Essay: A Farewell to Arms

I seriously hated this book (A Farewell to Arms).  Here is a copy of the research paper I wrote for my English class if it helps any other students struggling to write something about this craptastic novel.  I did the paper based on gender roles and homosexual references.

A Farewell to Gender Expectations
by Edie Montgomery-Pool

hemingway essayMany layers run through Ernest Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell to Arms. The story takes place during World War I; it is at once a war novel, a love story, a social commentary, and a glimpse into the past.  Hemingway fought in the war and so had firsthand knowledge of the war experience.  World War I, or “The Great War,” was like no other conflict that had come before.  Prior to The Great War, men could prove their manliness or define their masculinity by going to war and fighting.  However, in The Great War, men were being slaughtered at an alarming rate.  The old rules did not apply, and there was little glory to be had.  As Brian Bond puts it in his book, War and Society in Europe 1870-1970:

“The Great War…quickly acquired the reputation as the most terrible of all modern conflicts and retains it in spite all the horrors that have occurred since.  Some 10 million men died as a direct consequence of combat and perhaps as many more from indirect effects.  Whole nations had been subjected to the hardships associated with a prolonged siege…great dynasties had been overthrown… destroying social and political certainties” (135).

World War I

Entire countries and societies were left traumatized.  Additionally, with so many men at war, women on the home front had to step in and take over what were traditionally male roles.  Hemingway’s novel takes place in the midst of all this and focuses on Frederic Henry, an American, who joined the ambulance division of the Italian army, his love interest Catherine Barkley, and his friend and “war brother,” Rinaldi.  There is a certain chaos and craziness that runs throughout the plot and probably reflected, to a certain extent, the world around Hemingway at the time.  A Farewell to Arms illustrates a post World War I era where people’s world views had been so shaken that some questioned social norms and conventions, including those of masculine sexuality and socially assigned gender expectations.

To begin with, despite being hailed as a heterosexual love story, A Farewell to Arms has a large number of homosexual references throughout the book.  These references indicate the author’s questioning of traditional gender roles.  For instance, Henry says, “I will never forget Romulus suckling the Tiber” (Hemingway 76).  Hemingway refers here to the ancient Roman legend of the brothers Romulus and Remus whose great uncle, Amulius, killed their father and usurped the throne.  Amulius set the boys adrift in the Tiber River, which carried them ashore where they were suckled by a she-wolf, thus saving their lives (Abbott 32-33).  An infant could not be suckled by a river, but Tiber is also the name of an ancient Roman river God.  In Roman mythology, Tiber, of course, never suckled Romulus.  So, what appears to be an off-handed literary reference is actually a homo-erotic reference to one male suckling another (that is, one male with his mouth to another’s chest).  Another homosexual reference couched in literary terms is a statement by Rinaldi about Saint Paul. Rinaldi says, “That Saint Paul…He was a rounder and a chaser and then when he was no longer hot he said it was no good.  When he was finished he made the rules for us who are still hot” (Hemingway 173).  It is apparent that Rinaldi is speaking about sex here because of the use of the words “chaser” (pursuing others for sexual gratification) and “hot” (feeling lustful).  Where Saint Paul is quoted in the Bible as speaking out against lustfulness, he specifically mentions the prohibition against both heterosexual and homosexual acts (King James Bible, Corinthians 1-6:9).  Thus, it would make sense that Rinaldi, who appears to be bisexual (which will be discussed further in the following paragraphs), is annoyed by Saint Paul’s rules regarding both heterosexual and homosexual acts.  These are just two of the more obscure references to homosexuality in the book; other references seem move overt, although still subtle enough that some might not notice them upon the first reading.

Rinaldi appears to be, at the very least, bisexual; perhaps he is even a homosexual man trying too hard to appear heterosexual by making himself into the biggest womanizer in a town full of womanizers.  Peter Cohen puts it best in his essay, “‘I Won’t Kiss You … I’ll Send Your English Girl’: Homoerotic Desire in ‘A Farewell to Arms,’” when he says, “What [many] critics…have ignored…is that Rinaldi’s interactions with Frederic largely revolve around trying to get Frederic to agree to a kiss” (1).  The first time Rinaldi appears in the book, he greets Henry in the following way:  “We shook hands and he put his arm around my neck and kissed me.  ‘Oughf,’ I said” (Hemingway 11).  Cohen states that “Frederic’s noted disgust” is evidence that Frederic Henry knows that “Rinaldi’s kisses are somehow tainted” (2).  Shortly after this exchange, Henry proceeds to bathe himself while Rinaldi lies on the bed in the same room; Henry actually bathes himself with Rinaldi in the room on two separate occasions (Hemingway 12, 17).  There is another exchange between Rinaldi and Henry where they discuss Catherine while Rinaldi lies in bed, and later there is an exchange between Rinaldi and Henry while Henry is undressing (Hemingway 27, 32).  It would be easy to say that this is a natural result of their being roommates.  However, Henry goes on to state, “While I rubbed myself with a towel I looked…at Rinaldi lying with his eyes closed on the bed.  He was good-looking…” (Hemingway 12).  As one literary critic notes, “The sexual images of the nakedness and the bed characterize Frederic’s gaze as erotic” (Takeuchi 3).  Additionally, further on in the book, Henry sleeps in Rinaldi’s bed instead of his own (Hemingway 191).  According to Debra Moddelmog in her essay, “The Queer Sensibility of A Farewell to Arms,” this “might be interpreted as his effort to experience a physical closeness to the man he loves and has missed” (9).  It seems apparent that there is more to their relationship than what is on the surface.

hemingway essayThere is much more evidence in the book that Rinaldi is written as a character whose feelings toward Henry are more than brotherly.  Rinaldi is an individual who does not follow the usual sexual or social gender roles that the reader would expect to see in a male character.  Rinaldi frequently refers to Henry as “baby,” a term usually used by lovers.  While it can be argued that the term “baby” could be a cultural misunderstanding by Rinaldi, whose first language is not English, it should be noted that no other Italian characters in the book call other men “baby,” and even Rinaldi himself does not refer to anyone else as “baby,” except for Henry.  As mentioned earlier, Rinaldi is consistently either kissing Henry or attempting to kiss Henry.  Rinaldi kisses or attempts to kiss Henry in their room (Hemingway 11), in the hospital (Hemingway 63, 67), before Henry goes to Milan (Hemingway 77), and when Henry is in bed, again sharing a room with Rinaldi after his stay in the hospital (Hemingway 168). There is never a mention of how the kiss is delivered (the cheek?, the forehead? the lips?), and the reader is left to make his or her own interpretations.  The most telling passage regarding the underlying nature of both Rinaldi and Henry is the scene where Rinaldi visits Henry in the hospital.  Rinaldi says to Henry, “Sometimes I think you and he are a little that way.  You know” (Hemingway 65).  Rinaldi then goes on to say, “Oh I love to tease you, baby.  With your priest and your English girl, and really you are just like me underneath” (Hemingway 66).  Rinaldi then explains that he means they are both Italian, but there seems to be an allusion to sexual preferences beneath the surface of the conversation.  Rinaldi also says he loves Henry twice in this conversation:  “We are brothers and we love each other” (Hemingway 66) and “We won’t quarrel, baby.  I love you too much” (Hemingway 67).   At one point, Henry says of Rinaldi, “I was glad to see Rinaldi again.  He had spent two years teasing me and I had always liked it” (Hemingway 169).  When the subject of Henry’s relationship with Catherine Barkley comes up, Rinaldi says that he is jealous.  Henry says “No, you’re not,” and Rinaldi replies, “I don’t mean like that.  I mean something else” (Hemingway 170).  Cohen draws the conclusion that “his behavior towards Frederic might…suggest that we look for two love stories in A Farewell to Arms instead of the usual one” (10).

Rinaldi is not the only person in the book with hints of sexual tension between himself and the main character; the priest also has a complex relationship with Henry.  When Rinaldi visits Henry in the hospital, he tells him that the priest is coming to see him and has made “big preparations” (Hemingway 65).  It is Henry’s relationship with the priest that causes Rinaldi to accuse him of being “a little that way” (Hemingway 65).  When he comes to see Henry, the priest looks “…out of the window embarrassedly,” (Hemingway 68).  Moddelmog states that his behavior “seems more the response of an awkward teenager with a crush than that of a friend or even of a priest, whose job it is to give comfort to the wounded” (9).  The priest also buys Henry presents, some of them hard to come by (he has to send away to another town for the newspapers that he brings), and seems extremely pleased when he sees that Henry likes the gifts (Hemingway 69).  The priest is even disappointed when one of his gifts, a bottle of vermouth, is partially ruined when the orderly breaks the cork on the bottle, which results in the cork having to be shoved down into the vermouth.  This, again, is more consistent with the behavior of someone with a crush than someone who is visiting out of duty or mere friendship.  When Henry is released from the hospital and returns to the front, Rinaldi makes a comment about the priest that, “If he knew Frederico was here he would be here” (Hemingway 172).   Later, Henry and the priest talk in Henry’s room; the priest sits on Henry’s cot while Henry lies on Rinaldi’s bed and strokes the blanket with his hand (Hemingway 178).  All of these things taken together seem to point to an attraction between the priest and Henry.

Slang from the time period opens up further questions as to the layers of meaning within Hemingway’s novel regarding sexual preference.  The word use in the novel shows that the author is flirting with cultural bounds.  Take, for instance, the word “beard,” a slang term for a “woman who dates or marries a gay man to provide cover for his homosexuality” (Dickson 263).  While the men are sitting around drinking, they joke about nurses with beards.  Henry says, “I don’t mind their beards…If any man wants to raise a beard let him” (Hemingway 77).  Right after the discussion regarding beards, Catherine Barkley is mentioned by Rinaldi.  Another slang word for “homosexual” in the early 1900s was “boy” (Cornyn).  The word “boy” is used over a dozen times in the book to describe various people.  One might argue that in the armed services, many of the men were very young, perhaps around 18 years old, which could explain the use of the term.  While most of the characters’ ages are not mentioned, the term “boy” is used to describe Ettore whose age is given as twenty-three (Hemingway 124).  This is somewhat older than what people would usually refer to as a “boy.”  Also, Henry once refers to the priest as “boy” after the priest states that he has “never loved any woman” (Hemingway 72).  The priest replies, “I am a boy…But you call me father” (Hemingway 72).  Perhaps this statement by the priest is a way to acknowledge his homosexuality while reminding Henry of his station—that of a priest who has given up all sexual aspects of his life.  Slang is another method Hemingway uses to incorporate double meaning into his novel.

Hemingway essayOne other occurrence that might suggest an interest in homosexuality or bisexuality is the fantasy Henry has during the early stage of his romance with Catherine Barkley; he daydreams about going to a hotel with her (Hemingway 37-38).  The fantasy starts off with an elevator ride up to the room and the mention of the elevator boy opening the door.  Moreover, Henry also mentions or implies the presence of four separate men during this fantasy:  the porter, the concierge, the elevator boy, and the boy who brings the ice bucket to their room while he and Catherine are inside and unclothed.  Why would he not just start the fantasy with him and Catherine in the room and why mention all these other people and details?  Perhaps the sexual element of his fantasy included more than just Catherine.

Two other recurring themes within Hemingway’s works are the woman in the dominant sexual role and penetration of the male body, according to Richard Fantina’s article titled “Hemingway’s Masochism, Sodomy, and the Dominant Woman.”   The penetration can either be sexual or symbolic, as in penetration of the body by way of a wound.  Fantina includes the three following examples of the implied sodomy:  first, in the dream sequence in Islands in the Stream (Jan possibly sodomizes Thomas with a gun); second, the possible sodomy of Jake by Brett when they perform some unspecified sex act while he lies with his face away from her in The Sun Also Rises; and third, the description of the sodomy of David by his wife Catherine in The Garden of Eden (10-14).  In A Farewell to Arms, Henry is wounded.  It also appears that Henry is penetrated by Catherine when she has to get him ready for surgery, presumably by giving him an enema, although the enema itself is never directly mentioned.  When Henry asks Catherine, “What do you have to do to get me ready for Valentini?” she replies, “Not much.  But quite unpleasant” (Hemingway 103).  Shortly afterward, she tells him, “There, darling.  Now you’re all clean inside and out” (Hemingway 104).  When Henry and Catherine stay in Switzerland, Catherine tells him, “I want you so much I want to be you.”  She says she wishes she had “stayed with all your girls so I could make fun of them to you,” and wants to cut her hair short while Henry grows his hair longer, which suggests a reversal of roles with Catherine in the dominant, traditionally male position (Hemingway 299).  Therefore, the events in A Farewell to Arms are consistent with Fantina’s theory regarding dominant females and male penetration as recurring themes in Hemingway’s work.

Hemingway essayIn spite of the homosexual references, there are many examples of the socially accepted, traditional male role in the book, although adhering to these roles does not always prove to be beneficial.  First and probably most often mentioned in the book, is the fact that most men in the novel, at least the manly ones, are heavy drinkers.  In fact, there is a house doctor who is described as “a thin quiet little man who seemed disturbed by the war” who removes the foreign bodies from Henry’s leg with “delicate and refined distaste” (Hemingway 94).  He is one of the three doctors whose incompetence Henry remarks upon (Hemingway 95).  Henry offers the house doctor a drink, to which he replies, “No thank you.  I never drink alcohol” (Hemingway 98).  This is in direct juxtaposition to Dr. Valentini, the very competent surgeon who operates right away and repairs Henry’s knee and who also flirts with Catherine.  When Valentini is offered a drink, he says, “A drink?  Certainly.  I will have ten drinks.  Where are they?” (Hemingway 99).  The implication is clear that the incompetent, delicate, and nondrinking house doctor is unmanly, and the competent, boisterous, and presumably virile surgeon, Dr. Valentini, is very manly, so that it logically follows that he is an enthusiastic drinker.  Secondly, Henry repeatedly exhibits stoicism.  He sustains a very serious injury to his leg, yet never panics or complains.  He even insists that other men be treated by the doctors before he is (Hemingway 58).  Third, Henry is a take charge kind of guy, as when the road is blocked during the retreat and he looks for a side road (Hemingway 198).  He is a good leader, and his men look up to him and rely on him to tell them what to do.  Henry also exhibits the traditional male role of being brave:  he leaves the trench to go find food for his men, and he goes first across the railway bridge in case it is mined (Hemingway 51, 210).  Lastly, he is sexually experienced with women, something that is seen as reinforcing masculinity.  In the beginning of the story, it is evident that he has visited the town prostitutes, and later on, he confesses to Catherine that he has been with a lot of women (Hemingway 104).  All of these things reinforce the typical and expected male role, but not necessarily the continuance of those roles.  In her article, “Invalid Masculinity:  Silence, Hospitals, and Anesthesia in A Farewell to Arms,” Diane Herndle quotes essayist Elaine Showalter as saying, “If the essence of manliness was not to complain…then shell shock was the body language of masculine complaint, a disguised male protest not only against the war but against the concept of ‘manliness’ itself” (4).  Thus Henry’s stoicism, similar to shell shock in that he does not express his pain whether it be physical or emotional, does not necessarily serve him well.  The heavy drinking certainly does not serve most of the men well, as Henry ends up getting jaundice and Rinaldi drinks so much his hands begin to shake—not a good thing for someone whose occupation is that of a surgeon.  Leadership is also shown to be not as desirable as one would think:  the Italian battle police shoot their own officers without any logical reason or provocation (Hemingway 224).  Lastly, womanizing has its downfalls, as evidenced by Rinaldi who might have syphilis.

Hemingway’s depiction of men and masculinity in the story, while reinforcing certain male stereotypes, simultaneously shows men who exhibit behaviors that are unexpected or that even directly contradict those of the traditionally held views of masculinity at that time.  For example, Henry carries a gun around.  He practices and becomes quite skilled with it.  What could be more masculine?  Yet he is uncomfortable.  He calls the act of carrying a gun “ridiculous” and says that he feels shame (Hemingway 29).  Alex Vernon, in “War, Gender, and Ernest Hemingway,” sheds light on why a soldier in World War I might feel it was ridiculous to carry a gun around town and explains the military impotence of many of the soldiers of that era:

“One historical consensus about World War I is the unprecedented degree to which its soldiers were rendered passive by the new technology of machine guns, indirect fire artillery, and mustard gas. Soldiers rarely had the opportunity to fight the enemy, not in any classic sense in which one’s own agency and skill might affect the outcome” (10).

Perhaps Henry is aware of these effects of modern warfare and that is why the gun does not reinforce his own sense of secure masculinity.  Henry is also an ambulance driver, a service similar to that of the Red Cross.  This was not seen as a masculine endeavor.  Vernon goes on to say that “war posters clearly depicted Red Cross work as a feminine endeavor. The threat of Red Cross service to a man’s male image was widespread and persistent” (5).  His role within the war effort and his uneasiness with the gun are not traditionally thought of as masculine traits, yet, in many ways, the character of Frederic Henry is one of the most masculine characters within the book.

Indeed, many of the “manly” stereotypes mentioned earlier are contradicted within A Farewell to Arms, giving the reader a well-rounded view regarding the diversity of possible male experiences.  Although Henry starts out as a man who only wants sex as opposed to love, it is not long before he desires a deeper connection.  He says of his visits with Catherine, “This was better than going every evening to the house for officers where the girls climbed all over you and put your cap on backward as a sign of affection between their trips upstairs with brother officers” (Hemingway 30).  Additionally, while there is a definite message in many parts of the book that manly men drink alcohol, the character of Ettore is in direct opposition to both the heavy drinking and womanizing male images of masculinity.  Ettore is a brave, decorated war hero who says of himself, “I don’t drink and I don’t run around.  I’m no boozer and whorehound.  I know what’s good for me” (Hemingway 123).  Then again, the image of the brave warrior is not always upheld within the book because there are many instances where men are not brave and it is in no way held against them.  When Henry is sent into the field, he sees a crew that is scared, and later he talks about seeing the wounded come in and mentions how scared they are, as well (Hemingway 51, 186).  He even goes to the extent of helping a man purposely injure himself so as to get out of fighting in the war (Hemingway 34).  These men are not portrayed as unmanly, just merely caught in an undesirable situation and doing the best they can to cope.   Ultimately, even Henry’s stoicism cannot withstand the senseless slaying of the officers by the battle police, and he desserts.  While initially he flees to save his own life, he could have reported back in at a different location once he got away.  However, he does not do that; he portrays a complex personality that encompasses the act of desertion while still maintaining a male mode of behavior in which his masculinity is in no way reduced.

hemingway essayThe text within any book is, of course, open to the subjective interpretation of the reader, and some might refute, for example, that the interpretation of the exchanges between Rinaldi and Henry are homosexual in nature.  One might pose the rebuttal that the Rinaldi/Henry relationship demonstrates homosociality rather than an undertone of homosexuality.   The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines homosociality as, “of, relating to, or involving social relationships between persons of the same sex and especially between men.”  Rebecca Gould gives a more focused view of homosociality in an article she wrote that appeared in the journal, “Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900,” when she speaks of the formation of “successful relationships with other men and thus access to women” (4).   Could Rinaldi and Henry’s relationship be a successful male social bond that gives both men access to greater success, including success in regards to exploits with women?  At first glance, it might seem that way.  Rinaldi is the first to meet Catherine Barkley and essentially procures her for Frederic Henry, who then successfully courts and beds her.  Additionally, one could argue that the relationship seems to be homosexual from the point of view of an American due to the fact that many European cultures, including Italian, are traditionally more demonstrative than the culture of the United States.  Indeed, if one were to look at these things one at a time, the case for homosociality would seem to be rather strong.  One soldier might jokingly or even affectionately refer to another as “baby,” military bunkmates might have to bathe in front of one another as a matter of convenience, a man might stroke a blanket (as Henry did when he was lying on Rinaldi’s bed while talking to the priest) as a way to comfort himself in the midst of a terrible war, and an Italian might be culturally inclined to kiss another male without it being a big deal.   However, if the reader takes into account all of the Rinaldi/Henry references mentioned above combined with the other homosexual references throughout the novel, including those pertaining to the priest, the case for homosexuality is overwhelming.  Additionally and tellingly, Hemingway’s publisher, Max Perkins, exchanged letters with Hemingway in which Perkins expressed the desire to remove the scene between Rinaldi and Henry in the hospital (the one where Rinaldi tells Henry he always thought Henry and the priest were “a little that way”) in the serialized version of the novel.  Moddelmog writes of this exchange, “Why wouldn’t the editors of a respected publishing house and magazine prefer to eliminate a reference that might raise not only eyebrows but ire? What is strange is that Hemingway included the homosexual allusion in the first place and then insisted it not be touched” (1).  Given this evidence, it is clear that homosexuality is a definite and intentional subtext within the book.

In conclusion, the exploration of the boundaries of conventions regarding sex and gender are distinct themes within A Farewell to Arms.   As Patrick Blair Bonds puts it in his article, “Hemingway, Gender Identity, and the ‘Paris 1922’ Apprenticeship,” “For many observers, the boundary between ‘male’ and ‘female’ was the most significant casualty of the war” (4).  The overall topics of the book are love and war, and just below the surface are an assortment of questions and observations about the nature of these two things, especially as they relate to masculinity.  The novel not only tells a narrative about war, but shows the reader how modern warfare can dispossess a man of his masculinity rather than reinforce it.  The book tells the story of a man and woman who profess their love for one another, but also provides glimpses into the affectionate and possibly sexually charged relationships between men.  Written during an era of great social and political change, Hemingway’s novel is multi-leveled and complex.  The reader is taken through a storyline where the model of masculinity is concurrently dominant and passive, ruthless and deeply caring, insanely brave and completely terrified, and so on.  Hemingway paints a picture, not of black and white, but of the many shades of gray that reflect real life.  Through his work, the reader is able to put together a true example of the male gender, with all its variety and complexity, within this period of time.

What did you think of the novel?  Love it?  Hate it?  Completely ambivalent?  Comments welcome.

Works Cited

Abbott, Frank Frost. A Short History of Rome. New York: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1906. Print.

Bond, Brian. War and Society in Europe 1870-1970. Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003. Print.

Bonds, Patrick Blair. “Hemingway, Gender Identity, and the ‘Paris 1922’ Apprenticeship.” The Hemingway Review 29.1 (2009): 123+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.

Cohen, Peter F. “‘I Won’t Kiss You … I’ll Send Your English Girl’: Homoerotic Desire in ‘A Farewell to Arms.’.” The Hemingway Review 15.1 (1995): 42+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Nov. 2011.

Cornyn, William Stewart. “American Speech: Hotel Slang (1939).” The New York Times 19 Oct. 2010. Web. 13 Nov. 2011.

Dickson, Paul. Slang: The Topical Dictionary of Americanisms. New York: Walker Publishing Company Inc., 2006. Print.

Fantina, Richard. “Hemingway’s Masochism, Sodomy, and the Dominant Woman.” The Hemingway Review 23.1 (2003): 84+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.

Gould, Rebecca. “Sterne’s Sentimental Yorick as Male Hysteric.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 36.3 (1996): 641+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 25 Nov. 2011.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957. Print.

Herndl, Diane Price. “Invalid Masculinity: Silence, Hospitals, and Anesthesia in A Farewell to Arms. (Articles).” The Hemingway Review 21.1 (2001): 38+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 22 Nov. 2011.

King James Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984.

Merriam-Webster. Encyclopedia Britannica Company. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.

Moddelmog, Debra A. “‘We Live in a Country Where Nothing Makes Any Difference’: The Queer Sensibility of A Farewell to Arms.” The Hemingway Review 28.2 (2009): 7+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Nov. 2011.

Takeuchi, Masaya. “Frederic’s Conflict Between Homosociality and Heterosexuality: War, Marvell, and Sculpture in A Farewell to Arms.” Midwest Quarterly Vol. 53 Issue 1 (2011): Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.

Vernon, Alex. “War, Gender, and Ernest Hemingway.” The Hemingway Review 22.1 (2002): 34+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.


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