Probably no other modern writer has influenced writers of fiction as much as Ernest Hemingway has. His pared down, edgy and understated style has been much emulated by generations of English writers. Hemingway knew even in his teen years that he wanted to become a writer. His troubled relationship with his parents saw him move out of his Illinois home when he was only 17. His newspaper days helped him hone his journalistic style of writing. He did not have all day to say what he had to say. Brevity and conciseness became handy tools. This style of writing stuck with him. The story of A Farewell to Arms is based on a love affair that Hemingway had with a Red Cross nurse while injured as an ambulance driver with the Italian army. The affair had an abrupt end; this colored Hemingway’s relationship with women.
Relevance of the Title
Though critics have many interpretations, the most likely one is a reference to the giving up of weapons or an abandonment of war. Towards the end of the novel, Mr. Henry deserts his post as an ambulance driver and later still, he flees with the pregnant Catherine to Switzerland which was a neutral country.
The Grimness of War
Rarely has the grimness of war where civility and good sense get suspended been portrayed better. Everywhere there is suffering and killing. Mr. Henry’s killing of the engineer in an example. The Italian army was being routed by the Germans and it was in disarray. The Italian soldiers are demoralized by their defeat by the Germans; they turn on their own commanders holding them responsible and execute them. To kill or be killed was the choice; Henry chooses to kill or else he would have been killed.
Love and Pain
The love between Frederick and Catherine serves as a counterpoint to the war and bloodshed. He is battle weary and she is mourning for her dead fiancé when they begin their affair but their love endures. At the start their love is casual, more an escape from the unpleasantness of the death and suffering. But as time goes on it becomes the fuel that fires their existence. Henry and Catherine risk everything to get away from the war zone to a place of peace and calm. But their lives are doomed. Catherine dies in an island of peace in the hospital.
Lieutenant Frederick Henry is an American ambulance driver when he meets Catherine Berkley, an English nurse working with a British hospital. She is still recovering from the death of her fiancé in action. He is coolly detached after seeing death and senseless destruction in the war. Their emotional attachment is all pretence, at least at the beginning. Sometime later, Henry is injured in war and transferred to a hospital in Milan. Here he meets Catherine again. As days pass by, their love turns genuine and Henry tries to prolong his illness to stay in her vicinity. He has always been a heavy drinker so luckily for him he falls ill with jaundice even while his knee wound is slowly healing. He has been given convalescence leave which he plans to spend travelling with Catherine when she announces that she is pregnant. The superintendent of the hospital thinks that Henry has purposely brought on the jaundice by excessive drinking to stay on in hospital and cancels his leave as soon as he recovers. Catherine and Henry aren’t sure whether they will meet again, such being the conditions in Italy then.
Henry leaves for the front where the Italians are being routed by the Germans. The army is in retreat and there is chaos everywhere. No one is in charge when Henry leads his team of ambulances and turns around to move with the evacuating army. They pick up two engineers and two frightened young girls who have nowhere to go. In order to move fast Henry and the other drivers decide to take one of the side roads. But recent roads have turned them into mire. Henry orders the two engineers to help push the vehicle. But they refuse to do and Henry in a fit of anger shoots one of them. The other trucks move ahead slowly but they too get stuck in the mud. Now they move ahead on foot. The girls are sent away as they cannot ensure their safety.
While walking, one of the drivers is shot dead by the nervous soldiers of the rear guard of the Italian army. There is only Henry and one driver left now. Amidst the increasing chaos, there are reports of the demoralized soldiers turning on their commanding officers holding them responsible for the defeat and executing them. Soon Henry is arrested by the military police but when they relax for a while, he escapes by jumping into a swollen river. He surfaces somewhere downside stream and hides in a munitions train. Miraculously, he reunites with Catherine in a border town. Knowing life to be uncertain in Italy, they escape to Switzerland, spending idyllic days there. As the time for the baby to be born comes close, they move to Lausanne. One day Catherine goes into labor and is admitted to a hospital where she after many hours she gives birth to a stillborn child. She suffers from blood loss and dies soon after. Henry is devastated and slowly walks back to the hotel in rain.
Rain is a metaphor for changing situations in A Farewell to Arms. Throughout the war, there is intermittent rain which creates difficult situations for the troops. The rain soaks the earth which is then churned up by the heavy vehicles that carry artillery and men. It is in this bog that Henry’s truck gets stuck while they are withdrawing from the frontlines.
- I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
For Henry, all the talk about the glory of war, of fighting for one’s country is just empty talk. In the evening when the dead are counted, all that is left behind is the senseless destruction of people and countryside. Verdant fields are laid waste and the cream of youth mowed down. It may appear romantic to take up arms and fight for a cause but ask the man out there wounded and dying, and you will get a different answer. This passage makes clear Hemingway’s own ambivalence towards the issue of war. Though he signed up and suffered injuries, he is not convinced about its purpose.
- Stretcher bearers came in all the time, put their stretcher down, unloaded them and went away.
There seems to be a mechanical regularity in the arrival of the stretcher bearers who unload their cargo of the wounded and the dying. The assembly line like coming and going is enough to desensitize ambulance workers and hospital staff.
- When we were out past the tanneries onto the main road the troops, the motor trucks, the horse-drawn carts and the guns were in one wide slow-moving column. We moved slowly but steadily in the rain, the radiator cap of our car almost against the tailboard of a truck that was loaded high, the load covered with wet canvas. Then the truck stopped. The whole column was stopped. It started again and we went a little farther, then stopped. I got out and walked ahead, going between the trucks and carts and under the wet necks of the horses.
More than anything else, this passage illustrates the best of Hemingway’s style – edgy, short sentences that tell exactly what is happening. The frequent use of the word ‘stopped’ give the reader the impression of all movement stopping and starting again. The first two sentences are long and crawling just the motley mix of the column that is pulling out.
- But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together. I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started. But with Catherine there was almost no difference in the night except that it was an even better time. If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
Whenever Henry thinks of Catherine, his thoughts are rapturous and inspired but his philosophy is dark and brooding. This philosophy informs his outlook on death and living. He believes that the brave and the gentle die first, the world ensures that. It is not that the bad and the cruel escape death. They don’t die that fast. The passage begins on a contented mood but slides into pessimism fast. This passage prepares us for the sad ending that is inevitable.