A Farewell to Arms …but the fight goes on.
“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.”
Books and movies about war can be boring and patronizing when they aim at preaching the obvious and sometimes saccharine message that war is bad. We all know that, after all. However, if they place the reader smack in the middle of the action, having them eavesdrop on characters’ natural conversations, inviting them to share men’s real lives at the front, and show, rather than tell, the horrors of military conflicts, the effect can be powerful and harrowing.
Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, published in 1929, belongs in the latter category. The author is famous for the restraint of his writing. His style is direct and never pompous. In A Farwell to Arms, the strength of this kind of writing is more evident and potent than ever. Conveying in writing the unsophisticated banter of cynical soldiers, their rough camaraderie at the front and the silly verbal exchanges and pledges of eternal love of the central young couple lends the book a naturalness and simplicity that only makes the tragic events of the last part of the novel even more impactful.
We follow the story through the eyes of the narrator, the American expatriate Lieutenant Frederic Henry, as he works as an ambulance driver for the Italian Army during the First World War.
The novel is divided in 5 parts (or books, as each part is called). The first part sets the context, as we get to know about Frederic’s job, his love of Italy, his friends and peers at the front and his first meeting with the British nurse Catherine Barkley, who has recently arrived. They start to see each other, but are both skeptical about love. This first part ends when Frederic gets seriously wounded in the knee during a battle and needs to be sent to Milan to be operated on at a new American hospital. Catherine follows Frederic there to look after him.
The second part of the book describes the development of a serious relationship between Frederic and Catherine, as he convalesces from his operation. They go out for walks in the afternoon, go to restaurants for dinners and Catherine volunteers for many night shifts so they can be together. Frederic has had the luck of being operated on by a good surgeon and is on his way to a full recovery, but then he is diagnosed with jaundice. After a head nurse discovers that he has been drinking heavily during his convalescence period from the operation, she claims he drank himself into jaundice on purpose in order to escape the war. He loses his leave and is sent back to the front. Right before that, he learns Catherine is three months pregnant.
The third book focuses on the return of Frederic to his unit, where he finds out that his peers had a very hard summer and are getting depressed by not being able to foresee the end of the war. It looks like it will be another Hundred Years War.
During a retreat caused by the advance of the Austrian and German armies into Italy, during the Battle of Caporetto, Frederic, like everyone else, runs away with a group of ambulance drivers, getting lost and almost being killed by the Italian “battle police”, under the suspicion of desertion and treachery. He escapes by jumping into a river. From then on, disillusioned, he breaks his moral commitment to the Italian army, giving up on the war. All he wishes now is to go back to Catherine and build a family. He manages to hide on a train to Milan, only to find out, when he gets there, that Catherine has gone to Stresa.
The subject of the fourth book is the reunion of Frederic and Catherine. But happiness does not last long. Things get complicated, as he is now treated as a fugitive. Rumor has it he will be arrested soon. Frederic and Catherine escape by boat under a storm in the middle of the night from Italy to Switzerland, in one of the most thrilling and poetic passages of the book. After being interrogated by the Swiss authorities, they are allowed to stay in the country.
The final part of the novel tells about their peaceful life in the mountains until Catherine and Frederic move to Lausanne to be nearer the hospital, as it won't be long before she goes into labor. That’s when tragedy strikes.
From the fourth book onwards, the focus of the narration shifts completely to the love story between Frederic and Catherine, their carefree relationship and her pregnancy. But the clever touch is the reader is never allowed to forget there’s a war raging in the background. This is accomplished by the constant parallels between the serious problems Catherine Barkley goes through during labor and the war. Blood, hemorrhage, and, ultimately, death are the obvious links. Birth and death become two sides of a coin. The greatness of the book is making a point of not separating war from any of the endless problems and dilemmas faced by humans. The comparison is particularly strong in the way Catherine’s difficult labor is portrayed: she needs a caesarean procedure, reminding us of Frederic’s previous knee operation.
The message, as the quote at the beginning of this article anticipates, is pessimistic. The world always finds a way of breaking us. The brave go first, but everyone else gets shattered in the end. Maybe as a consequence of this realization, most characters seem marked by an ingrained incapacity to believe in anything spiritual or metaphysical. They are stuck in their present reality, unable to see a brighter future, and, therefore, rely heavily on the comforts of chemical relief: be it excessive alcoholic drinking, smoking or the compulsive use of the anesthetic gas mask by Catherine at the end. There’s no way out. Salvation is not a possibility.