Review: A Farewell to Arms

Book: A Farewell to Arms

Author: Ernest Hemingway

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Recommended for: Anyone who enjoys books with beautiful imagery, endings that make you think, deadpan humor and fans of other Hemingway books (especially For Whom the Bell Tolls).

A Farewell to Arms is a novel by Ernest Hemingway about American expatriate Frederic Henry serving in the Italian army during World War I. As an ambulance driver, Henry witnesses the atrocities of war on the front, but he also meets an English nurse, Ms. Catherine Barkley, and they fall in love. The story alternates between the war and their love story, culminating in an ending which made me question my feelings and thoughts on the entire novel.

I started this book a couple years ago and couldn’t finish it despite Hemingway being one of my favorite authors at the time. Fast forward to September 2019 and it was still sitting on my shelf, so as I packed my bags for my recent trip to Greece and the Cycladic Islands I threw it in. I read a good chunk of this book while drinking Ouzo and taking in the beautiful Greek Islands – which was fitting because the part of this novel I enjoyed the most was the beautiful imagery. From the war torn Italian countryside to the spectacular Swiss Alps, I felt myself immersed in the settings as they were laid out.

Hemingway’s descriptions of the horrors of war and its impact on the minds of those in its midst was well done as well. His writing style perfectly suits this part of the book and reading about Henry’s time at the front was one of the most moving aspects of the novel. He even manages to throw in a bit of humor which I always appreciate. One of my favorite scenes was after Henry was wounded and his friend Rinaldi visits him in the hospital to tell him they are giving him a medal.

“They say if you can prove you did any heroic act you can get the silver. Otherwise it will be the bronze. Tell me exactly what happened. Did you do any heroic act?”

“No,” I said. “I was blown up while eating cheese.”

Hemingway’s deadpan writing style fits perfectly with this type of humor and is one of the reasons I enjoy his novels. I know from experience, though, that deadpan humor is not for everyone.

Most of the characters were very well written. Henry himself writes of war as a journalist – something typical of Hemingway protagonists due to his own experiences writing during various wars. His descriptions of the events were well detailed and helped me put myself in his shoes. Many of the secondary characters were likeable and often times had the best lines of dialogue. Rinaldi and the other ambulance drives were some of my favorites.

Catherine Barkley, on the other hand, was a terribly written character. Her dialogue was unbelievable and often times annoying. Her interactions with Henry usually felt fake and hollow and I was not at all interested in their love story. Never in my life have I heard anyone ask their partner so frequently if they love them. Since this is such a major part of the novel I almost gave this book three stars, but after some reflection I decided this may not be warranted. It is possible that Hemingway wrote Ms. Barkley’s character this way on purpose to reflect how hollow their relationship actually was. I don’t believe Henry ever truly loved her and I think since we are seeing things through his eyes it may have been intentional to show their relationship in such an unbelievable fashion. Maybe that’s true, or maybe I just don’t want to admit that I so strongly disliked a Hemingway classic. Either way, I will stick with my own theory on this one.

The ending, without spoiling it, is pretty well known at this point. We see similar themes crop up in several movies and other forms of pop-culture, but luckily (or maybe not?) for me I did not know how things were going to end for Frederic and Catherine. The ending, which I read on an 11 hour flight back to the states, really shook me emotionally. I suppose that is one of the reasons this book is so well known, but for me it almost broke the rest of the novel. It was only after reflection, which I discussed earlier, that everything came into place for me and I could feel like I was done with A Farewell to Arms.

In all, this book really made me think. There was a lot about it that I loved, but also a number of things that made me stop and question its place as one of Hemingway’s best works. If you enjoy Hemingway, I would recommend giving it a try. The imagery is beautiful and many of the characters are written very well. I think the love story leaves a lot open to interpretation. If you have read this one already, let me know your thoughts below!

“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.”

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