The Pequod Review:
Published in 1929, A Farewell to Arms is one of Ernest Hemingway’s most ambitious and powerful books, one that is both a love story and ultimately an antiwar novel. It is narrated by Frederic Henry, an American in his early twenties who volunteers for the Italian ambulance corps in World War I. At the start of the novel, Frederic is naive and fearless, but he quickly learns hard truths when he is seriously injured in battle. Later, while he is recovering in a hospital, he falls in love with a volunteer British nurse (Catherine). The book then becomes a very good romance story — Hemingway’s characterization has improved considerably in the two years since A Sun Also Rises — but it is still the war-related passages that are the most affecting. Here Frederic describes the moment his meal was interrupted by a devastating attack:
I ate the end of my piece of cheese and took a swallow of wine. Through the other noise I heard a cough, then came the chuh-chuh-chuh-chuh — then there was a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went read and on and on in a rushing wind. I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself, and I knew I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died. Then I floated, and instead of going on I felt myself slide back. I breathed and I was back.
At a pivotal moment late in the novel, Frederic comes to his own conclusions about the nature of war:
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. … Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or allow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
A Farewell to Arms seems to me to be a stronger novel than The Sun Also Rises, more purposeful and more focused as Hemingway draws on his own experiences as an ambulance driver in World War I. While his narrative doesn’t always proceed smoothly, and his prose style is sometimes forced, this is one of his best novels.