‘A Farewell To Arms’, Hemingway’s most unsung work?

‘A Farewell to Arms’ has established Ernest Hemingway’s stature as one of America’s most prominent writers,yet it is often disregarded whenever Hemingway is being lionized; people would rather talk about ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ or ‘The Sun Also Rises’,for ‘A Farewell To Arms’ revolves around a gloomy subject and consequently,tends to be dull at times.In fact it is all the more so because Hemingway’s writing style is of a baffling simplicity.

However ‘A Farewell To Arms’ remains a work of compelling beauty,although it should be read with an astute mind.Indeed,if you want to grasp its real beauty, you’ll have to see through the veil of simplicity that shrouds the storyline.That being said,let us get into the heart of things.

To begin with, the protagonist,Frederic Henry, is a lieutenant who fares better than his inferior counterparts,for he doesn’t often risk his life on the battlefield,is never subject to starvation and enjoys fine wine and ‘fine’ women. In other words, Hemingway wants to break the stereotypes of war whilst still moving his story around the detrimental effects of warfare. In fact, Henry’s military life is a far cry from that of our typical soldier,who we often see carrying guns and risking his life on land mines, yet Henry’s story is more poignant for it is more realistic: his pain and woes are new and unexpected,hence touching us deeply in the core of our heart. Herein lies the beauty of ‘A Farewell To Arms’.

At times,war seems to be a monster that kills the ill-fated,while tormenting the fortunate.At times, you wonder if soldiers are not better off dead than tormented. In ‘A Farewell To Arms’, the men are tough and seem to have lost part of their souls. Henry,for example, initially, only thought about having sex with Catherine. Likewise,Rinaldi engages in numerous sexual intercourses in brothels and in the end,fears he has caught syphilis.Although their urges for sex and their view of  women as mere sexual satisfiers logically emanate from sexual starvation, it is sad that these men’s morals are obliterated for the sake of mental fitness,which war hawks believe, will only result if the men’s sexuality is regulated.

Already simplistic throughout the novel, Hemingway is even more taciturn on the subject of death. Indeed, the protagonist is indifferent to death:after doing his best to save Passini’s life, he sees that the man has died and surprisingly, doesn’t feel anything. As a result of seeing a great number of comrades falling on the battlefield,soldiers,we may infer, have come to a crude conclusion about death: only the living counts,and mourning the dead is utterly futile.Shortly after the death of Passini, Hemingway makes sure that we get an insight of how death is viewed on the battlefield through the conversation between Henry and Maneira: ”There are three others.One is dead.”, ”Passini is dead.”, ”Yes,he’s dead.” Similarly, the death of Aymo in the latter part of the novel is dealt with the same coldness,despite the fact that Henry liked him very much: ”He looked very dead.It was raining.I had liked him as well as anyone I ever knew. I had his papers in my pocket and would write to his family.” Ultimately, it is highly probable that it is such a crude perception of death that prevents Henry from mourning the death of Catherine. Though he knows that Catherine is about to die, he is completely dejected,but after her death, he is unable to mourn or to harbour any funereal feeling. His inability to mourn is made clear in the final lines of the book,when he bids farewell to the dead Catherine: ”It was like saying goodbye to a statue.After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” With the unexpected death of Catherine, to whom we have become increasingly attached,and Henry’s inability to express his feelings, Hemingway has managed to evoke an unbelievable amount of pathos,for we would have so loved to see things being otherwise. Besides, I personally think that the book wouldn’t be as great as it is now,had Hemingway altered his ending.

As stated above, “A Farewell to Arms” is not your typical war novel filled with clichés and stereotypes. Thus, unsurprisingly, there is no loyalty or acts of comradeship in the book. Far from being selfless heroes, the characters seem only to care for themselves,and rightly so,given they are sure to get killed if they look to save their comrades at all costs. By the end of the novel, Bonello decides to abandon Henry and Piani for fear of being killed whilst trying to cross the border. Even when Henry is  later separated from Piani, he does not bother thinking about his friend.As for Rinaldi, Henry’s best friend, he does come to the mind of Henry,for the latter cannot help remembering him.However, he is quick to dispel the thoughts of his best friend,who sadly is representative of his life at war, a period which he strives to forget: ”Well, I would never see him now.I would never see any of them now, That life was over.”  Having himself served on the battlefield, Hemingway conveys a clear message here: brothers of war exist but in movies.

It is right to see ‘A Farewell to Arms’ as a ”semi-war” and semi-romantic novel. The first half of the novel deals with Henry’s disgust with war and his desire to flee from the desolate setting of  Italy,in order to reach Catherine. Eventually, after getting involved in dire situations,he succeeds in doing so,and we,readers, are satisfied with the ending.In the second half of the novel, Hemingway takes much time to depict the idyllic relationship between Henry and Catherine. It seems to us that our protagonist has finally obtained the life he has been wishing for,and war is seldom mentioned in this part of the novel.However, the deaths of Catherine and the baby are both sudden and unexpected, and deep pathos is evoked. For all our dissatisfaction with the ending, there couldn’t be a better way to end the novel. Had Hemingway let Catherine and the baby live,the novel would have been plain,and at no time would he have touched us. In fact, the contrast between the two parts is baffling: at the end of the first part, Henry experiences the paroxysms of hope, yet at the end of the second part, he experiences the paroxysms of sadness and despair.Such dichotomy ultimately drives us to the title of the novel which is itself ambivalent. As ‘A Farewell to Arms’ suggests, Henry bids farewell to the arms of war as well as to the arms of Catherine.Despite the ambivalence of the title, the novel is more bitter than sweet,for Catherine’s untimely death overshadows Henry’s successful escape from war: he was supposed to leave the battlefield for Catherine’s love,not for the sight of her corpse.

One may conclude that the subliminal messages that fill ‘A Farewell to Arms’ make it an exceptional piece of art,especially because they are so hard to unveil,given Hemingway’s simplistic style. In so little a book, he has managed to convey the immoralities that war spawns, subtly divide his novel in two parts, ensure the omnipresence of various dichotomies, and evoke deep satisfaction as well as deep pathos. No wonder this succinct style of Hemingway’s has yet to be equalled to-day.


6 thoughts on “‘A Farewell To Arms’, Hemingway’s most unsung work?”

  1. Yes. And a good point about the title. I think a lot of readers don’t make the mental connection between the farewells until the end, and by then it’s too late for some of them; they’ve already dismissed the novel as disconnected.

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