“A Farewell to Arms: Conlict of Two Desires”
In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway creates a character referred to as Lieutenant Frederic Henry, who is subject to a painful internal conflict throughout the book. He is pulled in one direction by his desire for the beautiful English nurse’s aide named Catherine Barkley and a completely different direction by his obligation to fulfill his duties as an ambulance driver serving in the Italian army during World War I. This conflict eventually comes to be the essence and core of the story.
The mutual love between Henry and Catherine begins as just a playful game of seduction, exchanging feigned plans for the future and almost numb kisses. However, it eventually grows to a point of passion, although it may be a subconscious illusion on both of their parts, where he does not want to be without her for the long stretches of time that he spends at war. Lieutenant Henry is wounded on the battlefield and sent to the hospital to have a necessary knee operation and then recuperate. Very fortunately, Catherine is transferred to the same hospital in Milan, allowing her to be with Henry during his recovery. Over this time of healing, the love between the two intensifies and becomes seemingly real, making Henry want to stay with her and not return to battle as an ambulance driver.
The other possible outcome of this problem is that Henry will continue his work as an ambulance driver. He is a young American, but speaks enough Italian to converse with other Italians easily. He feels a strong obligation to continue serving in the Italian army, but does not necessarily enjoy it. When he is wounded and sent to the hospital, able to spend extensive time with Catherine, he realizes the sincerity of his love for her and decides that he does not want to leave her again to return to war. He is given three weeks convalescence leave after his knee has healed, after which he is told he will be returning to war. He attempts to plan a vacation with Catherine, but then he contracts jaundice, which the superintendent of the hospital deems as intentional and the convalescence leave is revoked. Henry is restored to health and is sent back to the war.
This issue, over which Henry constantly struggles with himself, is integral in the novel and the two options fluctuate in weight throughout. At different times, one will seem to stand out as what he thinks is more important and then this will seem to change, judging by his thoughts, statements, and actions. At first, the war takes precedence over everything and Henry rarely even considers leaving it and abandoning his fellow soldiers. Though later, as his love for Catherine evolves and becomes more important in his life, he begins to reevaluate his priorities. This inability to decide rips at him throughout the story. Even after making the decision, he finds himself regretting it at times, but then dismisses these feelings. This makes the reader wonder if his passion was extreme for both his loyalty to the war and for Catherine, or if it was never extraordinarily strong for either.
In the end, Henry winds up choosing to flee the war and quit the army, devoting the remainder of his life to Catherine. The two reunite in a town called Stresa and they borrow a boat and Henry rows all night to escape to the safety of Switzerland and live peacefully in a town called Montreux. This marks his parting with weaponry and war altogether and his commitment to Catherine, also explaining the significance of the title, A Farewell to Arms.