On a whim, I read Ernest Hemingway‘s A Farewell to Arms a few weeks ago. I didn’t know much about it other than it was about some war – World War II, I thought. Before reading it, I was actually getting it confused with the 1996 movie In Love and War, starring Sandra Bullock and Chris O’Donnell. Turns out I was only half wrong. First, A Farewell to Arms is about World War I not World War II, and though it’s not the book version of In Love and War, it is sort of the basis for the movie.
The movie In Love and War is about young Ernest Hemingway’s experiences in the Italian Army, particularly the time he spent in a hospital in Milan, where he met and fell in love with a nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky. While convalescing in a hospital in Milan, Hemingway wrote parts of what would later be A Farewell to Arms, the characters of which were based on real life people he met at the time.
The protagonist of A Farewell to Arms is a young American named Frederic Henry, who joins the Ambulance corps of the Italian Army during World War I. While stationed in a town near the Italian Front, Frederic meets a young nurse, Catherine Barkley, who he later falls in love with. At the Front, Frederic is injured and eventually sent to an American hospital in Milan for treatment. Catherine Barkley gets herself stationed in the hospital Frederic is in to be with and look after him. After a short convalescent period, Frederic returns to the Front only to retreat after the Austrians successfully breaches the Italian lines. As Henry flees, first from the Austrians then later from the Italian Military Police, he seeks out Catherine and finds her in a small town outside Milan.
Though many of the events in A Farewell to Arms did not actually happen to Hemingway during the war, he is clearly the novel’s protagonist, Frederic Henry, and does share some of his experiences. Agnes von Kurowsky, the nurse who Hemingway fell in love with at Milan, was the inspiration for Catherine Barkley. Many of Frederic’s friends in the novel are also based on real people that Hemingway met during the war or in the hospital in Milan. In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway describes the many terrible realities of war, pain, and suffering experienced not only by the soldiers and civilians but also by the entire nation. Owing to the harsh realities of war and defeat, Frederic transforms from a relatively carefree young man at the beginning of the novel to a hardened, cynical soldier, bitter and betrayed, at the end of the story. However, though the novel is mainly about the war, it also portrays the strong bonds of friendship and camaraderie between soldiers and the possibility of finding love during times of adversity.
I had mixed feelings about this novel. The novel, which was told from the perspective of Frederic Henry, is mostly about him hanging out and drinking while waiting for something to happen. I’d be lying if I said I absolutely loved this book and did not find it boring at all. There were long stretches in the novel that were boring, where nothing happened, then something interesting would happen to make it exciting only to return to being boring again. Many of the chapters or events didn’t lead up to anything, and it felt like Hemingway wrote them just for the sake of writing. However, despite being a relatively boring book, it’s also strangely compelling, and I was drawn to the novel’s short, sometimes awkward narrative in spite of myself. On a side note, I brought this novel with me on vacation in the middle of nowhere, so I was sort of forced to read it. Still, I found it strangely captivating – Hemingway’s style of writing and Frederic’s fascinating yet tragic life.
On another slightly unrelated side note, I finished this novel right after I watched Episode 5 of Season 6 of Game of Thrones – the infamous episode titled “The Door.” The episode was so sad that I hardly felt anything after reading the last lines of A Farewell to Arms. I felt bad that I wasn’t as sad as I should have been. Thanks, GRRM, you always ruin everything!
A Farewell to Arms (1929) – Ernest Hemingway
Penguin; 256 pages (tpb)
Personal rating: 3/5