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Introduction

Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel, A Farewell to Arms, is often regarded as his best artistic achievement. It was certainly his greatest commercial success to date with 80,000 copies sold within the first four months. The money earned for the novel, though, came too late to prevent his father from committing suicide due to financial stress and a losing struggle with diabetes. The novel established Ernest Hemingway as the literary master of a style that was characterized by brisk assertive staccato, or crisp precise prose. The novel also gave rise to the infamous myth of Hemingway as the epitome of American machismo. This owed as much to the popularity of his novel and his friendship with Gary Cooper-who played Frederic Henry in the film version of the novel-as it did to Hemingway’s own heroism.

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Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899 to Dr. Clarence Hemingway and Grace Hall Hemingway. They lived in Oak Park, Illinois, and Ernest actively pursued sports with his father and arts with his mother, but without distinction. In 1917, after graduating from high school, he took a junior position at the Kansas City Star. This paper started Hemingway on a writing career and trained him in his style. The paper gave its reporters a style book which demanded brief, declarative, and direct sentences-Hemingway became the master of this style.

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Plot Summary

A Book One

A Farewell to Arms opens in Italy during the First World War. The novel’s main character, Frederic Henry, is a young American serving as a second lieutenant in the Italian Army. He is attached to a unit in Gorizia, in which he works as an ambulance driver. In addition to Frederic, the reader is introduced to two other characters: first a priest, who Frederic’s friends enjoy baiting and teasing; and secondly Rinaldi, a good-looking Italian surgeon and a friend of Frederic’s with whom Frederic shares the typical soldier’s lifestyle of heavy drinking and frequent visits to the local brothels. When Frederic returns from a leave, Rinaldi tells him that a group of British nurses have arrived in the area to set up a hospital for the wounded. Rinaldi declares that he is in love with one of the nurses by the name of Catherine Barkley.

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Characters

A Bartolomeo Aymo

Aymo is one of Frederic Henry’s ambulance drivers during the Italian army’s retreat. He is also the driver Frederic is closest to. During the retreat, Aymo generously picks up two peasant woman with assurances that he will not rape them. This assurance frightens them even more-they, unfortunately, only recognize the one word of Aymo’s Italian. It is also Aymo who is mistakenly shot by the Italian rear guard. It is a tragic mistake both for its stupidity and because he was Frederic’s friend. Aymo’s role, then, is as a symbol of innocence killed by the stupidity of war.

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Themes

A Identity

In A Farewell to Arms, one of the themes of Frederic Henry’s adventure as an ambulance driver during World War I is identity. This theme compounds other themes that Hemingway is exploring through the war story. Identity is important to the story because it expresses the general question of the individual in the postwar world. The First World War raised some unsettling questions about the values the war generation had inherited. People began to question the validity of their national leaders and institutions, which seemed to have led directly to such an incredible loss of life and economic devastation. Frederic represents, for Hemingway, this questioning of what is man that he can cause such awful destruction and human suffering.

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Construction

A In Medias Res

A Farewell to Arms opens in medias res-literally, in the middle of the thing. For the novel, this “thing,” constantly referred to as “it,” is the war. Hemingway is certainly not the first to use this technique to bring the reader immediately into the story. In fact, the one of the greatest Western war stories of all time-Homer’s Iliad-opens in the middle of the Trojan war. Hemingway’s use of the technique sets the tone of the novel as one of disjointure and alienation. The reader steps immediately into a world described by someone remembering. However, we are given no clues about time, place, or even the characters. In fact, it takes a good deal of reading before even the name of the narrator is learned.

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Historical Perspective

A World War I

World War I was also known as the Great War because it was war on a scale previously unimagined in modern history. The war broke out after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand ignited an already tense territorial feud between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. France, Great Britain, and Russia joined together as the Allied powers against the Central Power alliance of Austria-Hungary and Germany. Eventually, America joined the war on the side of the Allies after Russia had withdrawn and the Lusitania, a British passenger ship carrying 128 American citizens, had been sunk. The conflict lasted four years, cost $350 billion, and claimed the lives of twenty-two million. Technologically, it was the most advanced war ever seen because of the number of new inventions introduced: biological weapons, mortar, improved artillery, machine guns, and barbed wire. Not until World War II, when the airplane played such a devastating role, would the destructive power of these new weapons be surpassed.

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Questions

The character of Hemingway’s Catherine Barkley has undergone a great deal of scrutiny. This attention has alternated from seeing her as a strong, independent, and assertive woman to a needy, weak, and dependent person. Using the text, support both sides of the position. What do these views say about Hemingway’s attitude toward gender roles?

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Compare and Contrast

World War I: America spent around thirty billion dollars on the war effort. At war’s end, due to disagreements with the allies, the United States refused to ratify the peace treaty, join the League of Nations, or be part of the European recovery. 1929: British interest rates rose and lured capital away from America’s Wall Street. Prices on the New York Stock Exchange plummeted in late October. The Great Depression sets in and the American economy does not see serious improvement until the beginning of World War II. Today: After a severe recession during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the stock market reaches record highs in the 1990s, and the American dollar becomes very strong in foreign markets. The United States, Mexico, and Canada begin cooperating in the North American Free Trade Agreement, while Europe works towards creating a stronger European Union, a organization among European countries promoting free trade, a common policy for defense, and a single monetary unit.

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