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Frederic Henry

Frederic Henry is a character in a novel by Ernest Hemingway.

Author Milan Kundera once wrote his characters were not of woman born, but of an idea, of a decision he faced and didn't exploit the possibilities, circumvented a border instead of crossing it. Beyond the border, in fact, beyond the border of his own "I", started the realm in which his characters exist. They were familiar to him, but he could never reach them. I think the same holds true for Hemingway and his characters. Frederic Henry and Robert Jordan are perfect examples of "bordercrossers". Lt. Henry didn't want the medal of honor because he knew he didn't deserve it and deserted when realizing the true nature of war, Lt. Hemingway didn't take such drastic steps though he too had realized how pointless the war was. Robert Jordan took an active part in the Spanish Civil War and was willing to die for the country he loved, Ernest Hemingway was a non-combatant all the time.

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Mr. Hemingway doesn't provide his readers with much information about the family background and the past of Frederic Henry, one simply gets to know that he had quarrels with his relatives and therefore doesn't maintain contact any more. Three family members are briefly mentioned, his mother, sister and grandfather. When asked about his father he states he had none, just a step-father. Maybe Hemingway was still battered by his own father's suicide and therefore removed all information on Frederic's father. Henry came to Italy to study architecture in Rome and, speaking Italian, joined the army for no real reason ("I was a fool"(A Farewell (1.), p. 227)), except for his eagerness for adventure ("In the old days I would have [...] picked a fight"(A Farewell (1.), p. 217)). The sight drafts he receives from his grandfather are the only link to his home, he doesn't pay much attention to his grandfather's letters, the only one mentioned in the whole book is handled in two short lines among many others.


Henry tries to keep from thinking throughout the entire book, maybe he, too, fears getting "gloomy"(For Whom (5.), p. 18), he did not want to get emotionally involved in anything, neither in a love affair nor in the war. He was, in a way, convinced of the need for victory, but stated "It [the war] had nothing to do with me"(A Farewell (1.), p. 34). Talking about military maneuvers, he always referred to the Italian army as "them", thus stressing he doesn't see himself as part of the army as an ideological and patriotic institution. He doesn't report much about violence and death, if it happened, he mentioned it briefly, superficially, always refusing to have any feelings about it, always trying to get away from it. Even when he shot one of the Sergeants, he described it as if he was hunting ("I shot three times and dropped one"(A Farewell (1.), p. 182)), trying not to realize he shot a sentient being.

His attitude towards religion is a bit strange, though. On the one hand, he often said something around the lines "I had no religion"(A Farewell (1.), p. 289), but on the other hand he prayed not only for Catherine's life but also for his own ("Oh, God, I said, get me out of here."(A Farewell (1.), p. 51)). As a matter of fact, Hemingway was a convert under fire and the line "It is in defeat we become Christian"(A Farewell (1.), p. 160) clearly refers to that. The later statements about having no religion can be explained best by Henry's own words "He [the priest] had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, was always able to forget."(A Farewell (1.), p. 13).

Of course, this does not only refer to his religiosity, but also to his opinions about the war. To improve the process of forgetting that enables him to ignore all the violence, he drinks a great lot of alcohol throughout the whole novel ("I'm very brave when I've had a drink"(A Farewell (1.), p. 126)).


The wall of emotional numbness Frederic Henry had set up before the novel started, crumbled when he first met Catherine, he felt he couldn't ignore all the sorrow and pain any longer, and began to separate from the rude society at the mess. This progress started when he proposed Catherine "Let's drop the war"(A Farewell (1.), p. 24) and was completed with the discovery "Then I realized it was over for me"(A Farewell (1.), p. 219), he "had made a separate peace"(A Farewell (1.), p. 217). His discovery had a multitude of reasons. First of all, as an ambulance driver, he had seen quite an amount of bloodshed when he carried off the wounded and dead. He could feel the inhumanity even more intense after his own wounding, when the man in the stretcher above him had a hemorrhage and the blood of the dying soldier slowly dripped on his shirt and nobody did anything about it. Prior to his wounding, he discussed with the ambulance drivers he was commanding. Since they agreed with their colleagues later in the novel, who "don't believe in the war anyway"(A Farewell (1.), p. 194), his sacrifice is rendered in vain, he almost died for nothing. It is worth noting that those eight ambulance drivers are the only soldiers to be described in the novel, therefore they act as representatives of the lower levels of the army hierarchy. Thus both Frederic Henry and the reader get the impression that the war is just wanted by the leaders, who don't care about human life (""How are all the wounded evacuated?" "They are not. [...]" "What will I take in the cars?" "Hospital equipment.""(A Farewell (1.), p. 168)) and the ambitious, like Ettore ("He's the boy they're running the war for"(A Farewell (1.), p. 109)). Furthermore, Frederic's talks with the priest in chapters 11 and 26 made him reach a certain state of awareness that left him more vulnerable to the cruelty surrounding him. He seemed to be most affected by the fate of Rinaldi. His prophecy "This war is killing me"(A Farewell (1.), p. 150) makes him commit "self-destruction day by day"(A Farewell (1.), p. 155). Together with all the other influences, his ongoing decline and its inevitable end reaffirmed Henry's decision to leave it all behind and made him condemn the war instead of supporting it by being an officer.

Catherine: A vehicle for the women in Hemingway's life

More than most of his other figures, Catherine Barkley is not a character by herself, but much more a vehicle for all kinds of experiences Hemingway made in his life so far. First of all, as she enters the novel, she clearly is the counterpart of the already mentioned Hannah Agnes von Kurowsky, later, when Helen Ferguson is with her and especially when Ferguson complained about Henry, Catherine can be viewed upon as an image of Hadley Richardson. In the end, the labor pains and the Cesarean section are a clear reference to Pauline Pfeiffer.

But it is not all that easy. Catherine often says about herself that "There isn't any me any more"(A Farewell (1.), p. 96). Only when she is "self-conscious"(A Farewell (1.), p. 125), she is one of those women. When she is with Frederic, she adopts his ideas and vice versa. They form a unit that serves as an item of reflection for Hemingway's theories about life and death, which are always developed in the discussion of the lovers. She knows the poems he quotes and the books he is talking about, they have got so much in common that it's hard to tell them apart. The following dialogue may illustrate this(A Farewell (1.), pp. 125 through 126):

"They [the brave] die of course."
"But only once."
"I don't know. Who said that?"
"The coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave but one?"
"Of course. Who said it?"
"I don't know."
"He was probably a coward," she said. "He knew a great deal about cowards but nothing about the brave. The brave dies perhaps two thousand deaths if he's intelligent. He simply doesn't mention them."
"I don't know. It's hard to see inside the head of the brave."
"Yes. That's how they keep that way."

Without any former explanation, they always know what the other one is talking about. They develop, without disagreeing or arguing, a philosophy that represents Hemingway's code of courage, called "grace under pressure".

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