See if you recognize a famous quote here:
If people bring so much courage to this world that the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.
The “broken places” phrase is one that I’d encountered earlier this year, when Dave Cullen invoked it for his book, Columbine, even titling a chapter with the reference. I’d forgotten that it’s the most often-quoted bit from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which is thought to be one of the greatest works of literature to emerge from World War I, if not the greatest.
It has a different angle on the war because it’s inspired from Hemingway’s experience in the Italian front, so it’s a waiting game within mountain ranges rather than the trench warfare you normally picture with this war. It’s still a nasty business.
The hero is Frederic Henry, a young American ambulance driver in the war. He’s not involved in the actual fighting, and for him the war is a dreary exercise until he meets Catherine Barkley, an lovely English nurse whom he falls in love with. Not long afterward, Frederic is wounded by a mortar and Catherine helps him recover in, well, any number of ways. But soon their love affair is complicated when he impregnates her and must return to the front.
There’s a lot to reflect on, so I’ll just say some things about the two major thematic storylines: the purgatory of war and the doomed romance.
A Damn Rotten War
WWI began as a catastrophic collision of chest-thumping jingoism and dragged down the stretch as a pride-preserving landgrab, and it’s at this dragging point where we find the characters.
For all the easily parodied machismo throughout Hemingway’s fiction, A Farewell to Arms is clearly aware of the senseless machismo happening on an international scale.
We were all cooked. The thing to do was not recognize it. The last country to realize they were cooked would win the war.
People have called this an anti-war novel. I can’t bring myself to do that. Maybe it’s because it so repeatedly complains about the war, yet at the same time it honors traditional combat bravery in its characters and scolds cowardice. Hemingway to me is one of those authors whose criticisms of a subject (in this case the hazards of stubborn manliness) are often complicated because he has an unshakable closeness to or an affection for the thing he is criticizing.
A Damn Fine Girl
If you’ve ever been in love together with someone, but to pause and think about what you’re doing with that person would have struck you with terror, the dialogue between Frederic and Catherine will ring like a bell of doom.
“I feel better now,” Catherine said. “I felt terrible when we started.”
“We always feel good when we’re together.”
“We will always be together.”
“Yes, except I’m going away at midnight.”
“Don’t think about it, darling.”
They persist in making these vapid affirmations, like this but usually much lengthier, to fill the air between them.
If you know Hemingway, then you know that the main concern of the dialogue is not what the characters talk about, but the thing they refuse to. This is especially true throughout A Farewell to Arms, where Frederic’s personal refrain is actually “I don’t want to talk about it,” whether it’s the war he fled or the baby he’s about to father with Catherine.
They are an obnoxiously in-love couple that’s about to have a thunderstorm bear down on them (never mind the fact it’s literally always raining in the book). I think this is appealing in two ways: either you sympathize with them (perhaps you’re obnoxiously in love) and brace yourself for an affecting tragedy, or you want to watch these lovebirds get plucked.
But I think if you’re the latter kind of reader you’ll agree, by the end, they’ve been punished far too much. After all, what’s a Hemingway novel without an ending so depressing it empties you out?
I’m surprised that of Hemingway’s novels, this one isn’t assigned more often to high school students (as opposed to The Old Man and the Sea, which is probably the most widely implemented Hemingway in this regard but I’ve yet to hear a high schooler praise it). Like The Sun Also Rises, it’s not terribly long and is a great introduction to his work. And, yes—a good read.