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A review of the story of a farewell to arms

I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.

In which I read a hundred so-called "classics" for the first time, then write reports on whether or not they deserve the label Book 17: Published in the late 1920s, right when Modernism was first starting to become a commercially successful form of the arts, A Farewell to Arms is Ernest Hemingway's wry and cynical look at World War I, the event that most defined not only his generation but also the beginning of the Modernist movement.

Semi-autobiographical in nature, the book tells the story of Frederic Henry, known to most as "Tenente" Italian slang for "Lieutenant"a young and gung-ho American who couldn't get accepted by the American military during the war, so volunteered to be an ambulance driver for the Italian army instead. One of the first of Hemingway's tales to define the stoic "man's man" he would eventually become known for, the novel basically follows Tenente through a series of thrilling escapades, made even more interesting because of the main character not seeing them as thrilling at all -- nearly having his leg torn off while at the front, saving a man's life, escaping execution by diving off a bridge, a rowboat ride to Switzerland in the middle of the night while fleeing a group of pursuers, and a whole lot more.

Like I said, though, Hemingway's point here is not to glamorize war, but rather to highlight the mundane aspects of it all; the endless red tape, the weasely things people do to get out of actual work, the BS conversations that are always taking place among soldiers, all of them arguing over how the war is going but none of them actually possessing any factual information.

At the same time, though, A Farewell to Arms is about the monstrous developments of World War I in particular, the very first large war to be fought during the Industrial Age, and therefore capable of inflicting so much more carnage than anyone thought possible.

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  • I went to the opening at a local St;
  • A Farewell to Arms established Hemingway as a successful writer and also as a spokesman of "The Lost Generation," a group of American intellectuals who lived in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s and whose outlook-shaped by the experience of the First World War-was cynical and pessimistic;
  • Ernest Hemingway at the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, recuperating from wounds received while driving an ambulance at the front, 1918;
  • It is clear than his alcoholism will lead to worse things than jaundice.

For example, the brand-new European railway system is heavily featured throughout the book, and especially the fact that in a half-day's ride, you could go literally from the battlefront to a five-star luxury hotel, something that had never been possible before WWI.

Oh, and if all this wasn't enough, Hemingway throws in a love story too, a complicated one featuring a complicated woman, one that has been a source of heated interpretation since the book first came out 79 years ago.

The argument for it being a classic: There seems to be two main arguments for this being a classic, one based on the author and one on the book itself. Because the fact is that Hemingway is considered by many to be one of the most important novelists in the history of that format, a fabled "High Priest of Modernism" who taught all of us to think in a punchier, shorter way, and with this mostly being for the better for the arts in general.

Because let's not forget, a mere twenty or thirty years before this book was first published, it was actually the flowery and overwritten Victorian style of literature that dominated the publishing industry; and as we've all learned throughout the course of this "CCLaP 100" essay series, although Victorian literature certainly has its charms and inherent strengths, it's also a whole lot of talking to say not much at all, a situation that was starting to drive artists crazy by the time the 20th century got into swing.

Hemingway, fans claim, was the first Modernist to really bring all the details together in a profoundly great way -- the first to combine the exciting rat-a-tat style of pulp-fiction writers with the weighty subjects of the academic community, producing work that owes as much to Raymond Chandler as it does to Virginia Woolf but is ultimately much better than simply reading those two authors back-to-back.

And by making its subject World War I, fans say, Hemingway here turns in yet another great document of those times that the early Modernists were known for -- from The Great Gatsby to All Quiet Among the Western Front, it's hard for us to even think of the artists from the "Jazz Age" or "Lost Generation" or whatever you want to call it, without thinking of this globe-changing event that was so in the middle of it.

A Farewell to Arms

There's a good reason, after all, that many consider A Farewell to Arms one of the greatest war novels of all time. Of course, there are others who can't even hear the words "Ernest Hemingway" without automatically shuddering, again for a variety of reasons that even most of his fans admit hold at least some weight -- because he is overrated by the academic community, because his personal style is a hackneyed, easily parodied one, because his "man's man" shtick got real old real fast, because it's now inspired three generations of a--holes and counting to want to be bull-fleeing, cigar-smoking woman-haters too.

At its heart, its critics say, A Farewell to Arms is an interesting-enough little ditty, mostly because Hemingway himself had some interesting little experiences during the war that he basically cribbed wholesale for the book; but then this story is covered with layer after layer of bad prose, macho posturing, and aimless meanderings that get you about as far away from a traditional three-act novel as you can possibly get.

With Hemingway and his critics, it's never a case of "it's a good enough book but shouldn't be labeled a classic;" those who dislike him really dislike him, and wish to see his work removed from academic reading lists altogether.

  • Catherine was clearly a well-brought up typical Scotch woman;
  • After finishing it, I was reminded of the important role the book played in the 2012 film and I can now state unambiguously that despite a tough-to-read ending, Hemingway has nothing to apologize for;
  • So what is he doing in the Italian army in the first place?
  • The dialogue is simple but the emotions are complicated ones that are borne out by men who have seen their friends and loved ones die and who are simply weary of fighting a never-ending battle.

So let me embarrassingly admit that this is actually the very first book by Hemingway I've ever read, and that I was hesitant going into it because of just the overwhelming amount of bad stuff that's been said about him over the decades; to be truthful, I was half-expecting a parody of Hemingway at this point, all little words and nonsensical sentences and dudes treating girls kinda like crap most of the time. And yes, the book does for sure contain a certain amount of all this; but I was surprised, to tell you the truth, by how how tight, illuminating, fascinating and just plain funny A Farewell to Arms turned out to actually be.

  1. It was war time - he didn't have time to flower-it up... I have just read your review, having only yesterday finished A Farewell To Arms.
  2. Of course, there are others who can't even hear the words "Ernest Hemingway" without automatically shuddering, again for a variety of reasons that even most of his fans admit hold at least some weight -- because he is overrated by the academic community, because his personal style is a hackneyed, easily parodied one, because his "man's man" shtick got real old real fast, because it's now inspired three generations of a--holes and counting to want to be bull-fleeing, cigar-smoking woman-haters too.
  3. This is the story of a love affair between American Frederick Henry, who runs an ambulance team in the Italian army an English nurse, Catherine Barkley. I am approximately your age, I would guess, from your remarks.

Wait, funny, you say? Sure; I dare you not to laugh, for example, during the scene when a huge argument breaks out between two Swiss border guards over which of their two hometowns boasts better winter sports.

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He does not even know what a luge is! Hemingway's World War I is not just seen from the smeared windshield of a battlefront ambulance, but from bored soldiers getting drunk in a quiet bunker, from weary villagers hoping there will be at least something left of their homes after the war is over, from armchair pundits recovering in crumbling veteran hospitals, arguing over which complicated international treaty sunk them all and which is going to save them.

It's an expansive, multi-facted, sometimes highly unique look at a wartime environment, one that at least here in his early career he published this when he was 30 belies all the complaints that have ever been made about his hackneyed personal style.