Role Playing in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms

The Role of Role Playing in Farewell to Arms

Listening to the radio today, I heard a song written a couple years ago that reminded me a lot of the relationship between Catherine and Henry in Hemingway’s novel Farewell to Arms. In this song, a girl asks a guy if he will be strong enough to be her man. She asks this question many times, each time changing the scenario for the worse in which she places them. Plaintively she implores, “will you be strong enough to be my man?” She seeks reassurance of her man’s strength by inventing roles for them to play just as Catherine and Henry invent roles in order to protect themselves from the discovery of their insignificance and powerlessness in a world indifferent to their well being.

Role-playing by Henry and Catherine is their way to escape the realization of human mortality that is unveiled by war. Hemingway utilizes role-playing as a way to explore the strengths and weaknesses of his two characters. By placing Henry’s ordered life in opposition to Catherine’s upside-down one, and then letting each one assume a role that will bring them closer together, Hemingway shows the pair’s inability to accept the hard, gratuitous quality of life.

Hemingway’s characters revert to role-playing in order to escape or retreat from their lives. The ability to create characters that play roles, either to maintain self-esteem or to escape, is exploited extraordinarily well in A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway is quite blatant in letting us know that role-playing is what is occurring through the thought and actions of the main characters. During Henry and Catherine’s third encounter, Henry thought, “this was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards. Like bridge you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes”(30). This meeting becomes a turning point in their relationship for afterwards 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 difficult. Evidence of this difficulty is seen at the racetrack in Milan, where Catherine tells Henry “I can’t stand to see so many people”(131).

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