I have read a few of Hemingway’s works and loved every single one of them. I read A Farewell to Arms almost seven years ago, and I remember liking it. So, I re-read this novel over the last week or so. The story of the novel focuses on Frederic Henry, an American volunteer in the Italian army during World War I, who falls in love with Catherine Barkley, an English Nurse during such turbulent times.
Frederic Henry is a volunteer in the Italian Ambulance Service. The story begins with descriptions of the area in Northern Italy where Henry is stationed. It sets a vivid picture in your head about how it looks like because of the well-written descriptions. Henry is getting along with his fellow soldiers, and in a way, the grim reality of war hasn’t hit them hard yet. One of his friends, Rinaldi, tells Henry about two English nurses who are stationed close by and takes him to meet them. There is immediate chemistry between Henry and Catherine.
Henry and Catherine began an affair. Both of them are not looking at the relationship from any long time perspective. They are simply enjoying each other’s company; it is almost like they are playing a game with each other. One evening Henry is injured by a mortar shell, and his knee is severely injured. Then he is taken to an American hospital in Milan where he spends time recuperating. It is around this time Henry realizes his love for Catherine and is disillusioned about the purpose of war. Catherine and Henry are reunited when she is transferred to the Milan hospital where Henry is recovering. Their affair becomes much deeper and more real during this time as they both accept their feelings for each other. Catherine tells Henry that she is pregnant.
The characters of Henry and Catherine are not extremely likable or dislikeable. At times, they do things or react in a way that makes you question their motives. Although as the story moves ahead, you start understanding them and root for them. Henry starts off as a cynical individual; who looks at everything too practically and has certain perspectives in place. There is a huge development in the character of Henry during the story. After experiencing the first-hand repercussions of the war, the dreadful reality sets in. Catherine too has suffered a deeply personal loss during the war. Her keenness in the start to begin a relationship with Henry is to forget about her grief. Henry and Catherine match each other in wit and personality. Although their relationship progresses at a quick speed, it seems very natural and authentic.
The theme of love and loss is a constant in the novel. I didn’t realize it when I read it back then, but love and loss is a simultaneous occurrence throughout the novel. Henry is skeptical about love at the beginning of the book. Even after meeting Catherine he doesn’t believe in love and is rather cynical about it. Yet, he ends up falling in love with her. On the other hand, Catherine craves the sort of love that nothing else should matter except her and her lover. Her former lover has died during the war and the loss she felt isn’t something she has completely recovered from when she meets Henry. Despite personal losses, and the horrible war going around, there amongst all the losses, Henry and Catherine fall in love. The circumstances make it difficult for them to be together, and they have to fight for it. When they finally seem to get away from it all, there is another devastating loss that leaves Henry shattered and alone.
In the beginning, Henry seems to have a purpose in perspective of the war. As the story moves ahead, he becomes more and more disillusioned about the reality of the war. Henry is a practical individual and does his job with responsibility and honor. After he gets wounded by the shell and lands in Milan, reality starts steeping in. He witnesses the loss and destruction on a mass scale that war brings with it; all starts to seem unnecessary to him. A feeling of purposelessness sets in for him about the war; he understands how unfruitful such conflicts are for people. By the end of the novel, all his loyalty and honor are only towards Catherine.
A Farewell to Arms gives you a realistic account of World War I. The way the story has been written is remarkable. It contributes a lot to the sort of impact it has on the reader. The horrible reality of the time and the toll it took on the individuals involved in the conflict, is woven perfectly throughout the novel. The first time I read it, I was stunned by the ending; the re-read had the same effect. Just when you think that the characters are potentially going to live happily ever after, the thought is turned on its head. The book is incredibly realistic and sad. It’s one of my favorite books.
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