We were having some trouble with our Internet connection this morning. Since it looked like it was going to be a long-standing issue, perhaps even stretching into the beginning of the week (quelle horreur!), I decided to try to finish A Farewell to Arms. I am teaching it for the first time starting next week, and I wanted to be ready. I have not read a lot of Hemingway’s novels. I have never read The Old Man and the Sea or For Whom the Bell Tolls, but I have read and loved The Sun Also Rises. I have read and loved many of his short stories.
If you haven’t read A Farewell to Arms, parts of this review are really spoilery. I had the end spoiled for me long ago, and it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book one whit, but if your mileage varies on that score, then consider yourself forewarned.
A Farewell to Arms is the story of Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an ambulance driver in the Italian army, who is wounded and falls in love with his nurse, Catherine Barkley. When they first meet, he is interested in her, but it is during the quiet nights of his convalescence when they are as alone as two people can be in that situation that they truly fall in love. At its bottom, this novel is a terrific love story. Catherine becomes pregnant, and they don’t seem to be able to decide what to do; though they feel married, they do not formalize their union officially. Henry is called away to the front again and is caught up in the midst of a chaotic retreat in which some of his friends lose their lives. Beginning to fear for his own and desperate to return to Catherine, he deserts the army, making his famous “separate peace,” and finds Catherine. They flee to Switzerland and have a wonderful life together until Catherine and their baby die during childbirth.
I love his writing style. He has a way of using the simplest language and structures to evoke the most profound emotions. In a simple passage toward the end of this novel, for instance, when Frederic Henry is bargaining with God for Catherine’s life, he uses the simplest, most eloquent, but most plaintive language:
Everything was gone inside of me. I did not think. I could not think. I knew she was going to die and I prayed that she would not. Don’t let her die. Oh, God, please don’t let her die. I’ll do anything for you if you won’t let her die. Please, please please, dear God, don’t let her die. Dear God, don’t let her die. Please, please, please don’t let her die. God please make her not die. I’ll do anything you say if you don’t let her die. You took the baby but don’t let her die. That was all right but don’t let her die. Please, please, dear God, don’t let her die (Chapter 41).
I can’t think of simpler language to use, and it is what any of us would say or think in the exact same circumstances, but here in this book, it becomes poetic. It’s the poetry of the everyday. He’s a master at it. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway’s friend and sometimes writing adviser, said that this passage was one of the most beautiful in the English language:
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.
Matthew Bruccoli, a Fitzerald scholar, noted that Hemingway wrote that when he was 29. At 29, and he has figured out the meaning of life.
As always, Hemingway knows what he’s talking about, and all the details ring true. I can believe he knows all about the Italian front, guns, everything. Nothing seems off. I know some criticize the portrayal of Catherine as submissive. I didn’t see her that way. I saw her as vulnerable and unsure of herself. She was in a new relationship, one of the most powerful, if not the single most powerful love she had felt. It’s scary. And then she becomes pregnant. What will happen? Will he stay? What if he doesn’t? I can see where she is coming from. It’s a very real place, and her desire to please Henry so he will stay is recognizable.
Even though I knew the book ended with Catherine’s death, I was surprised by how sad I felt after reading it. Perhaps it’s the stoic way Henry walks out of the hospital to the hotel in the rain, but I just felt so sad, and I really cried. Steve was worried I was so upset, and given I knew the ending, I can’t explain why I wasn’t more ready for it.
I’m happy to have a new book to put on my list of favorites. I have no difficulty understanding why this book holds the position it has in our literary canon.