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The passage opens with Frederic watching “poor, poor dear Cat” (line 1) in her apparent state of helplessness as she struggles through giving birth. Through strong word choice, Hemingway continues to display Frederic’s obvious contemptuous feelings about the biological consequences of love. He views Catherine’s pain and suffering as the “price you [pay]” (line 1) for loving someone. Ironically, a birth is usually shown in a positive light as the pain one suffers to birth a child pales in comparison to the tremendous joy of receiving a newborn baby. Despite conventions, Frederic feels as if he has been trapped by some malignant force of life and is anything but happy about the impending birth.
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A sudden sense of anxiety and doubt about Catherine’s welfare marks a change in the tone of the passage. “And what if she should die?” (line 10) This concern is repeated ten times throughout the passage, but at this stage, Frederic reasons with himself in order to make himself confident in his lover’s safety. He simply responds, “She won’t die,” (line 10) which is a perfectly reasonable assumption for most births. The word choice of “won’t” means she will not die, which implies a certain amount of flexibility or choice. While it is reasonable to feel that she will not die, by repeating this sentence, which is phrased in the negative, Hemingway clearly emphasizes the opposite of its surface meaning. This underlines the focus on Catherine’s death, rather than her life, adding an element of foreshadowing. The feeling of raw emotion expressed as Frederic questions himself in a cyclical manner is a direct effect of the loose structure. Hemingway probably used the stream-of-consciousness technique for this passage to give the reader a more authentic sense of Frederic’s subjective state. Conventionally shaped prose can distance the reader from a character’s inner truth. Hemingway’s style makes the experience more accessible to the reader and therefore gives the passage much more power. Frederic reassures himself by reiterating that all husbands feel worried about their wives’ health, simply because they don’t want their wives to suffer, but that everything will be fine in the end. However, as he continues this cycle of doubt, he increasingly becomes less confident up until the point where he begins to panic.
Asking himself about the eventuality of Catherine’s death yet again, he changes his response to, “She can’t die.” (line 15) signifying the transition from doubt to true fear. The careful use of diction that indicates this change is simply the difference between “won’t” and “can’t.” While ‘will not’ is reasonable by the fact that it leaves some room for doubt, ‘cannot’ is unrealistically certain and suggests Frederic’s distorted point of view. When he notices himself slipping into panic mode, he tries to regain his composure by telling himself, “Don’t be a fool.” (line 16) The typical Hemingway character is famous for acting with grace under pressure, so when Frederic notices his own doubts and insecurity, it is hard for him to acknowledge and he tries to force the fear out of his mind. The stream-of-consciousness style of this passage paints a realistic picture of his internal struggle against recognizing his fears as he attempts to act with the manly courage that is typical to his character. “It’s just nature giving her hell,” (line 17) continues this internal reasoning but ties in the religious theme yet again. Hemingway uses religious imagery in another trivializing manner to address Frederic’s lost faith in a divine power. By using such a colloquial phrase, he dismisses the possible impact by a God on the situation. As Frederic’s internal battle reaches a culmination with increasing questions of, “What if she should die?” (lines 15, 16, 19, 22, 23, 24, 25) the structure of the passage begins to parallel the structure of childbirth. This extended metaphor of the cyclical nature of the language as it represents the cyclical nature of birth, brings more depth to the spasms of fear that Frederic experiences. During the process of childbirth, the frequency and intensity of contractions amplify as time passes. This progression is directly mimicked in Hemingway’s prose. The diction within this powerful repetition even symbolizes the contractions of labor. The double meaning of ‘contraction’ is applied to create this symbol, since it can either be defined as the shortening or thickening of muscles or a combination of two words into one. The phrases that Frederic repeats to quell his fear are “She can’t die” or “She won’t die,” two phrases that are based on a grammatical contraction. As these contractions become more and more frequent up until the end, the reader is able to experience the sensation of birth, making the experience a reality.
The power of this passage generates from the organic emotional experience that it conveys to the reader. Hemingway’s freestyle structure, careful word choice, and profound metaphors all add to the intense exploration of Frederic’s feelings of fear and doubt. Childbirth is naturally a time of reflection and contemplation seeing as it brings an enormous change to the lifestyle of those who have brought the child into the world. As Frederic anxiously stands by while his lover fights to give birth to their baby, he considers the meaning of life. Faced with the fear of Catherine’s death, he attempts to find a reason for the pain and suffering he has undergone and comes to the dismal conclusion that the universe is a disordered and even hostile environment—views that Hemingway’s characters commonly hold. This passage exhibits the complete evolvement of Frederic’s character as he establishes his philosophy of life. In this single passage, all of the major themes of the novel are expressed: religion, love, and pain. As Catherine struggles to create a life, Frederic struggles to make sense out of life and find the deeper meaning.
Poor, poor dear Cat. And this was the price you paid for sleep-ing together. This was the end of the trap. This was what people got for loving each other. Thank God for gas, anyway. What must it have been like before there were anæsthetics? Once it started, they were in the mill-race. Catherine had a good time in the time of pregnancy. It wasn’t bad. She was hardly ever sick. She was not awfully uncomfortable until toward the last. So now they got her in the end. You never got away with anything. Get away hell! It would have been the same if we had been married fifty times. And what if she should die? She won’t die. People don’t die in child-birth nowadays. That was what all husbands thought. Yes, but what if she should die? She won’t die. She’s just having a bad time. The initial labor is usually protracted. She’s only having a bad time. Afterward we’d say what a bad time and Catherine would say it wasn’t really so bad. But what if she should die? She can’t die. Yes, but what if she should die? She can’t, I tell you. Don’t be a fool. It’s just a bad time. It’s just nature giving her hell. It’s only the first labor, which is almost always protracted. Yes, but what if she should die? She can’t die. Why would she die? What reason is there for her to die? There’s just a child that has to be born, the by-product of good nights in Milan. It makes trouble and is born and then you look after it and get fond of it maybe. But what if she should die? She won’t die. But what if she should die? She won’t. She’s all right. But what if she should die? She can’t die. But what if she should die? Hey, what about that? What if she should die?