Note: This post is part of The Hemingway Collection, an archive of essays, images, and hyperlinks to interesting articles about the great American author.
An essay on A Farewell to Arms by David Gagne
John Stubbs’ “Love and Role Playing in A Farewell to Arms”
John Stubbs’ essay is an examination of the defense which he believes Henry and Catherine use to protect themselves from the discovery of their insignificance and “powerlessness…in a world indifferent to their well being…” He asserts that “role-playing” by the two main characters, and several others in the book, is a way to escape the realization of human mortality which is unveiled by war. Stubbs thinks that Hemingway utilized role-playing as a way to “explore the strengths and weaknesses of his two characters.” Stubbs says that by placing Henry’s ordered life in opposition to Catherine’s topsy-turvy one, and then letting each one assume a role which will bring them closer together, Hemingway shows the pair’s inability to accept “the hard, gratuitous quality of life.”
Stubbs begins by showing other examples, notably in In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises, in which Hemingway’s characters revert to role-playing in order to escape or retreat from their lives. The ability to create characters who play roles, he says, either to “maintain self-esteem” or to escape, is one Hemingway exploits extraordinarily well in A Farewell to Arms and therefore it “is his richest and most successful handling of human beings trying to come to terms with their vulnerability.”
As far as Stubbs is concerned, Hemingway is quite blatant in letting us know that role-playing is what is occurring. He tells that the role-playing begins during Henry and Catherine’s third encounter, when Catherine directly dictates what is spoken by Henry. After this meeting the two become increasingly comfortable with their roles and easily adopt them whenever the other is nearby. This is apparent also in that they can only successfully play their roles when they are in private and any disturbance causes the “game” to be disrupted. The intrusion of the outside world in any form makes their role-playing impossible, as evidenced at the race track in Milan, where they must be alone. The people surrounding them make Catherine feel uncomfortable and Henry has to take her away from the crowd. He goes on to describe how it is impossible for them to play the roles when they are apart and how they therefore become more dependent upon each other’s company.
Stubbs goes on to explain how, “neither mistakes role-playing for a truly intimate relationship, but both recognize that it can be a useful device for satisfying certain emotional needs.” He says that originally Henry and Catherine are playing the “game” for different reasons but eventually move to play it as a team. Henry is role-playing to regain the sense of order he has lost when he realizes the futility of the war and his lack of place in it. Catherine is role-playing to deal with the loss of her fiance and to try to find order in the arena of the war. When they are able to role-play together, “the promise of mutual support” is what becomes so important to them as they try to cope with their individual human vulnerability.
He also analyzes the idyllic world introduced early in the story by the priest at the mess and later realized by Henry and Catherine in Switzerland. They fall fully into their roles when they row across the lake on their way to their idealized world. The fact that they actually are able to enter this make-believe world strengthens their “game” and allows it to continue longer than it would have otherwise. And once they are in this new world they adopt new roles which allow them to continue their ruse. They also need to work harder to maintain the “game” because far from the front they are both still aware the war is proceeding and they are no longer a part of it. The world in which they exist in reality (!) is not conducive to role-playing because it tries repeatedly to end their “game”.
Stubbs manages to uncover numerous instances in which the two are role-playing and he makes a very interesting case that this is exactly what they are doing and not just his imagination reading into the story. He does make certain assumptions, that their love is not “real”, that the characters are searching for order, which are not completely justified or even necessary to prove his point. He also forces an intentionality upon Hemingway which could have been avoided without harming his theory. Towards the end of the essay Stubbs infers that their role-playing is “inferior to true intimacy,” which is a point that, although he defends well, is not central to his theory and seems to detract from his objectivity.
The essay is a valuable tool to help the reader understand this view of what is happening through Henry and Catherine’s relationship and how they use each other to maintain their self-images, provide themselves with psychological support, and in a way escape the war. Hemingway may not have been trying to purposely create a role-playing scenario, but Stubbs’ essay will benefit someone wishing to explore this aspect of the relationship of the two main characters in greater depth.
Bruccoli, Matthew J. and Clark, C.E. Frazer (ed.), Fitzgerald / Hemingway Annual 1973, pp. 271-284, Microcard Editions Books, Washington, D.C., 1974
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