Home > 1920, 20th Century, American Literature, Classics, Hemingway Ernest, Made into a film, WWI > A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway_FarewellI picked A Farewell to Arms on a whim as I was visiting the area where part of the story is set. I had steered clear of Hemingway after a disastrous collective reading of The Old Man and the Sea in school. The experience was so painful that I wasn’t tempted to read another of his books until recently. It’s unfortunate that a dull literature teacher pushed me away from Hemingway because I suspect I would have liked A Farewell to Arms better if I had read it as a teenager.

A rapid reminder of the plot: We’re in Italy, in 1917. Frederic Henry is a young American who serves as a volunteer in the Italian army. He’s a lieutenant in the ambulance corps. When the book opens, he is stationed in Gorizia and the front is relatively calm. He meets Catherine Barkley who works as a nurse at the British hospital. They fall in love. When Henry is wounded, she manages to come to Milan where he is hospitalized and their relationship strengthens. He is sent back to the front where is he confronted to the absurdity of the war.

I know this is a cult book, Hemingway’s first best seller but I had difficulties with it.

The first difficulty was the style. I found it laboured and as I’m also reading Chandler, Hemingway’s style seemed even duller in comparison. When Hemingway describes Henry getting drunk by drinking several glasses of wine, Chandler makes Philip Marlowe say I remembered the half-bottle of Scotch I had left and went into executive session with it. And let’s not mention description like this:

The mountain that was beyond the valley and the hillside where the chestnut forest grew was captured and there were victories beyond the plain on the plateau to the south and we crossed the river in August and lived in a house in Gorizia that had a fountain and many thick shady trees in a walled garden and a isteria vine purple on the side of the house.

I wished he had let go of the English grammar and put a string of commas instead. Sure, he has his moments like I had drunk much wine and afterward coffee and Strega and I explained, winefully, how we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things. But in other times, his style sounded so flat that my imagination played tricks on me. When I read It was really very large and beautiful and there were fine trees in the grounds I imagined a teenager working on an essay, bent over a school bench, biting her bottom lip, writing diligently, every t crossed and every i with a little ring on it. Very distracting.

However, I enjoyed the Italian atmosphere and the use of Italian words in the English to enforce our perception of Henry’s environment. The Italian spoke a strange English sometimes and I found this passage about British realities explained to a continental rather funny. Rinaldi, an Italian surgeon and Henry call on two nurses, Miss Barkley and Miss Ferguson.

[Rinaldi] “That is not good. You love England?” [Ferguson] “Not too well. I’m Scotch, you see.” Rinaldi looked at me blankly. “She’s Scotch, so she loves Scotland better than England,” I said in Italian. “But Scotland is England.” I translated this for Miss Ferguson. “Pas encore,” said Miss Ferguson. “Not really?” “Never. We do not like the English.” “Not like the English? Not like Miss Barkley?” “Oh, that’s different. You mustn’t take everything so literally.”

 The second difficulty was the love story. I didn’t buy it at all. Hemingway is good at describing war but romance isn’t his forte. See this dialogue:

“It’s raining hard.”

“And you’ll always love me, won’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And the rain won’t make any difference?”

“No.”

“That’s good. Because I’m afraid of the rain.”

“Why?” I was sleepy. Outside the rain was falling steadily.

“I don’t know, darling. I’ve always been afraid of the rain.”

“I like it.”

“I like to walk in it. But it’s very hard on loving.”

“I’ll love you always.”

“I’ll love you in the rain and in the snow and in the hail and—what else is there?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’m sleepy.”

“Go to sleep, darling, and I’ll love you no matter how it is.”

Terribly sappy and meteorological. It came as a surprise because corny isn’t the first adjective that came to my mind when I thought about Hemingway. Perhaps I would have found it romantic at 15, but not today. I just found it ridiculous. I haven’t decided yet if my fifteen-year-old self was silly or if I need to worry about being so cynical now. Despite all their professions of love, I didn’t find them convincing.

For me, the best parts were the descriptions of the front, of the atmosphere between the soldiers and the discussions about the necessity and the outcome of the war. I had never read a novel about WWI in Italy, so it was interesting to have a vision on that part of the battle field. I was intrigued to read that the German army was more dreaded than the Austrian. The war in the mountains was also something different from the one in France.

To be honest, what bothered me is that I didn’t like the characters. Henry is no hero despite his voluntary involvement in the war. He was foolish enough to get mixed into this fight when he didn’t need to. When he’s with his unit, he’s all about fighting with the Italians. But when he gets tired of the war, he finds it convenient to pull out his American passport and stay safely in Switzerland. Sorry but it didn’t seem fair for the poor Italian fellows who wanted out but couldn’t. In addition, he isn’t really on speaking terms with his family but is fine with cashing the money they send. That’s a bit easy too in my book. Catherine is rather boring but brave enough to break free of propriety to go after what she wants, ie Henry. She’s ready to disregard social rules to live with him out of marriage and it means a lot at this time. She has a back bone, she just doesn’t talk like she has one. (Back to Hemingway’s ability with love dialogues)

So all in all, what do I think about A Farewell to Arms? I’d say “Read it when you’re young”. Perhaps I missed something in Hemingway’s style -after all, English isn’t my native language– but I wasn’t blown away by it. I still want to read A Moveable Feast though. I assume that most of the English speaking readers who will read this billet have read this novel. What do you think about it? I’m genuinely curious.

A PS with spoilers: I know that A Farewell to Arms means A Farewell to Weapons or to War, because in French it is translated into L’adieu aux armes. It makes senses since Henry deserts the army and turns his back to arms. But, after reading the ending, it is also a farewell to Catherine’s arms and I suddenly found it odd that arm can mean both gun and members used to hug, hold and cuddle. In French, we have different words.

  1. May 12, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    I read it a long time ago, but I remember much of what you mention: the Italian war in the mountains, and the endlessly soppy romantic talk between the protagonists. (He can shoot as many lions as he likes and wrestle as many bulls, but basically Hemingway was a soppy romantic and evidences it throughout his literary career). I think I enjoyed it more than you, but I was a teenager back then. It’s a long, long time since I read any Hemingway – and perhaps I never will again.

    A Moveable Feast is good, especially if you’re interested in the Paris literary scene.

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    • May 12, 2013 at 11:35 pm

      OK, so I’m not the only one.

      I’m interested in A Moveable Feast, I think I’d enjoy it. (Let’s hope the style is better)

      Like

  2. May 13, 2013 at 2:08 am

    I went through a Hemingway binge a few years back. The Sun Also Rises is my favourite. This is a coincidence as I had a conversation about Hemingway yesterday with someone who agreed that they prefer Fitzgerald.

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    • May 13, 2013 at 1:02 pm

      I don’t think you can compare their work that easily, it’s so different. I prefer Fitzgerald’s style, that’s for sure.

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      • May 18, 2013 at 3:17 am

        If you get a chance, rent SHORT CUTS which is directed by Robert Altman & based on Carver short stories.

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        • May 18, 2013 at 10:01 am

          I’ve seen this film at least twice and loved it. I didn’t know it was based upon Carver’s stories.

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  3. May 13, 2013 at 7:12 am

    There possibly wouldn’t be a Chandler without Hemigway.

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    • May 13, 2013 at 1:04 pm

      Why?

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      • May 13, 2013 at 1:12 pm

        Because Hemingway pretty much revolutionzed writing. He’s famous for his short sentences, laconic tone, and taut dialogue. A lot of writers were inspired by him. The writing may not be beautiful as such but it sure was unique and new at the time.
        I liked A Farewell to Arms far less than other books I’ve read by him but certainly much better than The Old man the Sea which I also had to read in school.
        As for his being a romantic, yes I would agree

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        • May 13, 2013 at 7:35 pm

          I’m all for short sentences but his sound plain sometimes.
          I didn’t read the right one, apparently. Thanks for mentionning the short stories, I’ll have a look. Short stories don’t require the same skills as novels. I don’t mean by that that one is superior to the other, it’s just different.

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  4. May 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    I pressed the comment button too early and forgot the most important bit.
    I would argue that Hemingway is best in his short stories, not so much in his novels. You can see best what’s unique in his writing when you read his often very short stories. He packs a lot into just a few pages.
    A Moveable Feast is a memoir, that’s why it is quite different. The writing is almost lovely and the characters are rounded.

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  5. May 13, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    No, “corny” is not the first adjective I think of when it comes to Hemingway. It is the third adjective. What a sap he was! He can be at his sappiest when he is pretending to be tough.

    Caroline is right – the best short stories are Hemingway’s real achievement. Hemingway is Influence #1 on the American short story. I do not believe that his influence has been exhausted or thrown off to this day. Raymond Carver is perhaps Hemingway’s greatest successor in short fiction.

    Then there is the crime fiction, the adventure and sports writing, and what is now a long line of American novelists. Jim Harrison comes to mind – he is often pure Hemingway, the same flaws, the same virtues.

    You might enjoy this line from the critic Leslie Fiedler: “Hemingway is always less embarrassing when he is not attempting to deal with women.”

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    • May 13, 2013 at 7:44 pm

      I’ll definitely have a look at the short stories and thanks for the explanations. I haven’t read Carver yet but I have him in mind too. Philippe Djian adores him, I’ve always wanted to try one of his books. Any recommendation?

      I love Jim Harrison, I’ve read at least 10 of his books. I rarely read so many books by one writer. I didn’t know he was influenced by Hemingway. (that’s the price to pay for not reading Hemingway or interviews of Harrison, I suppose) He’s more subtle with feelings and psychology though, at least compared to A Farewell to Arms.

      And yes, I totally agree with Leslie Fiedler. All the corny parts were around Catherine. He could have been sappy about brotherhood between soldiers, he had the opportunity. But no, the mawkish parts all for the love story.

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  6. May 13, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    Any of the standard Carver collections will have some of his best stories and also some others. Where I’m Calling From is the big Greatest Hits collection. I guess I recommend that one, but I am not sure it matters much. It is the only one with “A Small, Good Thing,” which features a crazed baker – I don’t think Hemingway ever came up with that!

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  7. May 13, 2013 at 11:57 pm

    It can be argued (in fact, it has) that Hemingway learned most of that famous clipped style from Ring Lardner and Dashiell Hammett. I have to admit that I enjoy their short stories more than his.

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    • May 14, 2013 at 9:59 pm

      I had to research Ring Lardner. It made me curious. Is the sport theme very developed and does it include references to baseball or football that are incomprehensible to a European woman?

      Like

  8. May 14, 2013 at 10:45 pm

    Lardner’s baseball stories are about the characters more than the game (I have to admit baseball is incomprehensible to me too). He wrote a lot of other stories too; he had a laconic style and a sharp ear for the spoken language.

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  9. May 15, 2013 at 10:56 am

    Nice review, Emma! I read ‘A Farewell to Arms’ many years back when I was going through a Hemingway phase (I also read ‘A Moveable Feast’, ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ at that time) and I liked it at that time. I can’t remember much of the story, but from your review it looks like Henry is not a very admirable character – being part of the war when it looks like adventure and getting out of it when the going gets tough. That long sentence that you have quoted from the book made me smile, because I think that is typical Hemingway style. Thanks for this interesting review.

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    • May 16, 2013 at 8:12 am

      Everyone commenting has read it a long time ago but no one mentions re-reading him.
      A Moveable Feast is my next Hemingway. I suppose I’ll read The Sun Also Rises one of these days too.

      Henry has flaws. I didn’t find his feelings for Catherine very convincing but he acts according to his words. After all, he doesn’t seduce and abandon her.

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  10. leroyhunter
    May 15, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    Agree with Doug about Lardner: he’s great, and one of my favourites for ages.

    I re-read Hem’s short stories last year and they are superb. It’s fashionable to mock his style and (undoubted) failings, but his good stuff is among the best there is.

    I have a scarring memory of abandoning For Whom the Bell Tolls, but Fiesta, To Have and To Have Not and A Moveable Feast are all fine work.

    Like

    • May 16, 2013 at 8:15 am

      I’ve downloaded Lardner’s You Know Me Al and read a few letters from Jack to Al. There’s too much baseball in it for me to understand everything and the intended grammar mistakes are challenging for a non native.

      Everyone agrees on A Moveable Feast. Good.

      Like

      • leroyhunter
        May 16, 2013 at 10:10 am

        Yeah, You Know Me Al is probably a bit specialised. There are collections of his stories though that might (only might!) be more accessible.

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        • May 17, 2013 at 9:39 pm

          Thanks for the tip; You Know Me Al were the ones I found for ebook.

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          • May 21, 2013 at 8:20 pm

            Here’s one of Lardner’s short stories, if you’re interested. And no baseball! He does use the spoken language (“would of” instead of “would have,” for example), but your English is good enough to figure it out.

            http://www.eldritchpress.org/rl/goldhm.htm

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            • May 21, 2013 at 10:07 pm

              A BIG THANK YOU FOR THIS. It’s great, I love it. It’s so funny.

              “Well, Frank, that beard of yours makes me feel like I was back north. It looks like a regular blizzard.”

              “Well,” he said, “I guess yourn would be just as white if you had it dry cleaned.”

              And what about this:

              After the game she brought out a dish of oranges and we had to pretend it was just what we wanted, though oranges down there is like a young man’s whiskers; you enjoy them at first, but they get to be a pesky nuisance.

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              • May 22, 2013 at 5:48 am

                I’m glad you enjoyed it! It’s long been a favorite of mine; Lardner’s sense of rhythm was just delicious. Hemingway, by the way, was such a Lardner fan that he signed his early stories “Ring Lardner Jr.”

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  11. Brian Joseph
    May 16, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Unfortunately I read this too long ago to have meaningful opinion. I think that Caroline and Tom are correct and that Hemingway may have been at his best in short stories though. I find his his writing style is truly brilliant. There is a complexity in his sparseness that I get out of no other writer.

    My wife read A Moveable Feast and really liked it.

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    • May 17, 2013 at 9:40 pm

      There seems to be a consensus on the short stories and A Moveable Feast.

      Like

  12. May 20, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    I rather like Hemingway, mostly for his style. I like how in this review you bring that style out, even though it didn’t work for you.

    He isn’t at his best when writing about women, I admit.

    A Farewell to Arms is one that I liked. The descriptions of the flight from the front are harrowing. His prose is spare, and unblinking, and for me worked in that context. I saw once his prose described as being like pebbles in a mountain stream, and while I couldn’t say what that means I think it is nonetheless true.

    Schools always to The Old Man and the Sea, but I don’t think it’s remotely a good intro to Hemingway. As you say, this would be a much better choice.

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    • May 20, 2013 at 9:18 pm

      Actually, I enjoyed his style but not all the time. I thought that he was very good at times, especially when describing war. I agree with you, the part about the flight from the front was excellent.

      He’s not good at describing relationships, that’s all.

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      • May 20, 2013 at 10:49 pm

        That’s a fair criticism I think. Overall I suspect I liked it more, but I don’t disagree with your analysis.

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        • May 21, 2013 at 10:16 pm

          Perhaps I was just too disappointed to enjoy it as much as I would have in other circumstances. Do I make sense?
          When you read such a great novelist (for the first time almost, if you forget about my experience with The Old Man and the Sea), you expect something great. I didn’t find him as great as expected.

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          • May 21, 2013 at 10:37 pm

            Totally. I was hoping to love Wuthering Heights. I didn’t find it as great as I expected.

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            • May 21, 2013 at 10:49 pm

              I enjoyed the discussion about it. Very interesting. We seem to be on the same boat regarding this one.

              Like

  1. July 7, 2013 at 11:55 am
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