Book Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to ArmsBook Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Published: 1929

Modern Library Ranking: 74

Book Description: The best American novel to emerge from World War I, A Farewell to Arms is the unforgettable story of an American ambulance driver on the Italian front and his passion for a beautiful English nurse. Hemingway’s frank portrayal of the love between Lieutenant Henry and Catherine Barkley, caught in the inexorable sweep of war, glows with an intensity unrivaled in modern literature, while his description of the German attack on Caporetto—of lines of fired men marching in the rain, hungry, weary, and demoralized—is one of the greatest moments in literary history. A story of love and pain, of loyalty and desertion, A Farewell to Arms, written when he was thirty years old, represents a new romanticism for Hemingway.

Okay, that wasn’t exactly my reaction to the ending of the book, but when I saw this scene in the movie, Silver Linings Playbook, I had to laugh. I could relate to his reaction, and although I didn’t break any windows or utter any profanities (okay maybe one or two), I do believe I tossed the book aside. I don’t need a happily ever after to enjoy a book, but this is what the author makes you crave while you’re experiencing an otherwise hopeless world, where war and death are commonplace. If you’re looking for a happy ending, you won’t get that from Hemingway. His books depict the real rather than the ideal. War is not glamorous. Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Death is inevitable. Often we read to escape that reality, and that’s where the disappointment comes from. We want to believe that it was all worth it somehow.

I’ve been reading, or rereading, books on the Modern Library Top 100 list to see what I could learn from these highly praised works. What did I learn from reading this book? Here are a few writing “rules” that came to mind:

  • Hook the reader with the first line.

1st sentence: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.”

No, it’s not particularly engaging, but I kept reading as the next rule came to mind.

  • Avoid slow beginnings. Starting a book with too much pedestrian detail will lose the reader.

On the surface, the beginning appeared quite pedestrian, and it seemed so until I finished the book. If you know anything about Hemingway’s style, much of the meaning of what he writes lies beneath the surface. I reread the opening paragraph, and it took on a different meaning for me.

It describes a scene where troops are marching down a road. The only evidence that remains after they have passed is the dust that powders the leaves and trunks of the trees. Like the movement of the troops on the dusty road, our lives are temporary, and after we pass, the only thing that remains is the dust we leave behind; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I’m not sure if this is the meaning Hemingway intended to convey but this is how I view it. The opening paragraph is hauntingly poetic to me now. Here is the rest of it:

“In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

  • Use inconspicuous dialogue tags like “said” and “asked” only when necessary.

I don’t recall seeing any dialogue tags other than “said” or “asked,” and for the most part, Hemingway avoided dialogue tags altogether. It was confusing, at times, to determine who was speaking and I had to reread a passage.

  • Don’t use phonetic spelling to convey racial or cultural dialects. The oddly spelled words can be distracting to the reader.

The skill with which Hemingway uses the context of speech, a peculiar turn of phrase, those idioms indicative of a particular culture, allows the reader to hear the words as if they were spelled phonetically. As I stated above, he frequently omits dialogue tags, but his use of dialogue, for the most part, makes it unnecessary. One can learn a lot from studying Hemingway’s use of dialogue.

  • Create characters that are likable. The protagonist is a character the reader should empathize with. The emotional attachment is what keeps the reader interested in the story.

Initially, I viewed the main character, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, as a self-absorbed womanizer. What led me to these initial reactions? Here is what he thought about Catherine:

“I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards. Like bridge you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes. Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were. It was all right with me.” Then, in this same scene he tells her, “But I do love you.”

What a snake. I didn’t feel sorry for Catherine, though. She was a pathetic character who fawned over Frederic and didn’t have a life or thought of her own. She seemed desperate for someone to love and would become whatever he wanted.

“There isn’t any me. I’m you. Don’t make up a separate me.”

“You’re my religion. You’re all I’ve got.”

I wanted to puke. I had a hard time empathizing with these characters. But, as usual with Hemingway, all is not what it seems. Frederic is an ambulance driver who risks his life to help the wounded. Pretty noble, eh? He actually does fall in love with Catherine and the way I initially viewed him changed. He was no longer a player in those early scenes, but someone who wanted to remain numb, unfeeling among the atrocities of war, suppressing his emotions with alcohol and meaningless sex.

As for Catherine, her actions contradicted her words. She did have a mind of her own. She left the safety of her home country to aid wounded soldiers at the front. She did this to honor her fiance who was killed in the war. She was independent and courageous. Like Frederic, she put herself in harm’s way for the welfare of others. I no longer viewed her as a pathetic character but as someone who was desperately trying to deal with grief.

Although I believe I came to understand their actions, I never developed a deep emotional attachment for the characters.

My favorite quotes both appear on page 249:

“I know 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.”

“The world breaks everyone 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.”

This seems to be describing the contrast between dreams and reality. What are the things we dream of? Peace, security, love? Does our world allow those things to exist? Frederic and Catherine find solace in each other’s arms, but can love exist among the atrocities of war? Maybe the answer lies in the book’s title.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway”

  1. This is a lovely coincidence, this was another book from my college days. Unfortunately, I can’t remember much about it except him sharing some old cheese in a trench with a chance companion and poignant references to the rain which emphasized the hopelessness of the time. Did he lose his lover/partner due to the war?
    I remember the book left an effect on me. Cheers Melissa 😉

    1. Oh, that’s a great scene and reminds me of a favorite quote from the book. Frederic is asked if he did anything heroic when he was injured. He said, “No. I was blown up while we were eating cheese.” I love that line and how Hemingway uses it to convey the true nature of war. There were lots of references to rain throughout the book and to me it seemed to symbolize death and tragedy. Catherine dies after giving birth to their stillborn son. The novel ends with Frederic leaving the hospital and walking back to his hotel in the rain. Very sad. Thanks for commenting James!

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