A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway is a timeless tale centered on a young couple whose love and innocence are destroyed by World War I. Through a concise yet poignant writing style, Hemingway captures the conflicted feelings of loss and hope that haunt the characters. Through these characters he examines fundamental elements of the human experience, such as death and love. Ultimately, the novel demonstrates the harsh reality of life in a war torn world: nothing good or pure can last forever.
Hemingway effectively creates an emotionally impactful story with relatively few words. Instead, he leaves it open to interpretation. Omitting lengthy descriptions creates a story focused on action, and makes it more engaging and realistic. Through hints in tone and dialogue he allows each reader to assign their own meaning based on their personal experiences and beliefs. The mental image created in the reader’s mind is more plausible than it would be if they had to conform their thinking to the author’s perspective.
Throughout the story, the characters are developed as distinct and complex individuals. Hemingway portrays each in a relatable manner. They are not idealistic or heroic figures; rather they are deeply flawed individuals, damaged by the war. The majority exhibit a crippling sense of loneliness, and a loss of purpose in life. Instead of facing their issues, they turn to the numbing effects of alcohol and fill their time with meaningless tasks. These feelings are reflective of Hemingway’s own experiences at the close of World War I, as a member of the “lost generation”.
No character in the novel is more emotionally damaged than the protagonist, Frederic Henry. Henry is an American volunteer ambulance driver on the Italian front. Throughout the novel he displays an indifference to the outcome of the war and appears detached and stoic when describing his experiences on the front. The war has given him a cynical view of the world. He claims “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.” (169) This rejection of important wartime values shows his overall distaste for the war itself.
As the novel progresses, Henry begins to establish a purpose for his existence: a beautiful English nurse named Catherine Barkley. The two establish a deep bond. Their connection grows so strong that by the end of the novel they feel as though they “don’t live at all” (270) when they are not together. However they are consistently forced apart by the war, and are only able to share a few peaceful moments. The subtle imperfections of their relationship make it seem more real and attainable. Hemingway purposefully creates a relationship that readers can relate to; it is a genuine love that is not immune to the realities of war.
Although the novel was set nearly one hundred years ago, the themes and central ideas it addresses are timeless. A Farewell to Arms demonstrates the destructive power of war and the emotional decay it has on all those involved. Many of the characters undergo drastic physical and emotional changes. Perhaps the most striking example is the transformation of Rinaldi. At the beginning of the novel he was a mischievous and jovial man, however by the end he has grown thin and fatigued. His once optimistic outlook has been replaced by a dark and dreary attitude. He proposes that “We never get anything. We are born with all we have and we never learn. We never get anything new.” (157) This assertion suggests that he has adopted a cynical view of humanity. He believes that there is no room for growth or change, and sees no end to the long, exhausting war.
Another central theme in the novel is the emphasis on the brevity of life and the idea that nothing good can last forever. Throughout the story, Henry is plagued by the demands and sacrifices of war. The only moments when he feels truly blissful are those that he spends with Catherine. His love for her gives him strength to make it through the endless war. Paradoxically, if lost, his love is the only thing that could destroy him. In an attempt to preserve his happiness and peace, Henry runs off to Switzerland with Catherine. Despite their escape from Italy and the war, they are unable to avoid misfortune. The concept that good things can’t last is a harsh, universal truth. Henry highlights this concept in the quote, “The world breaks everyone 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.” (226) He suggests that attempts to preserve pure and happy moments are futile; time marches on, and eventually it will take the happy moments with it.
In conclusion, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway is a beautifully written and incredibly moving novel. The tragic story is told in a harshly realistic fashion. By stripping the novel of unnecessary details, the reader is able to focus on the gripping plot, complex characters, and timeless themes. Although it is set in a very different era, the issues examined are still applicable in society today. The novel is unlike any other war story ever written, and is sure to have a lasting impact on the reader long after they finish the final page.
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Reader in Cottage Grove, January 2, 2010 (view all comments by Reader in Cottage Grove)
The storyline, subjects, and characters are unforgettable. My favorite thing about Hemingway is how he writes about eating and drinking. Vermouth for breakfast! I was hesitant to read this because I thought that it would be all about war and other manly actions; it is all about war but it is not a guy book, it is a human book. I love it with tears in my eyes.
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Fred Lippert, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by Fred Lippert)
A Hemingway classic that rewards those who revisit its intriguing love story wrapped in a nuanced accounting of how those who fight must grapple with physical and mental horrors of World War One.
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nurse, the front, europe, the sun also rises, italy, WWI, novel, catherine barkley, frederic henry, rinaldi, cl
assic, american novel, ambulance corp, george peele, expat, lost generation, in love and war
Scribner Book Company -
The best American novel to emerge from World War I, A Farewell to Arms is the unforgettable story of an American ambulance driver on the Italian front and his passion for a beautiful English nurse.
By turns romantic and harshly realistic, Hemingway's story of a tragic romance set against the brutality and confusion of World War I cemented his fame as a stylist and as a writer of extraordinary literary power. A volunteer ambulance driver and a beautiful English nurse fall in love when he is wounded on the Italian front.
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