My first encounter with Ernest Hemingway was in Dr. Paul Ragan’s 10th grade English class at Hammond when I was assigned Hemingway’s first bestseller — a heartbreakingly beautiful love story of an American in Italy during World War I. I remember feeling entranced as I fell into the rhythm of Hemingway’s prose, letting the even cadence of his writing transport me along the winding course of the narrative.
A Farewell to Arms, described by Hemingway biographer Michael Reynolds as “the premier American war novel from that debacle World War I,” anchored his prominence as a modern American author and set the standard for the modern wartime romance novel. It reads like a memoir from the perspective of Hemingway’s protagonist, Frederic Henry, an American serving as an ambulance driver on the Italian Front. After being severely wounded by mortar fire while bringing food to his men in the trenches, Henry falls in love with a beautiful British nurse, Catherine Barkley. After he recovers and returns to the front, Italian soldiers arbitrarily decide to kill him during a retreat because he speaks Italian with an accent. Henry manages to escape and, feeling no more obligation to the Italian army, deserts and flees to Switzerland with Catherine.
Hemingway based the novel from his own experience of working as an ambulance driver in Italy. He only served for two months, however, as he too was seriously wounded by mortar fire while taking food to the men on the frontline. He said of the event, “When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you ... Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you.”
One of the book’s main themes is the difference between people who “realize” and “know,” and those who don’t. In the beginning of the novel, before he is wounded, Henry reflects of the priest, “He had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget. But I did not know that then, although I learned it later.” What “it” is referring to is debated by some scholars as either a questioning of faith or as a coming to faith in God, but I would argue it more has to do specifically with a belief or a disbelief in the existence of meaning in life and death.
As in much of Hemingway’s fiction, the trope of existentialism is a strong one and reasonably so. Soldiers cynically question the purpose of their sacrifice, and when Henry feels he has finally found meaning in his life, it collapses again. Rain is the great symbol in the novel of the arbitrary nature of life, life’s inevitable disorder, and its ultimate unraveling.
Despite the palpable sense of despair found in A Farewell to Arms, it is yet somehow a very enjoyable read. The love angle is a charming one, and the book exhibits one of art’s greatest achievements — turning pain into beauty.