A Farewell To Arms: by Ernest Hemingway - Critical Analysis

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      By 1930, Hemingway had already published his major novels The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. He met instant success and he was generally accepted as a leading interpreter of the post-war age of disillusion. Hemingway dealt with characters who were principally men who put their faith only in violence, sexual passion, and the ritual of such sports as bullfighting and in food and drink. However, they are also men influenced by the war in one way or another, the war had taught them to anticipate doom and disaster with as much composure as they could contrive. They are men who flirt with death at every step and feel its presence intimately and as such nothing but death seems real and imminent to them.

      When A Farewell to Arms was published in 1929, it immediately went to the top of the bestseller list. Reviewers referred to it as the new masterpiece. Readers found the novel fascinating as it dealt with a tragedy, a tragedy of num’s broken hopes and his farewell to everything that would count as important in one’s life. Its theme of universal loneliness amid war, left an indelible mark of overwhelming emotion, severely controlled and conveyed with the fewest possible words. This was quite typical of Hemingway’s best works. His style is stripped clean for action and terse dialogues, leaving everything to implication and suggestion.

Autobiographical Elements

      Hemingway has based the character's background, the story itself on his personal experiences during the first World War. The war which forms the background of the story was fought from (1914-1918) between the so-called central powers comprising of the countries, Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Bulgaria, and the Allies which comprised of the states of France, Great Britain, Russia, Japan, Belgium, Serbia, Romania, and Portugal, etc. The Allies were later joined by the United States of America. This war in which Henry participated as a non-combatant in the Red Cross ambulance unit forms the backdrop of the novel. The novel deals with the theme of war and love through the protagonist Henry, based on Hemingway himself. Like Hemingway, Henry is an American and he has joined the war as a non-combatant, as a lieutenant in the ambulance unit of the Italian army. The other protagonist Catherine Barkley is based on an American nurse Agnes Kurrowsky with whom Hemingway falls in love, proposes marriage, is refused and he falls into depression. In the story Henry also falls in love with a nurse, Catherine, who is a English nurse and the novel is about their love and escape from war. The Caporetto Retreat which Hemingway describes so vividly arid realistically in the novel is also based on his personal experience. He had joined the war in 1918 and the Caporetto retreat was already over by then. But he had witnessed the Retreat of the Greek army from the Turks. It is during the Caporetto Retreat that the hero Henry witnesses the brutal reality of war and decides to abandon and desert the army Other autobiographical details used are Hemingway’s wound and his second wife Pauline’s long labor pain which ended with a cesarean section.

Brief Synopsis

      Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American is so the war serving the Italian army for no concrete reason. He meets Catherine Barkley an English nurse who is trying to come out of the grief of having lost her fiance in the war. He begins a very casual affair with her later falling deeply in love with her. Henry later realizes the brutality and horrors of the war and is forced to desert the army in order to save his life. He is reunited with Catherine and together they flee to Switzerland where they enjoy an idyllic life waiting for such a long time. However, Catherine dies in childbirth and the child himself is stillborn. Henry is left with nothing. He had bid farewell to war and come to love. But again he is forced to say goodbye to love. He is a man trapped biologically and socially. He can never win, one can only die. There is no other way apart from dying.

Hemingway’s Style

      Hemingway’s literary style as evident from the novel is lean and stripped of all trimmings. His prose is aggressively colloquial and non-literary in its rhythms and textures. The sentences are short and declarative. The diction and structure are ultra-simple giving the effect of crispness and clarity. He uses dialogues which are again) colloquial, laconic, and stripped of inessential ideas. His clean prose results in realism and his characters come to life instantly and ring true. The novel itself is built with scrupulous ideas. Structured like a five-act drama, the novel begins with a short expository chapter which presents an ominous combination of images of rain, pregnancy, and death. These images set the mood for the action that is to follow. As the title suggests, there are two themes in the novel. Love and War and the action of the novel are tied with the dexterous skill to bring out the two themes perfectly tied together. The two themes progress parallel to one another creating the impression of one theme one story. Both in the theme of love and in the theme of war, Hemingway takes us through six parallel phases—in war, from casual participation to serious action, and a wound, and then his convalescence in Milan to a retreat, which leads to his desertion and carefully interwoven into this is his relationship and love affair with Catherine, again in six phases-from a trifling sexual affair to actual love, and her conception, which goes on to her confinement in the mountains of Switzerland and then Lausame and a trip to the hospital, which leads to her death in childbirth. Henry takes farewell of his beloved as he had earlier taken farewell of the war and by the end of the novel the two stories are brought into one, it becomes man’s struggle against life both socially and personally in which no one wins except nature overcomes man.

The idea of Negation and Affirmation

      However, the surface narration is not all that the novel contains and a short account cannot indicate the greatness of the novel. In the first instance is Hemingway’s use of symbols, the concept of Home and Not-home in these symbols i.e. mountain and plain, and the symbolism of death in the rain. Then there is Hemingway’s technique of crowding a large number of minor details to achieve realism. And then there is the concept of the Hemingway hero, and therefore the status of Frederic Henry. Henry is more than a protagonist, he stands for men, he stands for the experience of his country. America could read its own history in Henry’s progress from a casual attitude, then complicity, bitterness and escape from war. Henry’s action of jumping into the river, his expression of his disillusionment with the ideals of war, his desertion of the army all summed up the contemporary feeling of the nation. The negation of war, therefore, found an echo in the people of America. On the other hand, positive values are also portrayed, such as Henry’s evolution from sordid love to a deep love, the distinction he gives between competent and incompetent people, the disciplined and undisciplined people are moral values on which the book is structured. The book, therefore, has negations and affirmations but ultimately ends on a pessimistic and tragic note. The despair of any conception of a possible justice is the machinery of the universe.

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