Friday, June 25, 2021

"A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway--Fiction Review

In today’s review, we’re going back to the World War One era for some romance in “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

Hemingway, I always knew, even before reading anything from him, has a reputation of being straightforward in his prose. That’s well earned, in my opinion, in this novel. He explains enough to set the scene, sketch the characters, and moves the plot forward efficiently, and even in the slower moments, I didn’t feel he lingered anywhere needlessly. Just because the story is told in this way doesn’t diminish its more literary qualities, like his use of symbolism and possible double meanings.

It’s an interesting meditation on World War One at a time well before World War Two, while that first great war was fresh in the minds of contemporary readers at the time. All fiction and nonfiction written about the first World War after the second one is written through the lens of that second war—it’s inevitable. So, it’s fascinating to observe that conflict through the eyes of people who don’t have the assumptions brought of WWII—even if the conflict’s scope is limited to Italy in this novel.

For all his machismo, I didn’t feel that Hemingway glorified the war in any way. It was thankless and terrifying work that was often administered ineptly in this part of the war. The people who fought in it did so because of a combination of youthful ignorance or were pressed into fighting. The reasons for the fighting often eluded and frustrated the common soldier. “A Farewell to Arms” paints that picture well; of a modern war fought by people who were still coming to terms with what that meant—usually slaughter on an industrial scale.

What I don’t love about this book:

A lot of the secondary cast of characters are a bit thin, especially the Italian ambulance drivers that serve alongside the American protagonist. I’ve considered that maybe this is an intentional choice since this story is first and foremost a romance story set during this time period. You could argue this simulates new love’s narrowing focus, where all your attention seems to be drawn back to your new paramour.  

The protagonist clearly has an unaddressed problem with alcohol, like Hemingway, I suspect, that I wasn’t a big fan of in this story. Why constantly introduce the element in copious detail? If the messaging was just, this guy likes to drink, and that’s fine. Hemingway is so spartan about everything else that it’s odd that he chooses to waste words going on about the various liquor consumed. There is a bit about jaundice, possibly related to alcoholism, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. 

Also, there’s a real empathy problem with our protagonist that becomes apparent at the novel’s end. 

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American, is serving in the Italian army’s ambulance corps. At this point, the conflict in Italy is primarily a frustrating stalemate, made worse from a recent cholera outbreak. Frederic’s personal life, however, takes an exciting turn when he meets and immediately becomes infatuated with an English nurse, Catherine Barkley.

Frederic gets badly wounded in the leg during a mortar attack that also kills one of his friends. But, Frederic ends up in the hospital, and there, his relationship with Catherine, who cares for him, progresses to a new level while he is convalescing. Catherine ends up pregnant, and they agree to marry after the war.

Eventually, Frederic, mostly healed, returns to his ambulance unit right before a major battle where the Italian army is trounced. During the chaotic retreat, Frederic is forced to deal with some of his men harshly because they desert the army—which turns out to be ironic later. When Frederic and only one man still under his command finally meet up with the army’s main body, he is taken away by the military police. There he discovers that all of the army officers, which includes him, are being “tried” for treason for causing the great defeat they just suffered. The punishment is the same for everyone—death.

Frederic escapes and goes on the run. In Milan, he discovers that Catherine is in Stresa, and with the help of a friend, he makes his way there. Reunited with Catherine, they decide to flee together to Switzerland and make their way via a rowboat.

In Switzerland, they obtain provisional visas and live together happily for a time. Catherine expresses concerns about their unborn child’s health, so they move closer to the hospital. When she goes into labor, it quickly becomes apparent that it will be a troubled birth, and the doctor performs a cesarian operation on her. The baby is stillborn, though, and the doctors can’t stop Catherine’s hemorrhaging, and she soon dies too in Frederic’s arms.

Frederic returns to their hotel, alone, while it rains.


The two famous literary devices that I like a lot in this novel are the use of rain as a motif and its use of irony in the narrative. Catherine is uncomfortable with the rain, she makes that clear to Frederic early on, and Hemingway uses rain in this novel to symbolize death. It rains when death occurs in the narrative, even the end when Catherine tragically dies shortly after childbirth, and their son is stillborn. Irony is used when Frederic has to discipline his men severely for desertion, even going so far as to shoot one of them, shortly before he himself becomes a deserter.

Also, the title itself has a double meaning when you consider the whole story. It could refer to both Frederic’s desertion or to his loss of Catherine’s loving embrace. 

My biggest problem with Frederic’s character that I hinted at above in the non-spoiler section is that he’s not broken up—at all—when he discovers his son is stillborn. He’s too consumed about his grief over Catherine, which is tragic, but it’s also selfish because it never seems to occur to him that maybe his great love would have been devastated at the death of their child. In any case, Frederic’s grief, in my opinion, isn’t really about Catherine at all; it’s about him, and only him, which makes him a far less sympathetic character.

Parting thoughts:

Why is Frederic serving in the Italian army and not the United States military? Because most people forget the United States didn’t get involved in the conflict until late in the war. In any case, many Americans volunteered to serve in various allied power’s militaries, anyway, like well, Hemingway himself. A lot of this novel is semi-autobiographical.

Books about the first World War are fascinating because, unlike its sequel, World War One didn’t have clear-cut villains who were evil human monsters—such as the nazis. The conflict committed so many nations because it was a realpolitik nightmare—and underscores the weakness of that brutal philosophy. No one was fighting to save anyone or for any moral reason beyond possibly a sense of loyalty. Everyone’s economies were intertwined in Europe—and the world as a whole. There were treaties, upon treaties, and alliances upon alliances built on top of each other. So when the shooting started, everyone had to get involved.

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