I was struck by the urge to read some Hemingway a few days ago and settled on A Farewell to Arms. While I have read The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls a handful of times each, I had only read A Farewell to Arms once. I had forgotten what an amazing book this is.
A Farewell to Arms tells the story of Frederic Henry, an American volunteer with an Italian ambulance unit in World War I. Henry meets Catherine Barkley, a British nurse, and the two begin a relationship. Henry is severely wounded by a trench mortar and is sent to Milan for medical treatment. Catherine manages to get transferred to the hospital where Henry is being treated. Although Henry intended for the romance to serve only as a diversion, the two quickly fall in love. Catherine gets pregnant and Henry promises to stay with her forever. Following his recovery, he is again dispatched to the front lines. The Italian army suffers a major defeat and Henry deserts in the confusion of retreat after narrowly escaping execution by several Italian soldiers who thought he might be a German spy due to his accent. After returning to Milan, Henry and Catherine make their way into neutral Switzerland. They lead a happy life there until Catherine goes into labor. The child is stillborn and Catherine dies from a series of hemorrhages. Henry is left alone to walk back to the hotel in the rain.
Many of Hemingway’s books have less than happy endings, but this one is particularly heartbreaking. Henry has had his faith in everything shattered by the brutality and senselessness of the war. His only source of comfort and peace is his love for Catherine. The personal tragedy that he suffers somehow manages to dwarf the massive tragedy of the World War. This was the book that cemented Hemingway’s status as a truly great writer, and the reasons are clear. His terse prose perfectly captures the inhumanity of war and the emptiness it leaves inside of the participants. It is so easy to see deaths in war as numbers on a page, but Henry’s personal tragedy reminds us of how important a single life can be to another human being. Even knowing from the start how it will end, this book breaks your heart. For Whom the Bell Tolls is still my favorite Hemingway book, but A Farewell to Arms runs a very close second.
The Current Count:
52 Read, 48 To Go