Hemingway & Hope

Okay, so for anyone who hasn’t read A Farewell to Arms (if this is you stop reading this and go read it), the gif below is pretty much how you feel when you finish it. That’s Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook and yes, the book he’s throwing is actually A Farewell to Arms. My boyfriend tells me he threw it across the room when he finished it (and my boyfriend hasn’t even seen Silver Linings). My reaction was a little less violent. I just stared at the ceiling for awhile.

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I wasn’t really angry about it. Or at it. I mean, let’s be real, no one who actually reads the end is surprised. They’re just mad Hemingway actually went through with it.

So I wasn’t surprised. Nor was I angry, because I knew that Hemingway had to do it. I was simply trying to let it settle. I was in that crystallized moment where the world and time just stop at the end of a brilliant book.

And a week later (or so), I was writing this essay. And part of this essay is about coming to terms with the ending. About trying to read it in a maybe not quite so depressing light. Because, yes, while Catherine’s death (ha spoiler) is sad and I was depressed by her death and the baby’s and the rain and all of it, it was so beautiful and so important that it couldn’t just be limited to “depressing” or “What the fuck” (thank you Bradley Cooper).

So here’s an essay which addresses that end. In a roundabout way. (And it doesn’t make Hemingway’s larger conclusions about life or the world any less depressing. Maybe makes them a bit moreso. Just a warning.)

Anyway.

We All Need an Abruzzy: Hemingway and the Fantasy of Stability

Man, as an animal, craves stability. Stability spells safety. Stability means survival. Stability is shelter, security, balance, and harmony. Stability, in a word, is unchanging. And a lack of change is nothing more nor less than a negation of the forces of time and life. Yet this, this stability, is what man strives for. Is he, then, striving towards an impossibility? For man does not have the ability to stop time or change, to halt the inexorable forward march of life. Or is some form of stability somehow possible? In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway addresses this question of stability versus the inexorable progression of time through a careful balance of coexisting worlds: reality and smaller, adjacent, pocket worlds of fantasies of stability. With the  creation of these worlds and their effect on his protagonist, Frederic Henry, Hemingway demonstrates the necessity of fantasy and presents a world far less bleak than it might appear on first glance.

Structurally, A Farewell to Arms is composed of moments of stop and start: action interrupted by bubbles—both small and large—of crystalized inactivity. Hemingway primarily employs two methods for the creation of these static bubbles of respite, the first being his intricate system of opposing sets of symbols (snow, mountain, cold, dry, hard and rain, plain/valley, wet) and the second, his incongruous injection of grace and gentility into situations from which they are normally absent. Both these methods are established early and run throughout the course of the novel, allowing Hemingway to build an extensive and delicately balanced opposition between the stability and unchangeability which mankind strives for and the inevitable forward motion of life, which sweeps man along with it, whether he likes it or not.

In building his symbolic system, Hemingway equates snow with inaction; quite literal inaction in the form of the stopping of the war with the coming of the snow. Barely a few pages in, Henry sits with a friend “looking out at the snow falling slowly and heavily” and tells us that they “knew it was all over for that year,” (6) for there would “be no more offensive now that the snow has come,” (7) drawing a direct and literal connection between inaction and a period of stability with the coming of the snow. It is not just in terms of the war, though, that snow comes to represent the harmonious stability of a respite. In his first conversation with the Priest, Frederic regrets that he did not, on his last leave, visit the priest’s hometown of Abruzzi, a small town high in the mountains “where the roads were frozen hard as iron, where it was clear cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery and hare-tracks in the snow and the peasants took off their hats and called you Lord and there was good hunting” (12-13). Abruzzi, from this description, appears to exist outside time—or at least outside the current time, stuck back in a bygone era where people are still called “peasants” and others “Lord” and hunting is a legitimate activity. Abruzzi, then, in its high mountain seat covered in snow, is associated with a certain harmonious inactivity, untouched by time or war or any sort of change or forward progress. Abruzzi’s association with these ideas attaches the elements associated with the town (the snow, the mountains, the cold, the dry hardness) to the idea of an illusory dreamworld, the dreamworld of Abruzzi, existing outside time and the world, suspended in harmonious immobility.

If snow and the cold, dry hardness of the mountains are connected with these bubbles of frozen, unchanging respite, then their opposites—the rain, muggy heat, and wet mud of the plains and valleys—are associated with the inexorable forward motion of life and the process of change. Rain, particularly, consistently heralds activity and the recommencement of movement and, literally, the war. With the rain, always comes the attack. “The storm was still blowing but the snow had stopped. It had melted as it fell on the wet ground and now it was raining again. There was another attack,” (166) Frederic tells us, making no direct causal link himself between the beginning of the rain and the renewed attack. Whether or not Frederic makes the connection at this point in time, the two are inescapably connected in Hemingway’s language; there is no reason in this case for the attack to stop only while it is snowing, for the snow does not fall hard or long enough to make an attack impossible. Rather the cessation of the attack forms just another part in the system of opposing symbols Hemingway has constructed. In the few hours of snow preceding that passage, Henry and the men around him had enjoyed a brief respite from the attack, from the war. They were momentarily encased in a bubble of stability, of inaction, from which they are forced to emerge by the beginnings of the rain and the accompanying volley of enemy fire.

The entire plot of the novel is made up of these small bubbles of inaction and harmonious stasis which interrupt the plot of the novel and its general forward progression. Perhaps one of the greatest instances of one of these bubbles completely halting the forward motion of the plot is the billiards game Frederic plays with Count Greffi in Stresa. While in Stresa, Frederic knows he is in danger of being arrested at any moment. His one concern is to get out of Stresa and away into neutral Switzerland as best and fast as he can and yet he takes the time to play a full, leisurely billiards game in public with a pre-war acquaintance. Not only is Frederic’s decision to play the game stupid (in terms of his own safety), but it also serves no purpose at all in the plot. Everything else that takes place in Stresa—save a few private moments with Catherine—drives the plot forward, from the fishing trip with the barman (by which he gains access to the boat) to the stroll down the street in the storm in the middle of the night. The billiards scene, however serves no purpose. The plot would not be any different without it; it exists outside the plot, time, and world of the novel as yet another adjacent bubble of harmonious inaction. This is not to say the scene is not important. Indeed, on the contrary, it provides one of the best examples of the Hemingway’s second type of static bubble: the kind not brought about through his geographic symbolism, but through his injection of pre-war gentility and grace into the midst of a dangerous, high-pressure atmosphere of war. The billiards scene plays out just as if it were one of the games Frederic and Greffi played when they knew each other before the war. Frederic even bets some of the little money he has (and which he needs for his survival) on the game, though he knows he will lose it, simply because that is how things are done, how a game of billiards is played. When Greffi attempts to introduce the topic of the war, Frederic shuts it down immediately, unwilling to let the outside world into this perfect little bubble lost in time. Their game is an episode of perfect gentility, from the philosophical talk of death and religion, right down to their parting:

‘You were very kind to play.’

‘It was a great pleasure.’

‘We will walk up the stairs together.’

This sort of talk and observance of grace and gentility seems absurd in wartime, but what Hemingway wants us to see is that they are absolutely vital because they allow for the creation of these little static worlds which can exist adjacent to reality, if only for a time. For that is the thing about all these little bubbles: they inevitably burst and succumb to the inescapable outside forces of time and change. The billiards game with Greffi had to be just that: a billiards game, something with a definite end, because it, like all the other respites, must end. A conversation could have dragged on as long as either of them was willing to hang around in the hotel’s sitting room. But a billiards game, like the time spent in a barn while on the run, has an expiration date, after which one must once again submit to the inexorable forward motion of life.

The tension between the yearning after stability and the inescapable forward motion of life is only intensified by the fact that Frederic is a man without a home and without a family. Indeed, he almost completely lacks a background: over the course of the novel we learn nothing more about him than that he and his family “quarrelled so much it wore itself out” (270), that he wanted to be an architect before the war (215), and that his grandfather is generous enough to keep signing the sight drafts Frederic draws on him. The only other fragment we get comes while Frederic hides in a barn with Piani from the Austrian advance and he remembers a barn of his youth where an undefined “we” “had lain in hay and talked and shot sparrows with an air-rifle” (192). But

the barn was gone now and one year they had cut the hemlock woods and there were only stumps, dried tree-tops, branches and fireweed where the woods had been. You could never go back. If you did not go forward what happened? You never got back to Milan (192-193).

Here it is made abundantly clear that Frederic has no home to return to after the war. The only way he can go is forward, both in this moment, running from the Austrians in chaotic retreat, and in his life. There is no way to return to what once was because time moves ever onwards and life goes inexorably with it. However, simply because he must go forward does not mean he does not yearn for stability and the chance to be permanently still. This yearning is evidenced by the fact that he is not fleeing forward aimlessly, but towards Milan and the unspoken meaning of Milan: Catherine. Catherine represents for Frederic the stability he lacks. In her, he sees his respite, a source of stability, a shelter from the forward motion of time. At the hospital in Milan during Frederic’s recovery and their first long respite from the war and the “real world,” Frederic describes how he “loved to take [Catherine’s] hair down … and she would drop her head and [they] would both be inside of it [her hair], and it was the feeling of inside a tent or behind a falls” (102). Though his entire stay at the hospital in Milan is something of a static bubble, this practice here is where the real creation of the adjacent world of stability happens and the illusion of stillness is enjoyed. In this habitual (and therefore timeless and unchanging) act, Frederic literally uses Catherine to create a world for himself, for them: a shelter outside of time.  In Hemingway’s full description of the act, his repetition of the word “still” and the quietness and simplicity of the language serve to set this moment outside the time of the rest of the narrative, drawing attention to it as a crystallized instant, frozen, if only for a second, in a space untouched by time or the normal progress of life.

Of course, the largest scale and most important example of one of these static bubbles removed from the process of life is the chalet of the Guttingens above Montreux which Catherine and Frederic stay in during their first winter in Switzerland. This whole section of the novel—which takes up the space of just over a chapter—feels as if it is taking place outside of time, like the moment enclosed in Catherine’s hair. And in the general schema of Hemingway’s oppositional symbolism, it is. The chalet is up on “a high snowy mountain” which “dominate[s] the valley but [is] so far away that it did not make a shadow” (258) as Hemingway tells us, emphasizing not only the fact of the geographical difference between the mountain and valley, but of the distance between them. The valley (which has, in the novel, so far been connected with the irrepressible forward motion of the war—Frederic was, after all, driven across the Venetian plains by the steady progress of the Austrian offensive) is so far below and so far from this mountain that they hardly seem to belong to the same world, an idea which Hemingway underlines with the detail that the mountain’s shadow cannot even reach the valley, they are so separate. The mountain feels far removed from the valley, the war, and reality, resulting in its feeling, like all those other moments, like it is outside time. Time, on the mountain, stands still as there is snow on the ground, just as when there is snow in the valley, even the war is forced to grind to a halt. And as long as time stands still, the forward motion of change must stand still as well.

This suspension of time and removal from the outside world is emphasized by Catherine and Frederic’s routine-filled, repetitive life. While they live in their static bubble, they need do no more than sleep and eat and walk. Even when they go for a walk, their literal forward motion is inhibited by the snow, which “was drifted so that we could not walk far” (263) and as they walk back they notice that their “track was filled in by the snow” (264), illustrating that the stasis within their bubble is so complete that it erases even the smallest evidence of change: the depressions in the snow caused by their footsteps. Catherine perhaps sums it up best when she remarks, albeit playfully, that they “live in a country where nothing makes any difference,” (269) during a discussion of the logistics of living with a fox’s tail. It’s true: nothing they do does make any difference while they live in chalet; both their literal and metaphorical footprints are nonexistent.

However, this bubble of harmonious stability is no more real than any of the others. Time, of course, is not suspended as the steadily growing lump of Catherine’s stomach evidences. Even as they speak of how nothing they do makes any difference, Catherine has to sit down because of how tired she’s growing due to her pregnancy. Throughout their existence in their bubble world of the Swiss chalet, small reminders of the passage of time persist: Catherine’s craving for a chocolate bar reminds them of the approaching baby, Frederic’s newspapers remind him that the war continues in the snowless places. And, inevitably, the bubble bursts because, as Frederic acknowledges in his conversation with Gino earlier in the novel, “when something really start[s] one ha[s] to get down off the mountains” (164).

In their case, there are two somethings which start and drive them off the mountain: the first is spring (heralded by the melting of the snow and recommencement of the rain) and the second is the final stage of Catherine’s pregnancy, during which she needs to be near a hospital. And so, their illusion crumbles and they are forced back down into the valley in order to live. For it is clear that, according to Hemingway, in their mountain bubble, suspended in time, they are not really living, but merely existing in a sort of in between place. In Frederic’s explanation of tactics to Gino, he makes it clear that if one is to live, one must “get down off the mountains,” in order to defend oneself. The same is true for Hemingway of life: if one is to survive it, one cannot seek to remove oneself from it, for that removal is nothing but an illusion. To truly remove oneself from this mechanism of forward motion, as Catherine and Frederic attempt to do, is impossible. Inevitably something will force you back down off your mountain and into life, whether it is the coming of a baby or the coming of rain.

This conclusion, coupled with the ending of the novel—both Catherine’s death and Frederic’s last line: “I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain” (293)—appear rather bleak. If stability is only an fantasy, yet it is all we strive for, what is the point? Hemingway gives us an answer: the point is the fantasy. The fantasy is necessary to sustain us. While Frederic is in the field hospital just after having been wounded, he is visited by his friend the priest and they have a brief conversation about hope, in which Abruzzi comes up once more. Contrary to what one might expect, Frederic is not pessimistic about the idea of hope; indeed he is the one who consoles the priest and not the other way round, suggesting that “maybe the war will be over” (66) when he’s next in Abruzzi, after the priest admits that he sometimes has trouble maintaining hope. However, what is particularly interesting about this interaction is Frederic’s thoughts after the priest leaves, which center on Abruzzi. He hopes that the priest will be able to return to his town after the war and then he imagines an immensely detailed picture of the place—far more detailed than the one he’d given us earlier. In this version, everything is grander, more romantic and removed from reality, even verging on the absurd: instead of “Lord,” the peasants now call one “Don” and doff their hats; the priest’s father has been elevated from the status of a “famous hunter” to a man who “hunt[s] every day and stop[s] to eat at the houses of the peasants”;  Abruzzi is “the most beautiful in Italy”; Frederic has even worked himself into the picture: “for a foreigner to hunt he must present a certificate that says he has never been arrested” (67). It is clear that Abruzzi has never been far from Frederic’s thoughts all this time. Indeed, he has held onto the image of it, built on it, and let it sustain him as a fantasy which allows him to believe in hope. And yet, we know that he does not believe he will ever go there. In fact, he has no intention to. These musings are entirely based off of hoping that the priest will be able to return there. And at the beginning of the novel, we learn that when Frederic had the chance to go there he chose not to. He chose instead to go “to the smoke of cafés and the nights where the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, where you knew that that was all there was” (13, emphasis my own). Whether consciously or not, he chose to avoid Abruzzi so that he could maintain the fantasy of the fairyland, lost in time, outside reality and the war, it had become in his head. In choosing to go to the cities he chose places where there was no chance of fantasy, where reality existed in excess, so that he could maintain his belief in places on the periphery, places of stasis and harmony, unchanging, untouched by time. Because deep down he knows that were he to go to Abruzzi it would be like every other small town he passed through on his journeys: empty of men and boys gone off to fight and young girls run off to make a quick buck; full of sleazy bartenders offering questionable help to probable deserters; left to crumble, held fast in the jaws of time. Frederic does not want that reality; he prefers to cling to the hope his illusion provides. Catherine, too, is another sort of Abruzzy for him: a symbol of a potential future (family, children, stability), though, like Abruzzy, one he is wary of attaining (his reluctance to marry and his caginess about the baby) because he fears that it will not live up to his fantasy. And in the end, she doesn’t live up to his fantasy. She dies and likely his hopes die with her. But with her death, Hemingway is not condemning these fantasies of stability, but instead enforcing their necessity and the necessity of their illusory quality. Fantasies of stability are so called because they are fantasies. Stability in its truest sense is unachievable in the face of the inexorable forward progression of life. But belief in stability and belief in the fantasy of stability are essential to our humanity. Individual fantasies may sputter and die, but fantasy as a whole must be believed. Frederic may walk out into the rain, but rain means change, and after all, if he exchanged Abruzzi for Catherine, what or whom might he exchange Catherine for?

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1 comment
  1. This is a very very good analysis of one of my favourite novels. Your idea that one of the driving themes of the novel is a yearning for stability is spot on. Have you read a “Clean, Well lighted place” by Hemingway? it deals with very similar ideas.

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