radiates a kind of cool, is good at blowing things up, and has got just a trace of the hero in him, and she totally crushes on him. (She is, after all, about nineteen years old.) Didn't you think it was a huge, universe-changing deal the first time you really liked someone? Add in the desperate, hopeless times, and you get Robert Jordan and Maria, who mutually dream up their "cosmic" relationship. What's your take? Is their love real or imagined?