A Farewell to Arms Book Review

It’s time once again to talk about the man, the myth, the soldier Ernest Hemingway. I had discussed him prior with my review of his 1940 book For Whom the Bell Tolls. Since that novel was considered to be part of his later career, I’ll dive deep into one of his earlier works – the 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms. It’s the oldest story that I’ve reviewed on this website. Much like the former, I found it to be simply okay with some parts that worked better than others.

A Farewell to Arms revolves around a Florence-Nightengale-Syndrome of a love story. Frederick Henry is an American Lieutenant in the Ambulance Corps during the Italian campaign in the First World War. After he gets wounded in a shell explosion, English nurse Catherine Barkely tends to him as he recovers. They fall in love during that time despite the harsh realities of war and struggle between loyalty and desertion.

This is the third story that I’ve read by Hemingway, and I have to mention this: there’s often a lot of filler in his novels. I understand that he started off as a journalist. This explains his strength at writing short and simple stories. However, when he wrote full-length stories, there are plenty of times in which nothing or barely anything happens. I forgive For Whom the Bell Tolls for this since it felt like nothing and everything was occurring at all once as the guerilla group was waiting for orders to blow up a bridge. 

As for A Farewell to Arms, I’m not so kind. After all, the main story centers around a romance between a soldier and a nurse. There are lots of passages, in which the narrator aka Frederick describes various Italian landscapes and villages as well as hangs out with other servicemen at the front. At first, it was good since it established the objective realism that Hemingway is often known for. Readers have pointed out that these sections are purposefully mundane as a way for Frederick to distract himself from the boredom of war. That makes sense since I have pointed out in my For Whom the Bell Tolls review, a lot of fighting involves waiting and strategizing. Personally, A Farewell to Arms felt like a travel log written by a soldier who fought during World War I (Surprise! Hemingway was an ambulance driver at the Italian front during that conflict. Also, I would’ve paid money to see him host his own travel show). But after a while, it felt tedious, for a lot of the people that show up only do so for a handful of scenes mainly discussing when the war was going to end. There were only two supporting characters that were interesting. One was the priest – a socially awkward man whom Frederick has long in depth conversations with about the war and pities in a way. The other was Rinaldi – Frederick’s roommate who is a surgeon and lieutenant and likes to say baby a lot. Oh, and he gets syphilis. Also, there are not many sentence variations. For example, there were plenty of “He went there and had a beer” or “They went over there and had a good time.”

When something did happen, it was intriguing. The descriptions of the wounded men after the shell explosion were particularly gruesome. In addition, after Frederick recovers and rejoins his unit, he finds himself thinking about Katherine more. So much so that when he retreats while fighting, he goes back to the hospital where Katherine is at and wears some civilian clothes to search for her. In other words, he deserted the army just to be with her. They even row to Switzerland to avoid arrest.

As for the romance, it was ok. Catherine is like every other woman in a Hemingway novel: dealing with some form of trauma and fawning over her love. In this case, it’s that she was engaged to another man for 8 eight years before he was killed during the war. There were several times in which she would say something like, “I’ll go wherever you go” or “I’ll do whatever you say.”

This got annoying after a while. However, there was one thing that made her stand out. In their early interactions, Catherine resists Frederick for putting his arm around her and even slaps him when he tries to kiss him. This certainly shows her agency and how the relationship is defined somewhat on her terms despite her fawning. 

There’s also an underlying current of the lack of commitment for both lovers. I’m not sure if Hemingway intended for this, but knowing his back story with nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, I wouldn’t be shocked. Not only does Frederick abandon war to be with Catherine, but he also reminiscences about his comrades while he’s with her. Moreover, they constantly talk about getting married, but they put it off for various reasons even though Catherine gets pregnant during that time. Catherine’s friend Helen Ferguson even berates Frederick for ruining her because of this. They always hope that their love will last forever, yet there’s always the sense that doom is right around the corner.

Overall, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway is fine. It could’ve been better if it was shorter and Catherine was more defined as a character. At the same time, when something occurred, it was interesting, and I found the romance to be somewhat compelling. As for the war elements, they were more intriguing in For Whom the Bell Tolls, but then again, I don’t know if this would’ve held true if I read A Farewell to Arms first. I would recommend it to those who like war stories, romance during a conflict, and Hemingway. Despite how I feel about this one, I do plan on reading more from that author.

Before I go, I want to let you all know that I’ll be talking about the 1932 movie adaptation starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes with Zita Short on her The 300 Passions Podcast! We’ll be discussing the novel and the film as well as why the latter failed to make the cut on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…Passions list. It’ll be my fourth time on that podcast. I had seen the movie before, and it motivated me to read the book, so it’ll be a fun time talking about the changes that the movie made when adapting the book. Stay tuned for my movie review as well as for that episode!

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Published by emilymalek

I work at a public library southeast Michigan, and I facilitate two book clubs there. I also hold a Bachelor's degree in History and Theatre from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI; a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI; and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration also from Wayne. In my downtime, I love hanging out with friends, play trivia and crossword puzzles, listening to music (like classic rock and K-pop), and watching shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

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