A Farewell to Arms is an unusual book. The storyline is simple enough, but the style of writing took some time getting used to. This is the first Hemingway novel I had ever read so I wasn’t prepared for it, but after reading the introduction in the edition which I own, the word ‘detachment’ stood out to me. The story began and I felt like I was outside looking in. Despite being written in the first person, you never feel like you have got into the mind of the protagonist. There is a wall there between his feelings and you as a reader which never really comes down even as the story turns into tragedy.
Because of this, I found it one of the strangest love stories I had ever read. The love between Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley plays out in an almost childlike way. This impression was heightened by the continual repetition in the dialogue, or the descent of the dialogue into a long rambling paragraph of ‘he said’, ‘I said’ not unlike a child’s journal. It was when I switched from seeing the book as a detached narrative and began seeing it as a story from the heart of a child, that it really began to move me.
Despite their trials, the relationship between Catherine and Frederic is steeped with innocence. The war goes on, but neither character is ever truly a part of it. What they are part of is a strange world filled with the mystery of an overwhelming love for one another, and the war does little more than get in the way of that. Despite danger and risk, both characters continue to talk about the ‘fine time’ they are having or the ‘grand adventure’ that it all is. Nothing sullied can touch them – neither cruelty, injustice, war or death. Because of this, Hemingway’s conclusion is all the more tragic because
[The world] kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry
I enjoyed viewing World War I from a different angle again – this time the battle in Italy against the Austrians which tends not to be the focus of most WWI novels. Henry’s experience during the retreat is poignant – you so want him to escape and return to Catherine. But Hemingway’s intention is not to build anticipation or fear that he won’t. This part of the story simply serves to place a surmountable barrier in the way of Catherine’s and Frederic’s love which makes their reunion all the more wonderful.
There was little true character development of any but the main characters, and even those two were not developed deeply. I get the sense though that characterisation was not his priority. Because this story is semi autobiographical, I get the sense that Hemingway simply needed to ‘get it out’ and in doing so, contemplate his experience, his loss and mortality. In such an exercise, the characters were incidental.
Publisher: Vintage (promotional copy from Paperview UK Ltd)
Date Finished: 20 March 2008
Challenges: 4 of category 7: Books with World War I as the theme for the 888 Challenge