In a Character Studies post from July 2012, writer Stephanie LaCava explores Hemingway’s Lady Brett Ashley, the “damned good-looking” heroine of The Sun Also Rises. LaCava is convincing in her theory that a hearty “damned good-looking” is a far greater compliment than beautiful—coming from Hemingway, at least—but where does this put Hemingway’s description of beautiful Catherine Barkley, the somewhat real-life love interest within the pages of A Farewell to Arms?
Hemingway’s heroines are often too quickly given the label of one of two simplistic archetypes: the pleasure-seeking, independent femme fatale or the submissive, pleasingly passive lover. While Brett Ashley fills in the tightly knit crew-neck sweater of her title with ease, Catherine Barkley seems to drown in the domestic nurse’s uniform with which scholars and readers alike have come to adorn her. Beyond Catherine’s docile nature lies a selfless mystique that, although does not define the interiors a “damned good-looking” woman, is unequivocally beautiful.
When Hemingway, the modern master of written realism, describes a woman, it is not imprudent to trust that he got it right. His first account of Miss Barkley, through Frederic Henry’s eyes, is a simple, photographic sketch: she is a tall, blonde woman with tawny skin and gray eyes, and Henry adds, keeping with Hemingway’s verily true tone, that he “thought she was very beautiful.”
The use of beautiful appears in the text much more than what most writers deem acceptable; there are even multiple occurrences of the word on the same page. For Hemingway, however, individual words are as vital to the story as the characters themselves, and their repetition is similar to the act of a character reappearing in the next scene. Each word is a piece of Hemingway’s written puzzle sought after with great effort—the determined author even confesses in A Moveable Feast that it could sometimes take him a whole morning to draft a paragraph—and a substitute for beautiful simply could not do for his Catherine.
Still, the word beautiful may seem too one-dimensional for romantic readers; after all, it seems a writer of Hemingway’s caliber could stretch his thoughts a bit further to clearly express the source of his attraction. However, Hemingway’s explanation of Catherine’s beauty comes not from his words, but from her physicality. While literary critics often emphasize Catherine’s submissive persona, the novel’s narrator rarely even mentions it. Hemingway’s allusions to his heroine’s nature are merely nuances reflected in her physique. The window to Catherine’s character is literal at best: Hemingway limits his detailed attention to the exterior of Catherine’s amusing features, allowing his reader to be fully captivated by the physical charm of her femininity.
Poor Brett did not receive this attention in Hemingway’s earlier novel, but perhaps she would not have appreciated it, as any self-professed modern woman would surely not dream of being viewed purely as an object of visual admiration. But Hemingway’s limitations upon Catherine’s profile are anything but degrading; he appreciates the fact that her feminine beauty compliments his masculinity, a trait he would find too much of in independent Brett, who finds no fear in watching a bullfight with both eyes open.
Catherine’s physical traits are the focus of Hemingway’s description because they express femininity in a more positive—and more attractive—light than the modern interpretation of femininity. Yes, Catherine is acquiescent to her man, a feminine weakness considered a by some, but Hemingway is implying that this trait is not a weakness—nor a strength—but rather, a beauty.
It is Catherine’s selfless nature that allows a man like Hemingway to shine, and what could be more beautiful to a man who honors masculine strength above all else? Her selflessness more or less controls her, from her overarching want to please her beau after hours to her wild misconception of her self-identity. During the nights spent together at the hospital, Catherine mentions several times to Frederic Henry that she no longer exists, that her love for him has made her only an extension of himself. “There isn’t any me. I’m you,” she tells him. “Don’t make up a separate me.”
That is quite a bold statement in the modern world, even coming from a woman in Hemingway’s mind. But the fact remains that, although she is not choosing to further her own self by becoming independent, she is choosing to become richly intoxicated by her hero’s Hemingway-like masculinity. She wants a man who is a hero, a man who will make her stronger only by allowing her to become one with his strength, even at the risk of losing herself.
Judge her if you may, but Catherine’s loss of self becomes the source behind Frederic Henry’s strength. Convicted by her audacious means with which to love him, Henry desires to live no longer a life of running away, but a life of running toward, striving to build a future of hope and abundance for his dearly beloved.
Catherine essentially allows Frederic Henry to become the hero he had always been in her eyes. Compare this to Brett, a female-version of how Hemingway may have viewed himself: self-reliant, pleasure-driven, and of course, “damned good-looking.” Perhaps in Catherine Hemingway sees not the man he is, but the man he wants to be. Perhaps he sees the man reflected in her eyes.
Could Hemingway be implying that the selflessness of a woman like Catherine is necessary for a man’s strength? Could Hemingway, the writer represented by a complete disregard of the female persona, be saying that women are the secret to his success?
Either that, or he simply believes the woman to be beautiful…which, for me, would be more than enough.
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