Review: A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway

Never having read A Farewell to Arms before, I was interested to see this new edition, with its cover replicating the first edition published in 1929. I wondered how the book would stand up to the passage of time and whether it would, like so many other books of that era, just seem rather dated.  However, I was glad to find myself enjoying reading it and mildly pleased to have read another landmark book from the last century.

I know very little about Ernest Hemingway but discovered from Wikipedia that when he was 18 years old, the Red Cross came to Kansas City to recruit volunteers for the ambulance service.  Hemingway responded to the call and found himself serving in the Italian Front, where the Italians were facing up to the armies of Austria and Germany.  He found himself in some treacherous situations, being severely wounded in his legs.  He also received the Italian Medal for bravery carrying an Italian soldier to safety.

The war shaped Hemingway’s outlook and like so many veterans of the war he lost faith in the institutions of government and society.  As a writer he adopted a modernist style free of elaborate prose, favouring a direct style with pithy dialogue, understatement and straightforward descriptions.

As I read A Farewell to Arms I was struck by how fresh it still seemed.  As a first person account, the narrator Henry shares his story with the reader as it happens.  The writing is sparse, without sentiment or emotion and I could easily imagine that I was in the presence of a battle-hardened ambulance driver who saw terrible things every day but didn’t think it worth talking about them.

Ernest Hemingway in 1918 (from Wikipedia)

We read discussions between the men about visits to bars and brothels, their complaints about the food and their sharing of  rumours about the battles on the Front.  Henry meets an attractive Scottish nurse called Catherine Barkley.  He calls on her at the nurses’ home, managing to sit with her in the garden and get to know her.  He pursues her over the next few days, as his duties allow, and they form a relationship which becomes the backdrop to the other events in the book.

Henry has periods of active service, and, like the author, is badly wounded in the legs. He is sent to hospital in Milan where he slowly recovers, wondering what happened to Catherine.  She eventually comes to the hospital and their relationship continues.

By this time they are deeply in love, and the only elements of the book which seemed to have dated slightly are the rather over-romantic conversations between the two lovers, which sounded to me a little like the dialogue from a 1930s film script.

The next section of the book contains plenty of drama when Henry returns to active service and gets embroiled in a major Italian defeat. He joins the great retreat from the front and is nearly shot for being part of the defeated army, but manages to escape by jumping into a river and allowing it to carry him far out of danger.

Reunited with Catherine, now three months pregnant, they stay in a beautiful lakeside hotel. Henry is now classed as a deserter and the couple escape from Italy by taking a long journey by row-boat up the lake and across the border into Switzerland where there American and British passports guarantee them temporary residence status.

The first edition of A Farewell to Arms

The book has a sad ending which seemed to me to be in keeping with the rest of the novel, which has a slight air of impending doom about it throughout.  We read that Hemingway struggled with the ending of the book so much that he wrote 39 different endings and this edition publishes them together for the first time.  I have to say, I didn’t spend much time with these as there seemed little point in reading them, but no doubt they will be of interest to Hemingway students.

The atmosphere of defeat lies over the Italian side from the start of the book and we sense that it was only a matter of time before the Austro/German side prevailed.  Hemingway’s character Henry seems world-weary beyond his years, as illustrated by his statement;

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in 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”.

All through the book it seemed difficult to understand what an American was doing in Italy in that chaotic period but only a few years later, many more people from Britain and America were to go take up arms in the Spanish Civil War, resulting in many more books such as George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

As well as the alternative endings, this edition contains photo-facsimiles of Hemingway’s manuscript with many crossings-out and corrections.  As you can see from the illustrations in this article, the cover is a lovely reproduction of the first edition and will sit well on any bookshelf – this is definitely not a book to be bought in ebook format as you would lose too much of the production itself.

13 comments to Review: A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway

  • Brian Joseph

    Though I have read most of his short stories, as well as “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, I have not read this one yet. For “Whom the Bell Tolls”, also about an American fighting in a foreign war also had a sense of impending doom and wariness about it.

    The passage you quoted was deeply moving and disturbingly has as least some semblance of truth to it.

  • tonymalone

    Read this a long time ago, but I remember liking it – and thinking that the ending was very bleak and abrupt. Hemingway is one of those writers that I’ve never quite got around to trying more of (but then, I don’t exactly seek out American lit at the best of times…).

  • Tom

    Tony – I’m not a great one for American Lit but there is quite a bit which is significant like Hemingway, Steinbeck, James, I suppose. Yes, the ending is abrupt but at least with 38 alternatives in this volume you could pick and choose!

  • Tom

    Hi Brian – thanks for visiting. Its a good quote isn’t it – I marked it for myself as I read the book and then found it was the “major” quotation from the whole book. I must look at For Whom the Bell Tolls i.d.c.

  • JoV

    I always see this in the library but for some reason I didn’t like Hemingway’s writing as I would with George Orwell. Between the two, I prefer the latter. Great review!

  • Tony – I’m not a great one for American Lit but there is quite a bit which is significant like Hemingway, Steinbeck, James, I suppose. Yes, the ending is abrupt but at least with 38 alternatives in this volume you could pick and choose!

  • Hi Brian – thanks for visiting. Its a good quote isn’t it – I marked it for myself as I read the book and then found it was the “major” quotation from the whole book. I must look at For Whom the Bell Tolls i.d.c.

  • stu

    like Tony I read this a long time ago ,but when heard about the mutiple ending edition I thought I love the se how he worked the different endings ,He is a writer that seemed to like living partly what he wrote .

  • kevinfromcanada

    I read a lot of Hemmingway as a youth (which means I must have been somewhat impressed) but found a few years back that I didn’t remember any (except for those made into movies that struck a chord). So I bought a number and dived back in. Alas after only two (this one and The Sun Also Rises) I found I had had enough — Papa just wasn’t landing the way he did some decades earlier.

  • Hi Stu, yes, it mirrors his life experience – Hemingway was one of those writers who went out to get experiences before he wrote about them.

  • Hi Kevin – thanks for visiting. I don’t think I’d have read this unless a new edition had come out. It just makes you think of all the other thousands of last century classics which are now fast fading from view until someone revives them. I think Graham Greene will eventually be re-published for a new generation

  • Susanna

    In recent wars, Americans have rushed in to rescue, became disillusioned, sulked home and then wrote about the horrors of war. This American finds most of the war writing quite good. Do try “The Long Half Time Walk of Billy Lynn,” (war and football, two of our favorites), “Fobbit” takes place in Iraq, reminiscent of “Catch-22 in humor and sarcasm, Tim O’Brien’s “Going After Cacciato” and “The Things They Carried,” the latter feels quite close to Hemingway.

  • Susanna – thanks for the reading hints. I’ve not heard of any of those but will look them up

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