During the early 1900s, after the death of Queen Victoria, the European world went through a great change under the influence of the Free Womens movement and WWI. It was a time of great confusion, women were faced with choices unheard of before, and having to fight against what they had been taught their entire lives. Characters like Brett Ashley from Ernest Hemingways The Sun Also Rises presented the image of the short-skirted, shimmying, seductive, sleek femininity promising unprecedented freedom for the twentieth-century.
Others characters like Catherine Barkley, A Farewell to Arms, presented a more conservative Victorian way of life, akin to a male dominant world. These, Hemingways most famous female characters, are reflective in their contrast to the decaying Victorian society of the 1800s and the feminist movement of the early 1900s. Hemmingways attempt to create the perfect wife through Catherine, may have in fact been too successful, as he leaves the reader questioning whether she is too idealistic, too selflessly loving and giving to be believed as a character.
This is no truer than at the hospital after Catherine informs Frederic (Tenente), that she is pregnant her only concern becomes his happiness despite his constant pleas that he is in fact happy about the pregnancy. This is only overshadowed by her constant reassurances that she will be a good girl, never failing to apologize hastily for any momentary lapse in judgement. In fact, Catherine never fails to support Frederic for any of the risks he takes with his health, through drinking or the operation. While this submissive support for Frederic may seem surreal, it actually reflects the women of the Victorian era.
The concepts of Victorianism are in no way supportive of Catherines realism; they only provide a potential reason for her surreal personality. Brett, in contrast to Catherine is believable due to her faults. Brett is more human through her realization that she uses men like Count Mippipopulous and Pedro Romero, for wealth and lust. Bretts understanding of her own nature is therefore more easily sympathized with and is what makes her character interesting. Bretts morals are perhaps the most honest part of her character as they portray those ideals that directly conflict with the world around her.
One example of this is her multiple relationships outside of her engagement to Mike, which would have been outrageous for the time. The Victorian family would look at her as nothing short of a prostitute and yet the male of a household would most honestly be attracted to her. The family belief that a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself was just the double standard that Brett rebelled against. This shows strength in character, found in few others during the period and is what gives the reader a better understanding of why Brett is the way she is.
Catherines desire to feel protected is a foil to Bretts quest for freedom. Protected from the fear of abandonment and loneliness that come with failed attempts at love. Catherines previous marriage, which ended in the death of her husband, has left many emotional scars, making it difficult to deal with the stages of recommitting herself to another person. She finds her new relationship with Frederic difficult at first because she questions whether she is discrediting her previous husbands memory. Catherines desire for protection and companionship eventually overcomes her fear of commitment and she falls deeply in love.
Frederic had to commit on a very strong level to Catherine, in order for her to get over her previous husband. This serious a relationship was not Frederics desire at first however; he was quick to feel the love for her that she proclaimed to him. Catherines desire for protection is reflective of Victorian society in which women would marry older men for the protection that their status would provide. Although Catherine desires protection, she is not typical to the Victorian lifestyle in that she has a career, even as a nurse this was not common for the time.
The irony in this is that Catherine shows a sense of independence that Brett has yet to achieve. Brett and Jakes relationship shows yet another side of Brett, one in which love is the very source of her pain. This contrasts sharply to that of Frederic and Catherine who draw upon each other for strength. The cab scene in which Brett and Jake discuss their feelings for one another is perhaps the most revealing. You mustnt. You must know. I cant stand it, thats all. Oh, darling please understand! Dont you love me? Love you? I simply turn all to jelly when you touch me.
Brett is so adamant about not committing to others because the only man she loves is unable to give her the affection she desires. Jakes injury is cause to question that if Brett truly loved him, she would relinquish her own desires in order to consummate their love. However, it must be acknowledged that Brett is part of a social revolution in which women began to expect the same rights as men. Brett rebels against the undyingly faithful part of Catherines lifestyle, not purely for the right of being a free woman, but because she is physically unable to be with the man, she loves.
Catherine and Jake actually share war scars that their partners have a difficult time dealing with; this was a major issue of the time, as many people had to deal with death or disfigurement. Perhaps Brett and Catherines only obvious similarity lies in their ability to deceive themselves. Brett is perhaps the more guilty, as she lies to herself in order to portray the image that she is the free independent, a woman of few constraints willing to braise the world.
Brett is evidently not what she seems, in that she relies on men to pay for the lifestyle that she has grown accustom to. Her previous marriage into the British Aristocracy provides her with the status of Lady and an annual allowance that are in direct conflict with the image that she wishes to portray. Likewise, Catherine lies to herself about the loving relationship that she and Frederic seem to share at the beginning of the novel. Through an early, albeit untrue, declaration of love, Catherine and Frederic attempt to hide there true feelings.
Catherine feels as though any attempt at a relationship will discredit her previous husbands memory however, if she were to fall in love there would be less reason to feel guilty. Love is something that can not be avoided, this is what Catherine attempts to convince herself of in order to share a relationship with Frederic. Cetherine and Frederic shared what could be described as a Victorian marriage, in which husband and wife would willingly lie to one another as well as deceive themselves, if only to avert a potential argument or scene.
There is irony in the fact that the only thing Brett and Catherine share is contentment to deceive themselves however, this reflects on how each generation shares at least some characteristics of the generation before. Though primarily diverse, the pre and post 1900 societies shared some of the issues surrounding war and revolution. This changing period in time showed the turn of a new generation of women whose labors and decisions became valuable through war. Through jobs like nursing, women like Catherine were able to experience a new feeling of purpose, and yet still retain the beliefs that gave them a feeling of safety.
Consequently, the slow decline of Victorian beliefs due to the womens movement gave women like Brett the chance to experience the world in ways unheard of before such as the bull fights and the chance to choose their suitor. The evolutionary gap between the Victorian society and the society of today may be smaller than it seems, many of the positive beliefs in family and commitment were retained from that time as seen through Catherine. Brett on the other hand shows where the lack of freedom has gone and where the choice for women now remains.