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Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms

This may be Hemingway’s best-known novel, a somewhat sentimental novel based on Hemingway’s own experience as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I. The Hemingway character is Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver, serving in the Italian army during World War I. Henry meets Catherine Barkley, an English nurse, who is the love interest of his friend, Rinaldi. Catherine’s fiancé has recently died, while Henry has become somewhat immune to normal feeling as a result of what he has seen in the War. They are therefore an ideal literary couple. Henry returns to the front but is wounded and is, of course, brought under the care of Catherine and the two become passionately involved. When he recovers, he is scheduled to return to the front but he finds out that Catherine is pregnant. However, he does return to the front where the Italians are having a hard time of it. He and his ambulance team get caught up in a massive Italian retreat, which is naturally totally chaotic. Henry has to shoot one of his drivers and he is nearly caught up in the shooting of Italian officers by Italian soldiers as a result of the retreat. Henry manages to escape and flees to Milan. He reunites with Catherine and the two flee to Switzerland where they have an idyllic life, till Catherine goes into labour.

Hemingway certainly gives us a gritty portrait of the war and the terrible effect it has on individual lives. He shows the chaos, the agony and the misery. Most of the characters are at best unsure about the justification for the war. Against this background, the love of Henry and Barkley can be seen as a nice, romantic story or one where the two characters are merely clinging to one anther not because of real love but to escape the nastiness of the war. Hemingway leaves this very much open. Their escape to Switzerland and the fact that Hemingway ends their idyll in a tragedy rather than in a more realistic approach, i.e. one where they have to get on with their lives, facing the reality of living together with a child in the post-war environment, is, to my mind, rather over-sentimental. Others have found this to be a very worthwhile novel and Hemingway’s best. I found it interesting but not really much more.

Publishing history

First published 1929 by Scribner