Note: This post is part of The Hemingway Collection, an archive of essays, images, and hyperlinks to interesting articles about the great American author.
“In Ruth’s Country” and A Farewell to Arms, an essay by Matthew Mahony
In Rick Bass’ short story entitled “In Ruth’s Country”, and in A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, the environment is symbolically used to portray the present and future state of relationships, and to serve as a means to freedom from obligation. Both authors intertwine the main characters’ dialogue with their descriptions and observations to create an underlying theme. Henry and Catherine in A Farewell to Arms, along with Ruth and the narrator of “In Ruth’s Country” all wish to escape impositions. Catherine and Henry retreat from the war, whereas Ruth and the narrator flee from the Mormon Church. Bass and Hemingway symbolically portray the progress and future of the young couples’ relationships through environmental descriptions.
Throughout “In Ruth’s Country”, Bass allegorically uses the river to convey the condition of Ruth and the narrator’s relationship. The stream is a symbol of freedom and escape. The river is where the young couple is completely free to test the moral and physical boundaries. Ruth and the narrator carelessly lounge around naked on the boulders that line the bank of the river. They occasionally venture into the rapids, although neither of them can swim. “It was a game to see how close we could get to the rapids’ pull” (Bass 141). Metaphorically, the game is to see how far each other will carry the rebellious relationship. The canyon, where the game takes place, is void of the restrictions present in Moab, Utah. “Down in the gorge like that, there was only sun, and river, and sky, and the boulders around which the river flowed” (Bass 141). Ruth and the narrator are completely free from all social obligations and left with only each other to trust. “Ankle-deep, and then knee-deep, I would come up behind Ruth, hold her hand, and then go out a little farther” (Bass 141). The river unites them and renders a limitless environment. Even physical restrictions, such as not being able to swim, do not hinder them.
The river is also portrayed as a symbol of escape after Ruth and the narrator are separated. When their relationship is obviously over, the narrator encounters Ruth embracing her Bible. He states, “We were in a strange building, a strange hallway, and the river seemed very far away” (Bass 145). Ruth fled back to her religion and now apparently trusts it.
The river will no longer unite them in trust and freedom because Ruth is now bound by the rules of the Mormon Church.
One of the narrator’s jobs is to keep the cattle of Homer, the Mormon Bishop, separate from Uncle Mike’s heifers. This segregation mirrors the religious divisions present in the society of Moab, Utah. The Mormon people rarely associate with non-Mormons such as Uncle Mike and the narrator. After Uncle Mike’s heifers continue to have stillborn calves, due to Homer’s bulls, the narrator and Ruth rebel. They chase three of Bishop Homer’s bulls over the cliff and they perish in the river below.
“We ran three of Bishop Homer’s woolly bulls right over the gorge, and we shouted, throwing things, and chased them toward it” (Bass 137-138).
Metaphorically, Ruth and the narrator rebel against the Mormon faith. The river helps them rid of the invasive and detrimental Mormon influence (the Bishop’s bulls) and, therefore, escape. After they finish their work, Ruth’s comment implies that it is impossible to dispose of every bull.
“‘How many cattle would you say he has” (Bass 138)? This ominous query signifies that they will never completely rid of the Mormon influence in their lives. Through this metaphor, Bass effectively foreshadows that the couple will fail to escape the Mormon Church.
Ernest Hemingway also uses the water as a symbol of freedom in A Farewell to Arms. The first instance in which the water serves as a means of escape is when the Italians retreat. During the retreat, Henry is severed from the men under his command. As he crosses a crowded bridge, he is pulled aside for questioning. Italian commanders interrogate and execute every man before him. As he awaits certain death, he decides that his only hope is to dash for the water. “I ducked down, pushed between two men, and ran for the river, my head down. I tripped at the edge and went in with a splash. The water was very cold and I stayed under as long as I could. I could feel the current swirl me” (Hemingway 224). The water enables Henry to escape death. However, it also rids of his animosity and duty to Italy. “Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation” (Hemingway 232). It liberates Henry from his obligations just as it absolves Ruth and the narrator’s social obligations in “In Ruth’s Country”. Later in the novel, Henry and Catherine also utilize the water to escape. When Henry is told that he will be arrested in the morning, he and Katherine set out for Switzerland in a rowboat. Henry rows all night and into the early morning. Upon their arrival they are arrested, but then quickly released. Again, although less symbolic than in “In Ruth’s Country”, the river serves as a means to freedom.
Throughout “In Ruth’s Country”, Bass utilizes the northern mountains and the wind’s scents as metaphors for the forbidden love and relationship the young couple strives to achieve. Initially, the north is crisp with cool air, bright with snow, and alive with trees. Although they are out of reach, the narrator feels the mountains have a certain mysterious lure.
They are depicted as a destination or goal of which Ruth and the narrator are constantly aware. “The north has the cool and blue forests and mountains?and like so many things when seen from a distance, they look unattainable, like a mystery or a promise” (Bass 130). In addition, one of Bishop Homer’s three wives resides up north, in Logan, Utah. Bass combines this fact and Ruth’s comment to characterize the north as a refuge for Mormons of weaker faith. “Logan was ‘in the very northern part of the state’ it was usually where the not-so-very-good Mormons went” (Bass 136). The north is also where the narrator dreams of moving with Ruth. His fantasies and the description of the north as a goal, imply that the couple wishes to sever any ties to the Mormon faith. Bass’ description of the wind that blows off of these mountains and across the Utah desert depicts the state of Ruth and the narrator’s relationship.
During Ruth’s first, innocent, and harmless visit to the narrator’s house “the wind started to blow, the way it did every night” (Bass 134). However, she continues to return. In Moab, Utah, it is understood that the church forbids relationships between non-Mormons and Mormons. As Ruth becomes a regular at the narrator’s house, Bass’ description of the northerly wind tells the reader that a relationship is forthcoming. “The wind on the back patio was better than it had ever been that year; it seemed to bring new scents from new places, and it was stronger” (Bass 137). Eventually, Ruth and the narrator shed all of their inhibitions and frequently spend their time together naked. This activity blatantly ignores Mormon restrictions and pushes their relationship into socially uncharted territory.
The forbidden novelty of Ruth and the narrator’s relationship is sensed through Bass’ account of the transformations in their surroundings. “The smells were so sharp as to make us imagine that something new was out there, something happening that had never happened to anyone before ‘the mountains to the north took on a darker blue. And the smells seemed to change. They were coming from’ the north” (140). As Ruth and the narrator near the point of complete disregard for social morays, the scents grow stronger and the mountains turn ominously darker.
The change in Ruth and the narrator’s relationship is seen in their actions and Bass’ environmental narrative. After Homer (or one of his employees) takes pictures of the narrator and Ruth lounging around naked, and immediately following the first time the young couple copulates, their relationship falters. Shortly after they have sex, Ruth is potentially pregnant and the narrator dreamily makes plans to move “out even farther north, away from the town” (Bass 142), social restrictions, and closer to the mountains. The breeze is now “just dry wind” (Bass 142). Ruth begins to carry her Bible around, almost as if she is hiding behind it to ward off the narrator. As Bass symbolically revealed earlier in the story, their relationship has irrevocably changed.
The narrator’s dream of moving far to the north with Ruth means that he does not mind living with substandard Mormons, such as Ruth. He expects her to convert, but he eventually begins to doubt his expectations. “I thought because she liked the gin-and-tonics, and the river wading, and chasing cows, Ruth would change. Convert” (Bass 142). However, prior to this worrisome comment Bass symbolically tells the reader that Ruth will not be able to abandon her religion. After Bass deems the north a place for weak Mormons, he randomly describes Bishop Homer’s bulls. “The bulls ran ahead of us at a steady trot, a sort of controlled panic; sometimes they stumbled, but caught themselves” (Bass 136). In other words, Ruth is merely stumbling when she interacts with the narrator, but will eventually recover her balance. She will return to the Mormon Church.
At this point, new smells permeate the air. When Ruth and the narrator turn to observe the promising mountains, there is nothing to see and they can only imagine. “There were new smells, fresher and sharper, coming from the north, and sometimes we would turn and look back in that direction, though it would be dark and we would see nothing. But we could imagine” (Bass 143). Bass metaphorically attempts to tell the reader that the young pair’s love and relationship never reached the point of infallibility. “Neither of us had ever been up in the mountains” (Bass 143). Even the wind that once brought sharp and inviting scents from the mountains has turned cold. In a seemingly final affirmation, Bass describes the indifference and emptiness of the wind as Ruth turns to face it. “Sometimes Ruth turned her head all the way around so that the wind was directly in her face, blowing her hair back?It was a cold wind” (Bass 144). Now, even before Ruth’s actions change radically, Ruth and the narrator’s relationship is finished. The promise, lure, and meaning of the environment are gone. Bass’ description of the landscape’s characteristics mirrors the state of Ruth’s and the narrator’s love and relationship.
In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway also employs his description of the environment to depict and foreshadow the state of Henry and Catherine’s relationship. Every time it rains, harmful events occur which directly affect the couple. During the summer, shortly after Henry recovers from his leg surgery, he and Catherine talk intimately on the balcony of the hospital. As it rains, Catherine describes the weather as scary and burdensome on love. Henry begins:”It’s raining hard.”
“And you will always love me, won’t you?”
“And the rain won’t make any difference?”
“That’s good. Because I am afraid of the rain?I like to walk in it. But it’s very hard on loving?I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it.” (Hemingway 126)
Through Catherine and Henry’s dialogue, Hemingway foreshadows how the rain will symbolically impede and end their relationship (i.e. Catherine’s death). The environment perpetually foretells the state of Henry and Catherine’s relationship.
The following time it rains Henry and Catherine are searching for a hotel room so they can be together before he departs for the front line. Catherine purchases a nightgown for the evening. Once they find a room, she stares in the mirrors and feels cheap, while Henry looks outside at the storm. The rain degrades the special occasion. “‘I never felt like a whore before,’ she said. I went over to the window and pulled the curtain aside and looked out. I had not thought it would be like this” (Hemingway 152). Afterwards, the couple drinks wine and talks as if to delay an underlying conversation. At this moment, Hemingway again uses the dialogue to foreshadow the state of Henry and Catherine’s relationship. While they sit quietly, Henry randomly recites a quote from Andrew Marvell, which alludes to death in this context. “After a while we were very still and we could hear the rain?’ But at my back I always hear, / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near'” (Hemingway 154). Whereupon, Henry immediately asks Catherine, “Where will you have the baby” (Hemingway 154)? It is evident, since Catherine dies having this child, that Hemingway uses the rain to create an ominous atmosphere which depicts the future state of their relationship.
Both Rick Bass and Ernest Hemingway effectively intertwine metaphoric descriptions of the environment to depict and foreshadow young couples’ relationships. In “In Ruth’s Country”, the mountains and the north symbolically alert the reader of changes between Ruth and the narrator. Whereas, In A Farewell to Arms Henry and Catherine’s discussions and experiences help develop the rain as a portent of their fate. It is through the characters’ descriptions and observations that Bass and Hemingway make a statement. They make it apparent that both couples merely want to be free from obligation. Catherine and Henry flee from the war, whereas Ruth and the narrator attempt to escape the Mormon religion.
Neither couple succeeds. Each couple’s failure depicts the blighting effects of war and religion on the preciousness of courage and love.
Through these effects, both authors portray the rarity of the will to strive against religious restrictions and imposed obligations for a loved one.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1929.
Bass, Rick. The Watch: Stories. “In Ruth’s Country”. Norton, New York, 1989.