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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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It is impossible for them to play the roles when they are apart and they therefore become more dependent upon each other's company. Neither mistakes role-playing for a truly intimate relationship, but both recognize that it can be a useful device for satisfying certain emotional needs. Originally, Henry and Catherine are playing out their roles for different reasons. Henry is role-playing at first because he selfishly hopes to get whatever he can out of the relationship with Catherine. Later he plays in order to regain the sense of order he has lost when he realizes the futility of the war. Catherine is role-playing to deal with the loss of her fiancé and to try to find normalcy in the arena of the war. When they are able to role-play together, the promise of mutual support is what becomes so important to them as they try to cope with their individual human vulnerability.
Their vulnerability is not the only reason why Henry and Catherine support each other through their roles, they do it also in hopes of achieving some sort of idyllic world away from the war. We are first given a glimpse of one such idyllic world early in the story when Henry is encouraged by the priest to visit Arbruzzi, a land "where it was clear cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery"(13). Since they are not natives, Henry and Catherine cannot really escape to Arbruzzi, but must instead escape to Switzerland. When they row across the lake on their way to their idealized world they fall more fully into their roles. Henry asks more and more about Catherine’s welfare and Catherine becomes more and more adamant about her good health. The fact that they actually are able to enter this make-believe world strengthens their role-playing game and allows it to continue longer than it would have otherwise. Once they are in this new world they adopt the roles of husband and wife that allow them to continue their ruse. They work harder to maintain their roles because even though they are far from the front, they are both still aware the war is proceeding and they are no longer a part of it.
Hemingway may not have been trying to purposely create a role-playing scenario between Henry and Catherine, but by forming their relationship around such a basis he effectively shows how effective roles can be when used to maintain self-image, provide psychological support, and become a way to escape the war.