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  • Recalcitrant Simplicity: Thin Characters and Thick Narration in A Farewell to Arms
  • Alexander Hollenberg (bio)

Recalcitrant Simplicity

Simplicity is rarely talked about in critical investigations of literary modernism, and it is even rarer to talk about simplicity in narratological terms. Here, I begin to suggest a vocabulary with which we can begin to discuss more precisely the hermeneutic effects of simplicity in modernist literature. I propose the term “thin character” as a way both to nuance traditional distinctions between minor and major characters and to introduce the idea of simplicity as recalcitrant. I examine how simplicity and “thinness” operate as implicit hermeneutic frames, what Werner Wolf refers to as “basic orientational aids,” which “inform our cognitive activities and generally function as preconditions of interpretation” (5). Using A Farewell to Arms as a case study, I consider how a simply drawn character can suggest the terms of our rhetorical relation to the larger text while also causing us to think self-consciously about the relative importance we assign to mimetic, thematic, and synthetic character dimensions. Further, I argue that the experiencing-Frederic Henry persistently misreads Catherine Barkley’s recalcitrant simplicity and that the reader’s recognition of this misreading is key to understanding the novel’s interrogation of the limits of interpretation.

While not all simplicity is necessarily recalcitrant—indeed, some simple texts make interpretation easier—I am interested in literary strategies of simplicity that challenge our interpretive efforts. My argument that the simple can also be recalcitrant does not sidestep the project of understanding simplicity as a strategy in and of itself. I do not wish to transform simplicity into its opposite; rather, to talk about [End Page 301] simple recalcitrance is to gesture towards the way certain styles and discourses can work simultaneously as a means to accessible communication and an obstacle to interpretation. “Obstacles,” according to Doris Sommer, “enable something different from control; they summon the kinds of interpretive labor that accept the burden of difference instead of wishing it away” (207–208). James Phelan divides recalcitrance into “the difficult” and “the stubborn.” He argues that “The difficult is recalcitrance that yields to our explanatory efforts, while the stubborn is recalcitrance that will not yield” (Narrative 178). Like Sommer, Phelan implicitly recognizes that the will to explicate—to know and explain something—can lead to an unethical reduction of a text’s autonomy. But what Phelan’s theorization of difficulty as a subcategory of recalcitrance also suggests is that not all recalcitrance must be difficult. In other words, he leaves room for a mode of simplicity that does not always already yield to our explanatory efforts. His categorization allows us to see not necessarily the difficulty of simplicity, but the possibility of talking about a simple aesthetic as an interpretive challenge without minimizing the reader’s experience of its formal manifestations.

Thin Characters

Towards the end of Book IV of A Farewell to Arms, just before Frederic and Catherine flee Italy to Switzerland, Frederic plays a game of billiards with Count Greffi in their Stresa hotel. Positioned as this scene is, in the midst of this narrative of war, desertion, and vigorous love, such a peaceful interlude might strike the reader as strange. Both Frederic and Catherine know that he is “liable to be arrested [in Stresa] at any time,” and Frederic has already insinuated his plan of escape to Catherine: “Switzerland is down the lake, we can go there” (251). Thus, the reasoning behind Frederic’s decision to play with Greffi in such a public space as the hotel billiard room—a space where he can be monitored and detected—is, from the perspective of survival, difficult to determine. Unlike the barman, who takes Frederic fishing as a pretext to offer him his boat—“Any time you want it . . . I’ll give you the key” (256)—Greffi is of no material use to Frederic. Although the Count shares in Frederic’s war weariness and skepticism, summing up the entire affair as “stupid” (262), Frederic does not solicit any sort of substantive help from him. He does not ask for money (actually, Frederic loses money to him in the billiards game) or any means to aid his...


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pp. 301-321
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