Initiation in Ernest Hemingway´s ´A Farewell to Arms´

Seminar Paper, 2002

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. What is Initiation?

III. The First Phase: Exit

IV. The Second Phase: Transition

V. The Third Phase: Re-entrance

VI. Frederic Henry’s Mentors

VII. Conclusion

VIII. List of Works Cited

Initiation in Ernest

Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms

Since it was published in the late 1920s, Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms has mostly been read as a love story against the background of the First World War (Brooks 81; Matthews 77; Ross 90; Smith 78). This is right insofar as the novel deals with the young American Frederic Henry who, while being involved in the war on the side of the Italian Army, falls in love with a beautiful British nurse, Catherine Barkley. There is, however, more to this book: When looking at the world in which the protagonist finds himself, it becomes clear that it is one in which people are lacking proper, stable values. Everything that Frederic Henry learned in his teenage years, the world he grew up in and its complex value system based on such values as honor and dignity, has fallen apart. Frederic himself expresses this on several occasions, for example in Book Three, when he says,

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. […] Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the number of regiments and the dates. (Hemingway 184-5)

Because of the meaninglessness of those old values, A Farewell to Arms is also a story dealing with a quest that was typical for Frederic Henry’s generation: a quest for knowledge and a way of living in a world whose foundations have been shaken by the chaos created by World War I.

At the beginning of the novel, Frederic Henry is, in many ways, lost: He neither knows where he belongs nor where he is going. He seeks pleasure in activities such as drinking huge quantities of alcohol and going to a whorehouse with his comrades. As it depicts his growth from immaturity to maturity, or, in a way, completion of his character, A Farewell to Arms should be read as his initiation story.

This term paper shall, first of all, sum up how critics understand the term initiation. Peter Freese’s definition, written in 1985, will then serve as a basis to describe Frederic Henry’s development, which will consequently be divided into the three phases of exit, transition and re-entrance. Next, Frederic Henry’s mentors shall be described. Emphasis will be put on one character: Catherine Barkley. Others, such as Count Greffi and the priest, will be considered as mentors, too. Finally, as there are many general definitions of initiation that can all be applied to A Farewell to Arms, a new definition that sums up all of the elements of initiation that appear in the novel will be created.

II. What is initiation?

Initiation is, generally speaking, the transition from one state of being to another. In literature, it is in most cases the passing from childhood to adulthood. In criticism, there are many different definitions of the term initiation, several of which can be applied to Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms. The most important aspects of these definitions shall be named here.

To begin with, in their 1943 definition, Brooks and Warren write that initiation comes with “the discovery of evil and disorder, and the first step towards the mastery of the discipline” (324). Then, in 1960, Marcus adds that the “change of knowledge about the world or [the hero] himself, or a change of character, or both” has to be “at least likely to have permanent effects” (32). In the following year, Hassan states that initiation can “be understood as a process leading through right action and consecrated knowledge to a viable mode of life in the world” (34-35). In his definition written in 1985, Freese adds that in initiation stories, the young hero is on “his (or her) spiritual journey towards adulthood” which “usually exists of the three phases of EXIT, TRANSITION, and (RE-)ENTRANCE” and that there usually is a mentor who advises the initiate on his or her way from innocence to experience (100-1). In contrast to other critics, Barbara A. White does not limit initiation to youthful characters. In 1985, she states that an “initiation story might include characters of any age” (4). In A Farewell to Arms, most of these elements of initiation can be found.

III. The first phase: Exit

According to Freese, the first phase of an initiation process is the exit (100-1). That is, the initiate makes a certain experience that leads to a change of attitude and then exits his or her usual way of life. Therefore, Frederic Henry needs to make a life-changing experience that opens his eyes and makes him think about the world he lives in. In this part of the term paper, the Frederic Henry that Hemingway presents in the first book of A Farewell to Arms shall be characterized. This will show his main shortcomings, that is, traits and attitudes that he will have to change in order to become initiated.

According to James L. Roberts, “[t]he Hemingway man [is] a man’s man. He [is] a man involved in a great deal of drinking. He [is] a man who move[s] from one love affair to another, who participate[s] in wild game hunting, who enjoy[s] bullfights, who [is] involved in all of the so-called manly activities […]” (42). Frederic Henry is one of those truly masculine Hemingway men. Even though he finds himself in the middle of the brutal and shocking First World War, his main interest is the gratification of his sensuous desires. Showing emotions is, to him, ridiculous and unnecessary. Frederic Henry has a big number of meaningless love affairs, especially when he goes on leave. When his friend Rinaldi asks him if he had any “beautiful adventures” on his journey through Italy, Frederic answers in the affirmative and says he had affairs in “Milano, Firenze, Roma, Napoli -----“, that is, in every single place that he visited on his trip (Hemingway 11). Together with his comrades, he often goes to “the house for officers where the girls climbed all over you” to meet women and to get drunk (Hemingway 30). For him, women are nothing more than means to fulfill his sexual desires. When Frederic Henry meets the British V.A.D. Catherine Barkley, he only says that he loves her because it is what she wants to hear. At the same time, he clearly states that the main reason why he spends time with Catherine Barkley is that he does not want to go to the whorehouse every day. He says:

I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley not had any idea of loving her. 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. Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were. It was all right with me. (Hemingway 30)

It comes as a surprise to Frederic Henry that Catherine knows the rules of his game. She confronts him by saying, “This is a rotten game we play” (Hemingway 31). Catherine and Frederic can now be honest with each other. Catherine says that she will not accept any lies and that playing games is now “over for a while” (Hemingway 32). At this point, Catherine’s superiority to Frederic Henry becomes clear.

Moreover, at the beginning of the A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry does not understand the concept of death. In his naivety, he feels immortal and says, “I knew I would not be killed. Not in this war. It did not have anything to do with me. It seemed no more dangerous to me myself than war in the movies” (Hemingway 37). During the “show above Plava”, Frederic Henry and the other ambulance drivers ignore the shelling outside and have pasta asciutta, cheese and mediocre wine together in a dugout (Hemingway 43). While eating, the men dryly comment on the explosions that they hear outside. Their guessing what weapons the enemies use resembles a macabre game. Then, however, a trench mortar shell interrupts their dinner and hits the group. This is Frederic Henry’s first encounter with the brutality of war or, to relate this experience to Brooks and Warren’s definition of initiation, his first “encounter with evil and disorder” (324). One of his colleagues dies. Frederic Henry and another driver are severely wounded. Frederic has a near death experience that he describes in the following manner:

I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself, and I knew I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died. Then I floated, and instead of going on I felt myself slide back. I breathed and I was back. (Hemingway 54)

At this point, Frederic Henry is for the first time ever confronted with his own mortality. This experience can therefore be seen as the moment of exit and the beginning of his initiation journey (Freese 100-1). Frederic Henry now starts to understand how meaningless the war and how fragile realities in his modern world are. Had the trench mortar shell killed him, he would not even have died as a hero, but as an ambulance driver who was “blown up while […] eating cheese” (Hemingway 63). There is no space for heroism in Frederic Henry’s world. Traditional values such as heroism, honor, glory, and courage have to be replaced. Therefore, Frederic Henry is, despite his not being a youth any more, in need of initiation. He has to find out how to deal with life in a modern, corrupt society that lacks a valid system of values.

IV. The second phase: Transition

In Freese’s definition, the second phase of initiation is called transition. The initiate moves from one understanding of life to another and learns how to face difficult situations. According to Ray B. West, Jr., “the initiation of Frederic Henry comes gradually. He learns about war, love, and finally death” (149). These three criteria shall be taken as a basis for this part of the term paper.

His experiences above Plava are a shock, but they do not change Frederic Henry’s attitude towards the war permanently. The permanence of the initiate’s change is, according to Marcus, an essential criterion for initiation (32). The experience does, however, trigger his initiation and change him insofar that he is now more receptive for his feelings and emotions. Therefore, when Catherine Barkley enters his room in the American hospital in Milan for the first time, Frederic Henry realizes that what he feels is love. Later, he explains: “God knows I had not wanted to fall in love with her. I had not wanted to fall in love with any one. But God knows I had and I lay on the bed of the hospital in Milan and all sorts of things went through my head but I felt wonderful […]” (Hemingway 93). Because of his being in love, Frederic manages to ignore the war while he is in Milan. E. M. Halliday explains that


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Initiation in Ernest Hemingway´s ´A Farewell to Arms´
University of Marburg  (Institute for Anglistics/ American Studies)
PS The Initiation Theme in American Fiction
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
486 KB
Overall: Convincing, thoughtful, and resourceful paper that adequately analyzes the text at hand and successfully implements the initiation motif into a well-versed and original reading of the text.
Initiation; Hemingway; Farewell to Arms; Modernism; Mentors; Freese - three phases...
Quote paper
Nina Dietrich (Author), 2002, Initiation in Ernest Hemingway´s ´A Farewell to Arms´, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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