Review – A Farewell to Arms

Book Review of A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1929.

by Paul A. Myers

In the Modernist classic A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway captures the disillusionment with the First World War experienced by a new class of rootless cosmopolitans that arose in the years after the war. This war-impaired cohort, the lost generation, had survived the global conflict while being traumatized by the unprecedented carnage of the war. The result was a distracted and disillusioned bunch of survivors stumbling through the peace years of the 1920s.

Recommendation. The audiobook version narrated by John Slattery who skillfully changes voice tones with each character provides a vivid listening experience, a time travel journey back to the era.

A Farewell to Arms was one of the novels appearing in the years after the First World War that might be described as war realism novels. The novels were more “never again” than antiwar. The realism made a powerful statement against war. Many of themes developed in these novels, such as the concept of a “separate peace” in Hemingway’s, populate later antiwar literature. The never again sentiment evolved into more strident antiwar feelings in the western democracies during the 1930s and then later during the Vietnam war era. Hemingway vividly illustrates how the ruling class breaks the contract with those in the ranks who serve and bear the sacrifices. Overall these novels shredded the politicians’ explanations behind the war while the resulting peace negotiated by the politicians left many deeply embittered.

One says “modernist” with the understanding that James Joyce’s Modernist masterpiece Ulysses overthrew narrative as the central engine of the novel, which had evolved over centuries as a narrative platform for telling stories. Hemingway stayed with the traditional narrative and in his novel the narrative track runs straight-line down the timeline like a railroad track across the prairie. The novel is not a piece of Dada or Surrealist literature even though Hemingway started writing the novel within blocks of Montparnasse, the capital of Surrealism in 1920s Paris. Hemingway in those years often went to the museum in Luxembourg Gardens to look at the Cezanne’s for inspiration. One has to look to the novel’s ending to find its rhyme with the despair and nihilism of Dada and Surrealism. Hemingway uses stark realism to tell his story, not the chaotic abstraction characterizing the visual arts of Surrealism.

Morley Callaghan, a writer and friend of Hemingway’s, described the change to the new modernist style as: “the root of the trouble with writing was that poets and storywriters used language to evade, to skip away from the object, because they could never bear to face the thing freshly and see it freshly for what it was in itself…To tell the truth cleanly.”

This Hemingway does. He directly goes at the object being described with stripped down, clean sentences that got to the substance of the subject. The style is clean and laconic. Hemingway’s style itself announces a departure from that which had gone on before the war.

The novel proceeds along two self-reinforcing tracks: a romance between the two central characters against the backdrop of the war itself.

The questions posed are: what was the nature of the war and what drove it? Hemingway provides generalized answers not limited to the First World War; therefore these answers resonate across the decades. (Spoiler alert: this review and synopsis discuss much of the novel in terms of its fully revealed tragic ending.)

Succinct observations of sharp clarity characterize A Farewell to Arms, first published in 1929. In the first forty-seven pages, characters are introduced, a romance initiated, and the wider historical stage of World War I in Italy set. The reader has a clear picture of place and people when the action starts.

Early in the book, Hemingway distills the essence of war in modern life into its basic elements. The story is written in the first person and the point of view is from some unspoken future time from which events are recalled, a technique reinforcing the universalist tone of the novel.

The lucid clarity of observations unfolds over several pages covering a conversation between Lieutenant Frederic Henry, the Hemingway alter ego of the novel, and the four Italian drivers of the ambulance section. The ambulance drivers are everyman characters and representative of the people. The drivers see the ruling class as both different from them and responsible for the war.

The driver Passini articulates the leading opinion among the drivers; he is the one most often named. The drivers are described:

“They were all mechanics and hated the war.”

There’s a working class aura to the drivers, the working classes being the backbone of popular politics in opposition to elite politics. One of the drivers, Manera, says:

 “If everybody would not attack the war would be over.”

Henry, consistent with his position as lieutenant, counters with the establishment point of view:

“I believe we should get the war over,” I said. “It would not finish if one side stopped fighting. It would only get worse if we stopped fighting.”

“It could not be worse,” Passini said respectfully. “There is nothing worse than war.”

Henry counters with the second point in the eternal argument:

“Defeat is worse.”

He goes on to describe the negative consequences. A little further on, Passini asserts the central premise of the people’s argument:

 “There is nothing as bad as war.”

Henry counters:

“I know it is bad but we must finish it.”

Passini responds with the larger truth of war:

“It doesn’t finish. There is no finish to a war.”

Henry comes back:

“Yes there is.”

Panini counters with a complete argument over several lines:

“War is not won by victory.”

“One side must stop fighting.”

Passini gives voice to the people:

“We think. We read. We are not peasants. We are mechanics. But even the peasants know better than to believe in a war. Everybody hates war.”

One must remember that in this era mechanics were the masters of the new technologies of mobility. Passini describes the motive force of war:

 “There is a class that controls a country that is stupid and does not realize anything and never can. That is why we have this war.”

Another driver adds:

“Also they make money out of it.”

“Most of them don’t,” said Passini. “They are too stupid. They do it for nothing. For stupidity.”

Speaking of Lieutenant Henry, Passini says to the other drivers:

“He likes it, said Passini. “We will convert him.”

During the conversations with the drivers a second theme emerges during a tale about some Italian troops who would not attack despite being ordered to do so. The carabinieri, the military police, then lined them up and shot every tenth man, the ancient ritual of decimation. Speaking of the leaders of these troops, Manera says:

“They were afraid. The officers all came from such good families.” Followed by the observation, “A sergeant shot two officers who would not get out.”

The theme of a feckless leadership class emerges. Further on Passini observes:

 “There are people who are afraid of their officers. It is with them the war is made.”

There is a hierarchy behind the making of war, one that is self-interested. Then comes the turning point of the first part of the book as Henry recalls:

“I heard a cough, then came the chuh-chuh-chuh-chuh—then there was a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing wind.”

Passini is killed and Henry severely wounded and evacuated to hospital. With the death of Passini, the voice of the prophet is dead. Now it is events which will launch Lieutenant Henry on his personal journey to a separate peace, a journey which will destroy the “defeat is worse” thesis by the events which unfold in the novel.

While in the hospital, Henry speaks with the priest from the officers’ mess. The priest has been an isolated and often mocked figure in the mess, a personification of the distance between the war and any moral sensibility. The priest tells Henry:

“I cannot say it easily. There are people who would make war. In this country there are many like that. There are other people who would not make war.”

“But the first ones make them do it.”


“And the ones who would not make war? Can they stop it?

“I do not know.”

“Have they ever been able to stop it?”

“They are not organized to stop things and when they get organized their leaders sell them out.”

“Then it’s hopeless.”

“It is never hopeless. But sometimes I cannot hope.”

The reader is left with the futility of the dilemma, another unresolved waypoint on the journey to the novel’s eventual resolution.

While in this field hospital, his former roommate Rinaldi, a doctor and surgeon, comes and visits Henry. America has now entered the war on the Allied side. Another ruling class motivation for war is introduced, that of irredentism, one of the scourges of the twentieth century. Rinaldi sees great things for Italy coming from the war:

 “We will get Nice and Savoia from the French. We will get Corsica and all the Adriatic coast-line, Rinaldi said. Italy will return to the splendors of Rome, said the major.”

This passage hints at the irredentism that motivates the Italian ruling class.

The romance between Lieutenant Henry and the English nurse Catherine Barkley now resumes and heads towards physical consummation. The romance had been previously introduced before Henry departed on the front-line mission where he was wounded.

In that earlier conversation together, Catherine had explained that she had had a fiancé, a young English officer who was now dead. With regard to that uncompleted love, she explained her innocence by saying:

“You see I didn’t care about the other thing and he could have had it all … I didn’t know about anything then.”

The implication is that next time she will offer herself up. Chastity is not so much negotiable to her as it is expendable. She makes the central point of the novel:

“…and then of course he was killed and that was the end of it.”

Henry responds:

 “I don’t know.”

She answers:

“Oh, yes,” she said. “That’s the end of it.”

At the end of the novel, one can recall the finality of Catherine’s statement because it booms like a cannon shot across the blank space after the last sentence of the last paragraph of the story. It is like John Donne’s bell tolling in the church tower. The novel’s ending is foreshadowed here.

Catherine then makes a point on the nature of the war and the fact that it is anything but romantic:

“People can’t realize what France is like. If they did, it couldn’t all go on. He didn’t have a saber cut. They blew him all to bits.”

It is a sentiment widely felt by participants in war after war, that somehow if only the people at home understood what was going on the war would not be allowed to continue. But the wars continue no matter how much first-hand witnessing is rendered. Other dynamics are at work.

Before Lieutenant Henry’s wounding, the romance reaches a symbolic surrender, a promise of a future consummation to come. The words spoken are what one might expect after physical consummation, not as a preliminary spilled out after a first stolen kiss.

“I looked in her eyes and put my arm around her as I had before and kissed her … I held her and suddenly she shivered … she was crying on my shoulder.”

“Oh darling,” she said. “You will be good to me, won’t you?”

“…You will, won’t you?” She looked up at me. “Because we’re going to have a strange life.”

Further on:

“You did say you loved me, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” I lied. “I love you.” I had not said it before.

Henry’s interior thoughts are:

I did not care what I was getting into…I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving here. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards. Like bridge you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes. Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were. It was all right with me.

Later, the unmentioned stakes come to dominate the couple’s life.

Catherine responds to Henry’s unspoken thoughts:

“This is a rotten game we play, isn’t it?”

“What game?”

“Don’t be dull.”

…but it’s a rotten game.”

The resonance is that the bigger rotten game is the war that goes along with the unmentioned stakes, which turns out to be life and living love. One observes also that at this stage of the romance Henry has not said in his own mind that he loves Catherine. He’s just a young officer trying to make time with a nurse, the boy-girl game.

Catherine echoes this thought:

“And you don’t have to say you love me. That’s all over for a while.”

And so it is. The interlude is over. Lieutenant Henry soon departs for the front where he is wounded. Henry is evacuated to a field hospital. Rinaldi comes and visits him and says of Catherine:

“I will send her. Your lovely cool goddess. English goddess. My God what would a man do with a woman like that except worship her? What else is an Englishwoman good for?”

While waiting for transfer to Milan, Rinaldi visits again and says:

“The English you go to see every night at their hospital. She is going to Milan too,”

In Milan, where Catherine Barkley has been assigned, she comes into Henry’s room and the relationship changes—entirely.

“Hello, carling,” she said. She looked fresh and young and very beautiful. I thought I had never seen any one so beautiful.

“Hello,” I said. When I saw her I was in love with her. Everything turned over inside of me…I was crazy about her. … and held her tight to me.”

A little further on:

“You do love me?”

“I really love you. I’m crazy about you. Come on please.”

“Feel our hearts beating.”

“I don’t care about our hearts. I want you. I’m just mad about you.”

After the physical encounter:

The wildness was gone and I felt finer than I had ever felt.

She asked, “Now do you believe I love you?”

“…I’m crazy in love with you.”

The scene closes:

She went out. God knows I had not wanted to fall in love with her. I had not wanted to fall in love with any one. But God knows I had and I lay on the bed in the room of the hospital in Milan and all sorts of things went through my head but I felt wonderful …”

 Henry summarizes the blissful time of his recovery:

We had a lovely time that summer.

With the coming of fall the world again changes:

In September the first cool nights came … and we knew the summer was gone. The fighting at the front went very badly and they could not take San Gabriele…There were riots in the town against the war and bad rioting in Turin.

Catherine delivers news:

“I’m going to have a baby, darling.”

Henry expresses his concern for her:

“I only worry about you.”

“That’s it. That’s what you mustn’t do. People have babies all the time. Everybody has babies. It’s a natural thing.”

Catherine expresses their unity, her clear perception of them as a unified couple:

“Oh, darling!” she came back from wherever she had been. “You mustn’t mind me.” We were both together again and the self-consciousness was gone. “We really are the same one and we mustn’t misunderstand on purpose.”

Hemingway gets at the fundamental transaction between a couple that allows them, through love, to endure life and follow the only path that can transcend its intrinsic tragedy. Love is the loyalty of two people clinging to one another in the dark against the forces, the “they,” against them:

“We won’t fight.”

“We mustn’t. Because there’s only us two and in the world there’s all the rest of them. If anything comes between us we’re gone and then they have us.”

“They won’t get us,” I said. “Because you’re too brave. Nothing ever happens to the brave.”

“They die of course.”

“But only once.”

The idyllic summer interlude is over and Henry recovers and returns to the front. But “they” are laying in wait with their war. A new season approaches:

Now in the fall the trees were all bare and the roads were muddy…The mulberry trees were bare and the fields were brown. There were wet dead leaves.

The drive towards the political climax of the story beings with the first notice of the retreat from Caporetto:

…the Austrians had broken through the twenty-seventh army corps up toward Caporetto. There had been a great battle in the north all day.

“If those bastards let them through we are cooked,” he said.

“It’s Germans that are attacking,” one of the medical officers said. The word Germans was something to be frightened of. We did not want to have anything to do with the Germans.

The Italians start to retreat and Henry leads his small detachment of two ambulances rearward, caught up in gigantic traffic jams. They head off one road and try to cross a muddy field to another, but the ambulances dig into their hubs. They abandon the ambulances and start walking, eventually joining a long column of retreating soldiers.

One of the drivers calls another driver good naturedly an anarchist. “He doesn’t go to church.”

“Are you really anarchists?” asked Henry.

The driver replies:

“No, Tenente. We’re socialists. We come from Imola.”

Henry interrogates them on being socialists. Everyone in the town is and always has been socialist the driver replies. The drivers assure Henry that if he comes to the town they will make him a socialist, too. Socialism is characterized as some distant utopia.

In this era, anarchists were the worst kind of subversives to most Americans, violent and furtive. Here they are dismissed as not going to church. But socialists were held in almost the same disrepute by much of the American public. The leader of the Socialist party in America, Eugene Debs, had been jailed during the First World War and had only been pardoned by President Warren Harding in 1921. On May 1, 1919, there were big riots in Cleveland, Ohio when the Socialists organized a march against Debs’ conviction and the United States’ intervention against the Bolshevik regime in Russia. The marchers were attacked by police and army troops. So Hemingway is putting the story of sympathetically portrayed Italian soldiers who are socialists at sharp variance to the overall American sensibility of the time, but very much in step with American writers’ sensibility during this era. In America, cultures were clashing throughout the 1920s. Glasses may have clinked in the speakeasies of the big cities, but Protestant fundamentalism ruled over the heartland with its intolerant hand, described by one writer as “the moral dictatorship of congressmen from rural districts and left political power in the hands of businessmen with narrow aims…” [1]

One observes that nowhere in the novel is there any favorable allusion to war leadership, of any of the war’s goals, or the ruling class. There’s not one wave of the flag, anyone’s flag. The novel is devoid of favorable comment on the war or the people running it. Empty.  

The column of soldiers including Henry and the drivers approaches a bridge over a river in the darkness. Battle police including “wide-hatted carabinieri” are scrutinizing the column and pulling officers out, accusing them of abandoning their troops. It is quickly apparent these unfortunates are being marched off, tried by a drumhead court martial, and shot. Henry observes:

The questioners had all the efficiency, coldness and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and are not being fired on.

The battle police question a middle-aged lieutenant colonel and make the authoritarian state’s time-honored excuse of a stab in the back:

“It is because of treachery such as yours that we have lost the fruits of victory.”

“Have you ever been in a retreat?” the lieutenant-colonel asked.

“Italy should never retreat.”

The lieutenant-colonel is led away to be shot. Henry observes:

I saw how their minds worked; if they had minds and if they worked. They were all young men and they were saving their country.

The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it.

Henry quickly understands that “they” almost have him. He sees who the adversary is. He breaks for the river, and with shots ringing, dives in, and stays submerged while flowing downriver with the current. He gulps for air, more shots, but submerges again. Further downriver he catches on to a timber and floats down the river and eventually heaves up on the riverbank. He finds a train track and sneaks aboard a passing train and hides under some guns lashed down on a flatcar. Henry reflects:

… seeing now very clearly and coldly—

You were out of it now. You had no more obligation.

Henry then goes over an analogy in his mind making the point that the contract was broken and that “they” had broken it. If “they” shot those they thought responsible, then those responsible were now free to seek other employment… “if the police did not get them.”

Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.

It was no point of honor. I was not against them. I was through.

… it was not my show any more …

Henry secures civilian cloths and makes it to Milan where he discovers that Catherine is now in Stresa, a resort town on a lake that is half in Italy and half in Switzerland. A friend in Milan had advised him to escape to Switzerland, “You just row across.” On the train journey, Henry is distracted by his thoughts and doesn’t read the newspaper. Then he makes one of the memorable statements of the novel: “I was going to forget the war. I had made a separate peace.” The concept of the individual making a separate peace is one of the recurring ideas in twentieth century antiwar sentiment; it crystallizes the contingency available to the individual.

Henry and Catherine reunite at the hotel in Stresa. In bed that night, he describes their togetherness:

“We could feel alone when we were together, alone against the other. It only happened to me like that once…we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together.”

This is a recollection from the future about something that only happened to the narrator once. Then there is one of the book’s most memorable passages, a great piece of charismatic writing:

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.

But this is not really a thought that occurred in the hotel room in Stresa that rainy night, but rather a recollection made far in the future. In 1929, Morley Callaghan was visiting with F. Scott Fitzgerald in Paris late one evening and Fitzgerald, who had just received page proofs of the novel from Hemingway, read the above passages to Callaghan and asked if they weren’t they just great. Callaghan sort of agreed, saying, “Well, yes it is, but…”

Fitzgerald took umbrage at Callaghan’s qualification. Callaghan’s point was that the passage seemed too deliberate, the rhythmic flow too determined. Fitzgerald said certainly it was lyrical and then moved the discussion elsewhere. The entire episode was upsetting to Callaghan even when writing about it thirty years later.

Why did Callaghan say what he did? This reviewer has thought about what Callaghan said that night in Paris in 1929. One can see that the passage is not part of the narrative flow. It is distinct not least because nothing yet tragic has happened to either Henry or Catherine. The tragic events are in the future. The novel’s narrative is told in the first person straight along the timeline but this passage is off the timeline. It is a recollection. These are words coming from some distant time in the future as recollected by the narrator. The passage is a soliloquy, a break in the narrative.

One also can say that the passage is charismatic because it is both powerful writing and memorable. Both Fitzgerald and Hemingway were writing for commercial success and both writers’ best books have these charismatic passages that stay embedded in readers’ minds long after reading. Fitzgerald was professionally appreciative of what Hemingway had done.

Returning to the novel and the hotel in Stresa, Henry has a conversation with the barman who correctly suspects Henry is a deserter. But the barman’s sympathies now align with draft resistance. He is older and says:

“Next year they’ll call my class. But I won’t go.”

“What will you do?”

“Get out of the country. I wouldn’t go to war. I was at the war once in Abyssinia. Nix.”

The war in Abyssinia saw the Ethiopians rout the Italians in a humiliating defeat. The following night there is a knock on the door. It is the barman. He has a warning for Henry from conversations he overheard in the café in town. “But I know that they know you were here before as an officer and know you are here out of uniform. After this retreat they arrest everyone.” Once again “they.” Henry says he does not want to be arrested. The barman says, “Then go to Switzerland…In my boat.”

Henry and Catherine get their things together and go to the boat and the barman gives them instructions and pushes them off, saying: “Go with the wind up the lake.” They reach Switzerland and row ashore and are given visas at the local customs office. The couple travels on to Montreux and pass an idyllic winter:

We had a fine life. We lied through the months of January and February and the winter was very fine and we were very happy.

But there is foreboding as spring approaches:

We knew the baby was very close now and it gave us both a feeling as though something were hurrying us and we could not lose any time together.

Early one morning, the pains begin and the couple goes to the hospital. At first things go all right, and then they go awry. The baby is born dead. The nurse says:

“They couldn’t start him breathing. The cord was caught around his neck or something.”

“So he’s dead.”

“Yes. It’s such a shame. He was such a fine big boy. I thought you knew.”

Henry now hopes for Catherine’s survival, but he is distraught and another soliloquy follows:

You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you…But they killed you in the end. You could count on that. Stay around and they would kill you.

Later, he is let into the room where Catherine is dying:

It seems she had one hemorrhage after another. They couldn’t stop it. I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died. She was unconscious all the time, and it did not take her very long to die.

He goes out in the hall and speaks with the doctor who explains, “It was the only thing to do,” he said. “The operation proved⸺”

“I do not want to talk about it,” I said.

He returns to the room and shoos the nurses out:

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-bye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

The End

The ending is minimalist because everything excess has been removed to stress the emptiness of death. And if death during a time of war is empty of meaning, then what about the war? Catherine’s words early in the novel come back:

“Oh, yes,” she said. “That’s the end of it.”

Indeed. The finality is made clear through the emptiness of the ending. The reader feels it. There are many memorable lines in the novel, but this line sums up the import of the book, the principal takeaway.

What is left unsaid by the narrator is whether or not he ever again wound up strong at the broken places, or just broken. There are hints in the novel by way of various cynical observations made in recollection that the narrator stayed broken. The sense of togetherness had only happened to him once as he had recalled during the scene about the rainy night in the hotel room. Never again.

The reader of the novel doesn’t have to decode any of the abundant symbolism or imagery that populates the story. The plain meaning of the sentences drives home the meaning and the drama. This is a sturdily constructed novel, each sentence a well-placed beam.

Hemingway’s book, published ten years after the end of the war, feels like a final tolling of the church bell in the distance for that war. The war is now over. A troubled future approaches because that war was not satisfactorily concluded. “They” didn’t get it right. The leaders promised victory but the public got something much less. The Paris Peace Treaty is like the baby boy in the hospital that causes his mother’s death, strangled by his own umbilical cord. The seeds of the baby’s destruction were carried by its own presence, just as the peace was destroyed by the war from which it was born.

The durability of public interest in Hemingway’s novel comes from the universality of his themes; there are no extraneous diversions hanging off the storyline. Every assertion rings true. One can analyze them one by one; yes, that is how life is. No false notes. Over the decades time would have revealed them, but they are not here. The enduring validity of what has been written reflects remarkable perspicacity for an author just barely thirty-years-old while writing the novel.

Margaret Anderson, editor of The Little Review and a contemporary of Hemingway’s on the Left Bank in the 1920s, characterized Hemingway by reducing her judgment to one word: “simple.”[2]  But this directness hits like a sledgehammer. Hemingway paid Anderson’s steamer passage back to New York from the south of France in 1941; The Little Review had been an early publisher of his stories.

For modern readers, as history recedes into the distance—the war was more than a century ago—and as the perspective on the events gets smaller, Hemingway’s story grows larger—its clarity both startling and magnifying.

All rights reserved. Paul A. Myers 2021.

[1] Malcolm Cowley. A Second Flowering: works and days of the lost generation (New York: Viking Press, 1956), 14.

[2] Morrill Cody with Hugh Ford. The Women of Montparnasse: The Americans in Paris (New York: Cornwall Books, 1984), 156.

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