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The Theme of Religion in the Hemingway novel A Farewell to Arms

To search for order in a world where there is no order. To search for order in a world where there exists moral dilemmas between right and wrong, war and God, religion and death. This is the world in which Hemingway creates for the basis of his novel, A Farewell To Arms. We are first introduced to the notion of religion within a few pages of the story. It is during a scene when the character of the priest is being harassed, ridiculed, by many of the soldiers. In reply to the issue of religion, as well as God, the major claims, “’All thinking men are atheists’”.

This immediately sets the stage for seeing what the foundational perspectives of religion are in the story, despite the fact that the main character of Henry admires and likes the priest because he represents a sense of belief and stability. However, one is never really sure if the priest is really that devoted due to the general nature of war and what it does to people in terms of making them question existence. In these respects it seems that God and religion have no real place in the world these men live in, in that world of war.

Death is simply that, death. Religion seems to hold no promise of anything, especially for a “thinking” man it would seem, which one assumes Hemingway is. In a world of war there are no real answers, only real death. As the story develops and Henry has learned from the priest, and developed on his own throughout the story he realizes that, “’It is only in defeat that we become Christian’” which illustrates a sense of ignorance and a fearful hope in becoming religious.

This sort of perspective or theme is further endorsed, and illuminated upon, by another character, Count Greffi, who states, “’I had always expected to become devout. All my family died very devout. But somehow it does not come’”. This clearly illustrates further that theme of becoming religious, believing in God, only at the end when death and defeat are near. But, for this man, and for all others in the novel it seems, that sense of faith never comes and death is just death. Slaughterhouse-Five has very similar presentations of religion, the lack of truth in religion, and how death is destined.

As such religion and God have nothing to do with the end. As with Hemingway’s novel, this story offers a quick look directly at religion near the beginning of the book. It is noted that, “Billy wasn’t a Catholic, even though he grew up with a ghastly crucifix on the wall”. The narrator then illustrates how his father was not religious and his mother went from church to church trying to find one she liked yet “She never did decide” but developed an interest and fascination with crucifixes.

This offers the hope, as did Hemingway’s story that perhaps religion could offer some answers to life’s questions, and it clearly illustrates that there is no such thing as seen through the almost futile nature of Vonnegut’s story which shows that everyone’s fate is out of their hands. When it comes to a discussion of religion in terms of God, Vonnegut’s novel takes a far more humorous approach. He seems to indicate God has nothing to do with people and their ultimate demise, nor does he likely care. The narrator illustrates how “The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel.

In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had”. Humorously the narrator indicates that Jesus still got to say, in this particular Gospel, all the fun things he said in the well known Gospels but yet it consistently pointed out that Jesus was really a nobody. But, suddenly, just before “the nobody died, the heavens opened up…The voice of God came crashing down” and he essentially took Jesus in as his son and claimed that, “From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections! ”.

Such an elaborate illustration of Jesus and God, and thus the Christian religion, illustrates the pointless nature of it all. While it all may mean something it does not matter when it comes down to the moment of death in an individual’s life and this is incredibly similar to the attitude that Hemingway presents in regards to religion and death. Vonnegut writes in a very postmodern style. He disdained the chronological presentation of events. Rather he presented them in a hodgepodge manner. Very similar to the way that a person recalls different events in his life and recounts them as he remembers each episode.

The alien kidnapping is also another weird way of presentation of the events in the life of Billy. The way that the aliens view him, and life on earth in general helped Vonnegut explore the issue of free will, of the role of religion and God in the history of humans and in the daily occurrences in the lives of individuals. The narrator says that “among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future”. Such a statement, again, points to one of the central theme of Vonnegut, and even of Hemingway—that humans have very little control over their destiny.

In the end, death is the only sure thing. Ironically, one of the alien captors of Billy remarked that “only on Earth is there any talk of free will. ” This statement is ironic and introduces ambivalence to the message being promoted elsewhere in the novel. At least, from the a reader’s point of view, even if humans do not have control over a lot of things in their lives and even if they could not change the past, the present, and the future, they are still willing to hold on to one thing that they have, or at least they think they have—free will.

At first glance, Vonnegut’s style of writing seems to lack coherence but the mere rambling of a person. It is important to note that by the time that Vonnegut wrote his novel, postmodernism was slowly creeping into the mainstream. It was becoming increasingly accepted in literature and even in popular culture. In a sense, because the 1960s as a decade was able to challenge a number of social norms in the US, Vonnegut was able to get away with what was considered vulgar during this period.

The way that Billy Pilgrim viewed time and his own life in the novel showed a lack of central narrative, one of the distinct characteristics of postmodern literature. Although the novel explored free will, fate, and death through the life of Billy and the comparison to the lives and affairs of the aliens, it presented Billy’s life as lacking in coherence and ultimate meaning in opposition to what religion claims. Another facet of the difference between the Tralfamadorian aliens and Billy is the way that Tralfamadorians view time in one complete sweep—no past, no present, and no future.

Eventually, such perspective was also adopted by Billy because of the way that he jumped through time and observed his life. In another reading, this seems to be a way in which a human views time from the perspective of God—where there is no past, present, nor future. Towards the end of the novel, Billy had watched the events of his life unfold and he knew how he will die. Through his experiences with his alien captors, he came to understand life and death in another way without the trappings of God and of religion. Vonnegut did not even discuss questions and issues about the afterlife.

Prior to Billy’s death, he proclaimed that time is but another dimension and every dimension exists simultaneously. In effect, he is saying that life is always enjoyed across time, and that death is not very tragic. Conclusion War is indeed a terrible thing. Hemingway, through his experiences in the first World War was able to muse about the meaning of life and of death, and toned down the role of religion and of God in the process. When Hemingway was writing, a lot of people could not comprehend WWI and they had to grapple with the basic questions of existence, of death, and of the meaning of life.

Hemingway’s answer came in the form of a novel that discounted the role of God in the lives of humans unless they are almost in the throes of defeat and death. Vonnegut, on the other, hand, through his masterful, albeit confusing, presentation of the life of Billy Pilgrim against the backdrop of the Tralfamadorian aliens who had a very different concept of time, presented that everyone is alive at all time and that death is not a very tragic thing. Through his humorous presentation of death, he also minimized the role of religion and of God in the process. Death is but a normal part of life.

However, when war breaks out and untimely death multiplies, people need to come to terms with their loss and they have to ask difficult questions about the meaning of life, and even of death. Religion used to be a very big part of the lives of humans in the West. Yet, perhaps because of the past two world wars, and because of the erosion of the authority of religion, a huge number of people have stopped looking to religion as a means of justifying the meaning of their lives. Through the exploration of Hemingway and Vonnegut, life in itself has profound meaning and death will come no matter what.

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