A Farewell to Arms follows the story of Frederick Henry (referred to by other characters as Tenente which, I learnt after finishing the book, means ‘lieutenant in Italian), an American who is serving in the Italian army in the first world war. Henry begins a relationship with a nurse who is working in a hospital close to where he is stationed, and the story follows the continuation of their relationship against the backdrop of the war.
For me, the real strength of this novel is in its depiction of the war. Unlike many war novels, this book does not try to shock the reader with numerous bloody descriptions of war wounds or atrocities, but is rather more subtle. The opening sentence of the novel could almost describe the view from a holiday home:
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and plain to the mountains.”
It is only when the troops are mentioned passing by the house that we realise there is a war. At first it seems as though Henry has an easy role to play in the war. When he returns from his leave at the beginning of the book he realises “evidently it did not matter whether I was there or not”, and a lot of time is spent drinking and visiting women. Only later in the book does it become apparent that this laid-back approach is a way of dealing with the horrors and fear that the war has thrust upon him:
“Listen. There is nothing as bad as war… When people realize how bad it is they cannot do anything to stop it because they go crazy. There are some people who never realize. There are people who are afraid of their officers. It is with them that war is made.”
It is evident throughout the novel that Hemingway has had first-hand experience of war, but it is his understated style of writing that really gives this book its power.
However, there were some aspects of the novel that I disliked. I found Catherine, the nurse who Henry falls in love with, to be a very one-dimensional character and I did not find their relationship convincing. You could argue that this perhaps was Hemingway’s point, that Henry uses Catherine as an escape as an alternative (or more likely compliment) to his drinking, as he describes their relationship at first like a ‘game’:
“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 some stakes. Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were. It was all right with me.”
Despite Henry’s intentions to not fall in love, he does so and the pair have a very intense relationship and the stakes become very high. Without giving anything away, the other part of the book I disliked was the ending. I found it gratuitous and it made me come away from the novel feeling very hugely disappointed. Again, you could argue that Hemingway has chosen such an ending on purpose – after the subtle approach to describing the horrors of the war the ending certainly is a powerful one, and perhaps befitting to a novel set during war time. Yet I did not like it, and felt let down by this part of the book.
I remain undecided about whether or not I liked A Farewell to Arms, as some parts I loved but the others I cannot forgive. I have only read one other of Hemingway’s novels so far, when I was much younger, and I remember really enjoying it but I wonder how I would feel if I reread it now. It certainly has something to do with becoming older that a weak female character seems so grating, and that the ending of the book was so objectionable to me has a lot to do with my recent experiences. I think on reflection that my dislike of the ending is a personal one, but that Hemingway is at fault with his depiction of Catherine’s character. Either way, the book is one which will remain with me for some time and that is always a sign of a classic whether it was enjoyable or not.