Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 965

Hemingway’s second novel, A Farewell to Arms, is viewed as his finest artistic accomplishment because the subject matter is finely blended with his method. To the critics, by and large, Hemingway had become a master of the short, staccato style of writing by this novel. Further, this mastery made Hemingway the most celebrated American writer of the twentieth century. This celebration is both enhanced and questioned by his reputation as a bold warrior, whose depiction of women is often negative. Such an aura is no doubt partially the responsibility of the movie industry, which felt encouraging his legend and the identification with Gary Cooper would only help the marketing of army stories in general and Hemingway films specifically.

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In 1929, when A Farewell to Arms was first released, the critics were impressed because it surpassed his first work dramatically. However, not every critic enjoyed the novel, and many were bothered by its diction. Robert Herrick of the New York World called the novel “dirt” on account of its vulgarity. He was not the only one upset by the then-unprintable words. This led to an edited version of the novel, with words like testicles and shit removed from the text. Fortunately, the dialogue was sound enough without this soldier talk and the novel functioned without them. Still, other critics could not say enough in praise of the best-selling work.

Henry Hazlitt’s review in the New York Sun got right to the point: “In the year of our Lord 1929 Ernest Hemingway is the single greatest influence on the American novel and short story.” Further, Hazlitt put Hemingway ahead of other writers who also employed sparse prose, saying, “Hardboiled novels, monosyllabic novels, novels without commas . . . are like Hemingway.” In a Chicago Daily Tribune article, Fanny Butcher also praised Hemingway's terse writing style. After comparing Hemingway with Gertrude Stein she said, “A Farewell to Arms [uses] a technique which is purely subjective, and a style which is articulate entirely in its bones and not at all in its flesh.” Thus, when compared to literature of the 1920s, Hemingway was a master in capturing the essence of the story and eliminating nonessential elements often employed by less talented writers.

The praise for Hemingway continued with few exceptions. Critics, such as Ray B. West, Jr., summed up the work as a reflection of a society disturbed by war. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, more attention was given to the individualist philosophy being expressed by the novel. Earl Rovit, in his essay “Learning to Care,” said that the novel is not a tragedy in any sense, since the individual protagonist learns “who he is.” Apparently, for Rovit the point of the novel, as well as of life, is that one realizes what is significant in life. By this recognition one can come to terms with what one’s life is. Having followed these various lessons, one can live a fulfilled life. “The total effect of the story depends on the degree of Frederic’s self-realization or acceptance of the implicit meanings in his experience . . . the identity of man is measured by the processive recognitions of his meaningful experience.” Understandably, readings of a story which ends in the death of the heroine after giving birth to a stillborn child combined with the masculinist mythos which surrounded Hemingway caused a critical revolt. However, by the 1970s, debate had shifted, concentrating more on condemning the ideas of Rovit and critics like him rather than responding to Hemingway’s story of Frederic and Catherine.

From the start, Hemingway was heralded as a genius. Such an early reception into fame also led to Hemingway being the most widely recognized and photographed writer (featured in both Time and Life magazines). This reputation stayed with his works until feminist critics took hold of Hemingway. They denounced his portrayal of women and summed up the Catherine Barkley character as a one-dimensional sex object. This was a sharp departure from the earlier view of Catherine as a brave woman. During the 1970s, Hemingway was viewed as the epitome of the chauvinist male who viewed women as secondary creatures whose proper place is in the home. Unfortunately, the application of this view of Hemingway’s myth affected the reading of his novels unjustly. That is, much of the reading of, for example, Catherine Barkley as simply a pasteboard figure came from a justifiable loathing of Hemingway’s misogynist cult, rather than from any textual basis.

Throughout the 1980s, there has been a gradual renewal of the possible readings of Hemingway. This has partly been the result of Judith Fetterley’s 1978 work The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. New directions have now been taken that no longer focus on the simple gender polarity. In fact, the posthumous publication of Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden led to examinations of Hemingway’s interest in androgyny, the state of having both male and female characterisics. Now, rather than being fought over, Catherine Barkley is widely regarded as a complex figure.

Most recent criticism on A Farewell to Arms has focused on some of the more curious aspects of Hemingway’s work. For example, critics are interested in Hemingway’s words as a mode of war or play. Recent criticism has not limited itself to an argument on Hemingway’s sexist attitudes as much as it was in the 1970s. Instead that gender war has itself become the subject for critics like Sandra Whipple Spanier in essays such as Hemingway’s Unknown Soldier: Catherine Barkley, the Critics, and the Great War. Other approaches include examining slices of the uncontested strength in the novel such as Frederic Henry’s narration. There is still much praise and admiration for Hemingway, and he is still regarded as influential many years after his first publication.

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A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway

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