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Original Essays | September 15, 2014

Lois Leveen: IMG Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel



There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him. He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well. It's... Continue »

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A Farewell to Arms (Scribner Classics) by Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms (Scribner Classics)

JulesH, May 15, 2011

Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is a novel set in WWI Italy in the years 1916-1917. In this tragic romance, Lieutenant Frank Henry, an American ambulance driver in the Italian army, falls in love with Catherine Barkley, a British nurse. The book includes gruesome scenes of war and mature sexual issues, making it suitable for upper-level high school courses and above. A Farewell to Arms denounces the concepts of honor and glory associated with war, emphasizing the true nature of physical pain and destruction. Hemingway’s blunt style serves to accentuate this theme, conveying much to readers in few words.
This semi-autobiographical novel was first published in 1929, at the height of success for World War I novel. Parts of the book parallel Hemingway’s personal experiences as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy. Similar to Henry, Hemingway himself was gravely wounded on the front. During his recovery in Milan, he fell in love with a nurse who took care of him. Their relationship came to an end upon Hemingway’s return to the United States. Inspiration for other characters is also drawn from Hemingway’s friends and acquaintances during the war. A Farewell to Arms was hugely successful upon publication, securing Hemingway’s financial future. It is the most distinguished American novel to emerge from World War I.
This novel is divided into 5 books, each encompassing important developments in the doomed love between Henry and Catherine. As the story opens, readers learn that Henry is an American ambulance driver for Italy on the front line between Italy and Austria. His friend Rinaldi introduces him to an English nurse, Catherine Barkley who is grieving the loss of her fiancé. A romance is sparked as Catherine tries to occupy herself and Henry is interested in sex. Henry is wounded in the legs by a mortar shell and moved to a hospital in Milan. Catherine transfers to the hospital to take care of him and a deep relationship starts to form. Over the next several months, Catherine and Henry fall in love. As fall nears, Catherine informs Henry that she is three months pregnant. They pledge devotion to each other and he is sent back to the front where the war is going badly for Italy.
German troops break through the lines and the Italian army starts a massive retreat. Henry and three other ambulance drivers make their way back, encountering friendly fire and blocked roads. Henry’s morality is called into question after he shoots a fleeing engineer in cold blood. Italian officers are then being rounded up and executed by Italian police for retreating. Henry escapes, hops a train and makes it back to Catherine who is in Stresa. The two escape to Switzerland together, rowing all night in a borrowed boat. They are granted visas and settle in a small town for the winter. In the spring, Catherine goes into labor. Needless to say, events do not turn out as Henry hopes.
In this novel, Hemingway questions the validity of abstract ideas such as honor and glory in the midst of such tangible suffering. Henry says, “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain…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”(184-185). This quote emphasizes the true nature of physical pain and destruction. In this novel, nothing about war is good and no goodness comes out of it. Everyone involved suffers, from soldiers to priests to children on the street to the very landscape. Henry is a Realist- he believes that politicians who idealize war are naïve to the true nature of human conflict. Hemingway also focuses on the relationship between love and pain. He suggests that the first is not possible without the second because humans are mortal and our fate is inevitably out of our control.
Reoccurring motifs throughout the novel are the perceptions of masculinity and femininity. Henry, Rinaldi, and other soldiers are portrayed as robust, lustful, and strong. Most of them simply use women for sexual pleasure. Henry shows no weakness, even when he is gravely wounded. Very little emotion is expressed through Hemingway’s writing. Instead, it must be inferred by readers. In the novel, the priest is ridiculed and looked down upon for being too soft. On the other hand, Catherine and her friends are often weeping, relying on their men for support. They are shown as much more emotionally unstable, much less complex characters. This can be seen as an extension of Hemingway’s views of the two sexes.
This book is a very successful work of art. Hemingway’s simple, blunt style burns images and feelings into the reader’s mind. As much is conveyed with what is not said as with what is said. His insights on war and on the concepts of love and pain are profound and ring true. For some, parts of the book may be difficult to read. The abuse of alcohol seems almost to be condoned, along with the exploitation of women. Hemingway portrays of men as the dominant, stronger, more complex sex and women as their dependent, simple-minded counterparts. That being said, the book has some very important messages. It is worth reading both to explore the themes of war and the ideas of masculinity and femininity.
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