Note: This post is part of The Hemingway Collection, an archive of essays, images, and hyperlinks to interesting articles about the great American author.
Finding Patterns in Hemingway and Camus: Construction of Meaning and Truth
This paper is © Robert D. Lane
University-College Professor Emeritus
Philosophy and Religious Studies
Once we knew that literature was about life and criticism was about fiction–and everything was simple. Now we know that fiction is about other fiction, is criticism in fact, or metaphor. And we know that criticism is about the impossibility of anything being about life, really, or even about fiction, or finally about anything. Criticism has taken the very idea of “aboutness” away from us. It has taught us that language is tautological, if it is not nonsense, and to the extent that it is about anything it is about itself. – Robert Scholes
One of the fascinations of reading literature comes when we discover in a work patterns that have heretofore been overlooked. We are the pattern finders who get deep enjoyment from the discovery of patterns in a text. And true to the calling we have noticed a pattern in and around A Farewell to Arms which, to our knowledge, no one has seen before. Although there are many editions of the novel, and as a result the pagination is slightly different in various editions, it is the case that all editions have forty-one chapters to be found in five books. Here is what we have discovered: if you multiply 41 by 5 you get 205. And now if you take the number of letters in Frederic’s name (8) and add that to the number of letters in Catherine’s name (9) you get 17. 205 + 17 = 222. And if you grant that the time of the events in the novel, counted properly, is three years, then the pattern we have discovered starts to emerge as figure on ground or as lemon juice ink on a secret message when held over a candle. For what is the product of 222 and 3 but the infamous 666 of Revelations 13:18?
Imagine now our delight when we discovered a similar 666 pattern in The Outsider. If you multiply the number of letters in Meursault’s name times the number of letters in ‘Albert’ times the number of letters in ‘Arab’ you get 216. Add to that the 6 of ‘Albert’ and multiply by 3 (which is the number one gets when dividing the number of chapters in Part one (6) by the number of books (2) that make up The Outsider) and surprise of surprises: the meaning revealing number ‘666’ once again emerges!
Clearly, when seen in this light, these two novels take on new meaning, and this pattern discovery provides a conclusive way to counter all earlier critics who have failed to see this talisman of interpretation, this key to understanding the complexities of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Camus’s The Outsider. ‘666’ offers a key to understanding in that it clearly refers us back to the text which these texts are “playing” with and are in some way about, if “aboutness” is a viable concept and if they are about anything at all.
“Wait a minute, here!” shouts Bickford Sylvester, “there is some nonsense even Hemingway scholars will not condone.” And of course this pattern of 666 is a bit of nonsense which could be discovered almost anywhere by someone forcing the facts into the pattern. Good 666 sleuths can find that devilish number anywhere; if you don’t believe us just ask the soap company. But what are the legitimate limits to interpretations? Does anything count? How can we know when the interpretation we are working on or reading has slipped into the realm of nonsense?
There are facts to be observed by the act of looking at the text and then there are interpretations to be deduced using those facts plus everything else one knows about what counts as a fact and what is to be counted as important in producing a coherent and consistent reading. Just as there are different interpretations of quantum theory which must deal with the same facts (taking a fact to be what is) there are different interpretations of A Farewell to Arms and The Outsider. In fact, the difference between science and art may be teased out just here: when a scientific interpretation becomes the accepted one it achieves a privileged status (e.g., evolution), but in art it seems that the more interpretations a work inspires and grounds the more privileged its status. Gerry Brenner argues that “a masterwork is a text that generates a wide array of divergent readings” and certainly on that criterion both of these novels are to be counted as masterworks. In the same way that science seeks a unifying theory to account for and predict from events in the world in a broad general way, so too do these two works offer a broad and general theory of the human condition and the human hunger for meaning.
What would count as “a broad and general theory of the human condition and the human hunger for meaning”? At the most general level only two readings are possible: we humans are special and are a part of a meaningful divine plan which is unknown to us in detail but is hinted at in various ways and has been delivered to us in outline by some special text; or, we humans are the result of time and chance, not at all special except as we create our meaning and value through our lived and shared experience. The first reading seeks the universal and enduring Truth or a hierarchy of values which is crowned by God. The second reading opposes that approach and insists on subjective intensity of passion maintaining that the individual is always becoming as the result of choices, risks, and reactions to the experiences of the world of which s/he is naturally related. The reader of the first text often sees death as a door; the second reader sees death as a wall and as the inescapable and shared destiny of all persons.
Hemingway and Camus are both writing texts that present death as final. There are many striking similarities between the two, although one could say they are a generation and a world apart. Hemingway, the older of the two, presents several of the elements of their similarity in his novel A Farewell to Arms; Camus, writing The Outsider almost fifteen years later, picks up from where Hemingway left off. The two share a lean, direct style; there is a shared early (in the novels) “primitiveness” to Frederic Henry and Meursault; the two writers recognize features of the Absurd; and they were both visitors to, or outsiders in, Paris.
In this paper, then, we identify a few of the congruencies between these two works, but especially ways in which they diverge, for these are the features of difference, influence, “literary history”, which further allow us to make meaning of the novels. An important point in order to maintain clarity is to recognize that the first-person narratives can create some problems because we will be talking both of the actual author’s work (“Camus’s novel”), as well as the fictional character’s relation of the events (as in “Frederic Henry’s narrative” or “Meursault’s novel”). It makes sense to identify both levels of activity. Confusing Hemingway with his characters has been common in the past, and is one thing we want to avoid by this strategy.
One pattern which we have found helpful in thinking of these two novels is the relationship of “Old Testament” to “New Testament”. There is a resemblance, a coherence, of world-view, but at the same time a continuance, a modification. There is a typology, too, and the two protagonists, while very different in some respects, are two generations’ attempts at the modern hero. A Farewell to Arms serves as a precursor to The Outsider in many ways. Frederic Henry must lose faith in the several sources of meaning which he traditionally turns to: church, state, language, love. His experience during the war shakes his belief in these structures and institutions, leading, ultimately, to the composition of the novel in the Modernist mode. Meursault, on the other hand, seems not to place much faith in those structures and institutions from the outset of his novel (we need only observe his behavior during his mother’s funeral). He takes for granted things which Frederic Henry must learn (or un-learn); for example, his relationship with Marie begins with no games, no guilt, whereas Frederic thinks he must play out a courtship, and even deceive Catherine about his intentions if he is to succeed in sleeping with her. The high Modern theme of loss of meaning, with a subsequent search for an alternative certainty, which we encounter in A Farewell to Arms is replaced by Camus’s notion of the Absurd, of the “benign indifference of the universe.” If anything, the universe Frederic Henry reflects on at the end of Hemingway’s novel is a malevolent force waiting to “[kill] you in the end. You could count on that.” (p. 327) Thus, Frederic Henry must come to realize that his own subjectivity is a crucial source of meaning, whereas Meursault seems already to assume that position. And both characters must come to realize that subjective meaning is always tempered by and augmented by its relation to the Other (or to others).
In both works the first person narrator serves as the author-ity for the reader, and in both it is only after completing the text that the reader comes to understand that the “I” relating events has also been evaluating those events by subtle means of selection and emphasis. It is as a friend and teacher once said, “In the first half of your life you have experiences and in the second half you try to determine what they mean.” As Meursault tells his story and as Frederic Henry tells his story, these narrators are discovering meaning in the events experienced. And, as in “real” life, the meaning is not just an objective set of facts to be absorbed, but is a combination of various inputs from the world and the organization and valuing of those inputs by the creative intelligence. Both narrators achieve a “separate peace” and finally that is all anyone can do in the walk toward the grave. Acceptance of limits is a necessary condition for peace.
A further characteristic of the two novels under discussion here that allows for comparison is that both artists employ a style that does not so much reveal meaning as a fixed and determinate set of propositions, but instead, by suggestion and omission demands that the reader participate in the act of making meaning. The speakable sign and the unspeakable meaning that lies below or beside the signifiers used are part of the techniques of Hemingway and Camus – a technique that is often called economical, realistic, or simply ‘modern’. This ability to provide the reader with “the strongly sensed presence of things omitted”1 provides the most powerful similarity between these two texts. In A Farewell to Arms, for example, what exactly do the pronouns refer to in this famous passage?
I tried to tell about the night and the difference between the night and the day and how the night was better unless the day was very clean and cold and I could not tell it; as I cannot tell it now. But if you have had it you know. He had not had it but he understood that I had really wanted to go to the Abruzzi but had not gone and we were still friends, with many tastes alike, but with the difference between us. He had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget. But I did not know that then, although I learned it later. (page 14)
What is the “it” that Frederic Henry had and the priest did not? What is the “it” that he learned, but was able to forget? What is the “it” that he did not know then but “learned later”? And what is “the difference” between the priest and the lieutenant? The first “I” and the second “I” are the Frederic Henry of the time of the events while the third “I” is the narrator. The “you” functions to include the reader who has had “it” as one of those who knows “it” and is changed by “it” because of that knowledge. In the last two sentences the “I” is variable over time again, referring first to Frederic Henry before the lesson, then to Frederic Henry after the lesson, then to Frederic Henry as a partic- ipant in the action and finally to Frederic Henry as the knowing narrator. There can be no better narrative demonstration than this of the changing, always-becoming, non-static self. Trying to find the referent to these variable pronouns seems an important step in reading the novel – what is the nature of this knowledge, hinted at, but not stated? Various readings can be found: “Frederic learns…that spending his leave in the city instead of the Abruzzi was symptomatic of his whole way of life,” 2 or, the multiple choice options discussed by Stoneback,3
“For several years now I have put this passage in quizzes, asking for precise identification and commentary on the “it” Frederic does not know at first, later learns, but sometimes forgets. Here are the results:
- “The nature of true love, sacrifice, etc. – what he later finds with Catherine” (12 votes)
- “Questions of faith” (12 votes)
- “Love of God” (4 votes)
- “Good hunting is better than bad drinking” (1 vote)
- “orderly world of good manners, i.e., Abruzzi, better than chaos of whorehouse” (1 vote)
- “That he has a soul, and the overwhelming consequences of that knowledge – death is not the end, etc.” (3 votes)
of which he particularly likes number six because of his reading of the novel as a Catholic work. This misreading depends in part upon another misreading, viz., the wounding scene, which Stoneback claims “makes quite clear the main point that it is “a mistake to think you just died.” This scene, he argues, is “the epiphany that changes everything.”4
Perhaps a better name than “epiphany” for the wounding scene in A Farewell to Arms would be “boundary situation,” the term used by Jaspers to talk about any sharp focussed experience an agent has which tends to define the agent as an individual. The emphasis for Jaspers is on the psychological change in the individual as a result of running into a boundary situation. Facing a serious moral choice, confronting death, reacting to threats to one’s person or to one’s reputation – these are all boundary situations. These moments are often unexpected, coming anytime and in any set of circumstances (time and chance).
I ate the end of my piece of cheese and took a swallow of wine. Through the other noise I heard a cough, then came the chuh-chuh-chuh-chuh – then there was a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing wind. I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself, and I knew I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died. Then I floated, and instead of going on I felt myself slide back. I breathed and I was back.
This scene, argues Stoneback, not only “changes everything,” but presents the ruling interpretation for the novel: it is here that Henry has learned that he has an immortal soul. If we are to accept this reading then Henry will indeed be changed by the experience, for it would be a defining experience in his life. But, is this the best reading? Without being a “nada hound” can one offer a better? We think so. Looked at in context the lines do not stand up to that interpretation. First, Frederic Henry utters two propositions in the key passage: “I knew I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died.” He is obviously wrong about the first claim, for he does not know that he is dead which makes the compound proposition false. But, secondly, even if we do not hold statements in novels to the strict test of logical truth value, is the second conjunct unambiguous? If “just” means “only, merely, simply” then Henry is telling us that death is not death and the theistic reading will hold. But “just” is a slippery word at best just as e. e. cummings knew so well and can just as likely mean “barely” or “scarcely” or just about anything. Could Frederic Henry, the narrator, be saying that we do not merely die we sometimes die painfully? And in the rest of the wounding scene do we not see just such a painful death in Passini’s mutilated, twitching body? (“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.”) Passini calls out in pain to Jesus and there is no answer – only silence from the heavens and the eventual silence of his voice and the stilling of his twitching.
There are no additional facts in the passage that can be used to arbitrate between the two readings. Do we then flip a coin? Or do we support our choice with powerful rhetoric?5 No, the obvious move is to read the passage in the larger context of the complete work – holding open the competing readings until all of the evidence is in, just as the good scientist would do when confronted with ambiguous results. And we get more information in the following two chapters, for Hemingway gives us Frederic Henry in hospital visited first by Rinaldi and then by the priest. In Chapter X Rinaldi comes to the field hospital and the talk is of decorations, girls, and booze. In Chapter XI the priest visits and the juxtaposition of the two chapters promises much. If Rinaldi and the priest are representatives of the two ways of life that Henry must choose from, then here is the perfect opportunity to indicate in the narrative which of the two is superior. If Henry has had an epiphany, has seen the face of God, then what better time than now while lying in a hospital bed, visited by, and alone with the priest, to tell of his life-changing experience, and to tell it to the one other character who will understand the experience? The scene is set. We expect to discover what Henry has learned about death and God and immortal souls. Instead, of course, we get a discussion of the limits of the officers to see anything beyond immediate experience. Expecting a revelation on the limitless we get a commentary on limits. Here is the time and place, so carefully prepared, for Frederic Henry to reveal his newly discovered truth to the priest. But there is no revelation for there was no revelation.
Hemingway once said that “all stories…end in death.” Certainly, each living person’s “story” ends that way. The interrelationship of a narrative to a life, of the “boundary situation” of an ending, is of vital importance to the existence of these two fictional narratives, A Farewell to Arms and The Outsider. Death plays an important, one might say necessary, part in both novels, too: Frederic Henry is, of course, in war and witness to death many times, wounded himself, and loses Catherine; Meursault’s story begins with his mother’s death, he later kills an Arab, and then is himself tried and sentenced to death. In fact, the defining death-confrontations (Frederic’s loss of Catherine, Meursault’s death sentence) transform the characters into narrators; that is to say, the stories are told because of the confrontations with death. We must recognize that the fictive characters are attempting to provide or create an order or meaning where it appears there is none. Or, there are pre-existing versions, meta-narratives, which prove inadequate or unsatisfying, and which must be replaced by the narrative each character produces. Meursault responds directly and violently to the priest who represents one such meta-narrative for Meursault’s life. In the crescendo of the final scene of that novel when Meursault confronts the priest and finally re- leases the pent up anger and frustration repressed for so long, he does experience an epiphany:
As if this great outburst of anger had purged all of my ills, killed all my hopes, I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world. And finding it so much like myself, in fact so fraternal, I realized that I’d been happy, and that I was still happy. For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.6
Underneath the surface meaning of the ruling icons of his culture (law, religion, conventional morality) Meursault is finally able to experience a subjective and intense “meaning” in the form of a separate peace brought about by this surrender to the benign indifference of the world. The skepticism raised by the famous passage in Hemingway about the embarrassment felt by Frederic Henry when confronted with the emptiness of the conventional vocabulary is sharpened by Camus, writing after one more war, who condemns not only the inflated language of society, but also its institutions, with irrelevance at least and mendacity at worst. Frederic Henry finds “sacred, glorious, and sacrifice” to be embarrassing because they have no referents in the world as he is experiencing it, because these words are used in a corrupted fashion as a part of the military or political vocabulary of manipulation and control. Meursault finds the institutions which produce the vocabulary of control: law, religion, conventional morality – are corrupt.
Frederic Henry, at the beginning of the novel, is selfish and self-absorbed, but has no true sense of self as we would think of it. He is obviously immature, accepts the teachings of the past, indulges in carnal pleasures; probably, if we remember why he is in the Italian army, “because he can, and he speaks Italian.” Meursault, too, seems preoccupied with immediate, sensual pleasure or with keeping things simple throughout Part I. For example, his response to his employer when offered the chance to move to Paris echoes some of Frederic Henry’s words: “I said yes but really I didn’t mind.” (p. 44)
His words on marriage further illustrate:
That evening Marie came round for me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said I didn’t mind and we could do if she wanted to.
Then she spoke. She just wanted to know if I’d have accepted the same proposal if it had come from another woman, with whom I had a similar relationship. I said, ‘Naturally.'(p. 45)
An important difference between the two novels is also shown by this passage: Frederic Henry thinks much the same about marriage and such conventions as Marie does, whereas Meursault’s comments remind us of Catherine Barkley’s on those same subjects. Here we see Meursault displaying some of the same self-centeredness and inertia as Frederic Henry, but Meursault as Camus’s character has also assimilated some of the experience and world-weariness of Catherine. There is some evidence that Meursault has lost a faith he once held in some of the traditional ideals, but he chooses not to say much at all about that possibility:
When I was a student, I had plenty of that sort of ambition. But when I had to give up my studies, I very soon realized that none of it really mattered. (p. 44)
Indulging in sensual pleasure turns out to be inadequate, just as religious faith would be inadequate, or concern about social codes would be inadequate, if it is done without thinking. Both novels revolve around thought and insight. Thought can be hard work, it is discomfiting, it is sometimes painful – but it is necessary, too, if one is to be totally human. Frederic may believe initially that he is made only to eat and sleep and make love to Catherine, but finally he must face up to experience – he must “realize” what has happened. This requires effort, thinking, and, as an unavoidable “side effect”, it usually is painful. We remember that the major, early on, declared that “All thinking men are atheists,” (p. 8 ), and this statement begins to resonate throughout the novel as Frederic must indeed think about his experience. The word “realize” is used in A Farewell to Arms to indicate the subject’s coming to awareness; not just to “know” something in the abstract, but to have it “become real”. The war-disgust the priest speaks of must come from this “realization” of war: the confrontation of the individual’s expectations with the actual.
Hemingway’s “realizing” strongly resembles Camus’s definition of the Absurd. Both are relational. Both result in a loss of faith, a perspective skewed by the actual. In our Old Testament/New Testament paradigm, one would say that Meursault begins The Outsider already “realizing” the things Frederic Henry has just learned by the end of A Farewell to Arms. But there is another movement, too, and that is the “re-education” of Meursault into the society around him. For, just as Frederic must learn how words like “glory”, “honor”, or “courage” were obscene and “only the names of places had dignity” (p. 185), Meursault, who, we assume, does not give much credence to abstractions like these anyway, must learn what abstractions do refer to when he understands “liberty” (p. 76) and later “guilt”:
And I felt something stirring up the whole room; for the first time I realized that I was guilty. (p. 87)
Throughout Part II of The Outsider, Meursault begins to see that people (magistrate, prosecuting attorney, defense attorney) are making up narratives of his life. Perhaps he begins to see that such activity is inescapable. Gradually, we could argue, Meursault achieves “consciousness” – he becomes aware of, he “realizes”, what it means to be an individual self in a community. Even if one does not attribute meaning to one’s actions, others can and do attribute meanings to what they see us do. There is no early epiphany in The Outsider, no sudden change from Part I to Part II; there is a gradual “realization” on Meursault’s part of the impossibility of escaping from language, values, and narratives. Frederic Henry learns a similar lesson, and in a similar fashion, when he is caught in the retreat from Caporetto. After reflecting on the hollowness of some words (p. 185), he learns of the dangers of language when he is identified by his accent and condemned to death.
Meursault is perturbed by the ease with which society’s institutions are able to manufacture causal explanations for the actions of individuals. Part one of the novel is a collection of events and actions which are then “given meaning” by (or through the eyes of) society in the shape of law, religion, and conventional morality in Part two. It is that fictional place outside of the text where the meaning for the character Meursault is established and then transferred to the reader by the text. What does it mean to drink a cup of coffee? An innocent cup of coffee in Part one becomes evidence of evil in Part two (in the eyes of the prosecuting magistrate) becomes an assertion of freedom in the final reading. Camus gives artistic life to the philosophical ideas of The Myth of Sisyphus in The Outsider, and particularly to the discussion of the search for truth. In the Myth Camus goes through an inventory of accepted sources for truth and finds them all lacking: first he tries religion, but surprisingly it is too relative, for which god is god; second he tries science, but finds that it offers not precision but metaphor (the world is like…); third he tries logic, but finds that paradoxically it leads to contradiction (for if “all statements are true” is true then “no statements are true” must be one of the true statements). He is left with the “I” – not the Cartesian “I” – but the Humean “I” (a bundle of perceptions) as the foundation for a meaning system.
That changing, evolving, non-static “I” is at the heart of both of these works.
- John W. Aldridge, “The Sun Also Rises – Sixty Years Later,” Sewanee Review 94 (Spring 1986): 340.
- The Hemingway Review, Volume IX, No. 1, Fall 1989.
- Ibid., page 43.
- Ibid., page 39.
- Stoneback: “even if I were a nihilist, atheist, devout materialist, anti-clerical Marxist-Leninist, typically modern wishy-washy laicist, Pollyanna progressive, or social planner … I would have to acknowledge that Hemingway is writing from the heart of the Christian tradition …”.
- Albert Camus, The Outsider, translated by Joseph Laredo, Penguin Modern Classics, 1983, page 117.
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