Thank you so much to Roberta Eaton Cheadle for creating another entry into the U. L. S., the Underground Library Society! The U. L. S. is an unofficial group of people who are dedicated to the preservation of books and in complete opposition to censorship. The idea is based on the Book People from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
A Farewell to Arms
A Farewell to Arms, written by Ernest Hemingway, is a love story set during the Italian campaign of World War 1.
The story is narrated by the main character, Fredric Henry, an American medic, who joined the Italian Army at the commencement of war in the capacity of a lieutenant in the ambulance corp. The book details the romance between Fredric and an English nurse, Catherine Barkley, but it is equally a story of Fredric’s personal growth from a young man with foolish notions about the purpose and glory of war, misguided notions about manhood, and shallow views on love and romance to a mature man who sees the horror and waste of human life brought about by the war and the value of his relationship with Catherine.
When we first meet Fredric, he is heavily influenced by the Italian military personnel he is associating with, including his roommate, lieutenant Rinaldi. Many of them spend their free time drinking and visiting brothels and they have a bad reputation among the English nursing fraternity who regard them as womanisers. This is indicated when the head nurse tells Fredric he may visit Catherine after her work shift but not to bring any Italians with him.
Fredric goes along with the views and attitudes of his peers, in particular, Rinaldi. They are an irreverent crew who mock and ease the Catholic priest who serves with them. Fredric’s better nature is demonstrated early in the book when he is kind and friendly towards the priest and he experiences feelings of guilt for not visiting the priest’s hometown during his leave. Instead, he had spent his time visiting bars and brothels. The reader sees in Fredric the potential for him to develop into a better man.
Fredric meets Catherine through his friend, Rinaldi, and is attracted to her. Initially, she is a game to him, but as time passes and he gets to know her better, he is influenced by her more mature attitudes and starts becoming steadier and more reliable. When he is seriously injured and is transferred to a hospital in Milan for surgery and treatment, he asks for Catherine to nurse him.
This is the beginning of the great romance that develops between the two and changes the course of both of their lives. Fredric’s injury and the loss of some of his men during the attack matures him and makes him more aware of the fragility of life and love.
Themes in A Farewell to Arms
A Farewell to Arms has a number of themes which I have set out below with an appropriate quote form the book.
“War is not won by victory. What if we take San Gabriele? What if we take the Carso and Monfalcone and Trieste? Where are we then? Did you see all the far mountains today? Do you think we could take all them too? Only if the Austrians stop fighting. One side must stop fighting. Why don’t we stop fighting? If they come down into Italy they will get tired and go away. They have their own country. But no, instead there is a war.”
Reality versus Fantasy
“… I remember having a silly idea he might come to the hospital where I was. With a sabre cut, I suppose, and a bandage around his head. Or shot through the shoulder. Something picturesque.”
“This is the picturesque front,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “People can’t realise what France is like. If they did, it couldn’t all go away. He didn’t have a sabre cut. They blew him all to bits.”
Love and Loss
“I’m afraid we have to start to go.”
“All right, darling.”
“I hate to leave our fine house.”
“So do I.”
“But we have to go.”
“All right. But we’re never settled in our home very long.”
“We will be.”
“I’ll have a fine home for you when you come back.”
Self versus Duty
“You saw emptily, lying on your stomach, having been present when one army moved back and another came forward. You had lost your cars and your men as a floorwalker loses the stock of his department in a fire. There was, however, no insurance. You were out of it now. You had no more obligation. If they shot floorwalkers after a fire the in the department store because they spoke with an accent they had always had, then certainly the floorwalkers would not be expected to return when the store opened again for business.”
“The Italians didn’t want women so near the front. So we’re all on very special behaviour. We don’t go out.”
“I can’t stand him,” Ferguson said. “He’s done nothing but ruin you with his sneaking Italian tricks. Americans are worse than Italians.”
“The saint hung down on the outside of my uniform and I undid the throat of my tunic, unbuttoned the shirt collar and dropped him in under the shirt.”
“You understand, but you do not love God.”
“You do not love Him at all?” he asked.
“I am afraid of Him in the night sometimes.”
“You should love Him.”
“I do not love much.”
Why should A Farewell to Arms be preserved?
Hemingway’s purpose with this book was to demonstrate the despite the glamour of war and the perceived honour of dying for your country, war is not a worthwhile undertaking. The war setting with its horror, death, and destruction is a contrasted with the wonder of love.
There are some flaws with this book. I found Catherine to be a bit unrealistic with some of her comments and behaviour, but Hemingway’s amazing writing still pulled me in, and I loved this story. I dwelled on the ending for a long time after reading the last page.
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Thank you again to Robbie Cheadle for this post!