I totally agree with pukesick. This is one of the most amazing books I have read.
The story is of Fredric Henry, an American in the Italian army, who drives ambulances, and Catherine Barkely, an English nurse.
The story is not really being told by Fred Henry, but it is more like he is writing it down. There are two Freds in the story, the one writing it and the one in it. This is very apparent in lines such as "I wish she was here now" and "as I can not tell it now."

I won't go into the whole story, but the main underlying theme is that death is inevitable, and Fred Henry has accepted this, especially in the context of war. The most amazing quote in the book relates to this:
    "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."

The point of view in this book is called limited first-person narrator. He writes from the point of view of one of the characters in the story (which happens to be Henry) and you see, hear, and know what Henry sees, hears, and knows. This point of view kind of gets you involved in the story, to participate almost in what's going on.

If I were to describe his style, I'd say he was quite journalistic, in that he is simple and succinct. His terse style includes many short and to-the-point sentences, but nonetheless, there is a lot of sensory detail within. That is, instead of romanticizing everything as authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne do, filling sentences with high-flown adjectives, and speaking of so many abstractions, Hemingway is concrete and deals with tangible things. In fact, the elegant love between Henry and Catherine that would have been romanticized by another author, is merely a function of existence in A Farewell to Arms. The style even varies as well - after all, his point of view is first person narrator, so his style varies along with the character's sentiments.

There are several themes in this novel that are apparent: love, war, humanity, and loss of innocence. Hemingway provokes the questions: Can love blossom under even the stress of war? and in war, what is priority - self, country, or morality? What defines heroism? But the most encompassing question he asks is: what are the effects of war are on man?

The structure of A Farewell to Arms is also quite simple. It resembles that of a Shakespearian tragedy. In fact, Hemingway once called A Farewell to Arms his own Romeo and Juliet; I mean besides, they both tell a love story. As far as structure goes, however, Hemingway split A Farewell to Arms into five books, like the five acts in a Shakespearian tragedy; these five acts work out the plot in a pattern.

  1. The first book is the introduction, and Hemingway uses this part to introduce the reader to the characters and setting of the novel, including the protagonist Henry. Henry is an ambulance driver in World War I who decides to visit a hospital, where he meets a British nurse named Catherine.

  2. The second book is complication, in the form of Henry falling in love with Catherine. Another complication arises when he's wounded by a canister shell. He goes to the hospital, where Catherine is transferred. He gets better, but Catherine announces to him that she has become pregnant.

  3. The third book contains the climax, where Henry goes back to war. His section is forced to a hard retreat, and he is almost killed in the madness. In this book, he begins to change his attitude toward war.

  4. The fourth book contains the resolution as Henry and Catherine escape to Switzerland

  5. And the fifth is conclusion, ending in a tragedy.

Home vs. not home

The sense of home is synonymous with a sense of comfort and safety. Baker's sense of "not-home" corresponds to discomfort and fear. This is the case for the latter part of Book One. Frederick is forced to deal with injury and war wounds, as well as Italians who consider him an outsider. The imagery there is of darkness and dampness as Frederick and the other ambulance drivers await action on the war front. There is obvious danger in the mortar shells that fall all around them as they wait in the brickhouse, falsely sheltered by the building. The location is telling, down by the river in the low-lying areas. Even the dugout, really a brickhouse that was being used for shelter is significant in that is is usually a source of great heat as the clay is baked into bricks in the large ovens by the river.

Contrast this with the early part of Book One, in which Frederick first meets and courts Catherine, and he consumes wine and vermouth with his enlisted mates at the mess. He is free to visit the brothel and spend time with Rinaldi. This is a life of leisure; he does little work for the army and gets to have fun almost all of the time in the town. This is only ignorant comfort, however. He does not care about the war, and he lacks the inner peace and prosperity that will come in Book Two. All the fun he has in town is just playing around. It is certainly fun for him, but not fulfilling.

The truly comforting setting for Frederick however, is in Milan. He is far displaced from the war and battle in the hospital. He is waited on by the staff and excepting the pain from his wounds, has little if any discomfort. He is afforded the luxury of seeing Catherine, whom he finds himself in love with all of a sudden. It is as if being injured has affected a change in his psychology that allows him to love her. Frederick's level of control is articulated when he states, "When I saw her, I was in love with her" (Farewell 91) and later, more acutely, "God knows I had not wanted to fall in love with her. But God knows I had." (Farewell 93) This is not the fake love that he feels for her as they play their "rotten game", this is true love according to Frederick.

When I finished Ernest Hemingway's semi-autobiographical A Farewell to Arms my immediate thought was to advise everyone I knew not to read it unless they had always particularly wanted to read a mediocre tale about the futility of life and love set during the Battles of the Isonzo during World War I. I for one always had wanted to and yet I was still disappointed. But I then realized that this book rewarded my patience if I only thought about it a little, and so before describing it I feel obliged to say that if you do want to read it, you might want to avoid the spoilers which follow, although the plot is so simple it can be summarized in the next paragraph.

The book concerns Frederick Henry, an American ambulance driver who works with the Italian army as it battles Austria in the First World War. Early on he meets Catherine Barkley, a beautiful English nurse who he initially plans to seduce and be done with but subsequently falls in love with. The book is written with Henry as the narrator, although he is recalling past events, and follows him as he carries out his military duties, is wounded and convalesces, then returns to duty only to have to retreat and flee to Switzerland with Catherine as military police hound him for allegedly abandoning his men. Catherine, who fell pregnant in Italy, eventually gives birth to a stillborn child and then dies herself. The novel then ends.

The novel may be viewed as a tragedy but it is written in a deliberately banal style which belies the usual form of the genre. It is a matter-of-fact reporting of events, with the deepest feelings mentioned as transiently as the consumption of a glass of wine. This gives the impression that such events are only as important as the least and means that moments of pathos are vastly outnumbered by moments of banality, as Hemingway consciously refuses to focus on what would usually be the emotional bread-and-butter of such a tale and reports all events equally. This journalistic tone, which is more remarkable for what it leaves out than what it leaves in, is what gives the book its peculiar mixture of pathos and dullness.

This, we may assume, is an artefact of the story's telling from the point of view of Frederick, who after all is a man's man who suffered much and never showed any interest in reading the sort of effeminate tragedies to which I now compare his journey; Hemingway portrays his emotional numbness - no doubt caused by what he suffered - admirably, even though it does not make for a particularly fascinating read. The only clues to the character's inner turmoil caused by war and love is in dialogue, specifically between Catherine and Frederick. We see here that both are capable of the deepest emotion and in fact spend nearly the entire book locked in what appears to be first love, although we know for Catherine that it is not because she has loved before.

I probably do not need to remind everyone that the peculiar quality of first love lies in the fact the participants usually have not yet had the experience of love ending or love ended, unless they have suffered a family tragedy; and it is this ensuing naivete that animates the characters here. They cannot bear to be apart for even a matter of hours and completely eschew the company of others. When Catherine falls pregnant, both - especially Frederick - view the baby as an imposition, a representative of the forces beyond their control that have plagued them both throughout their lives. They want to shut themselves off from the outside world and its meddling and live purely by the warmth their love provides, but they cannot.

This may hardly be an original basis for a story, as Hemingway acknowledges when he calls this his Romeo and Juliet. But whereas that play consists in an emotionally-charged and poetic rendering of events, this is an absurdly matter-of-fact portrayal of a tragedy of equal measure; and its message consists in Frederick's not having been destroyed by all that he endured, in war and love and love ending, and still being able to report it in such a fashion.

Frederick is someone who has accepted the inevitability of death and loss, and the fact that those who have the most to lose in love and life are hence the ones constantly at most risk of loss, but who does not let it rob him of his capacity to enjoy what is there in the moment. He does not love fate but he can live with it. This is a modern Romeo and Juliet for the balanced and rational man who is rational enough to recognize the importance of the irrational within him, something scarcely any of our so-called great thinkers are capable of doing anymore, and then to also note precisely what he had for lunch and how many glasses of grappa accompanied it.

The arms Frederick says farewell to by the end of this book are not only or even primarily those he took up in war - after all, he was an ambulance driver, not a combat soldier, and he was an American in an Italian war - but those of his lover. He loved her so completely and without concern for anything else in the world and then she was taken from him, and this book is the story of how one man coped with that farewell. By relating the story as he does he shows that he did so with dignity, he did so with stoicism, and he hence did so in a way that few would be capable of in reality; and this is what makes Hemingway's novel ultimately a work of art and not of mediocre journalism.

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