A Farewell to Arms book review

I always want to slap Hemingway’s women. They never seem like fully realized characters. Unlike the men, who, while they may not always be admirable, at least are recognizably human. Hemingway believed that women, along with politics, drink, money and ambition, ruined a writer. So it’s not surprising that his women tend to fall into two categories: bitches, like Margot Macomber*, who find ways to humiliate their husbands, and seductress-victims who are “understanding” of the men who abuse them.**

My favourite, if I had to pick one, is Brett Ashley, the aristocratic love interest in The Sun Also Rises. Brett, too, is a bitch, but an interesting character, and the closest Hemingway ever came to writing a woman I might like to sit next to at dinner.

He could be very sentimental about his women. Catherine Barkley is a good case in point. She’s a nurse, and a good person. It helps that she’s beautiful. In the hands of another writer she’d be a strong, engaging character, and when we first meet her she is just that. Once she falls in love, however, she becomes somebody else altogether.

A Farewell to Arms is set in Italy during the final years of the First World War. Lieutenant Frederic Henry, the narrator, is an American ambulance driver with the Italian army based in a town near the Austrian front: “The town was very nice and our house was very fine.” (It’s lines like this that inspired the annual “Bad Hemingway” writing contest which ran from 1977 to 2005.) When he meets Catherine, she’s mourning the death of her fiancé who was killed in the battle of the Somme. She should have married him, she says, before he left:

“He could have had anything he wanted if I had have known. I would have married him or anything. I know all about it now. But then he wanted to go to war and I didn’t know.”

Henry, who’s had plenty of brothel sex, has never been in love. It takes him a while to fall in love with Catherine, although he lies to her and tells her he loves her. When he’s wounded in the knee and sent to a hospital in Milan, Catherine – who has been transferred there – comes to see him. It’s then that he realizes he’s in love with her; their liaison has grown from being a game to take their minds off the war to a proper love match. From this point on, Catherine becomes a typical Hemingway love object:

“I’ll say just what you wish and I’ll do what you wish and then you will never want any other girls, will you? . . . I want what you want. There isn’t any me any more. Just what you want. . . .I’m good. Aren’t I good? You don’t want any other girls, do you? . . .You see? I’m good. I do what you want.”

People in love say all kinds of silly things. What’s galling is that it’s always the women who say them. Like a feudal lord, Henry accepts her oaths of allegiance but never makes any of his own. They spend all their free time together and eventually the inevitable occurs: reluctantly, she tells him she’s pregnant. Being a Hemingway gal, of course, she assures him she doesn’t want him to worry about it:

“I’ll try and not make trouble for you. I know I’ve made trouble now. But haven’t I been a good girl till now? . . .You simply mustn’t worry.”

Meanwhile, there’s a war on. The Germans and Austrians launch an offensive, and the Italians are forced to retreat. Henry, back in action with his knee repaired, travels with some other drivers, two Italian engineering sergeants, and two frightened young girls. When the sergeants abandon the drivers when their car gets stuck in the mud, Henry shoots one of them, and another driver finishes him off. Further up the road, the Italian military is singling out officers and shooting them, blaming them for the series of defeats. Henry, too, is pulled aside – believing he’s about to be executed, he jumps into the river and escapes.

At this point, Henry has made his own “separate peace”, as he puts it. He’s done with the war – a conflict he never fully embraced. He believes in doing his duty, and has earned himself a medal for his courage. But the rhetoric of war, words like “sacred”, “glorious”, and “sacrifice”, embarrass him:

“We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.”

Having escaped death by drowning, Henry makes his way to Stresa, where he reunites with Catherine. If the Italians discover his whereabouts, he’ll likely be arrested – maybe shot – for desertion. Knowing that, he and Catherine flee to Switzerland, rowing across the lake in a storm. They arrive safely and are arrested shortly after landing; however, as they carry both passports and money they aren’t detained for long. A soldier drives them to Locarno, where their money helps them secure provisional visas. They rent a cabin in the mountains overlooking Montreux and spend the next few months in a kind of honeymoon state, making plans for the future and trying not to think about the war.

As the time nears for Catherine’s delivery, they move to Lausanne to be close to the hospital. Three weeks later she goes into a long, painful, protracted labour. Drunk on nitrous oxide, she assures him she’s not going to die, and Henry, the atheist, bargains fervently with God to let her live. The baby, delivered by Caesarian section, is stillborn; Catherine continues to hemmorhage and dies on the operating table. Her death, like that of the child, like that of the thousands of young men who are dying every minute of this war, is predestined:

“If people bring so much courage to this world 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. It 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.”

Darn it all anyway. The man could write.


*”The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”

**Liz, in “Up in Michigan”

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