Ex Libris Online: A Farewell to Arms


Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

  “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” –Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

ex Libris MC (2)Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, described by biographer Michael Reynolds as “the premier American war novel from that debacle World War I,” was his first best-seller and anchored his prominence as a modern American author. It also set the standard for the modern wartime romance novel.

First edition cover, 1929

A Farewell to Arms reads like it is the memoir of Hemingway’s protagonist, Frederic Henry, an American serving as an ambulance driver on the Italian front in World War I. After being severely wounded by mortar fire while bringing food to his men in the trenches, Henry falls in love with the beautiful British nurse Catherine Barkley. After he recovers and returns to the front, some Italian soldiers arbitrarily decided to kill him during a retreat because he speaks Italian with an accent. Henry manages to escape and, at that point feeling no more obligation to the Italian army, flees to Switzerland with Catherine.

Hemingway in uniform. Milan, 1918

Hemingway based the novel out of his own experience of working as an ambulance driver in Italy. He only served for two months, however, as he too was seriously wounded by a mortar fire while taking food to the men on the front line. He said of the event, “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.”

One of the book’s main themes is the difference between people who “realize” and “know,” and those who don’t. In the beginning of the novel, before he is wounded, Henry reflects of the priest, “He had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget. But I did not know that then, although I learned it later.” What “it” is referring to is debated by scholars as either a questioning of faith or as a coming to faith in God, but I would argue it more has to do with specifically a belief or a disbelief in the existence of meaning in life and death.

Ernest Hemingway at his typewriter, 1939

As in much of Hemingway’s fiction, the trope of existentialism is a strong one and reasonably so. Soldiers cynically question the purpose of their sacrifice, and when Henry feels he has finally found meaning in his life, it all unravels again. Rain is the great symbol in the novel of the arbitrary nature of life, life’s inevitable disorder and its ultimate unraveling.

Despite the palpable sense of despair found in A Farewell to Arms, it is yet somehow a very enjoyable read.  The love angle is a charming one, and the book exhibits one of art’s greatest achievements– turning pain into beauty.

Buy this book here.

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