Classics

A Farewell to Arms

by: Ernest Hemmingway

Af you read my last post, you knew this one was coming.  Hemmingway is, of course, a classic American author and I am just now starting to truly appreciate him.  A Farewell to Arms is the third novel of his I’ve read, after For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.  

I think I liked this one better than the last two.  I think.  I just finished reading it about an hour ago and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it.  (As with all reviews of classics, this is probably going to include spoilers.)

This is Hemmingway’s great romance novel, of course, featuring the young and – impulsive, perhaps? – Lieutenant Henry and his beautiful lover, nurse Catherine.  They meet during Lt. Henry’s service in the Italian army during World War I.  He’s American, but he was in Italy when the war broke out and joined the service – for the hell of it? Because war is a rite of passage? I’m not really sure; he seems to know but it’s never clearly explained in the novel. Catherine is a UK citizen and I never picked up on the reason why she’s in Italy.

One of the interesting things about the relationship is that it almost seems borderline abusive.  Not that it’s physically abusive or even turbulent.  It’s on quite an even keel, honestly.  But Catherine wants to subsume herself into Henry, and in her quest to do so, starts demonstrating several of the warning signs of an abuser.  She dislikes all of his friends and pressures (asks?) him to spend less time with them; she takes steps to isolate him and plays into an “us against the world” mentality; she, at the end, exerts considerable pressure on him, comparatively, to change his appearance.  I can’t bring myself to describe her as abusive – I’m not sure that it qualifies – but I was surprised to see how quickly the warning signs built up as a I read along.  Catherine did seem a little bit emotionally manipulative to me, though I’m open to other interpretations of her behavior.

Anyway, most of my reading of the novel was fairly heavily colored by that observation.  I’m still not sure what to make of it and how it fits into my interpretation of the novel, though.  They are so consumed with each other and the relationship. I think that culturally, I would expect such a relationship to be full of ups and downs, a constant cycle of fights and make-up sex but that’s not it at all.   Set against the backdrop of warfare and horrific fighting, it is placid, calm, and constant.  They never disagree and Catherine wants only for Henry to be happy.  I can’t argue that such a relationship is healthy; I could, however, argue that it is understandable given the circumstances.

Catherine at first seemed rather ordinary – a little insecure, a little torn up by life, but pleasant and intelligent enough.  But she becomes more and more interesting as the novel goes on and by the end I didn’t know what to make of her.  Is she an unfortunate, loving woman who is only abnormal because of the time period in which she was born? Or is she someone quite different from whom Lt. Henry sees her to be?  Relatively little information is given about her; Henry is in love with her present self and shares little about her past.  Their future exists only in terms of the war; no thoughts are shared on how to live life together beyond the most pressing needs.  I can’t tell if Henry loves her or an idea of her that she buys into in order to keep his love.  Certainly, she thinks he loves her because of how she presents to him rather  than who she actually is.  But I can’t determine enough about her to say if that’s true or not.

Henry is a whole ‘nother story.  He is almost a prototypical member of the Lost Generation, I think: running off to Europe, joining an army, and becoming disillusioned with war and life in general. He has moments of clarity and is honest with himself about who he is; at least, for those parts of himself that he chooses to self-examine.  He is exceptionally likable as a narrator.  There’s no pretension in him and his sharp observation of characters, easily conveyed in few words, is quite enjoyable. (Though I suppose that’s more Hemmingway than Henry.)  His love for Catherine springs from a vulnerable moment, now that I think about it – another trait common to abusive relationships.  He’s sympathetic but nothing he does is ever particularly brave or particularly cowardly.  It’s quite understandable.  In fact, much of who he is becomes defined by his relationship.  Hmm.

Well, 800 words later and I’m still not sure what I think of this novel.  I think anyone interested in Hemmingway, WWI, or the Lost Generation should definitely give it a chance! You might want to give it a pass if you like flowery styles, even in the smallest amounts, happy endings, or a focus on the emotional process, though.

Comments are especially encouraged here, guys!  I’d really love to hear how others read this novel!

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