Thursday, January 05, 2012

“A Farewell To Arms” – Book Review




During my recent vacation, I finally had a chance to read Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel, “A Farewell To Arms”.



When Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver in the Italian army during World War I, is injured after a trench mortar explodes near him, he is sent to a hospital in Milan for treatment and recuperation.  While there, he falls in love with Catherine Barkley, a British nurse.  During their courtship, she becomes pregnant, but he is returned to the front lines, where he eventually becomes a deserter in order to return to her.  Together, they flee to Switzerland where they live a modest but nevertheless fun life while waiting for her to go into labor. 


Hemingway wrote this semi-autobiographical novel at the age of 30, several years after “The Sun Also Rises”.  Although the main character of Lt. Henry seems to be about this age, Hemingway himself was still a teenager at the time he was an army ambulance driver in Italy during WWI where he was similarly injured.  The story parallels the romance he himself had with the nurse who cared for him during his recuperation, the main difference being that it was never fully realized as it was in the novel. 

With the story of war as a backdrop against the love story, it is no wonder that this novel was made into a movie twice --once starring Gary Cooper in the 1930’s, then again in the 1950’s starring (wait for it) Rock Hudson!  While I wished I had more knowledge about World War I prior to reading “A Farewell To Arms” – from a historic, political and military perspective – it was reassuring to learn that some research on the Internet following my reading filled in a considerable amount of gaps in my understanding. 

The puzzle I find myself constantly trying to solve with Hemingway’s writing is what is either implied or unsaid or only vaguely alluded to in either the narrative or dialog.  As a result, it may take somewhat longer for me to read because I sometimes feel as though I’ve missed something and must go back to re-read certain passages just to make sure. 

Structurally, the book contains a total of 41 chapters within five sections or “Books”.  Book I contains Chapters 1-12; Book II has Chapters 13-24; Book III Chapters 25-32; Book IV, Chapters 33-37 and Book V with Chapters 38-41. 

As far as the characters are concerned, I couldn’t help but think that Miss Van Campen was the inspiration for Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.  The Dr. Rinaldi character seems to be some rather welcome comic relief in the appearances he makes at various points along the way.  To some degree, I suppose you could argue that the young priest is, too, yet somehow seems more of a pathetic victim than anything else. 

Although I felt that the last part of the book was a bit drawn out, the final chapter was stirring and Henry’s musings on death insightful.  He was not religious, yet he couldn’t help but thinking that in his situation with Catherine, he was being punished for desertion.  Likewise, was she being punished for breaking the rules where she worked?  And what was the baby being punished for?  For all of the baiting done to the priest, might he have wound up being of some comfort to Henry in this time of need? 

For me, the best passage in the book came in Chapter 39, where Henry considers how life kills you:

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 be no special hurry. 

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