“A magnificent and tender tale of love and war on the Italian Front in World War I, this novel is among the most enduring works of fiction produced in this century.” Printed on the back cover of a 1969 version of Charles Scribner’s Sons’ copy, this is the first sentence I noticed when I got the book A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. When I finished the novel a few weeks later, I had a mix feeling. It is indubitable that A Farewell to Arms is a very fine book about war. Comparing to the other two war books I have read recently, The Red Badge of Courage and Slaughterhouse-Five, Hemingway’s work is definitely my personal favorite. But a magnificent and tender tale of love? Not so much. As much touching as Frederic Henry and Catharine Barkley’s love story should be, Hemingway’s language somehow just fails to make me emotionally affected by the romance.
To begin with the good part, Hemingway cleverly takes us to the Italian front through the unique lens of an ambulance driver and reveals the cruelty of the war perfectly. He does not even have to directly delineate the warfare that much – there are only a handful of times that a gun is fired – yet the message is conveyed clearly through the chaos that Henry went through. Most of the soldiers in this novel do not have the rectitude soldiers are expected to have. They escape, they fear, they want to go home, they are just like us. Bonello, a soldier who is finding the way to Udine with Henry and Piani “[goes] away” (Hemingway 217) under the great fear of uncertainty. He rather becomes a “prisoner” (217) of the Austrians than a prisoner of terror. He does not have any faith. He cares less about his comrades and countrymen. What he does have, is human instinct, the instinct to survive. After all, this would be the natural choice for most people. But just because he is wearing an army uniform, fleeing becomes the most pusillanimous thing he can possibly do. After seeing all the heroic moments of soldiers in movies and books repeatedly, we seem to neglect the fact that they are humans first, and warriors second. Undoubtedly, we love heroes, and we need them. They sacrifice their own interests to protect what we believe in. That is why they are called heroes. But is it fair to expect everyone who are enlisted to have the same courage? I do not think so. Neither does Henry. After hearing the news, Henry has little reactions, “did not say anything” (217), and keeps on preparing the meal. Fully understanding Bonello’s thoughts, he promises not to “make a report that will make trouble for [Bonello’s] family” (219). Evidently, the fear is shared among all soldiers. It just happens that Henry has not fled, yet. Just like a soldier says, “everybody is going home” (219). Oh, no, everybody wants to go home, but many, if not most, of them, like Aymo, will die before they ever see their loved ones again. Instead of being shot by German enemies, Aymo is killed by two Italian bullets. As they are retreating, the Italian force is “in more danger from Italians than Germans” (214). When Aymo is dying, Henry, Bonello, and Piani only “[lay] his head down, [wipe] at his face” (213) and soon “let it alone” (213) after he dies without any outpouring of emotions, even though Henry “[has] liked him as well as any one [he] ever [knows]” (214). They do not have any histrionic reaction to a friend’s death not because they are monsters, but because this is their daily life. Hundreds of thousands of people die in a war every day. The survivors of one day just try to live through the next day without being shot. This is set in 1918, the Great War is toward its end, but everything under Hemingway’s pen is different to the way it is supposed to be. Soldiers are terrified, non-responsive to death and shooting at their allies. But this is what the reality is, the reality behind the victories that is being taught in a history class. I like how Hemingway largely avoids depicting the bloody fighting scene, but approaches the war through another perspective. Kurt Vonnegut takes a similar path in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five by not focusing on the bombing of Dresden, but on the effects the war has on Billy after he returns. However, I prefer A Farewell to Arms to Slaughterhouse-Five because it allows me to develop a stronger feeling by setting all the scenes in the war front, instead of altering between Dresden, Wisconsin, and the fictional planet of Tralfamadore.
While Hemingway’s powerful but simple language fits perfectly with the cruelty of warfare, it does not go very well with romance, at least not until the last chapter of the novel, when Catharine dies while giving birth to their baby. To be fair, even at that point, I was not moved by the love between Henry and Ms. Barkley. Rather, it was the love, the instinct, and the grand spirit of all mothers that had impressed me. Hemingway is able to create this magnificent love tragedy in the war. The plot of the love story has all the elements it needs to be a touching one and I did like the story itself. But on the other hand, I was not moved by the couple because the emotions did not get pass through the words on the book pages. When Henry and Ms. Barley are together, they tend to have prolonged conversation that are dull. They do express their affections by saying “darling” (152) and “oh you are a lovely girl” (154) repeatedly, and say they love each together in different ways, but all in straightforward languages. Oftentimes, these conversations last pages and do not really contribute to the plot of the story. Indeed, this might reflect the reality of many loving couples’ lives, but it just seems disappointing in a romantic literature, especially when it is supposed to be a “magnificent and tender tale of love” by the great Ernest Hemingway. When the pair are separated, they show their love by thinking about each other. Theoretically, this gives Hemingway ample space to capture the changes in their thoughts in order to make the story more romantic and touching. But he fails short in most cases. For instance, when Henry tries to rest himself after he survives the rapid flow of the river, he thinks about Catherine. He thinks “only about her a little” (231) and imagines “lying with Catherine on the floor of the car” (231). Then as I was expecting more, the thought about Catherine abruptly ends shortly after it starts. And about a page later, he goes back to think about “eat and drink and sleep with Catharine” (233), then decides to live with Catharine far away from the war front. I get that they love each other profoundly and are willing to do everything for each other, but the writing here, and other places describing their love, just seems too plain and not affectionate. I expect the writing of a “magnificent and tender” love to be similar to the ones in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Wharton’s sumptuous lines catches every motion, tiny wave in emotion, as well as detail of conversation of the characters. Writing like that lead romantic feelings from the author’s pen to readers’ hearts. Unfortunately, Hemingway’s writing in this book does not do that.
Notwithstanding coming short on the exquisite depictions of Henry and Ms. Barkley’s love, A Farewell to Arms is still a book worth reading. Hemingway’s unique perspective through an ambulance driver is exceptional. His powerful language brings the brutality directly in front of us. But perhaps because of his writing style in this novel, the expression of love is always reserved and not satisfying. Love is not complicated. It is not something to be delineated in the simple language that is used by Hemingway.