Ernest Hemingway once referred to A Farewell to Arms as his version of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597). Several parallels exist. Both works are about star-crossed lovers; both show erotic flirtations that rapidly develop into serious, intense love affairs; and both describe the romances against a backdrop of social and political turmoil. Whether A Farewell to Arms finally qualifies as tragic is a matter of personal opinion, but it certainly represents, for Hemingway, an attempt to broaden his concerns from the aimless tragicomic problems of the expatriates in The Sun Also Rises (1926) to the fundamental question of life’s meaning in the face of human mortality.
Frederic Henry begins the affair as a routine wartime seduction, “a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards.” He feels mildly guilty, especially after learning about Catherine’s vulnerability because of the loss of her lover in combat, but he still foresees no complications from the temporary arrangement. It is not until he is wounded and sent to her hospital in Milan that their affair deepens into love—and from that point on, they struggle to free themselves in order to realize it. However, they are constantly thwarted, first by the impersonal bureaucracy of the military effort, then by the physical separation imposed by the war itself, and, finally, by the biological “accident” that kills Catherine at the point where their “separate peace” at last seems possible.
As Henry’s love for Catherine grows, his disillusionment with the war also increases. From the beginning of the book, Henry views the military efforts with ironic detachment, but there is no suggestion that, prior to his meeting with her, he has had any deep reservations about his involvement. Hemingway’s attitude toward war was always an ambiguous one. He questioned the rationales for fighting them and the slogans offered in their defense. Like Henry, he felt that “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene.” For the individual, however, war could be the necessary test. Facing imminent death in combat, one either demonstrated “grace under pressure” and did the “one right thing” or one did not; one either emerged from the experience as a whole person with self-knowledge and control, or one came out of it lost and broken.
There is little heroism in this war as Henry describes it. The hero’s disengagement from the fighting is made most vivid in the extended “retreat from Caporetto,” generally considered one of the great sequences in modern fiction....
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