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.
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.
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.
Ernest Hemingway once referred to A Farewell to Arms as his version of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597). Several parallels exist. Both works are about star-crossed lovers; both show erotic flirtations that rapidly develop into serious, intense love affairs; and both describe the romances against a backdrop of social and political turmoil. Whether A Farewell to Arms finally qualifies as tragic is a matter of personal opinion, but it certainly represents, for Hemingway, an attempt to broaden his concerns from the aimless tragicomic problems of the expatriates in The Sun Also Rises (1926) to the fundamental question of life’s meaning in the face of human mortality.
Frederic Henry begins the affair as a routine wartime seduction, “a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards.” He feels mildly guilty, especially after learning about Catherine’s vulnerability because of the loss of her lover in combat, but he still foresees no complications from the temporary arrangement. It is not until he is wounded and sent to her hospital in Milan that their affair deepens into love—and from that point on, they struggle to free themselves in order to realize it. However, they are constantly thwarted, first by the impersonal bureaucracy of the military effort, then by the physical separation imposed by the war itself, and, finally, by the biological “accident” that kills Catherine at the point where their “separate peace” at last seems possible.
As Henry’s love for Catherine grows, his disillusionment with the war also increases. From the beginning of the book, Henry views the military efforts with ironic detachment, but there is no suggestion that, prior to his meeting with her, he has had any deep reservations about his involvement. Hemingway’s attitude toward war was always an ambiguous one. He questioned the rationales for fighting them and the slogans offered in their defense. Like Henry, he felt that “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene.” For the individual, however, war could be the necessary test. Facing imminent death in combat, one either demonstrated “grace under pressure” and did the “one right thing” or one did not; one either emerged from the experience as a whole person with self-knowledge and control, or one came out of it lost and broken.
There is little heroism in this war as Henry describes it. The hero’s disengagement from the fighting is made most vivid in the extended “retreat from Caporetto,” generally considered one of the great sequences in modern fiction. The retreat begins in an orderly, disciplined, military manner. As it progresses, however, authority breaks down, emotions of self-preservation supersede loyalties, and the neat military procession gradually turns into a panicking mob. Henry is caught up in the momentum and carried along with the group in spite of his attempts to keep personal control and fidelity to the small band of survivors he travels with. Upon reaching the Tagliamento River, Henry is seized, along with all other identifiable officers, and held for execution. After he escapes by leaping into the river—an act of ritual purification as well as physical survival—he feels that his trial has freed him from any and all further loyalty to the Allied cause.
Henry then rejoins Catherine, and they complete the escape together. In Switzerland, they seem lucky and free at last. Up in the mountains, they hike, ski, make love, prepare for the baby, and plan for their postwar life together. Even in their most idyllic times, however, there are ominous hints; they worry about the baby; Catherine jokes about her narrow hips; she becomes frightened by a dream of herself “dead in the rain.” Throughout the novel, Hemingway associates the plains and rain with death, disease, and sorrow; the mountains and the snow with life, health, and happiness. Catherine and Henry are safe and happy in the mountains, but it is impossible to remain there indefinitely. Eventually everyone must return to the plains. When Catherine and Henry descend to the city, it is, in fact, raining, and she does, in fact, die.
Like that of Romeo and Juliet, the love between Catherine and Henry is not destroyed by any moral defect in their own characters. Henry muses that Catherine’s fate is the price paid for the good nights in Milan, but such a price is absurdly excessive. Nor, strictly speaking, is the war responsible for their fate, any more than the Montague-Capulet feud directly provokes the deaths of Shakespeare’s lovers. Nevertheless, the war and the feud provide the backdrop of violence and the accumulation of pressures that coerce the lovers into actions that contribute to their doom. In the final analysis, both couples are defeated by bad luck—the illness that prevents the friar from delivering Juliet’s note to Romeo, the accident of Catherine’s anatomy that prevents normal childbearing. Thus, both couples are star-crossed. If a “purpose” can be vaguely ascertained in Shakespeare’s version—the feud is ended by the tragedy—there is no metaphysical justification for Catherine’s death; it is, in her own words, “a dirty trick,” and nothing more.
Hemingway does not insist that the old religious meanings are completely invalid but only that they do not work for his characters. Henry would like to visit with the priest in his mountain village, but he cannot bring himself to do it. His friend Rinaldi, a combat surgeon, proclaims atheism, hedonism, and work as the only available meanings. Count Greffi, an old billiard player Henry meets in Switzerland, offers good taste, cynicism, and the fact of a long, pleasant life. Catherine and Henry have each other: “You are my religion,” she tells him.
All of these things fail in the end. Religion is only for others, patriotism is a sham, hedonism becomes boring, culture is a temporary distraction, work finally fails (the operation on Catherine was “successful”), and even love cannot last. Catherine dies; they both know, although they will not admit it, that the memory of it will fade.
All that remains is a stoic acceptance of the above facts with dignity and without bitterness. Life, like war, is absurd. Henry survives because he is lucky; Catherine dies because she is unlucky. There is no guarantee that the luck ever balances out and, since everyone ultimately dies, it probably does not matter. What does matter is the courage, dignity, and style with which one accepts these facts as a basis for life, and, more important, in the face of death.