A Book Review of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms
The novel takes place in Italy during World War I, and it tells the story of an American named Frederic Henry who worked as an ambulance driver and lieutenant for the Italian Army. Lieutenant Henry gets injured by a trench mortar shell while eating macaroni and cheese in a trench with three Italian soldiers. His legs are harmed and one of his knees is badly injured. While recovering in a hospital in Milan, he falls in love with an English nurse named Catherine Barkley. Their romance develops throughout the time Lieutenant Henry recovers, returns to the war, and finally escapes it. The couple moves to Switzerland and Henry seems to have moved past the war (which is still waging without him) to live a happy life with his wife, whom he calls Cat, and their soon-to-be-born child. The word “seems” gives the ending away, but I won’t spoil it completely (yet)…I’ll just tell you to have a box of tissues at hand.
My Critical Opinion:
I loved reading this wonderful novel for many reasons. Hemingway’s prose beautifully describe the environment and the setting so that the reader can produce imagery of it in their imaginations. You feel like you are seeing the mountains and villages of the Italian countryside that Henry sees, or watching the long caravan of soldiers marching, or feeling the rain drench through your clothes. Hemingway shows Henry’s experience with narration while seamlessly integrating dialogue between characters. The cool thing about this novel is that it contains certain plot points which really occurred in Hemingway’s life: he worked as an ambulance driver for the Italian Army, he was injured by a trench mortar shell, and he fell in love with a nurse while recovering. As an author, he used biographical material from his life and created works of fiction, like this one, to tell a story about something that mattered to him. A Farewell to Arms is a story about the duty of a soldier; it’s about the senselessness, yet inevitability of war, as well as the inevitability of death; and it is also a story about finding and losing love.
So in giving plot summary I mentioned that Lt. Henry gets injured while eating mac ‘n cheese…it is not essential to the plot, but it’s funny. When the offensive attack started, Henry was sheltered in the Major’s lodgings trying to get food for his drivers who were waiting in a trench, hungry. Lt. Henry got the macaroni and some cheese to put on top and ran out during the bombing to bring his men the food, against the Major’s advice. So Hemingway paints a picture of Henry and his three Italian soldiers sitting in a trench, all eating mac ‘n cheese out of the same pan with their hands and mouths during the attack. I think I actually laughed out loud while reading it. It amazes me that Hem was so skilled he could make something funny out of a violent act of war in one, ironic scene. Oh, and did I mention wine? They were also drinking wine while eating their mac ‘n cheese. Henry has a great love for alcohol (not coincidentally so did Hemingway) and drinks himself into jaundice after his surgery. He drinks from the beginning to the end of this novel. Even while Catherine is having a caesarian section he has a few drinks at a café across from the hospital. The hospital is located at the bottom of the mountain that Henry and Catherine had been living on, and Hemingway symbolically illustrates good things happening while up in the mountains and bad things happening down on the plain. Rain is a reoccurring symbol throughout the novel which also indicates something bad stirring. Spoiler Alert: It’s raining when Catherine goes into labor and it continues to rain through the end when Henry walks back to the hotel in the rain, alone. The tragedy occurs at the end when both Catherine and the baby die during childbirth. I instantly and uncontrollably burst into sobs…not just a few tears rolling down my cheeks, but the loud, heaving, sobbing type of crying when I reacted to the loss in the story. I think Hemingway built up the romance between Henry and Catherine so strongly and emotionally, showing them overcome obstacles to be together, only for Henry to be left completely alone in the end. No one escapes death; it takes everyone in time. Though tragic, the end is captivating and moving.
Overall, I enjoyed the novel so much so that I think I’m warranted in suggesting it to anyone who likes to read. I’ve been mentioning it in daily conversation and randomly informing friends and colleagues of little bits of Hemingway trivia. What can I say? I’m a book-nerd. I hope you read it and I hope you like it as much as I did.
A passage from the novel, my favorite passage, and one that reveals the essence of it:
“Often a man wishes to be alone and a girl wishes to be alone too and if they love each other they are jealous of that in each other, but I can truly say we never felt that. We could feel alone when we were alone together, alone against the others. It has only happened to me like that once. I have been alone while I was with many girls and that is the way that you can be most lonely. But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together. I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started. But with Catherine there was almost no difference in the night except that it was an even better time. People bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry” (Hemingway, pg 249).
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