For hundreds of years, writers have used religion as a principle issue and point of discussion in their novels. Hawthorne expressed his views in The Scarlet Letter, Garcia Marquez did the same in One Hundred Years of Solitude and in other writings, and even Ernest Hemingway used his writing to develop his own ideas concerning the church. This is fully evident in his novel A Farewell to Arms. Even in a book in which the large majority of the characters profess their atheism, the ideas of the church materialize repeatedly as both characters and as topics of conversations.
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Religion is presented through reflections of the protagonist “Lieutenant Henry,” and through a series of encounters involving Henry and a character simply identified as “the priest. ” Hemingway uses the treatment of the priest by the soldiers and by Henry himself to illustrate two ways of approaching religion in a situation in which God has no place, and employs these encounters between the priest and other characters as a means of expressing religious views of his own. Most evident to the reader is the strict difference between the priest’s relationship with Henry and that which he has with the other soldiers.
Hemingway repeatedly emphasizes this in all sections of the book, even after Henry is injured, when he is completely isolated from the other soldiers. The first instance the reader sees of this is only six pages into the novel. Hemingway writes, “That night in the mess after the spaghetti course . . . the captain commenced picking on the priest” (6-7). Hemingway’s diction is suggestive: “commenced” signifies not only that the soldiers began to pick on the priest, but that ridiculing the priest was their main activity prior to dinner as well as after.
Almost the same scenario is portrayed only a few pages later: “the meal was finished, and the argument went on. We two stopped talking and the captain shouted, ‘Priest not happy. Priest not happy without girls. ‘” (14). The soldiers’ ridicule of the priest is again highlighted when Henry, bed-stricken with his injury, asks the priest “How is the mess? ” (69). The priest replies “I am still a great joke” (69). The reader sees an obvious pattern in the relationship between the priest and the others. More important, though, than the fact that the other soldiers ridicule the priest, is for what he is ridiculed.
For one, they question his intelligence, with one soldier proclaiming that “all thinking men are atheists” (8). His religious celibacy also becomes an easy target: ‘Today I see priest with girls. ‘ ‘No,’ said the priest. The other officers were amused at the baiting. ‘Priest not with girls,’ went on the captain. ‘Priest never with girls. ‘ (7) The soldiers begin to call the priest’s masculinity into question. The captain continues: “‘Priest every night five against one. ‘ Every one at the table laughed. ‘You understand? Priest every night five against one.
He made a gesture and laughed loudly” (7). In this way the question of faith becomes a question of manhood. An officer has pointed out in front of a large group of soldiers, all of whom resort to the whorehouse for entertainment, the fact that the priest does not have sex with women. In the eyes of the soldiers, the priest, who represents all things religious, is not a man. His masculinity is called into question in a different way as well: ‘Priest wants us never to attack. Don’t you want us never to attack? ‘No. If there is a war I suppose we must attack. ‘
‘Must attack. Shall attack! ‘ (14) Here the priest indirectly states his opposition to the war, which later may become common among the soldiers, but at this point is in direct contrast to the macho proclamation that the army “shall attack” (14). Again the differences between the priest and the soldiers are emphasized. Overall, the soldiers express a complete distrust of the church itself. At one point a soldier says, “The Pope wants the Austrians to win the war” (7). Another soldier says “[The book ‘Black Pig’] is very valuable . . . it tells you about those priests” (8, emphasis mine).
The priest and all the clergy are, to the soldiers, the enemy, no matter what. Rinaldi, Henry’s companion, expresses the sentiment of the soldiers well: “He is a good priest . . . but still a priest” (173). In other words, he is not to be trusted and not to be taken seriously. Lieutenant Henry’s relationship with the priest is in stark contrast to the other soldiers’. Unlike the other soldiers, Henry never directly attacks the priest himself. Like those soldiers, however, he does question the priest’s beliefs. But he does so in an inquisitive or curious manner. This becomes, in the novel, the essence of their relationship: discussion.
Henry tells the priest, “I always enjoyed our talking,” and later when the priest asks Henry if he needs him for anything, Henry replies “Just to talk” (69,73). Indeed, most of Henry’s opinion of the priest is revealed through their conversations. They consistently speak of the war, of their thoughts on the war and its duration. What is most interesting about their conversations is Henry’s behavior. With the priest, Henry keeps up a consistent line of questions or prompts. For example: ‘What will happen? ‘ I stroked the blanket with my hand. ‘I do not know but I don’t think it can go on much longer. What will happen? ‘ ‘They will stop fighting. ‘ ‘Who? ‘ ‘Both sides. ‘ (178)
This conversation continues in the same way and is very similar to every other conversation the two have. What is significant about this is that with nearly every other character in the book, it is Henry who needs the prompting. Henry looks to the priest for advice and as someone in which to confide. It is through his conversations with the priest that Henry comes to many important conclusions in the book, realizations about love, about the inefficacy of the war and of those conducting it, about the nature of man and power.
Henry himself says about the priest, “He had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget” (14). Perhaps the priest’s greatest contribution to Henry comes in their discussion of love: ‘You do not love Him at all? ‘ he asked. ‘I am afraid of Him at night sometimes. ‘ ‘You should love Him. ‘ ‘I don’t love much. ‘ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You do . . . When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve. ‘ ‘I don’t love. ‘ ‘You will. I know you will. Then you will be happy. ‘ (72) The priest is essentially teaching Henry what love is.
When asked if he loves God, Henry replies that he fears Him sometimes. Henry implies that the feeling he most associates with love is fear. But through his conversations with the priest Henry gains a better understanding of what love is. From this it is reasonable to say that Henry may never have fallen in love with Catherine if not for the priest. Hemingway reemphasizes this point later in the book when Count Greffi reminds him, and the reader, “not [to] forget that [love] is a religious feeling” (263). Henry’s feeling towards the priest is clear. His feeling towards religion, however, is not.
Throughout their conversations, it is evident that Henry respects the priest. Yet he continually puts up a front against God and religion itself. The priest says “You understand but you do not love God” and Henry replies “No” (72). Henry says, “it is only in defeat that we become Christian,” implying that only those who don’t have the power to disobey the church will abide by its rules (177). Henry also tells the priest “We are all gentler now because we are beaten. How would Our Lord have been if Peter had rescued him in the Garden? (177). He is implying that the Christian God is no god at all, just the product of circumstance.
What is deceiving about Henry’s statements is that they appear to express strong opposition to the church, and a complete lack of faith. But near the end of the book, when Henry is completely powerless, he resorts to the only option he has: he prays. When Catherine is in danger of dying, Henry has no other choice: I could not think. I knew she was going to die and I prayed that she would not. Don’t let her die. Oh God, please don’t let her die . . . Please, please, please don’t let her die. Dear God, don’t let her die . . . God please make her not die. I’ll do anything you say if you don’t let her die. 330)
It is here that the reader first sees any signs of Henry’s faith, if it can be so called. There is also one other instance in the book in which a soldier resorts to prayer. This is when Henry is injured and the mortally wounded soldier Passini is next to him. Passini says: Dio te salve, Maria. Dio te salve, Maria. Oh Jesus shoot Me Christ shoot me mama mia mama Mia of purest lovely Mary shoot me . . . Oh Jesus lovely Mary stop it. (55) In both instances, these prayers go unanswered. This is a vital clue to understanding the religious view Hemingway presents in the novel.
In no way does God have a presence in the book; the priest, who claims to be a representative of God, occupies a large role in the novel, but this role is one almost entirely devoid of religion. The priest is there simply as a man, a person Henry looks to for advice. The most enlightening image the reader is given of God is metaphorical, with Henry occupying the position of God: Once in camp I put a log on top of the fire and it was full of ants. As it commenced to burn, the ants swarmed out and went first toward the centre where the fire as; then turned back and ran toward the end.
When there were enough on the end they fell off into the fire . . . I remember thinking at the time that it was the end of the world and a splendid chance to be a messiah and lift the log off the fire . . . but I did not do anything but throw a tin cup of water on the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whiskey in . . . (328) This is an extremely important passage in the book. Here, Henry is clearly acting as God, or at least as a god-like figure. He has the power to save the lives of multitudes, but chooses not to simply out of apathy.
This is the clearest expression of Hemingway’s, and Henry’s, views of religion and God that the reader will receive in the novel. God may or may not be there, but that doesn’t affect, and certainly does not help, anyone in the book or in the war itself. The views Hemingway presents in the novel at this point become, if not clear, at least more accessible to the reader. The priest no longer represents God. He does represent religion, for this is why he receives the verbal battery he does from the soldiers. But to Henry and to the reader he is simply another man with strong beliefs.
God, in the novel, either does not exist or is completely apathetic to the actions of man. The one religious icon the reader sees in the book, the St. Anthony necklace Catherine gives to Henry, is disregarded and lost within twenty pages. Henry’s strongest sense of devotion in the book is to Catherine, and in this way love for him is a “religious” feeling, but by no other definition of the word is this true. The priest nicely expresses Hemingway’s message when he says, “there in my country it is understood that a man may love God. It is not a dirty joke” (71). The frontlines are no place for religion. God has no place in war.