The Quest of An Everyday Soccer Mom to Read the Modern Library's 100 Best Fiction Books of the 20th Century.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

#74...A Farewell To Arms

"If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."

Ernest Hemingway (that's him on the left) brings his real-life experience as an Italian ambulance driver in WWI to life in A Farewell to Arms, a bittersweet story about love and war. Frederic Henry (we don't even find out his name until page 84!) is an American fighting with the Italians in the mountains of Italy. His doctor friend Rinaldi introduces him to Catherine Barkley, a British war aide, and they immediately fall in love. When Henry is wounded in the leg by shrapnel during an attack, he is sent away from the front for convalescence, and Catherine is there to help him after the knee surgery. She becomes pregnant with his child, but refuses to marry him, insisting that they are already married to each other in spirit.

When Henry recovers and is sent back to the front, the Italian war effort is weakening. During a retreat from the Austrians and Germans, Henry becomes separated from his unit (he is a lieutenant). When the Italian army begins to turn on itself and starts assassinating its officers for 'deserting their units' out of fear that the Germans have infiltrated their army, Henry escapes the firing squad, deserts the army, finds Catherine, and they take off for neutral Switzerland by boat, where they remain happily awaiting the birth of their child. Unfortunately, Catherine and the baby both die in childbirth, and Henry is left alone.

I did not expect to like this book. In fact, I was fully prepared to hate every page for the reasons I elucidated in my last posting about Hemingway. That being said, I was completely shocked and awed by how good this book was. It wasn't the most upbeat story in the world, but what it lacked in a happy ending, it made up for in momentum. It just rolled downhill like a rock, and like I said last night, I could not stop reading. I just knew there was going to be a bad ending, though. It's foreshadowed throughout the entire book. It feels like we spend nine months in the autumn/winter rain and cold; I was at a loss to remember any time in the book where it was sunny. Many characters close to Henry die or get hurt, and he ruminates often on death and what it means, which makes complete sense in a novel about war.

I was also shocked about how much drinking went on in this novel. Wine, vermouth, whiskey, you name it. Nurses sneaking alcohol up to patients in the hospital? Catherine drinking during her entire pregnancy? Ambulance drivers and soldiers drinking? Seriously, people! I guess Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and DWI's weren't hot topics back in the 1910's. As I mentioned in my last posting, I was also not pleased with Hemingway's wimpy female characters, except maybe Fergy, who really gave it to Henry about getting Catherine pregnant. While I can appreciate the role of women back in that era, it makes me very glad those days are over.

A great book and one I am glad that I read.

Grade: A


  1. I. Heart. Hemingway. I want to make him a gin and juice, except I'm afraid he'd throw me to the marlins for putting juice in it and not just giving him the bloody bottle. What a genius.

  2. I loved this book when I read it, and since it was my first Hemingway, I think it put me on a good course with him. I found The Old Man and the Sea and his short stories (many found in The Snows of Kilimanjaro) to be fascinating, and, despite the length, I enjoyed For Whom The Bell Tolls. I didn't enjoy The Sun Also Rises as much as the others, so I can understand your apprehension of reading Hemingway from that book. Will you have to read it again for #45 or will your previous reads count?
    A Farewell to Arms is a great book on WWI, and I appreciated learning more about the Italian campaign against Austria-Hungary. Glad you enjoyed it, and I hope your next books are as interesting.

  3. Mome....No previous reads count for my quest, so I will be reading "The Sun Also Rises" again when I hit #45. My hope is that, since it's been almost 20 years since the last time I read it (yes, I'm that old!), I might enjoy it more as a grown-up. Here's hopin'! are right on about Hemingway and the gin. :)

  4. I liked "A Farewell to Arms" more than "The Sun Also Rises" but both have similar feelings of sadness approached in completely different ways. It will be interesting to see which one you enjoy better. Note that everything Hemingway writes has tons of alcohol in it, as was his custom.

    I also agree with Mome. My favourite has been "For Whom the Bell Tolls" ("Old Man and the Sea" was great too) and I really, really loved a lot of the short stories. If you can find a complete collection (and not just the first 49, I would recommend you doing so).

    My reviews of both:

    Short Stories: