Hemingway's Code Hero

Updated: Feb 26, 2020

Since I was a kid, I was fascinated with Ernest Hemingway. Everything from his heartbreak, to his style of writing, to his life in Key West captivated me. This interest fueled me into my college years, where I finally quenched my thirst for Hemingway knowledge by making him the topic of my undergraduate thesis.

While I am a huge fan of his novels and share a great appreciation for his curt style of writing, I always find it interesting to dive into new criticisms. I believe that reading different perspectives on pieces of literature gives me a better understanding of them. They don't serve to change my mind, but they do serve to provide new, fresh angles on novels I have loved for so many years, shedding new light and appreciation for works that I have come to know like the back of my hand.

Today's article focuses heavily on the recent wave of feminist criticisms of A Farewell to Arms. Although I don't share in their views that Hemingway is a lackluster writer, I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Hemingway's Code Hero, and what it meant in regards to the novelist's state of mind.

When A Farewell to Arms was published in 1929, reviewers immediately noted that much of Hemingway’s writing was influenced by his life. Many years later, critics have continued to agree that this novel contains autobiographical elements, particularly in regard to characters and events.

Apart from being semi-autobiographical, the novel quickly became a model for Hemingway’s style of writing: short and direct. Early critics believed that his writing style was all a part of the Hemingway Code Hero. Recently, however, feminist criticisms have emerged and given new perspectives to what was originally seen as a monotonous novel.

Feminist critics have noted that although Hemingway is known for his masculinity, he may have used his masculine code of conduct to mask the femininity, such as the writing style, that lies within his novel.

Early reviewers believed that the protagonists’ story in A Farewell to Arms paralleled Hemingway’s life. The novel is about a man named Frederic Henry who’s an ambulance driver in Italy during World War II. Hemingway had joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps before he became a journalist for the Kansas Star, and covered World War 1 in Italy.

While Henry is in Italy, he meets a nurse named Catherine Barkley. Henry gets injured and is sent to Milan, where he is ordered to remain in bed for six months and have surgery. Catherine transfers to the hospital to Milan to take care of him, and they fall in love. Similarly, Hemingway suffered a leg injury while helping wounded soldiers off the battlefield and he was sent to a hospital in Milan. This hospital is where he met and instantly fell in love with a nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky. In the novel, Catherine eventually gets pregnant, but the baby is still-born. Catherine dies giving birth, and Henry ends up alone. Much like his protagonist, Hemingway lost the love of his life as well. The only difference between Henry’s loss and Hemingway’s was that in Hemingway’s life, Agnes fell in love with someone else and decided to end her relationship with him.

Hemingway’s Code Hero was a man who lived courageously and handled stressful and/or difficult situations with grace. He coined the phrase “grace under pressure,” and tried to abide by it. The Code Hero is supposed to be individualistic and he is supposed to create his own morals to live by. He must constantly prove his masculinity, and Hemingway did this by doing things such as bull fighting and drinking.

Famed scholar, Frederick Busch writes that Hemingway “transformed demanding, often risky activities like fishing, hunting, and bullfighting into analogues for writing”. His character, Frederick Henry, also possessed traits that Hemingway valued immensely. Part of his Code Hemingway's Code Hero was to have a stoic self expression. Henry displays an immense amount of stoicism and courage while out on the battlefield; this is what Hemingway called “grace under pressure.”

Too much stoicism has prompted reviewers and critics to agree that Hemingway fails to add any kind of sentiment to his novel. For a work that hits so close to home, it would seem that this novel would lead readers to become emotional. Hemingway is unable to make this happen, and critic Willey Bym confirms this by saying that “Hemingway has had a history of writing a beautiful novel without moving readers”.

Bym compares Hemingway to Victorian authors who were able to make their readers “shed tears even on the simplest storylines”. While reviewers agree that Hemingway inhibits a lackluster style of writing, recent feminist critics differ on their beliefs as to why Hemingway writes so shortly and directly. Critics such as Peter Griffin, who believed that A Farewell to Arms was strictly autobiographical, informs us that Hemingway suffered on and off with depression after his split with Agnes.

She became the basis for A Farewell to Arms, and even though he suffered tremendously when she broke up with him, he refused to unveil these emotions in his writing. Hemingway had become so set in his ideas of bravery and perseverance that he viewed exposing his emotions in a novel as a weakness. Weakness is something that Hemingway never wished to be associated with. The contradiction between his life and his ideas gave reason for critic Henry Hazlitt to call A Farewell to Arms “beautiful and brutal”.

Recent critics; however, particularly feminist critics, are on the opposite side of the radar when it comes to the reasons behind Hemingway’s style of writing.

James Phelan writes that the narrator of A Farwell to Arms tries hard to tell readers what Frederick Henry doesn’t, but the only thing readers are left with by the end of the novel is “a novel focused on silence and stoicism”. Henry’s interaction with other characters in the novel is equally brief, but Diane Price Herndl writes that this curtness is due to Frederick being “torn between a compulsion to tell and his sense that he cannot, or should not, tell”.

This feeling of having no way out is a result of the generation that Hemingway grew up in. Hemingway was a young man during the height of World War 1, and the models of masculinity at the time were men who kept their struggles and emotions to themselves. As a result, Hemingway’s Frederick Henry has a dilemma: “On the one hand, he feels acutely the need to tell about his horrific experiences of war…On the other hand, he feels the code of manliness that requires that he not be perceived as complaining or weeping” (Herndl).

Hemingway, along with the men of his generation, and the male characters of his novel, try so hard to be the Code Hero that they end up oppressing themselves. They try to flaunt their masculinity by not expressing any emotion, despite the fact that they want to, and more importantly, they need to, if they ever wish to climb out of their despair. In suppressing their trauma, they were oppressing themselves.

The tension in A Farewell to Arms exists because Frederick Henry never reveals himself. Although Hemingway is trying very hard to be masculine by incorporating this style of writing, he ends up with a "female problem", that of silence. By obsessively trying to be masculine, Hemingway ends up revealing a strong feminine side.

Interestingly, Herndl explores the idea of shell shock being the male version of hysteria. She quotes Elaine Showalter: “If the essence of manliness was not to complain, then shell shock was the body language of masculine complaint, a disguised male protest...against the war." World War I caused many men to become depressed, not only because they had to leave their families and fight, but because they were not allowed to express their fears and anxieties. This suppression of emotions is what makes Hemingway look more and more feminine in the eyes of feminist critics. To them, Hemingway ends up with a somewhat bland novel because he is unable to give his male protagonist a voice. He concentrates so much on portraying and proving his masculinity that it seems like he ends up with an unfinished, unexplored novel. According to Herndl, “Frederick Henry tries to narrate a story that is culturally untellable”.

Feminist critics also discovered that perhaps Hemingway’s need to drink and need to make his characters drink is just another form of this “shell shock.” It is Herndl’s opinion that Frederick Henry is inflicting pain on himself by “drinking to excess, drinking to forget, drinking enough to be sick”. Alcoholism, a form of self-destruction, becomes another form of medication, and it makes Henry even more silent.

During Herndl’s analysis, she explores history and finds that many soldiers in World War I tried to get injured and sometimes injured themselves purposely so that they could get out of the battlefield. Since men were not able to discuss their feelings, they found ways around being the masculine heroes that they were expected to be. According to feminist critics, this reveals to modern readers that perhaps Hemingway’s Code Hero and his masculinity were just a charade, an unrealistic ideal that only the best and strongest men were able to achieve.

Sandra Gilbert refers to this as the “apocalypse of masculinism” and she writes that “paradoxically…the war to which so many men had gone in hope of becoming heroes ended up emasculating them…confining them as any Victorian woman had been confined”. Oddly enough, an early reviewer of A Farewell to Arms compared it to the novels of the Victorian Era, which seemed to bring about more emotions from the readers.

It’s curious to discover that female writers ended up having more complete protagonists and more heroic heroes than Hemingway did. Not only did female Victorian writers have more ample characters, but their characters’ words spoke just as loudly as their actions. Hemingway, on the other hand, forced readers to read the actions of the characters because his gender war made the words in the novel mean nothing. According to Herndl, “Frederic is not really able to find a voice to describe his suffering: the stoicism that he embraces as an ideal (and that Hemingway employs as a style) keeps him from really being able to give voice to what he’s thinking or feeling”. In doing so, Hemingway suppresses his talent and gives up what could be the basis of a more interesting novel.

Oddly enough, one of the many things that Hemingway was known for was his desire to be the author of his own life. Pat Barker writes “It’s a way of claiming immunity…First-person narrators can’t die, so as long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe” (38). Despite Hemingway’s yearning to write his own life and be the sole author of his novels, it seems like his preconceived notions and expectations ended up writing him. It’s true that he gained recognition, but his devotion to masculinity ended being his oppressor. Critics and readers alike have long wished to discover the real story that lies within A Farewell to Arms because it seems that the Hemingway that the world has come to know and the Hemingway that wrote this novel are two completely different men.

Marc Hewson quotes Gertrude Stein in his article "Cixous, Gender, and A Farewell to Arms", and writes that if there was a book that unveiled the real Ernest Hemingway, “it would be for another audience than the audience Hemingway now has but it would be wonderful” (51).