A Farewell to Arms

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The Work

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Before publishing A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway complained bitterly about his editor’s acting as censor, removing unsavory words that conveyed important truths about war and love. Despite his editor’s efforts, reviews of the novel often asked if it were art or “dirt.” Several cities in the United States banned the book briefly because of its language. Italy’s Fascist government banned the book because it depicted the cowardice and atrocities of Italian soldiers during the retreat at Caporetto during World War I. The government also forced cuts in a 1932 film adaptation.

Over the years, the book continued to draw fire, especially when taught in U.S. public schools. During the 1980’s, the American Library Association listed the novel as perennially challenged for three primary reasons: sex and debauchery; violent deaths and senseless brutality; and belief in a universe indifferent to people’s suffering. Despite critical acclaim for the book—its honest description of war, unique writing style, and timeless story of tragic lovers—it continues to be challenged as “pacifist propaganda” and “un-American.”

Bibliography:

Beversluis, John. “Dispelling the Romantic Myth: A Study of A Farewell to Arms.” The Hemingway Review 9, no. 1 (Fall, 1989): 18-25. Rejecting the common romantic interpretation, Beversluis asserts that this novel explores the problem of self-knowledge. His reading of the character of Catherine is especially interesting. A special A Farewell to Arms issue of the journal.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Offers a representative selection of the best scholarship available on the novel. Includes Bloom’s introduction, chronology, bibliography, and index.

Donaldson, Scott, ed. New Essays on “A Farewell to Arms.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Appropriate for specialists and nonspecialists. The introduction discusses the novel’s composition, publication, and reception, as well as its major critical readings from publication to 1990.

Lewis, Robert W. “A Farewell to Arms”: The War of the Words. Boston: Twayne, 1992. Comprehensive resource. Concludes that the novel is about language—particularly the language by which truth and falsehood are revealed.

Waldhorn, Arthur. A Readers’ Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972. A concise, well-written vision of Hemingway and his works, appropriate for specialists and nonspecialists.

Places Discussed

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*Italy

*Italy. Country in which Ernest Hemingway’s American protagonist, Frederic Henry, serves as a volunteer ambulance driver during World War I—just as Hemingway himself had served during that war. Moreover, Henry is also like Hemingway in being severely wounded and invalided to recuperate in an American hospital in Milan. There Henry experiences the first serious love of his life, The foreign location makes it easier for Henry to examine the meaning of his young life and allow him to mature as he confronts danger, death, and love. Throughout the novel, Henry struggles to grapple with the foreign language, Italian customs, and unfamiliar geography. All these struggles heighten his perceptions in ways that help bring about his maturation.

*Gorizia

*Gorizia. Small town in northeast Italy near which several major engagements between Italian and Austrian forces were fought during the spring and summer of 1916. Frederic Henry is stationed in a town near Gorizia with the Italian ambulance corps. It is in this location and through his interaction with the other troops stationed there that he begins his maturation.

*Plava

*Plava. Town in northeast Italy on the Isonzo River, north of which Frederic Henry is wounded. Henry’s world is first truly shattered in Plava when he is suddenly forced to face death for the first time. The event, being hit by an Austrian trench mortar, introduces the theme of death’s randomness and its unexpected appearance as well as the need always to be prepared to expect it. This presence of death haunts the rest of this novel as it did most of Hemingway’s prose throughout his career.

*Milan

*Milan. Large northern Italian city to which Henry is sent to recuperate from his wounds. The American hospital there with its American nurses offers a small bit of home amid the foreign environment. Henry experiences a reprieve from the war and has the time to reflect on his mortality in congenial and familiar surroundings. Here, too, he falls in love, which connects the themes of love and war. The love theme proves another experience in Henry’s maturation. It also gives him a reason to reconsider his participation in the conflict and heightens the sweetness of life. Later in the novel, his love for Catherine, the American nurse, hastens his decision to leave the scene of death and destruction for the peace and safety of Switzerland.

*Caporetto

*Caporetto. Battle site in Italy where the Italian forces experienced one of their most devastating defeats during the war. Henry joins the retreating troops there in one of the most memorable sections of the book. It is during the retreat that Henry makes his “separate peace” with the war, which later results in his desertion and flight with Catherine.

*Taglamento River

*Taglamento River. River that the Italian forces cross during their retreat from Caporetto. During the crossing, Henry dives into the river to avoid being shot by the military police. This action can be seen as his “baptism” into a new life after he has made his “separate peace.”

*Stresa

*Stresa. Italian town northwest of Milan where Henry meets Catherine after his desertion. In a small boat they row some twenty miles up Lake Maggiore to Switzerland. Their escape over water reintroduces the baptism theme of Henry’s immersion in the Taglamento River and suggests another rebirth.

*Switzerland

*Switzerland. Country to which Catherine and Frederic escape from Italy. They spend the winter at Montreux at the east end of Lake Geneva. When Catherine dies in childbirth, Henry again confronts the inexplicable presence of death. This event provides the final, if unresolved, event in his initiation into manhood.

Historical Context

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World War I
World War I was also known as the Great War because it was war on a scale previously unimagined in modern history. The war broke out after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand ignited an already tense territorial feud between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. France Great Britain, and Russia joined together as the Allied powers against the Central Power alliance of Austria-Hungary and Germany. Eventually, America joined the war on the side of the Allies after Russia had withdrawn and the Lusitania, a British passenger ship carrying 128 American citizens, had been sunk. The conflict lasted four years, cost $350 billion, and claimed the lives of twenty-two million. Technologically, it was the most advanced war ever seen because of the number of new inventions introduced: biological weapons, mortar, improved artillery, machine guns, and barbed wire. Not until World War II when the airplane played such a devastating role, would the destructive power of these new weapons be surpassed.

In the novel A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry is serving in the Italian army. The role of Italy in World War I was as decoy. Traditionally, Italy was an ally of Germany and Austria. However, the allies promised Italy the land it had requested from Austria—the region of South Tyrol, several islands in the Adriatic, and assistance with expansion of its colonies in Africa—if it would switch sides. The only role of Italy's ill-equipped army was to attempt to divert the force of the Austrians from helping the Germans in France, a role which caused the death of 500,000 Italians in 1916 alone. It is in that year that Frederic Henry is wounded. Surprisingly, Italy was able to turn back the Austrians and rightfully claim their share in the spoils of victory with the Allied cause.

The Roaring Twenties
The 1920s were marked by what Joseph Wood Krutch labeled as The Modern Temper. This was a “temper,” or zeitgeist (spirit of the age), which viewed traditional beliefs of progress, perfectibility, and the success of democracy as dead on the battlefield. Consequently, other philosophies of life were being looked at, such as the growing popularity of Freudian psychoanalysis. This new method of treating the self reinforced a belief in individualism in the United States. For the same insistence on the self it was banned from Communist Russia. The decade of the twenties is also often seen as a wild decade of jazz, flappers, and the “speakeasy,” gathering places which served banned alcohol. Jazz became popular music throughout America. Women finally gained the vote on August 26, 1920, with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Their new freedoms were epitomized by the more unconventional girls who were known as “flappers,” identified by their short, bobbed hair and daringly short (for the time) dresses. Prohibition and the Eighteenth Amendment made alcohol illegal in 1920, but organized crime invented the “speakeasy” (with the many bribes it involved) to provide a place for Americans to find the outlawed drink. The economy, both legal and black-market, was stable, and unemployment low. Things were almost too good; after the Great War, Americans were ready to enjoy themselves. Few could forecast or believe what loomed ahead for the United States.

The Stock Market Crash
The year 1929 destroyed the momentum of the twenties. The roaring Jazz Age ground to a virtual halt in October when the New York Stock Exchange began to nosedive. After the First World War, America enjoyed a healthy economy in the 1920s, and many investors saw opportunities to make money on the stock exchange. Investors often purchased stock on credit, expecting to pay off any loan with the profits they reaped as stock prices climbed. However, after several days of falling stock prices in late October, panicky investors began to sell whatever stock they held at any price. As the market flooded with stock for sale, prices plummeted and many investors could not sell their stock at high enough prices to pay off their creditors. Investors went bankrupt, businesses lost capital, and banks failed. Unlike in previous years when the stock market fell but quickly recovered, the early 1930s became increasingly worse for Americans with millions of men and women out of work and struggling to survive.

Europe also suffered a severe economic downturn. Never fully recovered from World War I, European countries struggled with high rates of joblessness and inflation. In Britain unemployment rates exceeded twelve percent; in Germany over six million people were unemployed by 1932. Due to the sudden collapse of the American economy, aid to Germany was halted. Consequently, with no jobs, little food, and no money, the German people lost confidence in their postwar government, the Weimar Republic. Faced with a disintegrating economy, Germans began to take interest in the ideas of a rising young fascist, Adolph Hitler. Promising a return to prosperity, Hitler and the Nazi party were voted into power in 1933.

Literary Style

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In Media Res
A Farewell to Arms opens in media res—literally, in the middle of the thing. For the novel, this “thing,” constantly referred to as “it,” is the war. Hemingway is certainly not the first to use this technique to bring the reader immediately into the story. In fact, one of the greatest Western war stories of all time—Homer’s Iliad—opens in the middle of the Trojan war. Hemingway’s use of the technique sets the tone of the novel as one of disjointure and alienation. The reader steps immediately into a world described by someone remembering. However, we are given no clues about time, place, or even the characters. In fact, it takes a good deal of reading before even the name of the narrator is learned.

Persona
Originally referring to the mask worn by stage actors in ancient Greece, the persona is the image of the character as it is expressed in reaction to its environment. Hemingway reveals the persona of his main character by the way he reacts to the statements of others. This is demonstrated early in the novel by Frederic’s non-reaction to Catherine’s story. She describes how her fiance was “blown to bits,” and Frederic’s response is to say nothing. Rinaldi, on the other hand, is full of chivalry and charm because his persona is one of Italian machismo. The story is told from Frederic’s point of view and thus it has his voice. However, as a further development of his persona, his voicing of the story rarely devolves to a personal—“I did this.” Instead, he speaks in terms of “we” until finally he is all alone and, by default, an “I.”

Black humor
Black humor is a nervous humor which famous psychologist Sigmund Freud described as a way of repressing fear through laughter. Also known as graveyard humor, it is used throughout the novel to mask the very real fear of death. The starkest use of this type of humor is by Catherine Barkley when she is dying from internal bleeding suffered from a stillbirth. Though in great pain she manages to utter “black humor” when the doctor says she must not be silly because she is not going to die. To this she repeats, a phrase she used earlier in the book when Frederic was in the hospital, “All right . . . I'll come and stay with you nights. . . .” The inevitability of death and the impossibility of the decision make the comment painfully ironic.

Dialogue
Hemingway employs dialogue at the expense of narrative whenever he can. He does this in order to avoid long passages of “unnecessary prose.” Thus, he reveals information about the plot through a dialogue marked by terse, direct language which could be called common speech. This effort at realism also disables any attempt to define Hemingway’s actual position on any of the themes in the novel. Since the story tells itself through the characters who are involved, the reader is left with his or her own thoughts on the subject—thoughts which are influenced by the speech of the characters, not Hemingway.

According to the critic Henry Hazlitt, dialogue is best when it is of a narrow range. He continues, “one may think of this either as cause or result of the narrow range of the characters.” This is a good thing, he says, for Hemingway’s characters “are never complicated people, either emotionally or intellectually, for if they were, the casual hard-boiled Hemingway manner would be incapable of dealing with them.”

Social Concerns

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In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway is concerned with the effects of war on its participants and victims. However, since the focus here is not the aftershock of the war, as it is in The Sun Also Rises, but the war itself, the intensity and concreteness of the war's impact on individuals is far more vivid. At the same time, the general effects of dislocation on an entire nation — Italy — are rendered as the novel's backdrop. Finally, though, it is as a great romantic tragedy — Hemingway called it his Romeo and Juliet — that A Farewell to Arms is generally read and remembered, a powerful lyrical tale of love and death and inexorable doom.

While some readers seem to find only despair in the novel, a sufficient appreciation of Hemingway's tragic sense of life takes most readers far beyond the categories of mere despair. In fact, while Hemingway probes the structures of rhetoric, duty, and obligation, inherent to war, and implicitly criticizes the hypocrisy, bad faith and moral bankruptcy of a society which unleashes such terrible chaos and violence, he also affirms traditional values such as honor and dignity; above all, he celebrates the transforming power of love.

Compare and Contrast

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  • World War I: America spent around thirty billion dollars on the war effort. At war’s end, due to disagreements with the allies, the United States refused to ratify the peace treaty, join the League of Nations or be part of the European recovery.

    1929: British interest rates rose and lured capital away from America’s Wall Street. Prices on the New York Stock Exchange plummeted in late October. The Great Depression set in and the American economy did not see serious improvement until the beginning of World War II.

    Today: After a severe recession during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the stock market reaches record highs in the 1990s, and the American dollar becomes very strong in foreign markets. The United States Mexico and Canada begin cooperating in the North American Free Trade Agreement, while Europe works towards creating a stronger European Union, an organization among European countries promoting free trade, a common policy for defense, and a single monetary unit.

  • World War I: In 1917 Russia sued for a separate peace with Germany when the government of the Tsar, Nicholas II, was threatened by civil war. The Duma, Russia’s legislative body under the czar, asked the czar to step down in March and placed Russia under a provisional government. In the fall, under the leadership of Lenin, the communists seized power, and Russia became a Soviet Union modeled on Marxist principles.

    1929: Josef Stalin expelled Leon Trotsky from the Soviet Union and began an unchallenged dictatorship of the Soviet Union.

    Today: While the Soviet Union has collapsed, twelve of fifteen former Soviet states join to form the Commonwealth of Independent States. Some former eastern European countries under the influence of the Soviets dissolve peacefully, such as the former Czechoslovakia dividing into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. However, other countries cannot agree on the future of their new nations and serious fighting erupts, especially in the former Yugoslavia.

  • World War I: At the end of the war, the suffragette movement gained women the right to vote in Britain in 1918 and in America with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. The Eighteenth Amendment began Prohibition, making the drinking and manufacturing of alcoholic beverages illegal.

    1929: Organized crime violence reached an historic high; illegal drinking establishments, known as “speakeasies,” surged in popularity. Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933 with the Twenty-First Amendment.

    Today: In 1972, the United States Senate approves a proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting discriminating against women because of their gender. Never receiving enough votes by states for ratification, the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated in 1982. While the consumption of alcohol remains legal, national campaigns have focused on educating adults to drink responsibly. Public awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving have increased with many Americans joining national associations, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), to help keep roads free of intoxicated drivers.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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See these sections in the separate analyses of The Sun Also Rises and especially in The Garden of Eden (1986).

Adaptations

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A Farewell to Arms was made into film twice — in 1932, with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes playing Frederic and Catherine, and again in 1958, with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. Typical failure in Hollywood's version of a Hemingway work is suggested by the alternate ending of the first version, in which Catherine survives. Many other Hemingway works, including a number of the stories, have been adapted to film. The general verdict has been that, at best, the films fail to capture the subtlety and complexity of the work and, at worst, they are travesties of Hemingway's world.

Media Adaptations

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  • Not long after its literary success, A Farewell to Arms was made into a movie by Paramount pictures in 1932. The lead role of Lt. Frederic Henry was played by Gary Cooper. The heroine of the tale, Catherine Barkley, was played by Helen Hayes. Directed by Frank Borzage, the film won several Academy Awards including Best Cinematography (Charles Bryant Lang, Jr.), Best Sound (Harold C. Lewis), and received nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Picture. To Hemingway’s annoyance, the film departed widely from the book.
  • A remake in 1950 of the 1932 film was not successful. This version starred William Holden and Nancy Olson. It was directed by Frank Borzage and even retitled—Force of Arms. In 1957, Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones starred in another remake. The producer, David O. Selznick, never ceased to interfere with the production. This interference led to John Huston’s replacement as director with Charles Vidor. The resulting film butchered the original story so badly that Selznick wrote a letter of apology to Hemingway. The film was condemned immediately upon release, losing Selznick millions of dollars that he had invested in the film. In fact, the only virtue of the film was the cinematic capture of the panoramic Italian landscape. The color photography was done by Piero Portalupi and Oswald Morris.
  • In 1990, Hemingway’s novel was adapted as a sound recording. Published by Books on Tape of California, the novel is read by Wolfram Kandinsky.
  • The story of Hemingway’s romance with his nurse Agnes von Kurowsky is retold by director Richard Attenborough in his 1997 film In Love and War. Starring Chris O’Donnell as the nineteen-year-old Hemingway and Sandra Bullock as his twenty-six-year-old nurse, In Love and War explores the relationship Hemingway had with von Kurowsky during the First World War and suggests Hemingway later used this failed romance as inspiration for A Farewell to Arms. Produced by New Line Cinema, the film was noted for splendid views of the Italian countryside and interesting historical details.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Baker, Carlos, ed. Ernest Hemingway: Critiques of Four Major Novels. Scribners, 1962.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Ernest Hemingway. Chelsea, 1985.

Butcher, Fanny. “Here is Genius, Critic Declares of Hemingway.” In Chicago Daily Tribune, September 28, 1929, p. 11.

Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1978.

Hazlitt, Henry. “Take Hemingway.” In New York Sun, September 28, 1929, p. 38.

Herrick, Robert. “What Is Dirt?” In Bookman, November, 1929, p. 258-62.

Monteiro, George, ed. Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. G. K. Hall, 1994.

Rovit, Earl. “Learning to Care.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of A Farewell to Arms, edited by Jay Gellens. Prentice-Hall, 1970, pp. 33-40.

Spanier, Sandra Whipple. “Hemingway’s Unknown Soldier: Catherine Barkley, the Critics, and the Great War.” In New Essays on A Farewell to Arms. Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 75-108.

Further Reading
Bruccoli, Matthew J. Conversations with Ernest Hemingway. University Press of Mississippi, 1986. Contains interviews with Hemingway that provide the author’s point of view on a variety of issues concerning his life and works.

Donaldson, Scott. The Cambridge Companion to Hemingway. Cambridge University Press, 1996. Contains a wealth of background information on Hemingway and his writings.

Donaldson, Scott, ed. New Essays on A Farewell to Arms. Cambridge University Press, 1990. A collection of four outstanding recent interpretations of the novel, as well as a useful introduction by the editor.

Gellens, Jay, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of A Farewell to Arms. Prentice-Hall, 1970. Contains seven critical interpretations of the novel, including a “symposium” bringing together four critics’ views on Hemingway’s use of symbolism. Also includes six shorter critical “View Points” on various aspects of the work.

Hutchinson, Peter. “Love and War in the Pages of Mr. Hemingway.” In New York Times Book Review, September 29, 1929, p. 5. This critic reminds the audience that Hemingway did not invent the prose style he is known for. However, he continues, Hemingway has proven to be the master of the style.

Lewis, Robert W. A Farewell to Arms: The War of Words. Twayne, 1992. A recent review of the themes, characters, and techniques of A Farewell to Arms. Lewis also reviews the critical reception of the work and provides a chronology of Hemingway's life.

Mandall, Miriam B. Reading Hemingway: The Facts in the Fictions. Scarecrow, 1995. A valuable reference tool for the study of any of Hemingway’s novels, contains detailed annotations and commentary for A Farewell to Arms, among other works.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. Harper and Row, 1985. A thorough and detailed biography of the author that provides a great deal of insight into the composition of his major works.

Nagel, James. “Ernest Hemingway.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by James J. Martine, Vol. 9. Gale, 1981, pp. 100-120. Nagel presents an overview of Hemingway's life and his major works.

Reynolds, Michael S. Hemingway’s First War: The Making of A Farewell to Arms. Princeton University Press, 1976. Surveys the experiences that led to Hemingway’s writing of the novel, including analyses of Hemingway’s manner of composing the work, the structure of the novel, critical responses, and an essay on A Farewell to Arms as travel literature.

Waldhorn, Arthur. Reader's Guide to Ernest Hemingway. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972. An excellent resource for information on Hemingway’s life and his style of writing, including material on A Farewell to Arms and his other works.

Bibliography

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Beversluis, John. “Dispelling the Romantic Myth: A Study of A Farewell to Arms.” The Hemingway Review 9, no. 1 (Fall, 1989): 18-25. Rejecting the common romantic interpretation, Beversluis asserts that this novel explores the problem of self-knowledge. His reading of the character of Catherine is especially interesting. A special A Farewell to Arms issue of the journal.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Offers a representative selection of the best scholarship available on the novel. Includes Bloom’s introduction, chronology, bibliography, and index.

Donaldson, Scott, ed. New Essays on “A Farewell to Arms.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Appropriate for specialists and nonspecialists. The introduction discusses the novel’s composition, publication, and reception, as well as its major critical readings from publication to 1990.

Lewis, Robert W. “A Farewell to Arms”: The War of the Words. Boston: Twayne, 1992. Comprehensive resource. Concludes that the novel is about language—particularly the language by which truth and falsehood are revealed.

Waldhorn, Arthur. A Readers’ Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972. A concise, well-written vision of Hemingway and his works, appropriate for specialists and nonspecialists.

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