Wednesday, June 17, 2020

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to Arms
Ernest Hemingway
Published 1929
American Novel
The Unread Shelf (Forgotten)

A Farewell to Arms has been on my shelf for so long, and I no longer remember where or when I acquired it. It's an old copy, too.

Understandably, some readers cast Hemingway off as difficult to appreciate. His writing style is unusual and his plots seem too elementary and pointless; but I know there is more to it than appears. Furthermore, his stories, which are told through his flawed and troubled characters, are quite effective (for a reader like me). My preference is to make relational connections with characters and undergo something emotional through their story; hence, I find that this has been my experience, thus far, with Hemingway.

Begin spoilers:

The plot is quite plain: the main character, Frederic Henry, is an American ambulance driver, in Italy, during World War I. He is interested in a beautiful nurse named Catherine. When he is severely injured, he is sent to a brand new hospital, in Milan. Catherine follows him there, where he spends several months in recovery, and cares for him. It is then that their relationship becomes serious and sexual.

Near the end of Frederic's recovery, Catherine tells him she is pregnant, and they plan to spend time off together. Unfortunately, as is typical with Hemingway's characters, Frederic is caught drinking a lot and abusing drugs, and he is sent back to work, away from Catherine.

In one event, Frederic and the Americans are helping the Italians retreat, but the vehicles in the convoy become stuck. Two soldiers won't obey Frederic's orders to help push the vehicles, and one attempts to flee; Frederic makes the terrible decision to fire on the soldier, killing him.

Now Frederic must either run or face the consequences; he decides to abandon the army. He sets out in a disguise to find his pregnant girlfriend, Catherine, which he does. Shortly after, they learn that he is to be arrested; therefore, he and Catherine make a wild plan to escape to Switzerland, by rowboat.

All seems like it is going well since they are permitted to stay in Switzerland, but when the time comes for Catherine to give birth, life takes a turn for the worst. You can only imagine. And that is sadly how the story ends.

End spoilers.

Again, I understand why this story would anger readers and cause them to write off Hemingway. I won't even argue the point. But it was disquieting enough to leave a deep impression.

So, what is the point? 

A Farewell to Arms is partially autobiographical because Hemingway was an ambulance driver, in Italy, during World War I, and was injured, just as Frederic his main character was injured. I think he wrote this book specifically for his generation. The message was clear: war is ugly and corners people into uncompromising situations. War is disturbing and it messes people up. Even romantic relationships are complicated and tricky, especially during war, and it hurts just the same. Neither is there a guarantee that anything will turn out right or good. His point may have been that this is why [his generation] was considered to be so confused and lost.

Hemingway was correct: war is miserable, and relationships are complicated. But Hemingway was an atheist and disliked "religion" because he believed it limited man's personal happiness. He probably only saw religion as a set of rules and restrictions, but faith may have given him different eyes to see life's difficulties, like war, pain, and loss.

Hemingway never found a way to cope, and he committed suicide in 1961.


Jillian said...

This is my favorite by Hemingway. Margaret Mitchell claimed it as her favorite modern novel. She didn't like everything by Hemingway but apparently she liked this one. She also REALLY liked Fitzgerald. :-)

Ruth said...

JILLIAN: Wow! Really? This was the one? Hmmm...well, like I said, it was disquieting enough to leave a deep impression. Kind of like all of Hardy's stories do for me. Or Edith Wharton. Mitchell probably wrote extensively about why this novel did it for her. I'd be interested to hear her argument. Nonetheless, Hemingway is an effective author for me, even if I struggle with other parts of his philosophy.

Ruth said...

JILLIAN: Oops! I did not clarify that my response was to Margaret Mitchell claiming this as her favorite novel. Sorry. But I am interested, too, why this is your favorite as well. (Personally, it left me feeling the same as Wharton's Ethan Frome, and I cannot get it out of my head.) So what was it for you, I'm curious.

Jillian said...

Hi Ruth. :) Mitchell actually never wrote extensively about why she admired this novel -- that I've found. She likely talked it through with friends or John (her husband & a lit professor/editor/journalist) rather than writing. :-) She lists it in one of her letters as her favorite modern novel, & biographer Darden Asbury Pyron confirms that she was extremely fond of A Farewell To Arms in Southern Daughter (p. 207). Within her letters I find only the mention of it as her favorite "modern" novel (as opposed to her favorite novel of all time or her favorite book.) She references its gruesome last chapters in one letter (offering no remarks for or against, but with her own novel as an example, I'd say she was impressed by extremely tense endings). Within a letter dated October 30, 1937, she speaks to her friend Herschell Brickell (a critic who had just lacerated the newly published To Have and Have Not) of To Have and Have Not in comparison to a book she'd just read & preferred (Of Lena Geynor) because (referring to Lena) she'd been "impressed by the punch which arrived at the end of an almost casually written narrative."

My guess is that she appreciated A Farewell To Arms's realism & honesty, its nearness to her own era (her husband and brother had fought in World War One, and her fiancé died there), & the gruesomeness of the final moments of the novel when the rest of it was so casually delivered -- the "out of nowhere" quality of the ending.

Honestly, that's what I like too. I FELT the novel. That ending was absolutely tremendous and made me cry, yet he never tells me what to think. He only tells me what happened. He doesn't tell me anyone else is feeling this or that. He just delivers the character's actions so realistically you can sense the agony, or the inertia, or the surrender, or the anger, or the mass of all of that, in the final line, but he never tells you what to feel. Tremendous literary control. Those final lines! They hold everything and are so inert and controlled and heavy and human.

I didn't mean to imply it's my favorite novel, however. My favorite novel is Gone with the Wind. As for Hemingway, I've only read A Farewell To Arms, The Old Man & the Sea, The Nick Adams stories, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro short story anthology, so I have much left to explore by Hemingway. But my it stuck with me. I love a tragic tale.

Mitchell did not care for Hemingway's To Have or Have Not, or some of his other works, like The Green Hills of Africa, and Death in the Afternoon, by the way. A Farewell To Arms was an exception. Of her distaste for To Have or Have Not, she explained, “There’s too much sadism for its own sweet sake in the world today without having sadists deliberately titillated... from the viewpoint of technique its brutality defeats its purpose where one strong passage in a long book can set the reader’s scalp atingle.” She jokes in a prior letter to the same recipient (Brickell) ten days earlier that she apparently missed all the social implications of the book & just saw the story, & she clearly needs a practicing left-winger at her elbow to point out everything she misses in modern novels, ha ha! {Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind Letters, 173-5.}

Too bad we can't ask her! She loved talking books and would likely tell us with great enthusiasm what she loved about A Farewell To Arms, if only we could ask. :-)

Ruth said...

JILLIAN: Thank you for clarifying again for me...this is your favorite HEMINGWAY, not your all-time favorite novel, which is GWTW. (Duh! I know that!)

Thanks for the elaboration on Mitchell. I think what little you have revealed, it makes sense that the ending was lasting for her. I experienced the same, as you did. It's like walking away from a crash site with no emotional support, and you have to work it out yourself. But if you aren't very good at it, I imagine it could be devastating to a reader. Obviously, Mitchell could handle it, too.

Fanda Classiclit said...

Of few books which I've read from Hemingway before I shunned him completely :D, is this one (which I disliked), the other is The Old man and the Sea (which I loved, partly, maybe, because I read the Indonesian translation). Hemingway's and Fitzgerlad's are similar, there's the sense of hollowness or unwholesomeness in their books (hence the term 'lost generation"). But at least Fitzgerald's is poetic and (slightly) optimistic. This book in particular is depressing (the story) and unenjoyable (the style).

Ruth said...

FANDA: I hear you. I think you have a point with the unwholesomeness or hollowness of the context or content or plot, right? And it isn't easy to like. It is emotional, on a depressing scale, particularly the abrupt ending.

Jillian said...

"It's like walking away from a crash site with no emotional support, and you have to work it out yourself..."

YES. That's a wonderful description!

I was thinking it over last night, & if I had to guess, I'd say this is what Mitchell loved about this book: it offered a true and devastating story without destroying the tale with a moral or telling the reader what to think. It simply spoke. It neither tried to be gruesome nor to make sense of gruesomeness. And it spoke to a generation that had been devastated and likely read literature with a different eye than ours or the generation before it. In the period Hemingway wrote of in this novel (WWI), Mitchell had lost both her mother and her fiancé without having the chance to say goodbye. There was no closure. Just there and gone. Hemingway wasn't one for platitudes and I am guessing she appreciated that about him. She was a very frank -- very look it in the face. Hemingway looks it in the face and you can believe whatever you believe about what happens in this story. He presents it and leaves the working out of it up to you. I think it's that "now what do we do" quality that makes it resonate, and that's what I so admire in his work. I haven't read the "sadism for its own sake" works yet :) but I feel that a novel like this is as exquisite as a portrait. And yes, emotionally disturbing. For me (a writer), it's the technique I admire. For Mitchell, a woman of the generation he wrote about, there's probably a sense of kinship, and respect, for his desire to look it in the face and say "this happened" and not clutter it up with why. Simply, it happened. Sometimes that is more comforting than anything, though it seems it wouldn't be. (Cheers!) :-)

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Like with most of Hemingway's novels, I like HOW he writes this book better than WHAT he writes about. He had such a crisp way with words but, as you say, his outlook on life was bleak and hopeless, and that shines through clearly in this and For Whom the Bell Tolls in particular (of what I've read from him).

Ruth said...


HAMLETTE: See, I find that many readers complain about his writing style. But like you, I kinda like it, too.

Ruth said...

JILLIAN: :D Sorry, Jillian, I mean to answer you, too. I was very personal for Mitchell, and the story, Hemingway's style spoke to her directly.

Also, when an author tells us what to think after a conflict or tragedy, it may ruin the experience for the reader, it may put him/her off. Sometimes it is just enough to be an observer.

George B. Edwards, Jr. said...

Of the five books by Hemingway I've read, my favorite was A Moveable Feast. Also, The First 49 Stories, where his crisp, terse, pared-down style gets to you with a concentrated impact. But Hemingway's description of the early times in Paris, where he and his first wife Hadley were sometimes cold and hungry, and at other times lived exuberantly, made me wish I had obtained the longer, up-dated version of Feast. I liked the character of his wife as he showed her and felt sorry for the end of his marriage to this nice person. She is said to be the only woman that he never stopped loving.

Carol said...

Hi Ruth, great commentary on Hemmingway. I don’t think I’ve ever read any of his books ?? Although I may have many years ago. He seems to be an author people either love or hate, or they only like a particular book. Hope you & your family are well. 🙂

Ruth said...

GEORGE: So it sounds like I should look for an updated version of A Moveable Feast. I'm looking forward to it.

CAROL: Thanks. I think you are correct: they either love or hate him, and then it is usually only one or two works that they preferred.