Ernest Hemingway is possibly one of the greatest literary masters of all time, his many acclaimed stories are known around the world from his novels such as “Old Man and the Sea” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” to his short stories like “ Hills Like White Elephants” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”. The literary novel, “A Farewell to Arms” is by far one of the greatest literary masterpieces by Hemingway; it addresses his philosophy of an indifferent universe through the character of Frederic Henry, an American lieutenant in the Italian army.
Hemingway’s philosophy of an indifferent universe is shown throughout his novel “A Farewell to Arms”. “Hemingway, and indeed many of his existential peers, believed that the universe is an unordered one. There is no God to watch over man, to dictate codes of morality, or to ensure justice. Instead, the universe is indifferent, sometimes even hostile to man’s plight.” (Homework Online). In the book, this indifference is portrayed best by the war, which is an ultimately hostile and deadly struggle of man against man. There are no winners in a war, and there is no reasoning behind the lives that are taken. Lieutenant Henry views the universe as being an indifferent universe in which human beings have no more privileged place than ants. This is clearly seen when he describes the ants scurrying around on the log. After Frederic places the log on the fire he has the chance of being their savior. This thought is brought about when he is waiting to hear about Catherine. He knows that he is just as helpless as those ants and that the universe is as caring as he was towards the ants (Hemingway, “A Farewell to Arms”).
Existentialism is the belief that every individual is only a limited human being. Thus, every person must face important and difficult decisions with only limited knowledge and time in which to make these decisions. Existentialists see human life as being basically a series of decisions that must be made with no way of knowing what the correct choices are. The individual must decide what is true and false, wrong and right, which beliefs to accept and which to reject, what to do and what not to do. The individual has to decide which public standards to accept and which ones to reject. Existentialism is a way of thinking that takes a negative view of human life saying that life is meaningless and absurd (My Little Corner of Existentialism).
Frederic Henry is not an existential hero! He is a man who is lost in a world that has no remorse. It is a harsh place where tragedies occur for no reason. He fails at almost every chance to become an existential hero because of this. Using Simone DeBeauvoir’s “Hierarchy among man” I will show how Lieutenant Henry is not able to recognize his freedom and will his own existence while allowing others the same. He faces the existential abyss many times but never makes it to the status of existential hero. “Henry recognizes what he ‘wants’ to do, but also that this takes a power of will which he does not have.” (Wylder)
In existentialism there is a belief that man is free to will his existence. This means that when a man realizes his freedom he must also realize that his subjectivity is what is real. He has the freedom to give his life meaning. He is not born with certain personality traits. A man is not born as a coward or hero but is capable of making himself that way. When he is faced with this existential reality a man sometimes wishes to deny his freedom. It is this existential void that a man must face and to will his own existence while allowing others to do the same in order to become an existential hero (Gather). Frederic Henry is never capable of reaching this point. In the beginning of “A Farewell to Arms” Frederic Henry is just another soldier. He is not even a soldier; he is an ambulance driver! We do not know why he is involved in the war. He seems to be as indifferent to the war as he is towards life. This indifference shows when he comes back from leave and asks questions about the war in a matter of fact way. In the end when Catherine dies Frederic is the perfect example of a modern existential man. He is left with nothing, no love, no future and no belief in anything real (A Farewell to Arms).
Hemingway does not stop at “A Farewell to Arms” though; this philosophy is shown through other pieces of his work as well. “Old Man and the Sea” is another perfect example as Carlos Baker said, “a noble and tragic individualism revealing what a man can do in an indifferent universe which defeats him and the love he can feel for such a universe and his humility before it” (Answers).
One of the things that stuck out to me, though, is the almost existential philosophy inborn in Santiago’s struggle. One of the main beliefs of Existentialism is along the lines of “Look, you’re going to die, but it’s how you deal with that inevitability that matters.” You get the idea that the old man in this book follows this saying by the way he just keeps struggling against nature, even though he knows the fight is lost and the outcome inevitable. Lesser men would have just cut the fish loose and sailed home. But in the end, even though he’s ruined Santiago gains a chance at immortality of a sort through his protÃ©gÃ© (Hemingway, “Old Man and the Sea”).
In Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” he writes of another man, Jake Barnes. Jake Barnes is very similar if not an exact replica of Lieutenant Henry from “A Farewell to Arms.” Both men served in the Italian army and become injured in the line of duty. They have love interests but no matter what they do it just never seems to work out. Jake Barnes was in the middle of struggles on the endless and baffling questions regarding values and morality. Jake your typical modern man who is constantly reminded of the aching emptiness inside him as he tries to make sense of the world outside. Due to the need to find the answers to life’s essential questions he is forced to improvise and take decisive actions in order to drive away despair.
When Jake introduced Brett to Romero, Jake was aware of the full impact of his actions. This is not only a sign that he gives up Brett but also ends his friendship with Montoya and all links to his past. Admittedly, this is a two-edge sword. It could work to his advantage or not. And he may live to regret this act but the essence in existentialism is in arriving at a decision and acting on it. Mistakes could be a part of it. Decisions always involve consequences and risks. And Jake, whether he likes it or not, must face this fact.
“The hero is very much alone in this world, because he has no God and no real brother. Only the dying embers of religion appear to glow from time to time, as in the prayers of Jake Barnes and Lieutenant Henry and old Pablo and Santiago; but when the mine is clean and well-lighted the glow pales away, and spiritual aspirations are recognized as obsolete in our time.” (Killinger).
“Properly speaking, Hemingway is not an existentialist, for there has been no known liaison between him and the existentialists, either personally or intellectually, and neither has ever formally recognized a kinship to the other.” (Killinger)
A Farewell to Arms. 2005.
Answers. 23 April 2008
Gather. 2 May 2007. 27 March 2008
Hemingway, Ernest. “A Farewell to Arms”. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929.
—. “Old Man and the Sea”. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952.
Homework Online. 1998-2008. 5 April 2008
Killinger, John. Hemingway and the Dead Gods. The University of Kentucky Press, 1960.
My Little Corner of Existentialism. 1997. 22 April 2008
Wylder, Delbert E. Hemingway’s Heros. Duke University Press, 1970.