I read A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway for this week. I remember reading Hemingway in college, and I’m fairly certain I read this one as bits and pieces of it were vaguely familiar. However, it must not have made that much of an impact on me then. It made more of one this time around, I think.
A Farewell to Arms was listed by Susan Vreeland.
The story is based in part on Hemingway’s own experiences. The main character, Frederic, is an American on the Italian front, working as an ambulance driver. Hemingway was an American on the Italian front working as an ambulance driver, in 1918, at the age of 18. Frederic gets hit by mortar and severely injures a leg, sending him onto a hospital and then convalescence for a few months away from the front. Hemingway was severely injured in his legs by mortar, sent to a hospital and then convalescence for a few months. Frederic falls in love with a nurse, Catherine Barkley, an English woman. Hemingway fell in love with a nurse. He and his nurse (Hemingway) decided upon marriage, but a few months later, she wrote to tell him she had decided to marry another person. What happens with Catherine and Frederic in A Farewell to Arms follows a different trajectory, so you’ll just have to read it to find out what.
Three things struck me while reading the novel.
1. Catherine is one very messed up chick.
The following is from like the third time or so that they’ve gotten together to talk and hang out in front of the residence that Catherine is staying at. He has just returned from a battle that was slightly unexpected to take as long as it did.
“When we were out on the gravel drive she said, “Where have you been?”
“I’ve been out on post.”
“You couldn’t have sent me a note?”
“No,” I said. “Not very well. I thought I was coming back.”
“You ought to have let me know, darling.”
We were off the driveway, walking under the trees. I took her hands, then stopped and kissed her.
“Isn’t there anywhere we can go?”
“No,” she said. “We have to just walk here. You’ve been away a long time.”
“This is the third day. But I’m back now.”
She looked at me, “And you do love me?”
“You did say you loved me, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I lied. “I love you.” I had not said it before.
“And you call me Catherine?”
“Catherine.” We walked on a way and were stopped under a tree.
“Say, ‘I’ve come back to Catherine in the night.'”
“I’ve come back to Catherine in the night.”
“Oh, darling, you have come back, haven’t you?”
“I love you so and it’s been awful. You won’t go away?”
Eventually, he does fall in love with her. She makes a variety of different very co-dependent statements, but many of them, he now joins her in sharing the sentiment. However, she has him very much beat in the department.
“I’d rather look at you. Darling, why don’t you let your hair grow?”
“Just grow a little longer.”
“It’s long enough now.”
“No, let it grow a little longer and I could cut mine and we’d be just alike only one of us blonde and one of us dark.”
“I wouldn’t let you cut yours.”
“It would be fun. I’m tired of it. It’s an awful nuisance in the bed at night.”
“I like it.”
“Wouldn’t you like it short?”
“I might. I like it the way it is.”
“It might be nice short. Then we’d both be alike. Oh, darline, I want you so much I want to be you too.”
“You are. We’re the same one.”
“I know it. AT night we are.”
“The nights are grand.”
“I want us to be all mixed up. I don’t want you to go away. I just said that. You go if you want to. But hurry right back. Why, darling, I don’t live at all when I’m not with you.”
Hemingway even writes about sex in a pretty forthright manner for the early 1900s. He never comes out and gives details, but it is very, very clear from the very beginning when they move into the sexually intimate stage of the relationship. They even refer to it as “playing”.
2. Hemingway’s style of brevity actually works amazingly well for describing war time. And as I was reading it, since I just recently read Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and they were writing at the approximate same times, it was interesting to compare and contrast their writing styles. In Grapes of Wrath and in Farewell to Arms, there is a lot of dialogue. But Hemingway will say things in 2 pages that takes Steinbeck 10 pages or more to say. There are similarities as well, but some of that is from being the same nationality during the same time frame (though Steinbeck deals mainly with life in the United States and the Great Depression and Hemingway with war zones), if you read more than one author from a certain time frame and they are the same nationality, there are definite stylistic points that will feel familiar from one to the next. In Farewell to Arms, Hemingway captures the soldiers’ views on war, and their coping mechanisms. He does this without becoming Freud or Jung, but through brief observations on their words, things that they say themselves about how they’re coping with it, and events around him.
3. Frederic drinks an awful lot during the novel. At one point, while recovering from his war wounds he drinks so much that he develops jaundice. I thought that it might reflect how there is a “common knowledge” that Hemingway was a drunk. So I decided to google about it. I found this link, which if you’re a Hemingway fan will interest you. Basically, while Hemingway was recovering, he also would have friends sneak vermouth and other alcohol into his hospital room. In the book, he has hidden them all in a closet and the head nurse surprises the porter carting some of them away, so busts him with the remaining bottles. This leads her to reporting him (she didn’t like him very much) and he loses the additional 3 weeks leave he would have had coming after being released from the treatment program.
For a few years now, I’ve heard off and on that “Hemingway was a hack”. But, I remembered liking him for the most part while in high school and college. So, that’s why I decided to give him a try again. He isn’t a hack. The books he has written are classics for very definite reasons and they aren’t just because people are stupid. They’re because they are great.
Have a great weekend!