Deadpan delivery through dangerous times Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms takes place during World War I and relates the experience of the war through the first-person account of an American serving in the Italian Army. The narrator is an ambulance driver, holds the rank of lieutenant, and supervises a small squad of fellow paramedics serving on the Italian front. This is all revealed slowly over the course of the book, and it isn’t until about halfway through that we learn his name is Frederic Henry. Early in the book, Henry is wounded and spends time in a hospital in Milan, where he meets Catherine Barkley, an English nurse.
A Farewell to Arms is the first novel I’ve read by Hemingway, although I have read some of his short stories. I generally prefer older books of naturalist and romanticist literature, and I was worried he might be too modern for my tastes. To my pleasant surprise, Hemingway uses modernist techniques like stream of consciousness sparingly, only in the most emotionally tense moments, when it is most appropriate. A Farewell to Arms is quite modernist, however, in another respect: its deliberate avoidance of drama. It is almost as if Hemingway goes out of his way to deprive his audience of any satisfying dramatic moments, as if to deliver a thrill or a tear would be a cliché. The narrator relates the most frightening and stressful moments of life like war, birth, and death with a delivery so deadpan he could be reading the phone book. This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened—in feelingless monotone. I don’t require a war novel to contain combat scenes, but there ought to be some moments of emotional power that illustrate the effect that war has on human lives, instead of just a series of meals and pointless conversations. At one point, a person is shot and killed (not by the enemy) and the event is merely glossed over in a sentence or two as if nothing ever happened. That should have been a shocking moment in the character’s development, but to shock would be too conventional, so instead it is treated as a commonplace occurrence.
This deliberate eschewing of emotional stimulation is most evident in Henry’s romance with Barkley. They have sex, drink wine, and engage in terrible dialogue which makes her sound stupid. Henry repeatedly says he loves her, but it is difficult for the reader to see why, other than she’s beautiful and available. It is not easy to care for such a thinly drawn character, which makes any scene in which the two are in danger that much more difficult to become emotionally invested in. All bets are off in the final chapter, however, which is far more visceral and moving than the book that precedes it, even though it has nothing to do with the war. Though the outcome is predictable, Henry’s reaction to it is the best writing in the book. If the entire novel were as good as its final chapter, its status as a masterpiece of American literature would be easier to understand.
The novel is based on Hemingway’s own experiences as an ambulance driver in Italy, which would explain why he chose such an unusual perspective on the First World War, rather than something more indicative of the typical Doughboy’s experience. For all its faults, A Farewell to Arms is a pretty good war novel. It is worlds better than John Dos Passos’s boring and overly poetic World War I novel Three Soldiers, yet doesn’t succumb to the sensationalistic macho excesses of Norman Mailer’s World War II epic The Naked and the Dead. To some extent, I don’t see what all the fuss is about, and given Hemingway’s reputation, I doubt this is his best work, but it is good enough to make me want to give For Whom the Bell Tolls a try. If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon.com and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you https://www.amazon.com/review/R3F9RJJQA8NKWU/ref=cm_cr_srp_d_rdp_perm