'A Farewell to Arms' by Ernest Hemingway (1929)

A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (London: Arrow Books, 2004), 293pp


I have mixed feelings about A Farewell to Arms. It starts off rather pedestrian, reading less like a celebrated inter-war novel by a legendary author and more like a 'How I spent my summer holidays in wartime Italy' story. The description is, even by Hemingway's 'iceberg' standards, rather sparse. You would think it would be easy to convey the beauty of an Italian town at sunset, yet in the early part of the book such a setting is described thus: "It was hot walking through the town but the sun was starting to go down and it was very pleasant." (pg. 17). The book really struggles to get going, and it doesn't seem that Hemingway is yet decided in whether it will develop to be primarily a war novel or a romance novel. Consequently, the anti-war ruminations of the characters feel contrived and the romance angle unconvincing.

The characterisation is regrettably poor. Rinaldi, Henry's male best friend, was presumably intended by Hemingway to be a stereotypical heart-on-his-sleeve, hot-blooded Italian. Instead, partly because he insists on calling Henry 'baby', Rinaldi comes across as aggressively and laughably camp. However, it is the female characters which are particularly awful, spending most of their scenes crying or fretting about making babies. Catherine Barkley, the nurse who serves as the protagonist's love interest, falls in love with Henry rather easily and inexplicably. On an early date, and with only middling small-talk serving as foreplay, she falls weeping into his arms - "'Oh, darling,' she said. 'You will be good to me, won't you?'" (pg. 25) - before beginning to talk about their 'strange' life together. The reader's thoughts are similar to Henry's - what the hell - and unfortunately, whilst other aspects of the novel improve, Catherine never loses this behaviour, constantly fretting over whether she is a 'good girl', and a good wife. "She looked at me very happily. 'I'll do what you want and say what you want and then I'll be a great success, won't I?'" (pg. 96). I could cite many more examples, but it is hard to choose which to share. Simply let the book open on any given page and you'll find a gem. She seems - certainly unintended on the part of the author - to be emotionally-stunted, with a puppyish naïveté about romance: more an overgrown schoolgirl than an independent woman. This makes the subsequent relationship between the two less convincing, which is particularly damaging as it becomes a more prominent storyline as the novel develops.

After the poor start, A Farewell to Arms does settle and allows for a lot of classic Hemingway to shine through. The anti-war musings become less simplistic and the author's patented iceberg approach to description and setting is allowed to thaw. Beginning with the Italian retreat after the Battle of Caporetto, the novel really gets the kick it needs. The disorderly retreat, the panic, Henry cut off, going cross-country, the battle police - all highlights of A Farewell to Arms. Henry becomes disillusioned and deserts (although, it must be said, this seems forced on him rather than being a choice), fleeing with Catherine. "I had the paper but I did not read it because I did not want to read about the war. I was going to forget the war. I had made a separate peace." (pg. 217). The novel becomes a great read by this point, and one can add the encounters with Count Greffi to the list of the novel's highlights. Somewhat surprisingly for a Hemingway novel, by this point some moments of humour pop up, particularly the absurd bickering between the champions of Montreux and Locarno on pages 251-3. In another instance, Henry betrays his unease about deserting, to which Catherine replies: "'Darling, please be sensible. It's not deserting from the army. It's only the Italian army.'" (pg. 224).

These highlights mentioned above, and others, do allow the reader to forgive the disappointment present in the first 100 or so pages of A Farewell to Arms. However, I feel that perhaps the reason I was so forgiving was that I could identify and appreciate classic Hemingway moments, as I have read some of his other works. When I first decided to read a Hemingway novel, I narrowed down my choices to this novel and For Whom the Bell Tolls. I decided on the latter and loved it; if I had chosen A Farewell to Arms first I might not be such a budding fan, for it is most certainly an acquired taste. I initially planned to write a review based around the novel's themes, as I had for The Old Man and the Sea and, to a lesser extent, For Whom the Bell Tolls. I decided against it, as although one could analyse the symbolism of the rain, and the themes linking war to childbirth (and the all-important line on page 222 about how "The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places." ), these themes are often lost in the general swirl of the novel. The book picks up considerably towards the middle, and the ending is a double-gut-punch, but its flaws are easily identifiable. A Farewell to Arms ranks behind the later For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea in the Hemingway oeuvre, but it is still a compelling novel.