In his book ‘Love and Death in the American Novel’ Leslie Fieldler has presented a harsh criticism of Hemingway’s female characters calling them as “hopless, and unmitigated bitches”. But this is a very unfair criticism because it is not based on facts. Hemingway has certainly drawn women full of nobility. In his novels, there are a few characters who seem incapable of love but on the other hand, there are also characters who are extremely lofty in their sentiments. As far as Catherine Barkley, the heroine of ‘A Farewell to Arms‘ is concerned, she is a most sensitively drawn woman character in the whole range of western fiction.
Catherine Barkley is a victim of war. The war has left indelible scars on her psyche and she has even gone a bit crazy when the novel begins we find that she has already lost the man she loved. She is now angry with herself for not marrying him while he was alive. She carries a thin rotten stick which her diceased lover used to carry. She also nourishes a romantic idea that someday her fiance might come to the hospital where she is serving and she would nurse him and he would be alright and then they would live happily forever. However she also knows it that such a dream is thoroughly fantastic and impossible to come true.
War had shattered Catherine’s faith in life in such a way that she has lost her faith in conventional religion too. In the later portion of the novel she makes a religion for herself out of love for Frederic. Infact, there is a quality of innocence and purity in the unreserved, whole hearted love that she feels for Frederic and that has become her religion. She says
“But I haven’t any religion… You’re my religion. You’re all I’hv got.”
Infact, her love for Frederic is valuable in its own right as was her earlier attachment. She merges her own personality with Frederic’s so much that she becomes the only source of Frederic’s happiness. Her love even requires no formality of marriage. It is truly a union of two devoted hearts. When Henry learns that she is pregnant,he wants to marry her. But Catherine professes that inspite of being not married to Frederic she always feels like a married woman. She even says to Frederic,
” You can’t be ashamed of something if you’re only happy and proud of it”
Catherine makes a complete surrender of herself to him,
” I want what you want. There is not any me any more”. Catherine’s romantic love is here really transferred into a metaphysical and mystical love.
Catherine’s mystical perception of life is also noticed at the time of her death. She knows that with death she is losing all the pleasures that she has looked forward to in her life. Still she meets death with courage: ” Don’t worry darling… I’m not a bit afraid. It’s just a dirty trick.”
She knows that she is dying but she does not complain; nor does she become hysterical or nervous. Even when she begins to cry, it is not because of the fear of death but because she thinks that she is creating a trouble for Frederic. It is the pain of love that makes her cry, not the thought of death. Her death is really one of the most poignant episodes in Hemingway’s works.
In sum, the character Catherine Barkley is remarkable , praiseworthy for her infinite capacity of self- surrender, intense love, astonishing courage and flashes of perception. In the novel, not only does she play the role of a heroine, she also stands as the symbol of domesticity- conjugal love,the joys of family life and the peace and comfort which a woman can provide. It is remarkable that wherever she goes she creates a home-like atmosphere in which Frederic can ‘belong’. Even Frederic’s hospital room in Milan becomes a home for both of them primarily because of Catherine’s pervasive feminine influence. In a word, Catherine is “a true symbol of home…a sheltering tree under which any wanderer can find eternal solace.” But the ‘dirty trick’ takes away her life and the tragedy pervades our mind because of the loss of something innocent, pure,lovable and illuminating.