A Farewell to Arms – Hemingway’s Antiwar Novel
Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms in 1929. It was not his first book, but that was the one, which made him famous. It was a little bit more than ten years after World War I, described by Hemingway in this book. I believe, the novel gained its popularity, because it was a true story about the war, which took millions of human lives away. Still what is the book about?
A young American goes to the front in Italy, which declared war to Austria in 1915. The country was not ready for the war with such a strong adversary as Austria; its army was as weak and incapable of fighting, as it had been fifty years before during the war for the reunification of Italy. That time in 1866 Italy won the war only thanks to the Prussian victories, this time the front was also held mainly owing to the French and British troops and Russian offensives in Western Ukraine. So Frederic Henry, the protagonist of this novel, experienced that war in the Italian Campaign.
He was not in the front trenches, he didn’t repel enemy’s attacks, he served in the ambulance corps. Although he was only expected to drive wounded soldiers from the battlefield to the hospital, he saw the war horrors just there and was even wounded.
Before the warfare, Henry had met Catherine Barkly, an Englishwoman, who worked in the hospital. Their occasional meeting transformed itself later into real love. It was not true love for Henry in the beginning, but afterward, he realized, he couldn’t be without Catherine, and she really became a part of him. Their love was romantic initially. They managed to negotiate numerous obstacles on their way. Numerous, but not all of them. Catherine failed to give birth to their baby. The baby was stillborn with a cord around his neck, and afterward, Catherine died herself of hemorrhage and the experienced doctor couldn’t save her. So the romantically begun love finished tragically. Their love didn’t survive, although it was already far from any war menace and very close to real happiness. A love story, but without any traditional happy end.
Ernest Hemingway was a prototype for the main character of the novel. He took part in that war and just in the Italian Campaign. Although he came there only in 1918 he was wounded and operated in the field hospital, so he knew the war not from somebody’s stories — he experienced it himself. And, of course, as an intelligent man, he was against it. He didn’t write any antiwar pamphlets, didn’t participate in antiwar manifestations. He only described it, he described the war impartially, as it was in fact, not adding any superfluous details. In his book, we shall not find any antiwar plots, demonstrations of pacifism. We find real live people, who try to avoid the war perils, to survive, to get as far from death as possible. The author expresses his attitude to the war in the remarks of his characters.
A soldier with the rupture says: “I say it is rotten. Jesus Christ. It is rotten.” He was not wounded, it was an ordinary rupture, but the soldier calls the war rotten, because he was afraid, lest he would be sentenced for slipping the truss on purpose to make the rupture bigger. Before the attack, Henry talks with his colleagues and one of them speaks about the decimation. “They lined them up afterward and took every tenth man. Carabinieri shot them.” It was an ancient tradition of the Roman army; the soldiers from the units, which wouldn’t attack or retreat without order, were lined up and every tenth of them was executed. The same happened in the Italian Army during World War I. After the story about the decimation Henry says: “I believe we should get the war over,” I said. “It wouldn’t finish it if one side stopped fighting.” When Henry comes back to front from the hospital in Milan in his first conversation with the surgeon Rinaldi, who shared the room with Henry, Rinaldi says: ”This war is terrible.” He had too much to do that summer and fall when Henry was away. He operated many wounded soldiers, and he knew quite well, what the war meant. But the most abominable scene took place later after the retreatment of the Italian Army. The Army was not ready for any big warfare, and the Austrians took advantage of it. They started an attack, which made Italians retreat in order to save their lives. That retreat was like a huge flood of people, who walked along the road from the front trying to find refuge somewhere as far from the front as possible. Carabinieri arrested the officers, who were not with the soldiers of their units, and shot them after formal questioning. Human life of their compatriots meant nothing, they just did their duty.
All this makes readers disgust the war, hate it and realize, that new generation should do all their best to make any war impossible, to eliminate it as a way of resolving problems.
In fact, Hemingway took part not only in the World War I. He participated in the Spanish War and World War II as well. He got more war experience, and this not only didn’t change his attitude to war but even made him more intolerant towards any military conflicts. His novel didn’t lose its topicality. So the book was re-edited several times. Maybe, the most precious for us is the edition of 1948 with Ernest Hemingway’s introduction. In that short preface, he wrote not only the history of the novel, but he expressed his own opinion about any war in such phrases: “…but they (wars) are made, provoked and initiated by straight economic rivalries and by swine that stand to profit from them. I believe that all the people who stand to profit by war and who help provoke it should be shot on the first day it starts by accreditor representatives of the loyal citizens of their country who will fight it. The author of this book would be very glad to take charge of this shooting, if legally delegated by those who will fight and see that it would be performed as humanely and correctly as possible…” I am sure nobody can show any bigger disgust and more acute hatred to the war than Hemingway, who knew for sure, that the greatest evil is presented not by the people, who kill each other in the trenches, but the people, who initiate the war and send others to such a crime.
There were, and there are many different points of view on this novel. Not all of them are benevolent; some literary critics called the book a plain love story, which took place in the wartime. There is no use to argue with them. Every reader may have his own opinion. In this respect I would like to remind Sean Hemingway’s words written by the grandson of the famous writer in his introduction to the same edition: “In A Farewell to Arms, like in the world of nature, much of significance lies beneath the surface, and yet it is all there if you know what to look for.” Just open the book, start reading it, and you will definitely find its antiwar significance, which is there and not so deep beneath.
Leave a Reply