Ernest Hemingway's ''A Farewell to Arms'' is considered by some critics to be the best novel written in the WWI era. Learn why readers still love this story almost a century later.
Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms
You might think that the story about a wounded soldier falling in love with the nurse who cares for him is nothing special. You may even consider it a cliché, and for good reason. It's such a common phenomenon, it's actually received a name: 'Florence Nightingale syndrome,' though the name actually refers to the nurse falling in love with the patient and not the reverse as many people tend to believe. It's a common occurrence on many hospital-themed television shows, like Grey's Anatomy or House, but there's also incidences of it on LOST, Downton Abbey and even Gossip Girl.
So, while this plot line may seem played out now, please remember that when Ernest Hemingway published A Farewell to Arms back in 1929, none of these TV shows existed, and while the novel's main character, Frederic Henry, was certainly not the first patient to develop a romantic relationship with his nurse, this plot line was more innovative then than it is today.
Hemingway drove ambulances for the Italian Army in WWI.
It's also written by Ernest Hemingway, a real contender for the title of best American author of the 20th century, so it has that going for it, too. Hemingway's own experiences with the Italian army informed a lot of this novel. As I walk you through the book, I'll point out some of the main characters and plot points that were pulled from Hemingway's own life experience. Spoiler alert: there's lots of them.
Life Inspires Art
The character of Frederic has many similarities to Hemingway. For starters, he's an American living in Europe. Hemingway spent a lot of time in Europe, working for the Red Cross and also as a foreign correspondent for various American publications. Both the character of Frederic and Ernest Hemingway himself worked as ambulance drivers for the Italian Army in World War I, got injured and fell in love with the nurse who cared for them. In Hemingway's real life, the nurse in question was named Agnes von Kurowsky. In A Farewell to Arms, her name is Catherine Barkley.
The character of Catherine Barkley has sparked a lot of debate amongst literary critics, particularly in relationship to what her character says about Hemingway's attitude towards women. Catherine, by Hemingway's description, is almost impossibly beautiful with apparently the most amazing hair this side of Rapunzel. Feminist critics tend to find Catherine too submissive, too willing to do anything to make Frederic happy and keep his love, and having no will of her own. Remember, there were no Beyoncé songs then to inspire women to do their own thing.
Others argue that because we only know what Catherine says and does, and not how she thinks, we can't be sure of her motivations or know for certain when she's being serious or ironic, and we should give Hemingway the benefit of the doubt. Ultimately, it's the reader's call.
Now, Frederic and Catherine have actually met before Frederic's injury, when Catherine was seeing Frederic's friend Rinaldi, a doctor for the Italian army and all-around ladies' man, so he's far from devastated when Catherine takes a fancy to Frederic instead.
Though, of course, Frederic isn't pleased when he gets injured in the war, he is happy when he finds out the hospital he's been sent to recover at is the same one where Catherine is stationed. At this point, their relationship is little more than a mutual flirtation, heavy on game-playing and insincerity. Over time, though, their relationship develops both emotionally and physically, to the point that Catherine becomes pregnant.
Frederic and Catherine After the War
Not long after receiving this news, Frederic learns that he has to return to the war, though he and Catherine swear their love and fidelity before parting. Once back at the front, a skirmish with the German troops occurs, and Frederic barely escapes with his life. Despite the guilt he feels for those who died, and those he abandoned, his main focus is getting back with Catherine and living a happy, normal, family life together with her and the baby.
The two eventually do reunite and escape to Switzerland, and it seems like they will get that happily ever after that Frederic dreamed of. But, Hemingway was nothing if not a realist, so he isn't going to end his novel with the typical happy ending, especially since his own war romance didn't end happily. Ernest and Agnes, the inspiration for Catherine, planned to get married, but Agnes would eventually dump Ernest for an Italian soldier. Burn. Some people think that this is the reason Hemingway always seemed to have another woman waiting in the wings when his marriages ended; he wanted to be the one to do the dumping from then on.
So, Ernest doesn't get his happy ending and neither does Frederic. He loses both Catherine and the baby in a dramatic and horrifying delivery. The novel ends with Frederic leaving the hospital to walk back to the hotel in the rain. If you think a sad person walking alone in the rain is a cliché as well, you probably have Ernest Hemingway to thank. The rain is both a depressing and also a cleansing aspect, washing away this chapter of Frederic's life and preparing him for the next, whatever that may be.
Though Ernest Hemingway set his novel A Farewell to Arms around World War I, it is not a book that glorifies war. This novel shows how war can inflict both physical and emotional wounds, and even if it doesn't kill you, can still destroy your life. No one said Hemingway was a major upper. That being said, by having Frederic and Catherine's romance develop in a military hospital in World War I Italy, it does also show how love can make people happy and hopeful, even in the most grim of circumstances.
With the help of this video lesson, you should feel confident completing the following tasks:
- Summarize the plot of A Farewell to Arms
- Explain how Ernest Hemingway's own life influenced this novel
- Identify a deeper meaning that can be found in A Farewell to Arms