American novels and the First World War: Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”

Hemingway managed to catch and hold in his novel a set of attitudes toward war and human love which are essentially ageless. Moreover, the prose style in which he says his say about the people he knew in that now-ancient war has remained for the most part singularly invulnerable to the assaults of time.

by Carlos Baker

Since his death in the summer of 1961, a school of critics has arisen which holds that the novel we are about to discuss was really the last, rather than the second, of Hemingway’s major works, and that his path as an artist from 1929 to 1959 was a gradual but steady descent. I do not hold with the opinions of this school, for it is my belief that though Hemingway’s career as a writer was not without its ups and downs, he made as many triumphs in fiction during the last thirty years of his life as he had in the first thirty. This is not to say, however, that our critical brethren are necessarily wrong in preferring A Farewell to Arms over such later works as For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Old Man and the Sea. It is only to maintain that Hemingway continued to be a very able practitioner of the art of fiction for many years after the publication of A Farewell, and that we are not obliged to disparage the later work in order to admire the earlier.

Among the American novels which deal with the First World War of 1914-18, A Farewell to Arms has stood up under the weathering of the years as well as any and far better than most. A number of his eminent contemporaries also wrote novels relating to that war. To name only two for purposes of comparison, Soldiers’ Pay by William Faulkner and Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos have long since begun to show signs of literary senility. No reader who works his way consecutively through these three novels could possibly doubt that the honors for continuing freshness, romantic derring-do, and simple reader-interest must be awarded to Hemingway’s book. It manages to remain singularly undated at the same time that it perfectly embodies the Zeitgeist, the governing moral essence of that far-away time.

Survival power in fiction may at first appear to be a most curious and chancy business. But perhaps it is not so curious, after all. For Hemingway managed to catch and hold in his novel a set of attitudes toward war and human love which are essentially ageless. Moreover, the prose style in which he says his say about the people he knew in that now-ancient war has remained for the most part singularly invulnerable to the assaults of time. When he was writing the book in 1928-29, he worked extremely hard, pruned out excess verbiage with loving care, and rewrote extensively in a considered attempt to fashion a kind of prose that would really last. Malcolm Cowley once remarked that an astonishingly small amount of Hemingway’s prose has gone bad over the years. In the same vein, Ford Madox Ford observed that Hemingway’s words strike us,

each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through flowing water. The words form a tessellation, each in order beside the other. It is a very great quality. . . . The aim—the achievement—of the great prose writer is to use words so that they shall seem new and alive because of their juxtaposition with other words. This gift Hemingway has supremely.1

Hemingway’s posthumous reward for his long labors, which were often carried on under conditions of extreme domestic duress, is that we can still read with pleasure what was first set down in typescript nearly forty years ago. Another part of our pleasure comes from his ability to give us that sense of vicarious participation in events long gone, which is one of the best reasons for reading that anyone has yet been able to discover. None of the histories of the war as it was fought on the Italian-Austrian front can possibly reproduce so exactly how it felt to be under fire, to hear the whump of descending shells during the horrendous bombardments, to carry the wounded to safety unless they hemorrhaged and died along the way, to share wine and rough talk with Italian officers in the regimental messrooms, or to experience the acute physical discomforts of rain and cold and mud and hunger and fear during an inglorious military retreat. Far better than factual history, fiction can seize and hold such experiences as these. Hemingway caught the accents and attitudes of that far-off time so exactly that they have stayed preserved for us in perfect condition, like the honeybee embalmed forever inside the burnished lump of amber.

The literary history of A Farewell to Arms is of more than common interest. Except for an accident, it might have been Hemingway’s first novel rather than his second. As early as 1922, more than four years before the publication of The Sun Also Rises, he had begun to write a story about a young American ambulance driver on the Italian-Austrian front during the First World War. It seems to have been highly romantic in manner and conception. It was also written in a prose style considerably more elaborate and adjectival than the one we customarily associate with the young Hemingway. But this early version of the novel, such as it was, has been missing these forty years. The probabilities are that it long ago dissolved in the waters of a Parisian sewer or went up in flames to kindle someone’s kitchen fire in the slums of the capital. For the valise in which it was being carried to Hemingway by his young wife was stolen by a petty thief in the Gare de Lyon in Paris one winter afternoon late in 1922. With it went the typescripts and longhand copies of several other early stories of Hemingway’s—virtually all that he had written up to that time. Dismayed and disheartened by his loss, Hemingway did not again try to tell the Italian story until 1928, nearly ten years after the events on which the narrative is based had actually taken place.

Hemingway’s own account of his second major attempt to write the novel is also rather dramatic, both geographically and domestically. Few books have been set down in such a variety of places. It was begun in Paris, and continued in Key West, Florida; Piggott, Arkansas; Kansas City, Missouri; and Sheridan, Wyoming. He finished the first draft while living on a ranch near Big Horn, Wyoming. During this period, his second wife, Pauline, was delivered of a son by Caesarean section in Kansas City, and while he was revising his first draft, his father committed suicide by shooting himself in Oak Park, Illinois. Hemingway said:

I remember all these things happening and all the places we lived in and the fine times and the bad times we had in that year. But much more vividly I remember living in the book and making up what happened in it every day. Making the country and the people and the things that happened, I was happier than I had ever been.

This creative happiness in constructing a narrative of doom bears a curious resemblance to an event which took place only a few years before Hemingway began to write. A visitor to Thomas Hardy’s house near Dorchester in England was turned away firmly by the writer’s wife. Mr. Hardy, she explained, was busily composing an extremely gloomy poem, and he was enjoying himself so much that he must not under any circumstances be disturbed.

The special pleasure that Hemingway took in his work arose no doubt from his recognition of how much better this fresh new version of the novel was turning out than the one he had lost to the petty Parisian thief a half-dozen years before. Now, with the experience of a first novel behind him, and with more than twenty-five published short stories to his credit, he was at last in a position to do justice to his romantic subject. For in the meantime he had grown up to his task.

He was also succeeding in following a piece of advice he had once offered to his friend and fellow novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald. If something has hurt you badly, he argued, you must find a way to use it in your writing. You had better not moan and complain about past or present difficulties or personal misadventures. Instead you must use your misfortunes as materials for fiction. If you can write them out, get them stated, it is possible to rid yourself of the soreness in your soul. Although Hemingway on occasion spoke scornfully about William Wordsworth, there is a passage in the poet’s great ode which precisely sums up Hemingway’s position. “To me alone there came a thought of grief,” said Words­worth. “A timely utterance gave that thought relief, and I again am strong.” Or, as Hemingway himself put it in a more modern idiom, “The fact that the book was a tragic one did not make me unhappy since I believed that life was a tragedy and knew it could only have one end.” But the business of creativity was the great business. Now, in the late 192o’s, setting down a romanticized fictional version of some of the things that had happened to him personally ten years before, Hemingway discovered in the process a greater pleasure than any he had previously known. “Beside it,” he said, “nothing else mattered.”

The pain and sorrow which he was now using in his novel were based on a double actuality: a pair of traumatic events from 1918-19, neither of which he had been able to forget, even had he wished to do so. The earlier of the two was his severe wounding during the night of July 8, 1918. The boy was not yet nineteen when he joined an American Red Cross ambulance group stationed near Schio in northern Italy. This was early in June. For nearly a month he drove ambulances carrying wounded men to base hospitals. But this was too tame an occupation; he was spoiling for closer contact with the enemy. Early in July he volunteered to go across to the Piave Front where the Italians faced the Austrians from trenches and dugouts so close to the lines that they could hear one another talking. This would mean action, the boy thought, even though his job was only the rather unspectacular one of handing out cigarettes and bars of chocolate to the troops. When he arrived the front seemed quiet, but he soon got more action than he had bargained for. An Austrian Minenwerfer, loaded with metal slugs and scrap iron, made a direct hit on the advanced listening post where Hemingway was practicing his very limited Italian with some of the soldiers. Several men were killed outright; one had his legs severed. Although his own extremities were terribly wounded, Hemingway managed to carry the dying soldier back to the main trench, though as he did so Austrian flares lit the scene and a heavy machine gun opened up at knee level on the staggering boy with his bloody burden. Be­fore his heroic journey was done, he had taken two mere slugs in the legs. This was the first of the two soul-shaking experiences which he could never forget, and which he had been trying for ten years to embody in prose fiction.

The second of his memorable experiences was a love affair with an American Red Cross nurse in Milan. Her name was Agnes von Kurowsky. Besides being an excellent and expe­rienced nurse, she was young, pretty, kind, and gay. When the boy was brought at last to the comparative quiet and luxury of the base hospital, Miss von Kurowsky was one of those assigned to his case. It was Hemingway’s first adult love affair and he hurled himself into it without caution. He seems to have been wholly unaware of the banality of the situation in which the young war hero falls in love with his nurse. Even if he had thought of it in these terms, he would not have cared in the least. For he had managed to convince himself that he was finally and irrevocably in love.

In spite of the fact that they were often separated for varying intervals during the summer and fall of his recuperation, Hemingway saw as much of his nurse as regulations (and competition from his fellow-Americans) would allow. When he sailed for New York in January 1919, his head was full of plans to get a newspaper job, save some money, bring his girl back to the United States, and be married. The traumatic aspect of this experience was that his plans were smashed. After some soul-searching of her own, Agnes decided that it would be a mistake to let a wartime romance try to attain the settled actuality of a peacetime marriage. She was older than he, she was an excellent and dedicated nurse, and she was not at all sure that she wanted to give up so important a profession in order to become another American housewife. Hemingway had not been home very long when he received the letter in which she set forth her conclusions.

It was a severe blow to his pride. He reacted explosively. All her protestations availed nothing. He turned against her with masculine rage and rankling sorrow, even as he had turned toward her while he lay recuperating in the hospital. But he was never able or willing to forget her. Though he subsequently married four times, he kept Agnes’ letters all his life. Among the many he had loved and won, she was a perennial reminder of one woman he had loved and lost. She took on the not very enviable status of the goddess who is worshiped while remaining unattainable. As the first love of his young manhood, she remained enshrined in an alcove of his consciousness until the day he died.

To leave the impression that it is merely fictionized autobiography would be unfair to Hemingway’s novel. It is far more artfully imagined and put together, for example, than The Sun Also Rises, the first novel, which was built directly upon his remembrance of the people he knew and the events he was witness to during the summertime visit to Pamplona in 1925.

One distinguishing mark of A Farewell to Arms, as against The Sun Also Rises, is that Hemingway’s powers of invention were called much more intensively into play. To take one example, the time segment covered in the action of the novel runs from the summer of 1916 to the spring of 1918— many months before Hemingway himself arrived upon the scene. The famous account of the retreat from Caporetto, which the author himself always insisted upon calling the retreat from the Isonzo, was never part of his own experience. It had to be invented ex post facto from a study of contemporaneous newspaper stories and the few military histories then available, supplemented and highlighted by Heming­way’s own adventures in a very different section of the world when he was a foreign correspondent covering the retreat of Greek soldiers and civilians in Thrace and Anatolia during the fall of 1922.

Another typical instance of Hemingway’s inventiveness is the figure of Catherine Barkley, the English nurse who serves as tragic heroine of the story. The character of Catherine is based, not only on the nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, but is also a composite portrait of Hemingway’s first two wives. He seeks to disguise this fact by changing his heroine’s nationality and by causing her to speak in an imitation of British upper-class idiom. But when the nurse and her lover go to live far away from the black tides of war in a Swiss chalet high above the city of Lausanne, Hemingway is clearly recalling his visits to the same region with his first wife,-Hadley Richardson, as well as the skiing trips he made with her to the mountain village of Schruns in the Austrian Vorarlberg during three winters in the middle 1920’s. Finally, it is at least an educated surmise that the idea of having Catherine Barkley die in childbirth following an unsuccessful Caesar­ean section was suggested to Hemingway by the fact that his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, had a difficult time from the same cause in 1928, just when Hemingway was composing the final chapters of the first draft of his novel.

None of this is very surprising. Any novelist must write from what he knows, taking advantage of the hints and suggestions that fall into his lap by chance. Hemingway’s real artistic triumph in A Farewell to Arms was the way in which he developed various kinds of natural symbolism to sustain and enrich the story over which he had been brooding for ten years. In moving now to the symbolic aspects of the book, I am fully aware that to many readers the very idea of symbolism is anathema. Such readers will tell you that they like their stories straight, and that we are dealing here with a simple naturalistic tale about a pair of young people, thrown together by chance in the midst of a war they never made. They meet, fall in love, and are separated by vast events beyond their control. When they reunite and run away together, they manage to live for a time in circumstances that are certainly pleasurable and apparently ideal. But the fist of fate is poised to crush them. In the end the girl dies and her lover is left to carry on alone.

Hemingway once called his novel a version of the Romeo and Juliet story. There are of course a thousand points of difference between Shakespeare’s drama of civil warfare between the Montagues and the Capulets and Hemingway’s account of the good and ill fortunes of another pair of star- crossed lovers. What links the two stories is the carefully wrought sense of foreboding—our constantly growing awareness of a looming fatefulness at work behind the scenes. Our skeptical reader may well argue that such a literary parallelism is enough: we need no supplementary symbolism to convince us of the drama and the pathos of the story. Hem­ingway felt otherwise. For the symbolism is there, and it got there only through the most careful planning and the most extensive rewriting. Let us turn to three phases of the symbolism to see what Hemingway did with them.

Symbolic effects in this novel are achieved through a subtle process of reiterated suggestion. Among the many which might be mentioned, we shall be concerned with only three: the weather, the emblematic people, and the landscapes. The best known of these is the first: the almost poetic care with which Hemingway slowly builds up in his readers a mental association between rain and disaster. This was an association which came naturally enough to Hemingway himself. His letters throughout his life are full of complaints against rain and damp weather. He always took it personally, partly because he was susceptible to the common cold, partly because damp dark weather induced in his spirit a comparable gloom. Moreover, in his second experience of war and its effects, he had personally watched the pitiful stream of refugees plodding through mud and sodden with rain during the memorable evacuation of the civilian population from the city of Adrianople. Anyone who reads A Farewell to Arms with one eye on the weather will eventually marvel as he watches the author playing with falling rain as a symbol of imminent doom. Near the close of the book, when Catherine is approaching her time of confinement, the weather warms and the rains arrive. For a whole miraculous winter the lovers have gloried in their isolation, living happily in their high mountain fastness, surrounded by healthy cold air and clean snow, far from the mud and muck of war. Now at last the rains come, the time for the lying-in draws near, some great change lurks just beyond the lovers’ limited horizon, and we begin to sense that Catherine is in mortal danger, as indeed she is.

A second aspect of the symbolism is the way in which Hem­ingway endows two of Lieutenant Henry’s friends with special moral attributes. One is the young Italian surgeon, Rinaldi, a merry comrade and a capable doctor, enthusiastic about his work with the wounded, boasting of his attainments at the operating table, delighted to be of service to humanity. But Hemingway is at pains to present Rinaldi as the victim of his own virtues. The sadness and fatigue of war soon affect him. As we watch, he becomes the homeless man, without visible antecedents, cut off from saving domesticity, driven to desperate expedients in order to keep his sanity in the vast and gloomy theatre of the war. Trying to relax from the rigors of his duties, he contracts syphilis in an army brothel. The man of science is eventually victimized by the filth and disease which surround him.

The second close friend is a nameless Italian priest, a gentle little nut-brown man who seeks as well as he can to exemplify the Christian virtues in a situation where almost everything seems to conspire against them. It is he who tries to persuade Henry to visit the Abruzzi during one of his military leaves. The priest paints an idyllic picture of this mountainous region, with its clear cool air, its plump game birds, its vineyards and orchards, its flute music, its peasant population living simply and amicably as they have done for a thousand years. It is a region close to heaven—or at any rate closer than the Veneto would seem to be. “There,” says the priest, “a man may love God without being satirized for his beliefs.”

After the first half of the novel, Rinaldi and the priest dis­appear from the scene. But the qualities they stand for continue to affect the action of the story. When Henry and Catherine reach Switzerland and begin the only approximation of married life that they will ever know, it is the spirit of the priest which dominates their lives. When, on the other hand, they are compelled to leave their lofty station and descend to Lausanne, where Catherine will die, we are forcibly reminded of the world of Rinaldi—the world of doctors and hospitals and imminent death.

The third and last manifestation of symbolic intent in the novel is the subtle way in which the author plays off two levels of landscape against each other. Without following it slavishly, he carefully establishes a pattern in which plains or lowlands are associated in the reader’s mind with war, death, pain, sadness, or gloom, while the high mountain regions, whether in the Abruzzi where the priest originated, or in Switzerland, high above Lausanne, where the lovers establish their temporary heartland, are just as carefully associated with pleasure and the good life, joy and health, or whatever stands opposed to the plains of the Veneto where the war is being fought and the great retreat has been made. This poetic association of the heights with pleasure and the depths with pain is Hemingway’s version of the paysage moralise, the moralized landscape which he was teaching himself to use as a backdrop for his narratives of action.

In sum, we are suggesting that A Farewell to Arms is not at all the naturalistic report which we might at first take it for. One of the major reasons for its continuing freshness, its proven power of survival, is the care which Hemingway lavished on its structure and texture by the symbolic use of weather and character and moralized landscape.

As we approach the end of this demonstration, there is just time to consider one more point about A Farewell to Arms. This is the famous conclusion where Catherine dies and her lover says a silent farewell before he walks back to the hotel alone in the falling rain. For years it has been rumored that Hemingway rewrote the closing pages of the novel some thirty-seven times. The figure is very likely exaggerated. But whatever it was, there can be no doubt that Hemingway spent considerable effort on the conclusion, and that the final version, familiar to readers since 1929, is almost infinitely superior to the penultimate version, which has only recently come to light.

In the accepted and familiar version, Hemingway’s hero stays with Catherine until her death. Then he goes out to speak to the surgeon: “Is there anything I jean do tonight?” The doctor replies that there is nothing to be done and offers Henry a ride back to his hotel. Henry says that he will stay for a while at the hospital. “It was the only thing to do,” says the surgeon, apologetically, speaking of the fatal Caesarean section. “The operation proved—”

“I do not want to talk about it,” says Henry. The doctor goes away down the corridor and Henry opens the door to the room where Catherine’s body lies.

“You can’t come in now,” says one of the nurses in charge. “Yes, I can.”

“You can’t come in yet.”

“You get out,” says Henry. “The other one, too.”

But after he has got them out and closed the door and turned off the light, he discovers that it is no good. It is like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while he goes out and leaves the hospital, and walks back to the hotel in the rain.

This is where the novel ends. Much has been made of this justly famous and tight-lipped conclusion. To many readers it has seemed to be one of the high points of lonely bereavement in modern fiction, a peak of tragic lostness from a generation which suffered thousands of similar deprivations during and after World War I. It has also been seen as the epitome of stoic acceptance of the inevitable. There can be no doubt that this was precisely the effect Hemingway sought to achieve during all his rewritings of the conclusion.

The penultimate version is another matter entirely, and it is very revealing. In place of the laconic interchange between Henry and the attending surgeon, the visit to the room to say goodbye, and the lonely walk back to the hotel in the rain, we have three quite different paragraphs. Henry talks about the difficulty of making funeral arrangements in a foreign country, then of the postwar destinies of the priest and Rinaldi and one or two more, and finally of the return to the hotel, where he falls asleep to awake in the morning to his sense of loss. All the sharp poignancy of the final version is here blunted and destroyed. What is worse, the words themselves seem moist with self-pity.

Hemingway wrote, in the simulated character of Frederick Henry:

There a great many more details, starting with my first meeting with the undertaker, and all the business of burial in a foreign country, and going on with the rest of my life—which has gone on and seems likely to go on for a long time. … I could tell how Rinaldi was cured of the syphilis and lived to find that the technic learned in wartime surgery is not of much practical use in peace. I could tell how the priest in our mess lived to be a priest in Italy under Fascism. I could tell how Ettore became a Fascist and the part he took in that organization. I could tell how Piani got to be a taxi-driver in New York and what sort of a singer Simmons became. Many things have happened. Everything blunts and the world keeps on. It never stops. It only stops for you. Some of it stops while you are still alive. The rest goes on and you go on with it. … I could tell you what I have done since March, 1918, when I walked that night in the rain back to the hotel where Catherine and I had lived and went upstairs to our room and undressed and slept finally, because I was so tired—to wake in the morning with the sun shining in the window; then suddenly to realize what had happened. I could tell what has happened since then, but that is the end of the story.

The difficulty with this conclusion is that it drowns us with words and moisture. The rather garrulous self-pity, so visible here, when we juxtapose it with the far more objective stoicism of the final version, offers us a hint that may be worth developing. It suggests what I believe to be true, that the stoicism of the last version was only a mask, adopted and assumed for dramatic show, while under it Hemingway’s still wounded feelings were bleeding and suppurating almost as intensively as they had been doing ten years before. Within the short space of seven months, he had been badly smashed up in both war and love. Now, much later, his double wound of body and soul rose to the surface of his memory, and manifested itself in the trial conclusion which we have just examined.

There is no time to expand further upon the matter here. Yet the idea of the stoic mask, assumed as a façade to conceal the psychic warfare which is going on beneath, may help us to explain and to understand much of the braggadoccio which struck his detractors as all too apparent in Heming­way’s later life. It may also explain his espousal of the stoic code as a standard of behavior—a standard to which he required all his later heroes to conform. But these are hypotheses better suited to the biographer than to the literary critic. If the next-to-last conclusion of A Farewell to Arms betrays a kind of psychological quicksand just below the surface, the final version does not. It is still as firm and fresh as the brook pebbles which Ford Madox Ford so much admired. Whatever Hemingway’s future reputation, A Farewell to Arms will surely stand for at least another forty years as the best novel written by an American about the First World War.


1. Ford, Introduction to A Farewell to Arms (New York: Modem Library, 1932), p. xvi.

Source: Wallace Stegner, The American novel: from James Fenimore Cooper to William Faulkner, 1965; pp. 192-205


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