Tuesday, September 06, 2011

A Farewell to Arms: A Review

Earnest Hemingway (1899-1961) published this romantic war novel when he was 30. It was a first-person account of his own experience serving as a Red Cross ambulance driver at the Italian front during WWI. The novel has all the elements needed to build up a well-made love story happened at wartime. A handsome young lieutenant Frederic Henry meets a beautiful nurse Catherine Barkley. They soon fall in love as all readers would expect. The girl gets pregnant. The destruction and senseless killing of the war make them both eager to run away from it. They arrive in Switzerland and lead a short but happy life. Unfortunately the girl dies of hemorrhage after delivering a baby. The baby also dies. The young man leaves the heartbroken land wordlessly.

The miserable and horrible scenes of the battlefield are vividly depicted by Hemingway. We are presented in virtual reality woven with the miserable lives of buck privates in the trenches, the chaos of the retreating troops, the execution of officers at the kangaroo courts, and the shooting of deserter to death by the young ambulance driver himself.

Hemingway is well-famed for mastering words economically. However, the melancholic charm sprayed from such understatement grasps the hearts of his readers. At the end of the last chapter, Henry tells the death of Catherine in in the baldest, most unadorned terms: "It seems she had one hemorrhage after another. They couldn’t stop it. I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died." SparkNotes uses "iceberg" to describe how Hemingway handles the unfathomable grief of a young man who just lost his wife and his son.

A longer quote of Chapter XXVII, "I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates." The ambivalent state of mind of Henry towards war is strongly felt. There is nothing romantic about the war. Human sacrifice is no difference from the slaughter of livestock. It is all pointless and glory, honor, and all the nothingness give a ground where nihilism is born.

It took me about a month to read this 332-page work ranked #74 on the list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th Century by the Modern Library in 1998. Do not read too fast and do feel the power of Hemingway's words.

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