A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
PLEASE NOTE: There are some big spoilers for the end of A Farewell to Arms in this post.
I bought A Farewell to Arms partly because I had enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls and partly because I had a voucher and it happened to fit nicely price-wise with the rest of the books I was intending to buy. It always seemed to me to be one of those books you feel that you should read at some point, so this summer seemed as good a time as any to find out what it was actually about.
Inspired by Hemingway’s own experiences of war, it is hard to ignore the fact that A Farewell to Arms is, for the most part, an account of the reality of war and the effect it has on the soldiers, volunteers, and civilians involved. One of the real strengths of the book is exactly this: the development of characters, all of whom feel realistically flawed and broken as they struggle to come to terms with the horrors they face on a daily basis. This surprised me since at first it seemed that many of the characters were fairly two-dimensional, particularly Rinaldi and the priest. However, Hemingway layers them in such a way that the reader almost fails to notice their development until much later in the book. Rinaldi, for example, is from his first appearance over-the-top and obsessed with women; as readers, it is hard to understand why Henry considers such a caricature of a person as his friend besides simple proximity. Yet, as Henry returns from his injury, we come to understand the strain and despair which Rinaldi is feeling under all his bravado and promiscuity. Hemingway is clear in describing the effect the war is having on Rinaldi as the character drunkenly rants at the priest, calling for the others to join him in saying “To hell with the whole damn business” (p.156). For me, this exploration of the effect of war on the characters was by far the strongest and most fascinating part of the novel.
Amidst this depiction of war, there is a love story: between Frederic Henry, the protagonist, and Catherine Barkley, a volunteer nurse. Initially appearing to be simply a war-time fling, Henry’s injury and hospitalisation draws these two characters closer with pretended affection becoming realised romantic affection. In my opinion, this was by far the weakest part of the narrative despite the fact that it becomes the major focus of the novel. By nature of being a war-time romance, Hemingway does not give much time to the build-up of the relationship between these two characters, instead asking the reader to accept the quick shift to absolute love with little textual evidence for it. For the majority of the narrative, I was never quite sure how much they actually loved each other, and certainly was not expecting it to become such an integral part of the plot.
The surprise for me came in that Hemingway, as the narrative draws to its conclusion, moves the action completely away from the war and to a house which Henry and Catherine retreat to as they await the birth of the child. As a novel generally known for being about the effects of war, I found this to be a strange choice, which only became more frustrating with the devastating conclusion. Whilst I was hardly expecting a happy ending from a novel by Hemingway about the First World War, the unexpected shift to Switzerland had lulled me into a false sense of security with regards to the fates of these characters. Like Henry, I was half expecting for them to live out the rest of the war in their peaceful bubble, wilfully ignoring the chaos around them; meanwhile, the more cynical side of me was sure that the peace could not last and that the war would return to haunt them. In actuality, neither of these things happened, and the abrupt death of Catherine and the baby left me feeling a little blind-sided, angry, and frustrated. Fitting, I suppose, since that is how Henry presumably also feels. Yet, as a reader, it is not a particularly satisfying conclusion.
I mentioned in the introduction that I felt that this book was one of those books you just should read at some point, and I do still feel like that. I can certainly see why it has been so influential as a novel and the importance of it as a text of the early twentieth century. There was a definite satisfaction in ticking it off my ‘to-read’ list. However, I do feel that, if I were to recommend a book by Hemingway to someone who has never read him before, I would still stick with The Old Man and the Sea almost every time.