Book Review: A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms

I guess it’s official: I don’t like Hemmingway. I mean I don’t have anything personal against the guy and I kind of liked The Old Man and the Sea. But a lot like his other supposed classic For Whom the Bell Tolls I just didn’t get what’s so great about A Farewell to Arms.

The story kind of reminds me of For Whom the Bell Tolls, in that it features the typical, stoic, Hemmingway male hero in the role of a soldier fighting in a foreign war (here Italy in WWI instead of Spain’s Civil War). Fredrick Henry is an American fighting in the Italian army for some reason, and he falls in love with an English nurse named Catherine. He gets injured, they go all ga-ga over each other then escape trouble by running off to Switzerland to have a baby. That’s pretty much the plot.

Of course, the plot is often not the real point of a novel, but for the life of me I can’t find much to appreciate in Hemmingway’s pared down, minimalist style. I get that it’s good writing and REALLY difficult for most of us to do –writing 1000 words is easy, writing 500 to say the same thing is hard, and writing 250 is damn near impossible. And sometimes the simple writing serves to say something about a scene, like Henry’s stoic nature or the simple pleasures of a small Swiss village after the turmoil of war. And I get that there’s a lot going on here under the surface about redemption, love, war, masculinity, and the like.

It’s just that I didn’t really care about any of it. Neither Frank nor Catherine nor any of the other characters felt real to me the way other characters have, even in lesser books. The pared down simplicity of Hemmingway’s style was at odds with the epic nature of the conflict around him, and even if that was part of the point it was still distracting and didn’t make the characters seem alive or important or personal. Maybe that’s why I liked The Old Man and the Sea better: It was itself a much simpler story, just the struggle between a man and a fish set against the plain backdrop of the sea, almost like a stage play. In A Farewell to Arms (and in For Whom the Bell Tolls for that matter) it’s not like that. It’s like it wants to feel complex and nuanced, but it doesn’t. Not to me, anyway.

I have one more Hemmingway book in my queue (The Sun Also Rises) and I’ll probably get to it eventually, but I’m not exactly looking forward to it.

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One thought on “Book Review: A Farewell to Arms

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one. I thought there was something wrong with me (and I suppose there could be) because I just can’t seem to enjoy Hemingway. And of the three I’ve read, Farewell to Arms was the hardest for me to finish.

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