Life sucks and then you die, is a popular saying among Gen-Xers to describe the futility of it all. The phrase may be original, but the sentiment certainly is not. Long before Generation X came on the scene, Ernest Hemingway was writing about heroes who faced the harsh unfairness of finite life with dignity and grace. This "grace under pressure" became known as the Hemingway Code.
Hemingway scholar Philip Young explains that the code "is made of the controls of honor and courage which in a life of tension and pain make a man..." (63). Feminist scholars have suggested that this definition of the code is sexist and that women in Hemingway's work, too, display honor and courage (Tyler 29).
Rovit and Brenner agree with Young's basic definition and add an additional component. Hemingway's code, they say, also has to do with "learning how to make one's passive vulnerability (to the dangers and unpredictabilities of life) into a strong rather than weak position, and how to exact the maximum amount of reward (honor, dignity) out of these encounters" (92). The Hemingway code, then, acknowledges the brutality inherent in life, but goes far beyond the passive "life sucks" approach. Hemingway, in fact, probably would have had little patience for someone who simply sat around lamenting the unfairness of it all.
Hemingway's novels and short stories reflect the code through two types of protagonists: the "code hero" and the "Hemingway hero." The code hero lives by Hemingway's code. He or she faces life -- and death -- unflinchingly, with courage, dignity, and honor. The code hero also acts as a mentor or teacher to the Hemingway hero, a protagonist -- often the main character -- whose inherent na vete or "softness" keeps him from living by the code. Other scholars have named these pairings "tutor" and "tyro" (Rovit & Brenner 39), and "Nick-Adams-hero" and "code-hero" (Young 64).
The Hemingway code, as well as both types of heroes, are reflected in Ernest Hemingway's 1929 novel, A Farewell to Arms. The novel details the story of a Frederic Henry, a young American ambulance driver and officer in the Italian army during World War I. Frederic falls in love with a Catherine Barkley, a British nurse. He is seriously wounded early on in their relationship, and Catherine nurses him back to health. Before he returns to the front, she reveals that she is pregnant. At the front, Frederic finds the Italian army in defeat and learns that the enlisted men are shooting officers. He deserts, and he and Catherine run away to Switzerland together. She dies giving birth to their child. The narrator of the story, Frederic, as well as several supporting characters demonstrate some elements of the Hemingway code at times, but it can be convincingly argued that the true code hero in A Farewell to Arms is Catherine Barkley.
Frederic is a rather ambiguous protagonist. He does possess some elements of the code, but he also possesses a great many faults, weaknesses, and shortcomings. To his credit, he is courageous and proactive. When it becomes clear, for instance, that the enlisted men have begun shooting officers, Frederic does not wait for his sentence to be carried out. Rather, "I ducked down, pushed between two men, and ran for the river, my head down" (Hemingway 225). After a daring escape through raging waters, Frederic is able to get himself safely back to Catherine.
But Frederic also has his not-so-endearing weaknesses. Probably the harshest criticism of this character comes from Lisa Tyler, who points out that Frederic is immature -- the other characters call him names like "baby" and "little puppy" -- and that, at least until he meets Catherine, he simply drifts through life, not sure why he takes the actions he does (e.g., joining the Italian army). More importantly, she condemns Frederic for his selfishness, evident in his inability to consider Catherine's needs (Tyler 63-64). For instance, after Frederic has been wounded, Catherine becomes his nurse at the hospital. She accepts more than her share of night duty so that she and Frederic will have a chance to be alone together. Frederic never considers how this will affect Catherine. It is Catherine's friend who tells him, "You ought to ask her not to do night duty for awhile. She's getting very tired" (Hemingway 109). In this same conversation, Catherine's friend warns Frederic that he better not, "get her into trouble." Frederic agrees, but a few chapters later, Catherine is pregnant. Frederic responds to the news with concern for himself rather than for her.
Finally, Frederic does not display the qualities of a code hero when he learns Catherine is going to die. Rather, he weeps, pleading and bargaining with God to let Catherine live (Nagel 171).
Frederic, then, while he does not lack in courage, is probably more a "Hemingway hero" than a "code hero" (Tyler 29). Who, then, plays the role of the code hero, Frederic's tutor and mentor? There are a few possibilities. One is the priest in the Frederic's unit, with whom Frederic seems to feel a certain sympathy and affinity. But Hemingway almost immediately dispels any notion that the priest will become Frederic's teacher. Our first introduction to the priest takes place in the mess hall, where the officers are teasing him. Hemingway describes the scene: "The priest smiled, blushed, and shook his head. This captain baited him often" (7). Later, when Frederic has some leave coming up, the priest encourages Frederic to visit the priest's home village of Abruzzi. Frederic initially expresses interest but then does not go. Clearly, he does not find the priest's advice worth following.
Another possibility for a code hero is Frederic's surgeon friend, Rinaldi, who introduces Frederic to Catherine Barkley. Rinaldi certainly has a "big brother" relationship to Frederic, calling him "baby," and arranging for him to get a medal when he is injured. Furthermore, even though he has a romantic interest in Catherine, he demonstrates a code hero's stoic acceptance when it becomes clear that Catherine is interested in Frederic. "Thank God I did not become involved with the British," he says philosophically (32). However Rinaldi, too, has weaknesses which prevent him from being a true code hero. When Frederic returns to the front after being injured, he finds a drunken and depressed Rinaldi who fears he has syphilis and confesses to Frederic he is only happy when he is working (170). Rinaldi, then, with his weaknesses and insecurities, is more typical of a Hemingway hero than a code hero.
Finally, some of the ambulance drivers under Frederic's command seem typical of code heroes. This is especially true of Piani, who stays with Frederic even after the Italian army has begun its disastrous retreat. Another ambulance driver, Bronello, has surrendered to the Germans believing his chances of surviving are better as a prisoner of war. When Frederic asks Piani why he didn't allow himself to be taken prisoner, too, Piani responds simply, "I did not want to leave you" (217). This kind of honor in the face of danger certainly typifies the Hemingway code. But the character Piani plays a relatively small part in A Farewell to Arms. Shortly after the scene described above, Frederic is forced to desert the army to avoid being shot, and the character of Piani does not appear again.
There is a character, however, who exemplifies the code hero and who is consistently at Frederic's side, teaching and nurturing him. This character, of course, is Catherine (Spanier 132). Catherine exemplifies the code hero in many ways. She faces up to reality, she does whatever is required in the moment with matter-of-fact bravery, she values her dignity, and she meets death with courage. In the end, we see some of her strength and resignation passed on to the bereaved Frederic.
Very early in the novel, Catherine shows us she does not fear reality. After asking Frederic to call her by name and say he loves her, she promptly reverses the tone of the conversation by saying, "This is a rotten game, isn't it?" When Frederic asks what she means, she snaps at him, "Don't be dull." Then she spells it out. "You don't have to pretend you love me...Please let's not lie when we don't have to" (31). Catherine, a nurse, also faces the reality of medical conditions. For instance, she is well aware of the realities of surgery and anesthesia, and even though Frederic insists he will want to make love the night following his surgery, she knows he will not. Less humorously, she also accurately predicts her own demise. "I'm afraid of the rain because I see me dead in it," she tells Frederic with frightening accuracy (126). Later, in childbirth, she introduces the possibility of dying very early on, even though Frederic and the medical staff refuse to take her seriously. When her death becomes a certainty, she tells Frederic, "I'm not afraid. I just hate it" (330).