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THE CHARACTERS - CHARACTER LIST AND ANALYSIS
• FREDERIC HENRY
Hemingway gives few facts about his hero. Henry is young (exactly how young you don't know), American, a student of architecture, and apparently without strong family ties. His grandfather, who regularly sends him money, seems to be the only relative he keeps in touch with. The rest of what you learn about him has to come from observing how he acts and reacts.
Henry's a good example of the developing character. When you first see him, he's an aimless kid out for an adventure. He's casually joined the Italian ambulance corps, mostly out of curiosity, and he throws himself into the rough, rootless military routine. He jokes, he drinks, he whores. Excited by this existence, he sees it as a glamorous if somewhat nasty antidote to an ordinary American peacetime life.
He does show some glimmers of another, more sensitive side to his personality. For example, in Chapter 2, when the other officers tease their priest, Henry feels sympathy for the man. But even though he doesn't join their cruel humor, he does nothing to stop them.
Even his relations with Catherine, the woman he eventually comes to love deeply, start in an atmosphere of indifference. Rinaldi, remember, has to drag him along to meet the British nurses. And even when he meets her, he first thinks of her only as a possible sexual conquest.
As the story progresses and Henry comes face to face with realities-of war, of death, of love-he changes. By the time he's caught in the massive, chaotic retreat later in the book, he's learned a lot. He stops parroting the official party line, defending the army and the war; he comes to distrust authority. Army life, once adventurous, is now absurd and dangerous. Having no stake in the war, he leaves it. "It was not my show any more," he reasons.
And in his relationships with other people, he realizes that human beings need each other, that superficial relationships are just that. He regrets having to leave Rinaldi and the priest but takes comfort in having Catherine and in being able to escape the war and build a new life with her. Tragically, destiny won't allow him that opportunity. Bereft, he ends up as an empty cynic who takes life as well as he can; that's all.
Henry has come a long way from the young man who joined a foreign army because he had nothing better to do.
• CATHERINE BARKLEY
She's an English volunteer nurse's aide. As with Henry, Hemingway gives you little of her background. She, too, is young, but how young we aren't told. She seems to be from a good family, although she seldom mentions it. Prior to coming to Italy she had been engaged to a British soldier, but he was killed. When you first see her, she is, in her own words, "a little crazy" from the shock.
If she's a developing character-and many readers don't see her this way-she's a different sort of one than Henry. Her development has taken place before you see her. Back when she was engaged to her Englishman, she was still holding onto a staid, Victorian morality. She decided to wait to marry her fiance until after the war. She did not sleep with him. Then he's killed. And it is this shock that unnerves her. It makes her dismiss conventional morality. "He could have had anything he wanted if I would have known," she says of her fiance now. And it makes her resigned about the war. "We'll crack," she says matter-of-factly, assessing the chances of the Allies, and perhaps of herself and Frederic Henry as well. So, although Catherine has undergone change, it has taken place before the book begins; she develops little in the course of the novel. At her death in Chapter 41 she is the same woman we met in the garden in Chapter 4.
Those readers who see her as an incomplete character point out that she's too beautiful, too submissive, to be true. "You see, I do whatever you want," she tells Henry, playing the part of the perfect adolescent sex object, the dream girl with few notions in her head except how to please her lover.
But there is genuine disagreement. You have to make up your own mind, using the text to support your interpretation.
One thing about Catherine is certain: she dies bravely, with the proper Hemingway stoicism. "I'm going to die," she says. "I'm not afraid. It's just a dirty trick."
• THE PRIEST
He's an admirable character, taking the officers' teasing with dignity, earning Henry's respect. His goal in life is to return home after the war, live in his simple, rural district, love God and serve Him.
Henry's roommate, a surgeon, prompts mixed reactions. You can admire him for his skills: "I never hurt anybody. I learn how to do it," he says. You can condemn him for his excessive drinking and carousing at the brothel. But ultimately you can feel sorry for him. The war has hurt Rinaldi. He knocks himself out trying to undo the damage the war has done. The only human connection he's able to make is with Henry, and when Henry deserts, he is denied even that. At the end he's pathetic, near a crack-up, and treating himself for syphilis he fears he's picked up at the Villa Rossa.
• HELEN FERGUSON
Catherine's friend is a spokeswoman for conformity and the conventional life. She deplores the fact that Henry has gotten her good friend in trouble but seems at the same time envious of their love.