Ernest Hemingway, 1929
Vintage Classics, 304 pàgines
A Farewell To Arms is a novel about the war, about the World War I, and at the same time is love novel. It is the story of Frederick Henry, a north American volunteer in the ambulance service of the Italian army. We meet him in the last years of the war (1917), while the Italians and the Austrians fight in a succession of attacks and counterattacks through the mountains of the eastern zone of the Alps. At the beginning of the book, he is living in the city of Gorizia, in the north east of Italy, close to the border with the Austrian Hungarian Empire (nowadays the countries of Slovenia and Austria).
In Gorizia he shares a residence in an old palace with some officers of the Italian army. He has a good relation with an Italian surgeon called Rinaldi. Rinaldi is quite the stereotype of an Italian, passionate, talkative and sensitive. Rinaldi is very interested in the English nurses that are working in the city, and in fact he is in love with Catherine Barkley. But when Henry meets her, he falls in love with her, and Rinaldi accepts the situation. In these days in Gorizia, Barkley and Henry start a love relation, but later on they have to separate; Miss Barkley is sent to the American hospital in Milan, while Henry is sent to the front because of the offensive of Caporetto.
In this battle, Henry gets wounded. Due to the graveness of his injuries, he has to be sent to the the American hospital in Milan, where he re encounters Catherine Barkley. In that situation, they definitively start a very passionate love relation, possible thanks to the complicity of the other nurses. Henry is operated of the injuries of the knee, and so he has to pass quite a long convalescence in Milan. But three months later he is fully recovered, so he is sent back to the front and, in consequence, separated of his girlfriend again. But before his departure, Miss Barkley tells him she is pregnant, and they take the decision of getting married as soon as possible, and in fact they start considering themselves already married.
In the front, things go wrong for the Italian Army; a new offensive, along the Piave river, fails and the Austrians retaliate; this counter attack extends the panic among the Italian soldiers. Henry, in front of an ambulance company, receives the order to reach the city of Udine. The retreat is very chaotic, there is a fierce fear to the advance of the Austrian and Germans, and the ambulance drivers decide to leave the main route and to try to reach Udine going through secondary roads, but the ambulances get damaged and they have to continue to the city walking. Passing a bridge, they are fired by soldiers of their own army, and later on they find a military police control. There, Henry realizes that the military police is shooting all the soldiers that appear to be foreigners -because they fear that an Austrian or German soldier could infiltrate in the Italian army. Although he is a volunteer in the Italian army, he realizes that he is going to be fired, so he decides to escape by the river.
He manages to escape from his prosecutors, and he arrives to Venice hided in a military train. Later on, he reaches Milan where he looks for Catherine. He happens to know that she has moved to the city of Stressa, in the lake Maggiore. In that city they pass a good time, but as he is a deserter, they have to runaway. Their only way to escape is through the lake to Switzerland. They spend all night rowing under the storm, but they manage to arrive to Switzerland, where they can establish as refugees. All that said, the pregnancy of Catherine goes on, as they try to find a home. At first they settle in a villa in the surroundings of Montreux, but as the time of the birth gets close, they decide to move to a bigger city, and they choose Lausanne, where there are better medical facilities to assist a childbirth.
When the time of labor arrives, Catherine has problems to have a natural chilbirth, so the doctor, by appointment with Henry, decides to make a cesarea. At first, things seem to go right, but the child, a huge boy, is born dead, and some time after that Catherine dies, as the result of an infection. This is the end of the story.
A Farewell To Arms is a moving story about love and war. It is said to be a pacifist proclamation, and I have to say that I agree with that point of view. I think that with this novel, Hemingway tries to denounce the worst effects of the war, and he makes so using the contraposition between war and love. All the bad things that happen in the novel have to see with the war: death, casualties, destruction, separation, prosecution... In the other side, all that has to see with love is positive. The dramatic ending is hard to interpretate for me, maybe Hemingway wanted to symbolize that the destructive power of death is able to contaminate everything, even the purest and most passionate and its fruit.
The main characters in this story are Frederick Henry and Catherine Barkley. Henry is an American volunteer in the Italian army. We don't know much about his life before the war, except that he is a member of a wealthy family and that he had been living in Italy for some time before the war started. We could thing that he is a tough guy, but when he falls in love with Miss Barkley he turns into a passionate lover. However, he always has a serene behavior, we could say that he is a quite rational person, knowing what to do in every moment. Catherine Barkley is quite different form Frederick Henry. He is an emotional person, fully taken by her feelings about his man. In my opinion, he seems to be a too innocent girl, always depending on his man; in some passages of the book he made me the impression he was just a teenager in love.
This novel became quite popular since the moment of its publishing (1929), and because of its popularity, just three years later in was taken into cinema in a film by Frank Borzage with Gary Cooper in the main role.
There is a narrow relation between the life of Ernest Hemingway and his work. This relation is quite evident in the novel we are talking about and in other works, specially For Whom The Bell Tolls. In the case of A Farewell To Arms, the relations is very narrow; we could talk about a n almost biographic novel. Hemingway itself was a volunteer in Italy during World War I. In fact, as F. Henry, he was an ambulance driver -in the Red Cross, not in the Italian army- and he was also wounded by mortar fire in the surroundings of the Piave. Furthermore, he passed the convalescence in a hospital in Milan, where he fell in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse in the hospital, and they got engaged, but some months later the nurse rejected him because she had engaged and Italian officer. It is said that this is the reason why he always left all their wives, before they left him. He imagined a better love story for his book. So as we can easily realize, in this novel he has written about thing he has lived or at least he has seen by himself, so the result is a quite vivid description of the war and all its surrounding circumstances.
His vital experience also served him to write one of his better novels, For Whom The Bell Tolls. It's a novel located in Spain during the Civil War (1936-1939). It's about Robert Jordan, an American that is in Spain to help the Republic in his fight against fascism. He is an specialist in demolitions, and he falls in love Maria, a young and innocent girl. In this story, Hemingway talks about a place and time he knew, but he doesn't use his own experiences, because he was in Spain as a journalist, not as a fighter.