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Passage Analysis - a Farewell to Arms

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One measure of a powerful writer lies in her ability to write literature in which any passage can be set apart from its context and still express the qualities of the whole. When this occurs, the integrated profundity of the entire work is a sign of true artistry. Ernest Hemingway, an author of the Lost Generation, was one such writer who mastered the art of investing simple sentence structure with layers of complex meaning. Hemingway, who was a journalist in the earlier years of his writing career, was known for writing in a declarative or terse style of prose. The depth of emotion and meaning that he conveyed through such minimalistic text is astounding. He also experimented with a stream-of-consciousness technique developed by writers such as James Joyce and William Faulkner to an interior dimension to his prose. In A Farewell to Arms, the story of wartime romance between an American soldier in the Italian Army, Frederic, and Catherine, the British nurse who cares for him, there are a multitude of passages which could easily stand alone as poetry because of their symbolic meaning. However, when these exceptional passages are woven into the fabric of the novel as a whole, the reader is able to reach an even greater level of understanding. One extraordinary passage is found near the end of the novel during which Frederic Henry agonizes over the danger his lover’s in while she struggles with the birth of their baby. By juxtaposing the imminent birth of Frederic’s child with the possible death of his beloved, Hemingway explores a deep ambivalence about the meaning of life and loss. Throughout this passage, structure plays an important role in illuminating Frederic’s emotional metamorphosis from concern to desperation.

The passage opens with Frederic watching “poor, poor dear Cat” (line 1) in her apparent state of helplessness as she struggles through giving birth. Through strong word choice, Hemingway continues to display Frederic’s obvious contemptuous feelings about the biological consequences of love. He views Catherine’s pain and suffering as the “price you [pay]” (line 1) for loving someone. Ironically, a birth is usually shown in a positive light as the pain one suffers to birth a child pales in comparison to the tremendous joy of receiving a newborn baby. Despite conventions, Frederic feels as if he has been trapped by some malignant force of life and is anything but happy about the impending birth. However, he goes on to “Thank God for gas, anyway,” (line 3) bringing a religious aspect to the poem. The casual syntax of this sentence belittles the meaning or importance of God, as Frederic is only referring to Him in a colloquial manner. His mention of anesthetics with relation to God can be seen as a metaphor, especially when taken in context of the novel. Set in a time of war, everybody is looking for a way out of their pain, and consequently every character becomes addicted to some form of escape. While the addictive substance ranges from God, to alcohol, to love, each is used as a tool to escape from the grim reality of life. “Once it started, they were in the mill-race.” (lines 4-5) When describing Catherine’s labor, this metaphor of an ever moving, driving stream of water that incessantly pushes a mill wheel gives the reader a sense of the uncontrollable chaos of birth or life, in general. Likewise, the water in an unstoppable stream is a very powerful force that demands the complete subjugation of whatever comes in its way. In this way, water is used as a symbol for Frederic’s sense of an arbitrary higher power leaving people helpless in its path. “So now they got her in the end. You never get away with anything. Get away hell! It would have been the same if we had been married fifty times.” (lines 7-9) Again Frederic accuses a higher power of setting the trap of childbirth, but at the same time discards the possibility of a supreme being because of the term “they.” Frederic dismisses his assumption that Catherine’s current suffering is a consequence of sex out of wedlock, as he begins to dismiss any ideas of an orderly universe with an all-controlling divine power.

A sudden sense of anxiety and doubt about Catherine’s welfare marks a change in the tone of the passage. “And what if she should die?” (line 10) This concern is repeated ten times throughout the passage, but at this stage, Frederic reasons with himself in order to make himself confident in his lover’s safety. He simply responds, “She won’t die,” (line 10) which is a perfectly reasonable assumption for most births. The word choice of “won’t” means she will not die, which implies a certain amount of flexibility or choice. While it is reasonable to feel that she will not die, by repeating this sentence, which is phrased in the negative, Hemingway clearly emphasizes the opposite of its surface meaning. This underlines the focus

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