A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Penguin Books, 1963
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 no special hurry.
I literally knew nothing about this story except the title, but I had read one Hemingway story previously (The Old Man and the Sea) and loved it so knew I couldn’t go too far wrong. I didn’t even read the blurb before I began, so to start I didn’t realise the narrator, Frederic Henry, is an American ambulance driver in the Italian army during World War I. (During the opening paragraphs I thought it might be a child in a civilian family, whose house might be in the war zone!)
Henry is coolly detached from everyone and everything around him, including from the horrors of the war. He is close with his roommate Rinaldi, a surgeon and befriends the young priest, although this almost seems to be out of a sense of pity more than anything else, as the priest receives much taunting from the soldiers.
Henry returns from leave and Rinaldi tells him he is in love with Catherine Barkley, an English nurse. Henry reluctantly accompanies Rinaldi to meet her, ‘to make me a good impression on her’. It quickly becomes apparent that there is a strong chemistry between Henry and Catherine, which Rinaldi soon notices and gallantly steps aside.
They develop a romance, but it’s all based on a game of pretend, which Catherine acknowledges from the outset. Henry is injured and sent to Milan to recuperate, where Catherine also ends up. There romance develops further, and no longer seems to be pretend. Henry is the narrator, but I was still questioning his true feelings for Catherine for most of the novel. I was sure it must still be pretend on his part, despite his declarations of love. But it becomes clearer over time that it’s not.
The character of Catherine is … confusing. On one hand she seems a very strong, capable woman, under no illusions about the reality of the situation. But at other times she was so submissive and cloying it really grated on me. Ultimately I did like her character but I had to overlook certain things.
Catherine falls pregnant and Henry is sent back to the front. Things go abysmally for the Italians and in the chaos of retreat, Henry ends up being forced to desert. He makes his way back to Catherine and they escape to Switzerland. They have an idyllic few months in a mountain cabin, before moving to Lausanne, where the book has one of the saddest endings I’ve read in a long time.
Throughout the novel, Henry transforms from being coolly detached, to openly derisive of the war. The death and destruction affect him much more after he falls in love with Catherine, and he can see no sense in the claims of the ‘glory and honour’ that war brings. The descriptions Henry gives of Catherine lying in bed and brushing her hair convey the depth of his feelings for her and are in marked contrast to the horrors of the war.
I really loved this novel, despite weaknesses in Catherine’s character. Hemingway’s prose style is fantastic, he deftly conveys a mood and emotion through often quite sparse language, which is quite a feat.