Autobiographical Elements in A Farewell To Arms

Also Read


      A Farewell to Arms abounds in details from Hemingway’s personal life. In fact it can be called a semi-autobiographical novel as it is based on his personal experiences. Hemingway’s works are mostly modeled on his own life. There is a thin line between his actual experience of life and his imaginative reconstruction of it. However, he held it firmly and maintained and this was the strategic path to his greatest success.

Personal Experiences of the War

      Hemingway was repeatedly rejected for military service because of a defective eye. But he managed to join the World War I as an ambulance driver in the American Red Cross. Hemingway was only nineteen years old. Frederic Henry, the protagonist of the novel is also a very young man. He is an American and joins the Ambulance unit of the Italian army during World War I. However, unlike Hemingway who was fascinated with war and wanted to get away from his conservative family, the reason why Frederic Henry joins the war is never clearly specified. Henry’s wound in his legs and left knee is also a fictionalization of an actual wound that Hemingway received on 8th July 1918, on the Italian front at Fossalta di Piave. It was around midnight that Hemingway, who had gone to a forward listening post, Austrian Minenwerfer crew started shelling the Italians. Hemingway had taken shelter in a dugout and heard the strange “chuh-chuh-chuh” sound as a shell come and exploded over the dugout he was in. Later, he described the situation: “There was a flash as when a blast furnace door swung open, and a roar that started white and then went red”. It was a terrific explosion that almost deafened him. He tried to breathe but his breath wouldn’t come. The ground had torn up and in front of his head was a splintered bean of wood. In the jolt of his head he heard somebody crying and he tried to move but could not move. He also heard the machine guns and rifles firing across the river. His legs felt as if he were wearing rubber boots filled with warm water. He groped for his legs and felt that the right knee was missing. It is clearly evident that this is the basis for Henry’s experience in the front. Henry in the novel is also in a dugout with the drivers of his ambulance cars in the Italian front when a Austrian shell explodes killing one of the drivers and severely injuring him in his legs.

The Love Affair in Milan

      After his injury, Hemingway was hospitalized in Milan. Other similarities are that Hemingway is awarded a silver medal for bravery. Henry shall be awarded a bronze medal but the twist here is that there is a note of irony as Henry has done nothing heroic. Hemingway also fell in love with an American nurse Agnes. H. Von Kurowsky who however refused to marry high. Hemingway draws heavily on this experience in his portrayal of the love affair between Henry and Catherine Barkley who is a nurse like Agnes, only she is made of English nationality. The portrayal of Catherine is drawn heavily on Agnes and his second wife Paulins. However, the idealized romance between Henry and Catherine is a work of fiction. In reality, Hemingway and Agnes affair never progressed beyond the kissing stage and Hemingway returned to America, depressed and disconsolate because she refused to marry him. However, the scenes at the races and restaurants are again drawn from actual dates on which Hemingway took Agnes.

Other Details

      The incident in the novel wherein Henry falls prey to jaundice and loses his convalescence leave is again drawn from personal experience. Hemingway himself actually suffered from jaundice but Agnes was not there to take care of him and Catherine was there to look after Henry.

      The Caporetto retreat was an actual event in the history of World War I but it had taken place even before Henry joined the war. He had heard about it from friends and read about it from the newspapers. However, his description of the retreat in the novel is based on his experiences during the retreat of the Greek army before the assault of the Turkish army. He had covered this retreat while working as a roving correspondent for the Star Weekly. The following is his description, the reader can easily note the similarity between this and the retreat in the novel:

      Minarets stuck up in the rain out of Adrianople across the mudflats. The carts were jammed for thirty miles along the Karagatch road. Water buffalo and cattle were hauling carts through the mud. There was no end and no beginning. Just carts loaded with everything they owned. The old men and women, soaked through, walked along keeping the cattle moving. The Maritza was running yellow almost up to the bridge. Carts were jammed solid on the bridge with camels bobbing along through them. Greek cavalry herded along the procession. The women and children were in carts, crouched with mattresses; mirrors, sewing machines, bundles. There was a woman having a baby with a young girl holding a blanket over her and crying. Scared sick looking at it. It rained all through the evacuation.

      Catherine’s long and protracted labor which ends with a cesarean section being done on her and the birth of a beautiful but stillborn baby boy weighing five kilos is again based on true fact. Hemingway’s second wife Pauline lay in a Hospital with labor pains as he was checking the manuscript of the novel for publication. Pauline was in labor
for eighteen hours and eventually gave birth to a baby boy weighing nine and a half pounds after a cesarean section. But in the novel both mother and child die:

      Hemingway's description of Lausane and the chalet where Henry and Catherine spend their winter months are also drawn from Hemingway’s personal experiences. He had spent a lot of time in Switzerland with his first wife Hadley and their son, John.


      Hemingway has drawn a personal experiences heavily. In fact, this is true of almost all his works right from his short stories to his major novels. Hemingway has followed an objective method for presenting subjective experience and has made his accounts more beautiful with his imagination and artistic gifts.

Previous Post Next Post