Frederic Henry, known simply as “tenente” by most, is an American lieutenant fighting with the Italian Army in World War I. He meets the English nurse Catherine Barkley and a light-hearted flirtation slowly grows into a love story as Henry is wounded by a mortar shell and brought to a hospital in Milan where Catherine tends to him. Shortly after the tenente learns that Catherine is expecting his child, he has to return to the front. While Henry was in the hospital the situation for the Italians has worsened dramatically and he finds his fellow soldiers demoralised and exhausted. After the Battle of Caporetto in 1917, the Italians start their retreat through the rain, past horrific battle scenes. Talk of desertion, questions about the sense behind wars grow louder and eventually Henry Frederic is forced to become a deserter in order to avoid the Italian military police and its execution committee. The young American manages to find Catherine and the pair barely escape arrest and they flee to Switzerland. On neutral ground they spend a few months of relative happiness in the mountains until Catherine goes into labour and more tragedy follows.
This Hemingway’s third novel was published in 1929 and is based around autobiographical element. Hemingway too was an ambulance driver in World War I who served on the Italian front – if for the American Red Cross, not the Italian Army. After being wounded Hemingway fell in love with his nurse at the Milanese hospital he was treated in, though she did not share his feelings to the same extent. Certainly, Hemingway’s own experiences of war provide the realism of the novel. His account of war is not romanticised and fairly undramatic. There are few scenes of big explosions or bloodshed. Rather, A Farewell to Arms focuses on the mundane, almost boring side of war. The everyday situations and tasks appear dulling and repetitive, for most of this book exhaustion and boredom seem to weigh more heavily on the soldiers than fear and death. Hemingway’s characteristically simple writing style and plain language add to this perception of near-banality. His language is never floral or decorated, he only uses a small number of adjectives and adverbs. He does not dwell in descriptions of scenery or war horror stories, and somehow that makes war seem all the more horrible – it seems real. This sparing prose also creates dialogues that feel truly authentic. The language Hemingway uses is simple, but deceptively so: his words might be easy to read, but they are certainly not easily digested.
The unadorned, pragmatic prose creates an atmosphere that highlights some of the themes explored. A Farewell to Arms is a book about the so-called Lost Generation, disillusioned and directionless by the terrors they witnessed in the war. The war itself is portrayed here as something that affects everyone and every aspect of life. War is not only what happens between a few soldiers on some front, it involves whole populations and while during war there is fear and death and destruction there is also love, laughter and normality. Furthermore, Hemingway does not let himself or his protagonist be drawn into deep psychological and philosophical examinations of life and human nature. Rather, the grief he suffers leads him to turn away from a search for meaning in life, love and war.
A Farewell to Arms is brilliant and heart-breaking in its realism. A gripping, and fast-paced read. One you will finish reading quickly, but it will not leave you for a long time. I admire Hemingway’s concise style, so honest but not lacking in humour and emotion. I enjoyed the characters, their flaws and growth. I know many take issue with Catherine’s portrayal, find her to be a caricature of an aged feminine model, perhaps one-dimensional. While there were certain moments in the book when she appeared slightly overdrawn, too conform with stereotypes of the time, behind all that paint I thought she was shown to be the more mature, more independent of the two lovers. Finally, what else is there to say about a novel with an ending such as this? Apparently he wrote and rewrote it 39 times, and he nailed it perfectly.