Frederic Henry | Character Analysis in A Farewell to Arms

Frederic Henry | Character Analysis in A Farewell to Arms

Character of Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms

In A Farewell to Arms the protagonist Frederic Henry is presented to us as an unconventional hero. This unconventionality is discussed in relation to the two main themes in the novel: War and love. In his attitude to war, Henry undergoes various changes as the novel progresses and his shortcomings more than his merits are discussed. He is not an ideal person, he is a man with faults and yet likeable. To understand this view better we shall look into his changing views of war in greater detail.

His Initial Pleasure Seeking Attitude

As the novel opens and we are introduced to Henry the first thing that strikes us is that he is an American who is serving in the Italian army. He is in charge of an ambulance unit. He is an officer with the rank of lieutenant but it is to be noted that he is very casual in his attitude to war. He is not a patriot serving a cause with passion and fervour. He is quite superficial and his motive for joining the Italian army is never made clear in the novel.

In the beginning of the novel, Henry comes across as a pleasure loving person. He spends his time eating and drinking with the other officers, going to the brothel. At this point what his duties are and how he goes about it, has not been shown. He goes away on leave and the manner in which he spends his leave, going on a pleasure seeking spree through the big cities shows that he is a serious man. He is interested more in carnal pleasures. Wine and women are his chief recreation. Nothing else matters. During his leave there had been little differences between one day and another and between night and day. Therefore, he seems to be in the war to have a good time, to enjoy himself rather than to perform any patriotic duty.

His Performance of His Duties

However, when Frederic Henry returns from his leave and gone back to duty, we find that he is rather conscientious and efficient in discharging his duties. As he comes back to Gorizia, he immediately goes and inspects the ambulances under his charge. He is ever slightly disappointed that even in his absence everything has been running smoothly and everything is in good condition. He had been under the impression that he was indispensable to the unit.

Courageous, Kind and Sympathetic

Soon after returning to the front, Henry goes to survey the Front where the war is going on. He shows no signs of nervousness or fear in carrying out his duty. He remains completely unperturbed, calmly driving back even though a number of shells burst quite close to his vehicle. The next day while driving back to Gorizia from the mountains he comes across a straggler i.e., a soldier who cannot keep up with his regiment. He is suffering from tension but his lieutenant said he had injured himself deliberately and refuses to let him go to the hospital. Henry is sympathetic and offers to take him in his ambulance. Further he advises this soldier to get a bump on his head so that he can pick him up when he expresses an unwillingness to go back on the times. This incident also indicates that Henry is sympathetic towards fellow creatures.

War Not of Vital Concern

Frederic Henry is a man given to quick reflection. Later, after the above mentioned incident Henry begins to think about the war he was in He muses about the war and calls the place (the war front) a strange and mysterious zone. For no reason he wishes that he were in some British unit instead of an Italian one. This implies that it does not matter much whether he serves American, Italy or England as a nation. Out he is not overtly concern which side should win the war. He is not in the war due to patriotism or nationalism. He is not in the war to win glory or dignity. He is not a conventional hero of the war.

No Affectation or Hypocrisy

As the Italian offensive starts, Henry and his unit are posted at the front. We observe Henry competently doing his duty. He finds a proper dugout for his drivers to stay in during the offensive and promptly goes to arrange for their food when told that they are hungry. This shows his deep concern for those working under him. In the subsequent shilling Henry is severely wounded in his legs and scarp. Later, when Rinaldi inquires if he has done any heroic act because a silver medal can be awarded to him, he frankly says he had done nothing of the sort and that he had been wounded while eating. He has neither carried wounded soldiers on his back, nor has he given up his turn at the medical examination to other wounded soldiers. This kind of condone makes Henry a likeable character. He doesn’t brag about his achievements where there aren’t any. He is free from hypocrisy and he is in no way affected.

Depressed by the war

Henry takes a long leave and returns to the front having recovered from his injuries. He rejoins his unit at Gorizia. He is ordered to take charge of the ambulances now stationed in Gorizia. In his room he is visited by the priest. During the courses of their conversation, Henry says that both sides shall not stop fighting at once because no one ever stopped fighting when they were winning. The Austrians will not stop as they have won a victory. He doesn’t believe in either victory or in defeat. This implies that Henry is depressed by the war.

No Trust in Traditional or Conventional Ideals

The Italians faces a defeat at Caporetto and are forced to retreat. Just before this defeat when the Italians are facing the hardships of being unable to get food to eat and the fear that it might affect the morale of the soldiers and the ultimate fear of losing the war. Henry is shown talking to Gino or patriot. As Gino talks about the war with patriotic fervour. Henry feels embarrassed by such words as “sacred glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in rain”. He feels that such words are empty and have little meaning. Only the names of concrete places have dignity. Abstract words such as “glory, honour, courage, or hallow” appear obscene to him.

Quick to Action

The order for the retreat is given. During the retreat Henry’s job is to get the ambulances to Pordenone. And as the road becomes overcrowded and jammed Henry takes the initiative and diverts the ambulances from the main road to a by-lane. Later, when they get stuck in this by-lane and the two sergeants walk off refusing to help, Henry immediately takes out his pistol and shoots at them, actually hitting one of them. In these two incidents, the first proves a failure. The second cannot be fully justified. Both prove that Henry is quick to action. He doesn’t hesitate to take action where action is necessary.

Henry Broods Over the War

Having swum away in the Tagliamento now jumps into a freight train carrying runs. And as he lies crouching on the flower of the freight train he contemplates about the war. He thinks about how he lost the three ambulances that he was to get to Pordenone and feels that he had failed in his duty. But now he is out of the war and he feels that he has no responsibility and obligation to the Italian army. Now this swim in the river that he had been forced to take such a step, had washed away any kind of obligation that he had. His anger had also been washed away too. He doesn’t even want to wear his uniform anymore. For him its all over. He is thorough with the war. These reflections reveal Home deeper nature and temperament. Thus, now Henry has gone from being casual to or conscientious officer taking care of those under bitterness and anger as the brutal reality of the war unfolded before him. Now he no longer wishes to have anything to do with the war”. He has left the war and is now heading towards Catherine. He is frank with his sentiments. He wonders what they will say of him and about Rinaldi and the priest and others. But for him that life was over.

Sense of Guilt

Later however, his desertion makes him feel guilty and this sense of guilt persists till the end of the novel. There are several instances when this guilt comes to the fore. For example, as he takes the train to Stresa from Milan, he doesn’t read the newspaper because he doesn’t want to be reminded of the war. He says he has made “a separate peace”. Therefore he wants to forget the war.

Love of Sensuousness

In much the same way as Henry’s relationship to the war undergoes changes throughout the novel, Henry’s love for Catherine also undergoes stages of changes and development. In the beginning he has no intention of falling in love with Catherine. It is just a game for him. Then he goes to her for physical love. He says, coming to her was better than going to the brothels in the town. Catherine is beautiful and easily surrenders. He comes to her simply to have a good time.

From Sensuousness to a Deeper Feeling

However, Henry’s attitude changes very soon. Once he treats going to her very lightly and almost forgets going over. But once there, he finds that he cannot see her as she was not feeling well. And suddenly he feels lonely and empty–when he could not see her, he feels lonely and hollow. Later as he easy wounded in the hospital and she comes in, he thinks that he had never seen anyone so beautiful and he says “when I saw her I was in love with her. Everything turned over inside of me.” But clearly his love is still more of physical love.

Crazy in Love

To the hospital in Milan, where Henry has been shifted from the field hospital, Catherine arrives. She has been transferred there. As they meet again, their love affair develops. Henry was fallen in love with her at last. And he tells her that “I am crazy in love with you; and by her to stay with him pleading that the authorities just couldn’t send her away. Then he admits that God knows. He had not wanted to fall in love with her. He had not wanted to fall in love with anyone. But as he lay in the hospital, he knew he had fallen in love and all sorts of things went through his head and he felt wonderful.

A Touch of Dullness

On the other hand it can be said that Henry experiences moments of dullness in their relationships. Some critics have pointed out that his eventual isolation with Catherine is not altogether blissful. That their love cannot be completely happy is brought out by these critics in the race-course episode. Catherine is tired of being with lots of other people and wants to be alone with Henry. Later Henry says, “after we had been alone or while we were glad to see the others again.” Even Catherine had acknowledged it by saying, “don’t let me spoil your fun, darling. I’ll go back whenever you want. It is as if he is merely indulging her and he is bored being alone with her.

Idea of Marriage

Henry has by now fallen deeply in love with Catherine and has even thought of marriage. He invites Ferguson to come to their marriage. Catherine however doesn’t want to get married as that would mean that they would have to be separated. And Henry reflects that he worried about marriage in case Catherine became pregnant or something happened to him but he was happy not being married. His love is however not devoid of a sense of responsibility because the moment he finds out that Catherine is really pregnant he insists on marriage but Catherine firmly says no and he withdraws saying he would marry her the day she said so.

Thoughts of War and Distraction

Book-V is a chronicle of the united bliss that the lovers share in the mountains. The lovers lead a very happy and contented life in the mountains far away from anyone. They are almost in an isolated state, the only people they know and talk to being the couple who owns the house and Catherine’s hairdresser. Catherine seems to have completely submerged herself to the role of a good wife and is absolutely happy. Henry however is sometimes ragged by the thoughts of war. In a way he is distracted from love by the feelings of guilt that crops up in his mind. He says he doesn’t worry but the very fact that he thinks and that Catherine finds him distracted shows that he does worry.

Premonitions of Doom

As Catherine and Henry share an idyllic time high up in the mountains a slight tone of boredom is evident in their everyday life. They are always together, they hardly talk to anybody, their days are filled by such activities as watching the terraced mountain side, the winding roads etc. It is most clearly visible when Catherine suggests to Henry that we would and it shall be something for him to do. There is also a sense of restlessness evident not in Catherine but mostly in Henry.


Henry’s involvement vis-a-vis the war is a long and constantly changing one. He starts out with a very casual attitude towards war. It is almost as if he joined the war as a personal whim. However, he gets personally involved when he gets wounded and returns to serve the army after recuperating. However, this time the army is forced to retreat and as he joins it he comes face to face with the grim realities of war and deserts. But feelings of guilt haunt him till the end. This warring and fluctuating nature of Henry’s attitude however in no way detracts from the character.

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