Few modern writers reveal a more consistent intellectual development than Ernest Hemingway. In both his themes and the meaning he has found in them he has moved steadily and even logically from the earliest work of In Our Time to the significant orientation of The Fifth Column. The logic of this development has for the most part remained unnoticed by critics who have failed to realize that Hemingway, far from being a child of nature, is in fact an intellectual.
They have presented him, consequently, as a sort of savage endowed with style, gifted but brainless. A Farewell to Arms ( 1929) takes us to the Italian front and includes a vivid account of the terrible retreat from Caporetto. An American lieutenant in the Italian Red Cross falls in love with an English nurse and she with him. Both have previously suffered more attrition than human nerves can stand, and in their passionate attachment they find a psychological refuge from the incessant horror of war.
They escape to brief happiness in Switzerland, but in giving birth to a child the girl dies. The ending is far from inevitable. It is a comment on the looseness of Hemingway’s artistry that the moving picture version of this novel was equipped with alternative sad and happy conclusions. In A Farewell to Arms it is society as a whole that is rejected, social responsibility, social concern. Lieutenant Henry is in the War, but his attitude toward it is purely that of a spectator, refusing to be involved. He is leading a private life as an isolated individual.
Even personal relations, of any depth or intimacy, he avoids; he drinks with the officers and talks with the priest and visits the officers’ brothel, but all contacts he keeps, deliberately, on a superficial level. He has rejected the world. Such an attitude is possible only to a sensitive and reflective person. Henry is no naive barbarian. He was studying architecture in Italy when the War began; he makes ironical remarks about sculptures and bronzes; his reflections and conversation contain allusions to Samuel Johnson, Saint Paul, Andrew Marvell, and Sir Thomas Wyatt.
His flight from responsibility is the ultimate of the flight that Jake and Brett and Mike were trying to effect with drink and bullfights and sex. He is evading responsibility and emotion, taking refuge in simple primary sensations. Successfully, so far as the War is concerned: “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain . . . Abstract words, such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
” Characterization Hemingway’s greatness lies not in the range of his characterization or the suppleness of his style but in the astonishing perfection of these limited objectives. As Wilhelm points out, “the oppressive weight of death and anxiety in this object composition, subtly framed for the reader’s perusal, undercuts the scene’s “mask of well-being”–two wartime colleagues bonding rather sophomorically in their desire for women. Henry imbues the elements of this expansive still life with symbolic import, foreshadowing events to come.
Because objects are frequently used for characterization, Henry’s possessions provide visual clues to the reader, but only as fragments in the larger narrative that withhold their essential meaning until the text’s conclusion”. (Wilhelm) The very intensity of Hemingway’s “nihilism” in his first stories and novels proved, however, that his need for an ideal expression in art was the mark of a passionate romanticist who had been profoundly disappointed. The anguish of his characters was too dramatic, too flawless; it was too transparent an inversion.
The symbols Hemingway employed to convey his sense of the world’s futility and horror were always more significant than the characters who personified emotions, and the characters were so often felt as personified emotions that the emotions became sentimental. The gallery of expatriates in The Sun Also Rises were always subsidiary to the theme that the period itself was lost; the lovers in A Farewell to Arms were, as Edmund Wilson has said, the abstractions of a lyric emotion.
Hemingway had created a world of his own socially more brilliant than life, but he was not writing about people living in a world; he was dealing in stock values again, driving his characters between the two poles of a tremulous inner exaltation and an absolute frustration. What he liked best was to invoke the specter of damnation. But A Farewell to Arms is a tragedy, and the lovers are shown as innocent victims with no relation to the forces that torment them.
They themselves are not tormented within by that dissonance between personal satisfaction and the suffering one shares with others which it has been Hemingway’s triumph to handle. A Farewell to Arms, as the author once said, is a Romeo and Juliet. And when Catherine and her lover emerge from the stream of action–the account of the Caporetto retreat is Hemingway’s best sustained piece of narrative–when they escape from the alien necessities of which their romance has been merely an accident, which have been writing their story for them, then we see that they are not in themselves convincing as human personalities.
And we are confronted with the paradox that Hemingway, who possesses so remarkable a mimetic gift in catching the tone of social and national types and in making his people talk appropriately, has not shown any very solid sense of character, or indeed, any real interest in it. The people in his short stories are satisfactory because he has only to hit them off: the point of the story does not lie in personalities, but in the emotion to which a situation gives rise.
This is true even in The Sun Also Rises, where the characters are sketched with wonderful cleverness. But in A Farewell to Arms, as soon as we are brought into real intimacy with the lovers, as soon as the author is obliged to see them through a searching personal experience, we find merely an idealized relationship, the abstractions of a lyric emotion. Against the gaiety, the warmth of ‘A Farewell to Arms,’ Hemingway portrays, of course, the cumulative degeneration of the human temperament under the conditions of war.
The novel is a series of human defeats within one continuous and terrible sequence: the rains, the cholera, the soldiers who mutilate themselves rather than go on fighting, the growing weariness of the Italian army which led up to Caporetto, the degeneration of Rinaldi himself who is symptomatic of the novel’s pattern, and at its start is so quick and alive. Contrasted against this in turn, in the love of Lieutenant Henry and Catherine Barkley we have another antithesis of increasing joy.
The love and the despair are constantly related, intensely intertwined, and in the end almost gain the feeling of life and death themselves: the death preying upon the living organism of the lovers’ hope, eating into the flesh and destroying the form from page to page. Yet each change of form, each advance of destruction makes the life of the novel more vital, the life we know must yield, but in the manner of its yielding asserting itself beyond its destruction. A Farewell to Arms in this sense lies quite outside of the pattern of Hemingway’s development which we have been showing.
For the feeling of tragedy in the novel comes precisely from the struggle to participate in life despite all the odds, from the efforts of the lovers to fulfill themselves in a sterile world, from the exact impact of the human will which Hemingway has negated. Yet even here we must notice that Lieutenant Henry turns his back upon our society after Caporetto. Following his personal objectives he abandons his friends, his responsibilities as an officer, the entire complex of organized social life represented by the army and the war.
This farewell to arms is accomplished without request or permission. Lieutenant Henry, in fact, deserts, and his action is prophetic of his author’s own future movement. ‘You and me,’ says Nick to the Rinaldi of ‘In Our Time,’ ‘we’ve made a separate peace. ‘ And Hemingway’s separate peace was to embrace the woods of Michigan as well as Caporetto, the activities of normal times as well as war, and even at last the ordinary purposes of the individual’s life within his society, as well as the collective purposes of society as a whole.
Conclusion A Farewell to Arms is even more strictly the story of one man; here, even more than in The Sun Also Rises, the reader feels the cleft between the primary and secondary figures. Both books have the foreshortening of time which is more properly the privilege of the drama than of the traditional novel a technique toward which, since Hemingway demonstrated its immense value, American fiction has been striving with remarkable persistence.
Back in the nineteenth century, when people like Henry James and Paul Bourget were taking such distinctions seriously, books like these would have been classified as novelas. I have some difficulty in feeling any wide gap between books in which Hemingway is reporting upon young men who are in character-tastes, occupations, age very much like himself, and books in which he drops the pretense of fiction in order to discuss the same materials in definite reference to himself.
And why, to come directly to the main question, do we have to consider Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa such failures, anyway? One may not be particularly interested in bullfighting and still find that the considered statement, by an accomplished artist, regarding the effect on his own personality of the study of the world’s most stylized form of violence is a document of extraordinary interest, particularly if the artist is making a special effort to see himself clearly at the time.
We can also agree with Edmund Wilson that as a book about animals Green Hills of Africa is dull, as we can agree with Max Eastman that as a manual of tauromachy Death in the Afternoon is silly, and still be passionately interested in Hemingway’s report on himself as a killer. I imagine the answer is that we were concerned by the apparent disappearance of a novelist who seemed to be losing his grip. Hemingway himself was aware of the danger and discoursed upon it for the benefit of the German traveler in the beginning of Green Hills of Africa.
He also seemed to feel the danger of losing his memory for sharply characterized sensations, so essential to his kind of writing. In the books after 1930 he seems disproportionately intent on catching things before he forgets them. Works Cited Balbert, Peter. “Courage at the Border-Line: Balder, Hemingway, and Lawrence’s the Captain’s Doll. ” Papers on Language & Literature 42. 3 (2006) Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway”s a Farewell to Arms. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. Giles, Todd. “Simon and Schuster’s Hemingway Audio Collection. ” The Hemingway Review 26. 1 (2006) Onderdonk, Todd.
“”Bitched”: Feminization, Identity, and the Hemingwayesque in the Sun Also Rises. ” Twentieth Century Literature 52. 1 (2006) Trodd, Zoe. “Hemingway’s Camera Eye: The Problem of Language and an Interwar Politics of Form. ” The Hemingway Review 26. 2 (2007) Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Seven Decades of Criticism Seven Decades of Criticism. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1998. Whitlow, Roger. Cassandra’s Daughters: The Women in Hemingway. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984. Wilhelm, Randall S. “Objects on the Table: Anxiety and Still Life in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. ” The Hemingway Review 26. 1 (2006)