Ernest Hemingway
NY: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1995 from the 1929 original
ISBN # 0-684-80146-9
332 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2005


See at bottom for comments of an internet reader.

I don’t think I have ever before written an introduction to my comments on a book! More than 45 years ago I minored in English literature (majoring in philosophy). As part of the requirement for a minor I wrote a major paper at the end. I chose to write on the novels and (at least) some of the short stories of Ernest Hemingway.

I then adored Hemingway’s work, and wrote a paper which I recall was quite pleasing to my professor. I no longer have that paper, nor even remember my central argument. I do recall that after writing analyses of each novel and the chosen stories, then surveying a significant parcel of secondary sources, I wrote some sort of critical paean to Ernest Hemingway as stylist.

I was under his influence and he even gave me the impetus and courage to break out of an artificial “respect” for elders taught me in childhood. While I was doing my Hemingway reading the film version of his The Old Man and the Sea appeared. I went to the opening at a local St. Louis art house and in a crowded theater I ended up behind two elderly women of blue-grey hair, in similar flowery print dresses. They were utterly bored and unsympathetic to Spencer Tracey’s masterful monologue and chattered away too long and too loud. Summoning up all my courage and contrary to my upbringing, I blurted out too loudly, for them to please shut up. My outburst was greeted by a stunned silence from the women and a chorus of quiet “bravos” from sympathetic theater goers.

It had been many years since I’ve thought much about Hemingway. Then some weeks ago at a guest house in San Jose, Costa Rica, I was interrupted by a young British woman, a former BBC employee, bursting into my reading space, muttering about what a horrid writer was this Ernest Hemingway, and had I ever read the dope!

I blanched and decided this time I would not resort to rudeness but allow for youthful exuberance and British arrogance. In response to her closing remark-question I attempted a gentle reply. Along the lines of my paper those 45 years earlier, I suggested that his style was then novel and an important contribution to literature at the time. Now I was the butt of rudeness, and told in blunt terms that the book was “pure rubbish” and that the author knew nothing of life or love. I decided the effort wasn’t worth it, quietly and politely chuckled letting the remark pass.

Three weeks later I returned to the same guest house. Hemingway’s harsh British critic was gone, but she had abandoned her copy of A FAREWELL TO ARMS to the donated book shelf. Having just finished a book, I couldn’t resist and thus for the first time in more than 45 years I’ve returned to a work of Ernest Hemingway. However, I do feel a bit unfair, having exchanged his novel for a book which I had just thoroughly panned.

I almost always take notes on books I’m reading to aid me in later writing some comments. But this is the first time I can remember writing a lengthy introduction to my comments and doing so BEFORE I’ve read a word of the book itself. Well, having read a word of the book recently. Perhaps I can excuse this indulgence since it is a re-read, albeit after more than 45 years.

This is the story of a love affair between American Frederick Henry, who runs an ambulance team in the Italian army an English nurse, Catherine Barkley. It is set mainly in war-torn Italy of 1916 and early 1917 in Switzerland.

Hemingway’s grim treatment and indictment of the war by the common soldiers becomes a powerful anti-war statement in the hands of this masterful craftsman of dialogue. The men are short on theory or philosophy of war, but know intimately that ordinary men don’t make war and never would. Only officers and politicians do that. Hemingway does so much with both dialogue and description to imply, suggest and make the reader FEEL without ever saying it, just how horrible and meaningless war is. We experience the anti-war sentiment, it isn’t named.

Just the first ½ dozen pages amazed me by the feelings he created in me in talking about the geographical changes of the mountain of northern Italy reflected in the change of weather to the starkness of winter.

The verbal pictures he paints of WWI are simply brutal in the highest degree, yet when this is compared with just how little the actual combat affected the lives of non-combatants, one almost wishes for wars like that.

The love story between Catherine and Frederick is quite believable. They are fairly ordinary people, neither terribly likeable. Their love affair is not one that would inspire me. Catherine seems like a desperately sad and lonely person unsure of herself, in need of constant reassurance. Frederick is more aloof, hesitant of love, mainly a horny loner who is virtually trapped by the insecure Catherine.

Like them or not, Hemingway’s lovers are painfully real, the pains and difficulties of their affair mirrors significantly the harshness of the war itself.

The scene of their affair was 1916 Italy. Catherine was clearly a well-brought up typical Scotch woman. It would have been difficult to make her believable as a woman who could be so socially unconcerned about the scandal of their affair or even the extreme inhibition of her sexuality, except for Hemingway’s marvelous building of her person. She was engaged to a soldier. They knew each other for years, lived by the rules of society and looked forward to their sexual union and sensual freedom that marriage would provide. Then, before they could marry and consummate their love the boy is killed in the war. This makes Catherine’s willingness to open to Frederick to be completely believable. She is willing to violate all her upbringing and to fly freely to Frederick arms and bed – before they die.

The story is beautifully told, masterfully constructed and moved this reader to feel the emotions that I think Hemingway wanted to produce which centrally included a bitter distrust of that war and war in general; the complexity but power of a love affair between two fairly normal but relatively insignificant and imperfect people.

In the entire novel I noted a single sentence I didn’t like. The novel was narrated from an indefinite time, yet it suggested a narration contemporary to the action. But when Frederick is reading a newspaper one day he tells us “Babe Ruth was a pitcher then playing for Boston.” There would be no reason to note that Ruth was, in 1916, not a terribly noted pitcher and would only be widely recognized after becoming a home run hitter for the Yankees years later. A minor point, but the only sentence in the novel that didn’t work for me.

It has been an utter delight to return to this masterpiece of Hemingway. Perhaps it’s time for me to return to the others.

An internet reader adds:

I have just read your review, having only yesterday finished A Farewell To Arms. I was a math major, and though I read a few of Hemingway's short stories and The Old Man And The Sea in high school, I had never read a full-length novel of his until now. (I am approximately your age, I would guess, from your remarks.)

I would add that the narrator, Frederick Henry, lives entirely in the present; he seems to have no significant past, though he is presumably close to 30 years of age (his buddy Rinaldi is a surgeon and the same age as himself), and, since he is an officer, probably has a college education. His family continues to support him though they are estranged for reasons never said. It is difficult to imagine a future for him and he never seems to imagine one for himself beyond enjoying the present moment. It is clear than his alcoholism will lead to worse things than jaundice. (Hemingway was 30 when this novel was published, though of course he was much younger during the war. Probably no coincidence.)

Another observation. Henry is a-moral. Though he would never commit murder, he shot and killed a sergeant who was running away to rejoin his own unit rather than obey Henry's order to help get a car out of the mud. This killing faded from his mind as soon as it was done. This is rather a close parallel to his own situation when the military police tried to shoot him as a deserter, so who is he to complain about the senselessness of war?

The narrator is strong and resourceful and nobody's fool. So what is he doing in the Italian army in the first place? It's not his country and not his war (he doesn't seem moved by the entry of the US into the war later in the story).

In any case, I enjoyed the novel and your review and I hope that BBC woman has seen the light.

Another internet reader adds in 2007:

Came across your review of Farewell to Arms - I just finished reading it for the second time - the first time was ... 30 years ago//

I hope to re-read all the classics and then find a book club to share my thoughts-now that my daughter is off to college

in his book- i found that time seemed to be distorted. It seems like he was on the front for years - only to come back and Catherine was only a few months pregnant-

i actually thought his short sentences and "man-like" descriptions made it very believable. It was war time - he didn't have time to flower-it up...

Catherine's dialogue was... so basic...(which was probably a reflection on Henry's assessment on women in general -

it was the only way this book could end -- that catherine and the baby died - as did all his friends, hopes and dreams

that was predictable

very fun to read it again..

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu