Book Review: “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway

The novel A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway begins in Italy toward the end of World War I. Lieutenant Frederic Henry is an American serving in the Italian ambulance corps. During his time on the front, he meets Miss Catherine Barkley, a British nurse, and their hazy affection for each other starts in the garden of a British hospital. Later, Lieutenant Henry is wounded and sent to Milan to recover. In the hospital, he and Catherine meet again, and their love ignites under the cover of night. Yet the good times do not last long. Soon after his recovery, Lieutenant Henry is called back to the war. A series of confusing events and misunderstandings lead him to flee to Switzerland. Although he and Catherine find each other once more and settle down together, ultimately Henry finds that life is as fickle as war. 

Through Frederic Henry’s perspective as a lieutenant, I explored the meaning of war in Hemingway’s novel. I find that I’ve often thought about the army as a whole, rather than as being made up of individuals. However, within the concept of an army, there are ordinary people, just like us. Soldiers on the front do not worry about the post-war economy of the next fifty years or how the history books will describe their experience. Hemingway shows instead a world of war that includes men content with their alcohol of choice to escape the realities of war, captains teasing a priest for fun, and soldiers chatting about attacks.  The soldiers fight in the war, but they are also people living their lives while the war goes on.

In this novel war is also about patriotism and identity. Lieutenant Henry changes from being a patriot to a person who chooses to enjoy life without brooding. After his escape, the war becomes distant to him. This makes me question the purpose of the war. If the war is not all about patriotism and the duty to protect one’s country, what is it? What is its purpose for individuals as opposed to its purpose for nations?

For soldiers, the war can become something that has no purpose. It appears, and soldiers, once civilians, get involved. Officers make the decisions of war. Soldiers act out those decisions.  In A Farewell to Arms, the soldiers are not clear about how the war started or about how it will end. War is a terrible thing that suddenly interrupts people’s lives. 

After reading this novel, I think that having no alternative but to be in a war is one of life’s saddest and most provocative experiences. As a ninth-grader who only learns about wars in history textbooks, I intellectualize war. I learn about the great casualties and the impact of war on a country’s political system and economy. War seems more like a myth.  The terror and horror are reduced to a story that once happened. It can be all too easy not to pay attention to what war does to individuals. On the night before Lieutenant Henry is wounded, everything that lies in front of him is unpredictable. Yet he is focused on asking the major for cheese to eat with his cold cooked macaroni. Henry is badly wounded, and he does not have good resources on the front, but he also meets a girl and he gets drunk. Often we view soldiers as impregnable figures, however, they are presented as simply people in this novel.

Hemingway draws on his own experience as an American soldier on the Italian front in 1929.  The novel includes candid dialogue and descriptive scenes and landscapes. It is an honest account of Lieutenant Henry’s days: truthful, therefore, strong. Through Henry’s eyes, readers see; through his hands, readers feel, without the imposition of Henry’s thoughts. 

There are many events in the novel that make me ponder: war, alcoholism, identity, and patriotism; responsibility, friendship. Overall of this is the relationship between Henry and Catherine. Limpid love in a murky war is a miracle itself. I recommend this novel to everyone who is open to entering the life of another person.