A Farewell to Arms Analysis


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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