The Biggest Death Comes After the War
Frederic Henry’s journey through the war in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms shows the reader his experience with several encounters of death. His reactions to the deaths of close friends and a lover significantly impact his life more than the death of Italian sergeants, one of which he helps kill himself. The impact of these deaths is life-changing and all of them have one major theme in common throughout the novel. Ernest Hemingway depicts each death and near-death experience with the imagery of rain. Ernest Hemingway relies on some of his own experiences during WW1 to write a novel from the perspective of 19-year-old Frederic Henry who is an American ambulance driver for the Italian Army during WW1. Frederic Henry goes through the war and is always surrounded by death due to being an ambulance driver. Frederic Henry’s journey through the war and life after the war is chaotic with very little positives along the way. However, he maintains one relationship that gets him through the war, only to see that relationship end with death because of him. Frederic Henry deals with several deaths that greatly influence his life. He never seems to get over and accept the deaths of the people closest to him which holds him back for his whole life.
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Henry’s treatment of two Italian sergeants forecasts his run-in with the battle police. When Henry and his fellow ambulance drivers are stuck in the brush, he forces two sergeants who left their troops to help them. The sergeants do not want to help them and instead, they decide to make a run for it. Henry sees this and reacts by, “I opened up my holster, took the pistol, aimed at the one who talked the most, and fired. I missed and they both started to run. I shot three times and dropped one” (Hemingway 177). Henry thinks that shooting at them is the best idea and lets Bonello kill the one that Henry shot. Henry’s justification for the killing can be traced back to an early conversation that he had with the priest when the priest said, “There are people who would make war. There are other people who would not make war” (Hemingway 61) with Henry responding, “But the first ones make them do it” (Hemingway 61). This is in reference to officers or sergeants making war and forcing the others or soldiers into the war. Henry thinks that the soldiers are being forced to fight in a war that they might not agree with and they are willing to sacrifice their own lives when many officers would not do the same. The ambulance drivers see nothing wrong with killing sergeants, especially Bonello, who killed the sergeant when he responded with, “I’ll say bless me, father, I killed a sergeant” and everyone responded with laughter (Hemingway 180). This shows that Henry is tolerant of the death of the sergeant because he is the reason so many different soldiers are dying, however, if the death was more personal than Henry would have a harder time getting over the death.
Henry’s interaction with death takes a personal turn when one of his beloved friends and fellow ambulance driver is killed by friendly fire. With the ambulance stuck in the brush, the drivers are forced to walk to try and reach their troops. They decide to take a side road to stay hidden from the Germans. With the image of rain starting to creep in, the reader can identify something bad is about to happen. When crossing through mud, they encounter gunshots and as a result, “He lay in the mud on the side of the embankment, his feet pointing downhill, breathing blood irregularly” (Hemingway 185). Aymo, one of Henry’s closest friends, was shot and bleed out right in front of him. After seeing this, Henry jumps straight into survival mode and is relied upon as the leader to try and lead the others to safety. He looks for a dark hidden place to stay for the night. While discussing what happened with his other friends, he figures out that, “Those were Italians that shot. They weren’t Germans” (Hemingway 185). This conclusion means that Aymo was killed by friendly fire rather than by the enemy. Henry infers that he needs to avoid Germans as well as the Italians because the Italians are starting to shoot at everyone they come into contact with. Once Henry realizes he is safe, he begins to mourn the loss of his close friend Aymo. This death, being personal, holds a greater weight on Henry than the sergeants who he did not know, but his own near-death experience will affect him even more.
The impact of death has grown each time for Henry, but his own experience will death will change him the most. While crossing a bridge, Henry was mistaken for a German pretending to be an Italian officer because of his foreign accent. The battle police took him and lined him up with other officers who had left their troops in battle to die. While Henry is lined up he describes his experience as, “We stood in the rain and were taken out one at a time to be questioned and shot” (Hemingway 194). Hemingway uses the imagery of rain when describing death again. Henry sees that he has a choice to make, so as someone is being questioned he goes for his one opportunity to survive. He decides to jump into the river to escape from the battle police and save himself. He thought that what the battle police were doing by killing officers who left their troops were wrong, even though he did it himself when he killed a sergeant who was escaping from him earlier in the war. His actions against the battle police are a double standard of what he did when he killed the sergeants, however, just like with the deaths of the previous sergeants, he does not take issue with the battle police killing officers because he puts the blame of the war on them. After his own near-death experience, he is taken to the death that will impact his life the most after the war.
The death that leaves the biggest impact on Henry’s life is the death of Catherine, his lover. Catherine is pregnant with Henry’s child, but Henry is struggling with the thought of him being a father. Henry does want to be there for Catherine though and feels bad for her according to William Cane who says, “He is and knows that he is a guilty man: he killed the woman he loved when he had sex with her, trapping her biologically” (Cane 4) when he is talking about Henry’s feelings toward Catherine. Catherine helps Henry throughout the war, as his nurse and as their relationship grows. After the war, both of them are still together and Catherine goes into labor, but there are complications that require a C-section. The C-section is not successful in saving the baby and Henry is devasted by the loss of a child he never thought he wanted. With the doctors trying to save Catherine, it is revealed to Henry that she probably will not make it out alive. Henry shares his true emotions with her when William Cane says, “Frederic cries because he is losing the woman that he loves. He also cries from the guilt: she is dying because of him” (Cane 16). When faced with the death of Catherine, Henry finally admits how he feels after the entire novel goes back and forth on if he really loves her or not. He cements his love for her by responding with, “I don’t want them” (Hemingway 283) when Catherine tells him, “I want you to have girls, though” (Hemingway 283). This reveals that Henry does not want another lover because of his love for Catherine. Her death leaves him depressed and sad as Hemingway closes the novel with a dreary image of rain falling as Henry makes his way from the hospital to the hotel.
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Frederic Henry saw death constantly throughout the war, but the deaths of the people closest to him left the greatest impact on his life because his life was never the same after losing the people he cared about the most. Henry deals with deaths in multiple ways whether it is joking about it and playing it off like no big deal in the case of the sergeants or whether it was the most serious and life-changing death of his child and lover. Deaths affect everyone differently and everyone should grief and mourn in the best way for them. If anyone is going through the death of someone close to them, they need people to reach out to them and talk through things because that is the best way to help them get through the harder times in life.
- Hemingway Ernest, et al. A Farewell to Arms. Scribner, 2014.
- WILLIAM E. CAIN. “The Death of Love in ‘A Farewell to Arms.’” The Sewanee Review, vol. 121, no. 3, 2013, p. 376. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.43662704&site=eds-live&scope=site.
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