Thoughts on A Farewell to Arms

I made a New Year’s resolution to read one novel a month. I was the author of my own undoing when I specified that it must be a “novel” and not merely a “book,” or else I could justify my reading for school as sufficient. It’s been difficult for me to read for pleasure while school is in session. After all, if someone spent all day watching movies as a career (suppose they’re a movie critic, or something), then the last thing they want to do when they come home is watch another movie. Such is the case with me. It seems all I do is read and write all day, so it takes some serious motivation to read Hemingway when I get home, even if I love him.

A picture I took from my copy of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, p. 224. I find that humor is almost always good in war novels.

This is the first full Hemingway novel I’ve read, at the encouragement of my good friend Lillie Griffith. We were at Read It Again in Johns Creek when she spotted it and advertised it to me, and I’m so grateful she did. I took an American Literature class last semester for a GE, and we touched briefly on Hemingway with his short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” but I felt I couldn’t call myself a fan of the American novel if I’d never read a full-length piece of his. He’s famous for simplifying the language of the novel, something I think we can all be grateful for. I’m a fan of flowery language as much as the next humanities major, but I suppose we can all agree that there’s no need to write quite like Jane Austen anymore.

Farewell transports us to the Italian-Austrian front during WWI and follows an American, Fredric Henry, who’s become a lieutenant in the Italian army. He meets an English nurse, Catherine Barkley, and falls in love – but Hemingway writes of love in such a different way. There’s regret, there’s secrecy, there’s pain. It wasn’t my favorite love story, and Hemingway didn’t intend for it to be. It was realistic romance, really, and there’s definitely a place for that in novels. We all want to escape the real world, sometimes, but Hemingway’s no idealist and he doesn’t care about our search for asylum. He tells the stories of his characters, and has them do what they would do, not what he or we want them to do. There’s no “wait, what?” in Farewell. If we look deep enough into the words on the page, we’ll be prepared for what’s to come. That being said, it’s still plenty romantic:

“My life used to be full of everything. Now if you aren’t with me I haven’t a thing in the world”

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms,

Hemingway’s depiction of Catherine was very interesting. I’ve heard previously about his female characters, so I had some idea of what I was getting into, but Catherine was really what kept me reading. To many (I’m guessing) she seems a dim-witted dullard whose only objective is to please Henry, and he’s the hero and master of his fate. I, however, saw Catherine as the true hero. We know she isn’t perfect, but she’s selfless – which is more than Henry can say of himself. This was WWI, and there was a limit to what women could do on their own, and I daresay Hemingway’s views of women were probably pretty narrow. That was just common for his time. Catherine works with what she has. Her flaws are apparent – insecurity, need for attention, etc. – but she can take care of herself. When he has to leave her to go back to the front, she manages; they both do. So even though her dialogue bothered me at times, I now take the view that her devotion was genuine. She just showed it in a way different from the women of our time.

It wasn’t the easiest read, but it’s a war novel. I don’t understand much about WWI, and I know even less about the war in Italy, but I came to know the characters and their specific settings. Yes, I look for an escape in a novel, but I can handle education instead. The place in this world for novels like these is easy to find: it’s wherever you want to learn about the world around you.

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