I first read A FAREWELL TO ARMS many years ago when I was going through what the narrator, Frederic Henry, is going through in the novel: not the part about the war on the Italian front, but the experience of great love. This personal experience of love surely colored my impressions of the novel, yet its standing as one of the Most Important Novels in My Life remains assured.
If you can appreciate novels of war and love, this book is for you. The narrator struggles throughout the story with the horrors and boredom of working as an American ambulance driver for the Italian army in World War I. He is wounded by shelling, later almost shot during a retreat, and barely escapes in a riveting narrative sequence. But the novel is also about how he meets and falls in love with a British nurse, Catherine Barkley, and their intense relationship is juxtaposed over the war story.
The ending of the novel is devastating and unexpected. A few years ago, a special edition of the novel was published that included 37 different endings that Hemingway considered for the novel. He’d been quoted as saying the reason he wrote so many revisions was that he had to get the words right.
But to consider so many endings to a novel tells me that the writer really didn’t know where the novel was heading, and certainly not where it would end up, so the ending he did finally “get right” has an almost arbitrary feeling about it. Yes, powerful. Yes, devastating realism that upended the literary style of the day. But it never felt like the inevitable conclusion of the story.
There is no question of Hemingway’s place in our country’s literary history: his voice and style changed a generation of writers, inspired many imitators, and earned him a Nobel Prize. But A FAREWELL TO ARMS includes a lot of pointless drinking scenes and dull ribbing between the officers, and some of the dialog sounds so unnatural it must belong to a different era. Which it does. So some of the flaws we see today might have been strengths when the novel was published in 1929.