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.
A Farewell to Arms – Hemingway’s Antiwar Novel
Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms in 1929. It was not his first book, but that was the one, which made him famous. It was a little bit more than ten years after the World War I, described by Hemingway in this book. I believe, the novel gained its popularity, because it was a true story about the war, which took millions of human lives away. Still what is the book about?
A young American goes to the front in Italy, which declared a war to Austria in 1915. The country was not ready for the war with such a strong adversary as Austria; its army was as weak and incapable to fight, as it had been fifty years before during the war for the reunification of Italy. That time in 1866 Italy won the war only thanks to the Prussian victories, this time the front was also held mainly owing to the French and British troops and Russian offensives in the Western Ukraine. So Frederic Henry, the protagonist of this novel, experienced that war in the Italian Campaign.
He was not in the front trenches, he didn’t repel enemy’s attacks, he served in the ambulance corps. Although he was only expected to drive wounded soldiers from the battle field to the hospital, he saw the war horrors just there and was even wounded.
Before the warfare Henry had met Catherine Barkly, an Englishwoman, who worked in the hospital. Their occasional meeting transformed itself later into a real love. It was not a true love for Henry in the beginning, but afterwards he realized, he couldn’t be without Catherine, and she really became a part of him. Their love was romantic initially. They managed to negotiate numerous obstacles on their way. Numerous, but not all of them. Catherine failed to give birth to their baby. The baby was stillborn with a cord around his neck, and afterwards Catherine died herself of hemorrhage and the experienced doctor couldn’t save her. So the romantically begun love finished tragically. Their love didn’t survive, although it was already far from any war menace and very close to the real happiness. A love story, but without any traditional happy end.
Ernest Hemingway was a prototype for the main character of the novel. He took part in that war and just in the Italian Campaign. Although he came there only in 1918 he was wounded and operated in the field hospital, so he knew the war not from somebody’s stories, he experienced it himself. And, of course, as an intelligent man he was against it. He didn’t write any antiwar pamphlets, didn’t participate in antiwar manifestations. He only described it, he described the war impartially, as it was in fact, not adding any superfluous details. In his book we shall not find any antiwar plots, demonstrations of pacifism. We find real live people, who try to avoid the war perils, to survive, to get as far from the death as possible. The author expresses his attitude to the war in the remarks of his characters.
A soldier with the rupture says: “I say it is rotten. Jesus Christ. It is rotten.” He was not wounded, it was an ordinary rupture, but the soldier calls the war rotten, because he was afraid, lest he would be sentenced for slipping the truss on purpose to make the rupture bigger. Before the attack Henry talks with his colleagues and one of them speaks about the decimation. “They lined them up afterward and took every tenth man. Carabinieri shot them.” It was an ancient tradition of the Roman army; the soldiers from the units, which wouldn’t attack or retreated without order, were lined up and every tenth of them was executed. The same happened in the Italian Army during the World War I. After the story about the decimation Henry says: “I believe we should get the war over,” I said. “It wouldn’t finish it, if one side stopped fighting.” When Henry comes back to front from the hospital in Milan in his first conversation with the surgeon Rinaldi, who shared the room with Henry, Rinaldi says: ”This war is terrible.” He had too much to do that summer and fall, when Henry was away. He operated many wounded soldiers, and he knew quite well, what the war meant. But the most abominable scene took place later after the retreatment of the Italian Army. The Army was not ready for any big warfare, and the Austrians took advantage of it. They started attack, which made Italians retreat in order to save their lives. That retreat was like a huge flood of people, who walked along the road from the front trying to find refuge somewhere as far from the front as possible. Carabinieri arrested the officers, who were not with the soldiers of their units, and shot them after formal questioning. Human life of their compatriots meant nothing, they just did their duty.
All this makes readers disgust the war, hate it and realize, that new generation should do all their best to make any war impossible, to eliminate it as a way of resolving problems.
In fact Hemingway took part not only in the World War I, he participated in the Spanish War and World War II as well. He got more war experience, and this not only didn’t change his attitude to war, but even made him more intolerant towards any military conflicts. His novel didn’t lose its topicality. So the book was reedited several times. Maybe, the most precious for us is the edition of 1948 with Ernest Hemingway’s introduction. In that short preface he wrote not only the history of the novel, but he expressed his own opinion about any war in such phrases: “…but they (wars) are made, provoked and initiated by straight economic rivalries and by swine that stand to profit from them. I believe that all the people who stand to profit by a war and who help provoke it should be shot on the first day it starts by accreditor representatives of the loyal citizens of their country who will fight it. The author of this book would be very glad to take charge of this shooting, if legally delegated by those who will fight and see that it would be performed as humanely and correctly as possible…” I am sure nobody can show any bigger disgust and more acute hatred to the war than Hemingway, who knew for sure, that the greatest evil is presented not by the people, who kill each other in the trenches, but the people, who initiate the war and send others to such a crime.
There were, and there are many different points of view on this novel. Not all of them are benevolent; some literary critics called the book a plain love story, which took place in the war time. There is no use to argue with them. Every reader may have his own opinion. In this respect I would like to remind Sean Hemingway’s words written by the grandson of the famous writer in his introduction to the same edition: “In A Farewell to Arms, like in the world of nature, much of significance lies beneath the surface, and yet it is all there if you know what to look for.” Just open the book, start reading it, and you will definitely find its antiwar significance, which is there and not so deep beneath.
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