Farewell To Arms Essays

A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway

The following entry presents criticism on Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929). See also, Ernest Hemingway Criticism.

A giant in the field of American literary modernism, Ernest Hemingway has long been called an important spokesman for the “lost generation” of disillusioned, war-wounded young Americans after the First World War. His 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms, a tragic love story about an American ambulance lieutenant and an English nurse, was based on Hemingway's own experiences on the Italian front. In the novel, Hemingway uses his characteristic unadorned prose, clipped dialogue, and understatement to convey an essentially cynical view of the world. Critics were at first skittish about Hemingway's linguistic and sexual frankness but soon began to regard him as a pioneer in establishing a writing style that came to dominate realistic writing for many decades. Although feminist critics have denigrated Hemingway's alleged male bias, and others have found the love story unsatisfying, A Farewell to Arms remains a powerful statement about the effects of the horrors of war on ordinary people.

Plot and Major Characters

A Farewell to Arms is autobiographical in that Hemingway himself was with the Red Cross ambulance corps in Italy and also had a romance with a nurse after he was wounded by shrapnel. His protagonist, Frederic Henry, is a young American who joins the Italian ambulance corps, only to be wounded and sent to a hospital in Milan. He soon falls in love with his English nurse, Catherine Barkley, who then spends a happy summer with him in the country while he recuperates. In the fall, Catherine reveals that she is pregnant but refuses to marry Frederic, fearing that she will be sent back to England and asserting that the two are “married” in all but a legal way. A depressing scene ensues, with Frederic back at the front commiserating with his despondent comrade Rinaldi. With him he shares the further disappointment of the retreat from Caporetto. Discouraged and disillusioned, Frederic deserts, finding his way back to Stresa, to which Catherine has been transferred. Although in civilian clothes, Frederic fears detection, and he and Catherine flee to Lausanne to await the birth of their child. After a traumatic childbirth scene, both Catherine and the child die. Frederic walks away alone in the rain, chastened by his experiences and feeling alone in the universe.

Major Themes

An overarching theme in A Farewell to Arms is the hopelessness of war and the futility of searching for meaning in a wartime setting. Further, Hemingway suggests that the only true values people can cling to are in individual human relationships, not in abstract ideas of patriotism or service. A Farewell to Arms is above all a story of the development of Frederic Henry, who begins as a rather rootless character who does not really know why he joined the war effort. His own wound, however, teaches him to value life and prepares him to enter into a love relationship with Catherine. When Frederic makes his “separate peace” by deserting, he begins to take responsibility for his own actions. By the end of the novel, with love and hope seemingly dead, he has come to an understanding that one must be engaged in life, despite the vicissitudes of an indifferent universe.

Critical Reception

Early critics of the novel emphasized its realistic picture of war and disagreed over the effectiveness of Hemingway's laconic literary style. A number of critics were squeamish about the frank language and sexual situations Hemingway presented. A Farewell to Arms was in fact banned in Boston in its first serialization in Scribner's Magazine. By the 1940s, however, proponents of the New Criticism had begun to do closer textual studies of A Farewell to Arms, finding it rich in language, symbolism, and irony. Other critics praised Hemingway's narrative structure and explored themes such as the conflict between abstract ideas (like honor and service) and concrete experience with love and death.

The 1970s and early 1980s saw a new flurry of Hemingway scholarship after his papers and manuscripts were opened to the public at the John F. Kennedy Library, allowing insight into Hemingway's processes of composition. In the early 1970s, feminist critics began to lambast Hemingway for his treatment of the character of Catherine, whom they saw as little more than a projection of male needs and desires. Her relative lack of development, compared with Frederic's evolution as a character, was called a weakness in the novel. In answer to feminist critics, others argued that one should not judge the novel from a particular ideological framework. In the 1980s and 1990s, criticism shifted back to close analyses of the text itself and explorations of the ways in which Hemingway's life and the culture in which he lived influenced the novel. Reader-response critics sought to infer what Hemingway expected from readers, psychoanalytic critics delved into the character of Frederic, and deconstructionists noted subtle uses of language, which often masked deep meanings not at first evident.

A Farewell to Arms – Hemingway’s Antiwar Novel

Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms in 1929. It was not his first book, but that was the one, which made him famous. It was a little bit more than ten years after the World War I, described by Hemingway in this book. I believe, the novel gained its popularity, because it was a true story about the war, which took millions of human lives away. Still what is the book about?

A young American goes to the front in Italy, which declared a war to Austria in 1915. The country was not ready for the war with such a strong adversary as Austria; its army was as weak and incapable to fight, as it had been fifty years before during the war for the reunification of Italy. That time in 1866 Italy won the war only thanks to the Prussian victories, this time the front was also held mainly owing to the French and British troops and Russian offensives in the Western Ukraine. So Frederic Henry, the protagonist of this novel, experienced that war in the Italian Campaign.

He was not in the front trenches, he didn’t repel enemy’s attacks, he served in the ambulance corps. Although he was only expected to drive wounded soldiers from the battle field to the hospital, he saw the war horrors just there and was even wounded.

Before the warfare Henry had met Catherine Barkly, an Englishwoman, who worked in the hospital. Their occasional meeting transformed itself later into a real love. It was not a true love for Henry in the beginning, but afterwards he realized, he couldn’t be without Catherine, and she really became a part of him. Their love was romantic initially. They managed to negotiate numerous obstacles on their way. Numerous, but not all of them. Catherine failed to give birth to their baby. The baby was stillborn with a cord around his neck, and afterwards Catherine died herself of hemorrhage and the experienced doctor couldn’t save her. So the romantically begun love finished tragically. Their love didn’t survive, although it was already far from any war menace and very close to the real happiness. A love story, but without any traditional happy end.

Ernest Hemingway was a prototype for the main character of the novel. He took part in that war and just in the Italian Campaign. Although he came there only in 1918 he was wounded and operated in the field hospital, so he knew the war not from somebody’s stories, he experienced it himself. And, of course, as an intelligent man he was against it. He didn’t write any antiwar pamphlets, didn’t participate in antiwar manifestations. He only described it, he described the war impartially, as it was in fact, not adding any superfluous details. In his book we shall not find any antiwar plots, demonstrations of pacifism. We find real live people, who try to avoid the war perils, to survive, to get as far from the death as possible. The author expresses his attitude to the war in the remarks of his characters.

A soldier with the rupture says: “I say it is rotten. Jesus Christ. It is rotten.” He was not wounded, it was an ordinary rupture, but the soldier calls the war rotten, because he was afraid, lest he would be sentenced for slipping the truss on purpose to make the rupture bigger. Before the attack Henry talks with his colleagues and one of them speaks about the decimation. “They lined them up afterward and took every tenth man. Carabinieri shot them.” It was an ancient tradition of the Roman army; the soldiers from the units, which wouldn’t attack or retreated without order, were lined up and every tenth of them was executed. The same happened in the Italian Army during the World War I. After the story about the decimation Henry says: “I believe we should get the war over,” I said. “It wouldn’t finish it, if one side stopped fighting.” When Henry comes back to front from the hospital in Milan in his first conversation with the surgeon Rinaldi, who shared the room with Henry, Rinaldi says: ”This war is terrible.” He had too much to do that summer and fall, when Henry was away. He operated many wounded soldiers, and he knew quite well, what the war meant. But the most abominable scene took place later after the retreatment of the Italian Army. The Army was not ready for any big warfare, and the Austrians took advantage of it. They started attack, which made Italians retreat in order to save their lives. That retreat was like a huge flood of people, who walked along the road from the front trying to find refuge somewhere as far from the front as possible. Carabinieri arrested the officers, who were not with the soldiers of their units, and shot them after formal questioning. Human life of their compatriots meant nothing, they just did their duty.

 All this makes readers disgust the war, hate it and realize, that new generation should do all their best to make any war impossible, to eliminate it as a way of resolving problems.

In fact Hemingway took part not only in the World War I, he participated in the Spanish War and World War II as well. He got more war experience, and this not only didn’t change his attitude to war, but even made him more intolerant towards any military conflicts. His novel didn’t lose its topicality. So the book was reedited several times. Maybe, the most precious for us is the edition of 1948 with Ernest Hemingway’s introduction. In that short preface he wrote not only the history of the novel, but he expressed his own opinion about any war in such phrases: “…but they (wars) are made, provoked and initiated by straight economic rivalries and by swine  that stand to profit from them. I believe that all the people who stand to profit by a war and who help provoke it should be shot on the first day it starts by accreditor representatives of the loyal citizens of their country who will fight it. The author of this book would be very glad to take charge of this shooting, if legally delegated by those who will fight and see that it would be performed as humanely and correctly as possible…” I am sure nobody can show any bigger disgust and more acute hatred to the war than Hemingway, who knew for sure, that the greatest evil is presented not by the people, who kill each other in the trenches, but the people, who initiate the war and send others to such a crime.

There were, and there are many different points of view on this novel. Not all of them are benevolent; some literary critics called the book a plain love story, which took place in the war time. There is no use to argue with them. Every reader may have his own opinion. In this respect I would like to remind Sean Hemingway’s words written by the grandson of the famous writer in his introduction to the same edition: “In A Farewell to Arms, like in the world of nature, much of significance lies beneath the surface, and yet it is all there if you know what to look for.” Just open the book, start reading it, and you will definitely find its antiwar significance, which is there and not so deep beneath.

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