A Farewell to Arms is a semi-autobiographical novel drawn from Ernest Hemingway's experiences in Italy during World War One.
Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American, is an ambulance driver with the Italian army, based in a little town called Gorizia. There he meets and falls in love with Catherine Barkley, a nurse at the local hospital. The two themes explored in the book are love and war; and with Henry and Catherine, one is inseparable from the other. Henry describes his war experiences with an aloof and almost brutal honesty. He spends his nights at the public house for the officers, drinks when he can and goes into the war with a sort of unemotional stolidity. He is in the war and yet he is far from it. Henry is a man who has realized that he is fighting someone else's war and yet he goes on because he simply must. His seeming indifference about the war is at direct odds with the strength of his emotions for Catherine. The two begin a tumultuous love affair where they cling to each other with increasing desperation as the book progresses. This is an intense love story set against the backdrop of a war that the common man simply did not seem to interested in fighting.
An excerpt from one of Henry's conversations with the priest on the disposition of the Italian Army: "They were beaten to start with. They were beaten when they took them from their farms and put them in the army. That is why the peasant has wisdom, because he is defeated from the start. Put him in power and see how wise he is.”
I came away from the book not having any concrete opinion on either Henry or Catherine. They are not very inspiring and do not seem to possess many redeeming qualities and yet, their story moves you because it is, if you look at it, a study of a society gripped in uncertainty. Perhaps, with Henry who is wounded unexpectedly in the trench mortar shelling, and Catherine who is mourning the death of a former lover, being faced with their own mortality is what propels them towards each other. They constantly have to will themselves to be happy and while their love might have been true it seems fragile, insecure and like a reaction to the war and ravage around them.
Consider what Catherine Barkley tells Henry, "You don’t have to pretend you love me. But I do love you." Catherine is haunted by the fear that if she does not mold herself to Henry's wishes, she would lose him. She doesn't want to consider herself as a separate entity; Henry seems to be the only tangible thing in her world. Right from the beginning, their relationship is fraught with an impending sense of doom and is felt in Henry's words towards the later stages of the book, "We knew the baby was very close now and it gave us both the feeling as though something were hurrying us and we could not lose any time together."
The story of Henry and Catherine is distinct in the fact that it is quite subversive and yet traditional. They perhaps epitomized the emotions of the multitude facing the "war to end all wars" at a time when the west was poised on the brink of great cultural change. Read Henry's and Catherine's story without any illusions and with the understanding that there were probably many Frederic Henrys and Catherine Barkleys whose stories we will never know.
My very first Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms had me in an iron grip from start to finish and less than half way through the book I was a Hemingway convert. The writing is magnificent, with the kind of uncompromising spareness that confronts you with the war and the conflicting emotions that go with it. Frederic Henry is said to have been modeled on Hemingway himself and Catherine Barkley on Agnes Von Kurowsky, the twenty six year old nurse that the eighteen year old Hemingway met during his convalescence in Milan. Agnes went on to become Hemingway's first love only to eventually break up with him citing the difference their ages as one of her reasons. Hemingway was never quite purged of his feelings for Agnes and her memory was to stay with him for the rest of his life. You can read her farewell letter to Hemingway here.
Hemingway on being wounded in WWI, "When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you ... Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you."
This is a link to a website about Ernest Hemingway if anyone is interested. You can also check out information on Hemingway's house in Key West, where he is said to have finished A Farewell to Arms,here.
I have included pictures of Anges Von Kurowsky in her nurse's uniform in Milan, of Hemingway in his WWI uniform, of the both of them together and Hemingway at a later date, all sourced from various websites. If there are any copyright violations, please let me know, I will remove them.
Juliet Ashton, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
"I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers."
Lord! when you sell a man a book you don't sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night - there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book.