A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway: a response

Here we are, back at it: reviewing books. I’m no professional literary critic, but since a non-professional response to a classic by one of the literary greats, is just a written-down What I Think, I thought I’d give it a whirl.

So, here’s What I Think – or a response, if you like – about Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (AFTA).

First, a little background information for those unfamiliar with the novel. Lieutenant Frederic Henry is an American ambulance driver fighting for Italy in the First World War. The story opens as winter draws in, and Frederic is taking leave from the front to travel around Italy. Upon his return, he is introduced to an English nurse named Catherine Barkley. The relationship between Catherine and Frederic, and the solace they find in one another from the devastation of war, is arguably the central theme throughout the book.

Now – it was Hemingway who once said that in order to write well, you must write what you know.

A Farewell to Arms is first and foremost an account, albeit an altered and embellished one, of Hemingway’s own wartime experience serving in the Italian army.

Bear that in mind, if you decide to embark on this adventure through the valleys of Udine with Frederic and his flurry of boisterous and lascivious Italian pals. It might help make sense of some of Hemingway’s literary idiosyncrasies that some readers find exasperating at best.

If you’ve read Hemingway before, you’ll be familiar with the repetition, the rambling that would outclass Tolkien, and, of course, the heavy peppering of blatant racism and sexism that tarnish most of his works. I’m not equipped to discuss the racist and misogynistic views of Hemingway in this short article, and certainly don’t condone them. The untiring need to reiterate so many actions and descriptions, and the stream-of-consciousness-style soliloquies, however, I’m on board with. They’re some of my favourite characteristics of ole E.H.’s writing, in fact.

Maybe […] the boy would open the door and stand there and she would step out and I would step out and we would walk down the hall and I would put the key in the door and open it and go in and then take down the telephone and ask them to send a bottle of capri bianca […]”

This is a short snippet of an entire sentence which boasts no less than twenty and’s, and describes a daydream had by Frederic about spending a night with Catherine in a hotel. Yes, it’s monotonous and by the fifteenth “and” you’ve lost your train of thought and your will to live and – oh! what an accurate representation of the spiralling of one’s mind during seemingly eternal unrest! With simplistic actions and more and’s than you can shake a stick at, a realistic elucidation of escape through daydreaming is created. And I think that’s pretty clever.

Romantic quotes from AFTA are all-too-often posted, loaded with meaning, across Instagram and other social profiles – poetic statements lacking context that suggest the book is a mind-blowing, romantic epic.

“And you’ll always love me won’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And the rain won’t make any difference?”

“No.”

I’m probably not far off if I estimate about 80% of the dialogue between Catherine and Frederic being very poetic if not grievously superficial. Such fanciful chatter is surely another means of escaping the harsh reality of war, and facing a future that they can’t be sure they’ll share.

But strip back the idealistic romance and valour of war and discover the mud-and-blood-sodden reality etched beneath. Through his characteristic wit and cynicism, Hemingway subverts any heroic notions associated with fighting for one’s country.

My favourite bit (“bit” being the academic term, I believe) which encompasses this subversion is when Frederic lies in a hospital bed following a fatal explosion in their bunker. His charismatic comrade Rinaldi arrives, brandishing a bottle of cognac, at his bedside, exuberantly announcing Frederic’s imminent decoration for his “heroic” acts.

“They want to give you the medaglia d’argento, but perhaps you can only get the bronze.”

“What for?”

“Because you are gravely wounded. They say if you can prove you did any heroic act you can get the silver […]. Tell me exactly what happened. Did you do any heroic act?”

“No”, I said, “I was blown up while we were eating cheese.”

One problem that people seem to continuously have with AFTA is the lack of development in the character of Catherine. She speaks simply and flightily, repeats herself, and often gives the impression of having an inner unrest – or of “being psychotic”, as some might say. “He makes his female character flat – what’s new?!” they complain, slam-dunking their copy into the nearest bin. But I am unperturbed by the supposed flatness of Catherine’s personality (or lack thereof). I think, as usual, there is a reason behind the simplicity of her dialogue and mentality, which, incidentally, can be considered a reflection of Frederic’s own.

Catherine continually questions how much Frederic loves her, hurriedly reminding him that she’s a “good wife” and leaving almost any decision up to him.

Yes, it’s suspicious, and doesn’t look good for the novel’s leading lady.

But consider her existence: she’s a nurse in the First World War, having spent months tending to severely wounded men without any idea when such an unpleasant existence would end. Then, she falls in love, and the first sense of stability and purpose – if only slight – has been reestablished. She clings to the escape that Frederic provides her from her grey reality, and is resolute in keeping hold of the only thing she cherishes (her former fiancé is recently deceased, leaving her desperate to find a love to match what she previously had). Contrarily to what some might assume, Catherine is not manipulated, disrespected or outshone by Frederic – if anything, they both mirror and comfort one another, providing each other with a glimmer of light in an otherwise shadowed existence.*

If you have never read Hemingway and have lost the run of yourself throughout the course of this article, I apologise. Similarly, if you have read him and have grossly disagreed with everything I’ve said, I also apologise – but I would like to hear why, so please do let me know. Either way, if reading this has had any impact whatsoever on you, I’d be extremely pleased.

Until next time,

K. x

*Catherine is based on Agnes von Kurowsky Stanfield, a nurse who tended to Hemingway during the war when he suffered shrapnel wounds to his leg. She was his first love, and her impact on him influenced many of his works as well as his mentality for the rest of his life.

JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Boston
Ernest (aged 18) and Agnes during WW1

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