No Happy Ending in A Farewell to Arms
Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is a tragic story of love and war. There has been a great deal of controversy over the ending of the novel in which Catherine Barkley died from massive hemorrhaging following an unsuccessful Caesarean operation. While such a horrific event to end a novel may not be popular, it is the soundest ending that Hemingway could have written. A Farewell to Arms is a war novel and Catherine’s death brings a conclusion that is consistent with the theme and context of the novel. The novel was written with a war wrought cynicism that is reflected in the attitude of Lieutenant Frederick Henry as the war changes the way he looks at life. As the war continued at the end of the novel, there was no place for a happy ending with Frederick and Catherine.
There are many instances throughout the novel that foreshadow Catherine’s death. In a conversation between Frederick and Nurse Ferguson, Frederick said of his relationship with Catherine: “`We don’t fight'” and Nurse Ferguson replied: “`You’ll die then. Fight or die. That’s what people do” (108). Although Ferguson was speaking skeptically about the chance of Frederick and Catherine remaining happily in love and ever getting married, she did predict a tragic outcome that somewhat ironically is exactly what happens to Catherine.
Just before Frederick left to go back to the front, he and Catherine went to a hotel together. During a quite time in the hotel room Frederick recited from a poem by Marvell:
““But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”” (154).
This allusion to death reflects Frederick’s worries about going back to the front. It is interesting that h…
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…. They’ve broken me. I know it now . . . it’s awful. They just keep it up till thy break you'” (323). Unfortunately it was already too late for Catherine and she knew this as she told Frederick: “`Sometimes I know I’m going to die'” (323). Frederick knew that she would die as well, but still prayed that she would be spared. Catherine was set up throughout the novel as “very good,” “very gentle” and “very brave” and one who would not be broken. Even though she admitted to being broken in the end, it is only facing her own death and the thought of leaving behind Frederick that she was broken. For the novel to have ended any other way would have been inconsistent with the theme that life and death are not fair and death strikes without regard for goodness, gentleness and bravery.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York, NY: Scriber, 1929