This is the fourth column in a weeklong series celebrating Forbidden Book Week, which celebrates the freedom to read. Each column will review a different frequently contested book.
“Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway
Disclaimer: If you don’t have that friend who is annoying and pretentious about books (common qualities include owning a novel designated for public transport, a collection of short stories on emotional support, a leaf Excel to record annual readings), you could be that friend. Not shocking anyone, I am that friend.
In my unironic Excel sheet detailing my latest books – readers please know that I also nod my head and publicly expose this side of my personality as a penance for having it – I rate every book I read on a scale of 1 to 10. Truth be told, books rarely get less than six because writing a book is an awesome feat, one that I can’t stand belittling even in my humble book which has a target audience of one (me). ). Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” scores a solid 7.8 / 10.
“A Farewell to Arms,” often receiving the elusive “classic” title of English instructors and boys with a disturbing number of red flags, tells the story of Frederic Henry. Henry was an American lieutenant in the Italian Army Ambulance Corps during World War I.
He falls in love with a caregiver named Catherine and their story forms the bulk of the novel. It offers commentary on the commitment to people and efforts, the realities and fantasies of war, and the role of love in all of the above.
Hemingway is often criticized for the flat, one-dimensional character he imbues his female characters. Catherine is a character that I have always wanted to sympathize with but I have never really been able.
She and Henry begin a scripted sort of love, which Hemingway would have us believe will later become genuine. When we first meet Catherine, she mourns the death of her fiancé. In her grief, she allows herself to accept Henry’s hollow promises at the outset, settling for the illusion of love instead of the real thing.
This self-deception presents an interesting trail of questions for the reader to examine for themselves: is it better to be passionately false or lukewarm towards your surroundings? Better to acknowledge hard truths or be so out of touch with reality that you accept blatant lies? Hemingway may inadvertently cause the questions, but most of the work is on the drive.
I’m generally not a supporter of one type of syntax or another. I recognize the grandeur of Mark Twain’s short lines as much as the sinuous ones of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But I usually find a Hemingway phrase – despite pioneering a new kind of literary style and influencing writers from Jack Kerouac to Joan Didion – so boring.
However, anyone who can squeeze the “It was all bullets” line into a work widely classified as great literature gets at least a minimum of respect from me.
There are several aspects to Hemingway’s analysis that make me laugh. Being challenged in 1929 for its “painfully accurate account of the Italian retreat from Caporetto, Italy” and its 1980s classification in a New York school to be a “sex novel” are chief among them.
Censorship is no laughing matter, but isn’t it a little funny that the reason it was banned was for its recognized correctness? And frankly, as a Catholic home enduring more than a decade of private school regulation, I’m hysterical that anyone would consider this book a “sex novel.” Catherine ends up pregnant – but she dies soon after giving birth, so I would say this one could actually be used as a sex education prop only on abstinence.
The last point that I find amusing has less to do with Hemingway and more to do with the audience adopting his words. Who among us hasn’t seen the following lines taken from the book and pasted on an inspiring Pinterest board?
I won’t dispute the beauty of this line, but I would encourage people who use it to remember that context often matters. For example, in this case, Hemingway immediately follows this encouragement with, “But those who won’t break it kill.”