Sunday, July 8, 2012

"A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway

After the rather unpleasant experience of reading A Red Badge of Courage, I wasn't looking forward to A Farewell to Arms. No matter that they're in different wars (Civil War vs. WWI), have different protagonists (a young untested soldier vs. an American ambulance driver with the Italian forces), and focus on different events (bravery in battle vs. ...well, I'm not sure in the case of Farewell), I went a bit reluctantly into Hemingway's novel. In the end, of course, all war books are not the same, and I appreciated Farewell immensely more.

The best part of A Farewell to Arms is Hemingway's sparse and unsentimental style, which could come off dull but instead seems an apt reflection of the inner thoughts of the protagonist, Henry. Much of his life is routine, and he thinks in that manner, only occasionally pausing to reflect on his life or the people in it. Like the young protagonist of A Red Badge of Courage, Henry is ambivalent about war. He feels a sense of duty in doing his job correctly, but the fighting doesn't inflame his passions or mean much to him. Unlike the youth in Red Badge, though, Henry feels no guilt in this. He's more interested in being good to his friends and in being with Catherine, an English nurse with whom he's fallen in love.

The back flap of my novel seems to describe A Farewell to Arms as a love story, but although Henry and Catherine's relationship is central to the novel, it's hard to describe the book as a romance (at least in the way that most of us think of the term). One of the reasons is because Henry thinks of his relationship matter-of-factly through most of the book, which is perhaps realistic in the situation but not especially heartstrings-pulling. Another reason, for me, is because Catherine is such a flat character. Though we know she initially pursues her flirtation with Henry in order to overcome the death of a fiance, she so quickly subsumes her life into Henry's that it's hard to think of her as a full-bodied person. In my review of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, I lamented that the love interest Maria is "frail and delicate, ...and it is only through her relationship with Robert that she feels whole again. She gives herself to Robert fully and desires nothing else but to provide for his needs." The same is true of Catherine, who dedicates herself solely to Henry, eventually becoming a somewhat cloying partner who fails to recognize Henry's need (and, hey, perhaps her own need? c'mon) for some kind of purpose and independence.

The ending of the novel is almost surprising, especially in contrast to the end of Red Badge. At the end of Crane's work, the youth believes he has become a man and grown from his experience in war. Even the cynical Catch-22 ends with hope. In contrast, A Farewell to Arms ends with no such lesson. Henry has survived war, and people have died, and nothing is different.

Though I had problems with Catherine, Hemingway's writing style is enough to make A Farewell to Arms compelling, and it does make an interesting study in contrast with Red Badge.

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