A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway

As a teen I was introduced to many Hemingway shorts and The Old Man and the Sea. When I made a commitment to write with serious intent I moved onto A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises, then The Old Man and the Sea again and again and again. The Old Man and the Sea is one of my favorite books. The warmth and contentment I experienced each time I read The Old Man and the Sea was so complete, I felt no need to read further into Hemingway’s library.

Then along came Erika Robuck’s Hemingway’s Girl, a historical novel with one of the most compelling love triangles I have ever encountered. Robuck led me to wonder why I liked Hemingway. Is it because he’s Hemingway, the man who won the Nobel Prize and helped change the style of English prose? Or are there other reasons? If I had never read The Old Man and the Sea would I still covet him as a writer? I chose to launch my inquiry by reading A Farewell to Arms because it was one of the books that made Hemingway a household name.

Like Shakespeare, his rhythm is steady and catchy. Also, as with the Bard, I found myself needing to slow down to bathe in his metered language before I was able to fully appreciate the depth of the situation. We don’t meet our protagonist Lieutenant Henry until Chapter Two.

His descriptions, which at first appear sterile hold all that is needed. They are steeped in the accuracy of the action and drive the characters forward. Hemingway wrote for the audience who dared to escape and suspend their disbelief; not for the audiences of today who need to be spoon fed and believe reality T.V. is drama, while they text their friends. By page 100 I craved his simplicity.

I leaned forward in the dark to kiss her and there was a sharp stinging flash. She had slapped my face hard. Her hand had hit my nose and eyes, and tears came in my eyes from the reflex. 

I did not crave Catherine. As much as I empathized with Lieutenant Henry, Miss Barkley put me off. Was my dislike for Catherine embedded in an inability to relate to the moral and social expectations of the era in which the novel takes place—World War I? I pushed on to find out and found Catherine’s character increasingly unbelievable and annoying. I couldn’t understand why Henry would fall for woman I felt was silly. As their relationship deepened my frustration grew. I didn’t feel the passion or the love. Where was the love and compassion I encountered in The Old Man and the Sea that oozed off the page? I stopped reading on page 164 and picked up The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh and then The Madam by Julianna Baggott.

Then on the train to New York City after finishing August Osage County by Tracy Letts and The God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, I realized I’d short changed Hemingway. While I found the simplicity of his descriptions rich, his lack of emotional attribution with regard to dialogue left me cold. As an exercise I decided to go back and read all the Catherine and Henry scenes as if they were a play. When I did my entire perspective on their relationship changed.

Catherine Barkley remained in the list of people I would not befriend, however, her love and devotion for Henry and vice versa crystalized for me. Rereading the early scenes between the two lovers made me remember that Hemingway trusts his readers to complete the scene, visualize and shade in the landscape. He demands that we become active participants. This was where I went wrong as a reader in the early part of the book. I’d heard their scenes as if I was only seeing the dots on the canvas of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, rather than stepping back and allowing the dots, or the space between the lines to bleed with the emotion Hemingway experienced as he captured the dialogue on the page. My realization allowed me, like the soldiers of WWI to march on.

I’ve seen many films of war, where soldiers battled in the rain. But none of those films capture the endless downpour that most certainly ate away at the men’s morale better than Hemingway’s simple references.

Along the river bank there was nothing and no one but the wet brush and muddy ground. The wind drove down the rain and everywhere there was standing water and mud. Everyone was caught in it and the small rain would not quiet it. 

But while others are losing faith and dying in such weather, Lieutenant Henry refuses to dwell on the worst of times. He believes in his love for Catherine and their future. His patience and persistence to return to her make us want to stand shoulder to shoulder with him.

Hemingway was often criticized for his short declarative sentences. As a reader I find them addicting; they reel me in.

His breath comes in my face metallic with garlic and red wine.

As a writer I marvel at the energy his words evoke and how he stimulates the senses even with inanimate objects without signs of effort.

It smelled of early morning, of swept dust, spoons in coffee-glasses and the wet circles left by wine glasses. 

Hemingway’s writing is rooted in truth, his own and his character’s. Once the truth is delivered, it’s up to the receiver to determine whether or not they can accept it. Some readers may walk away from him. I will not. A Farewell to Arms has illuminated only the tip of the iceberg of reasons of why I love Hemingway. I look forward to discovering more.

A Farewell to Arms