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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
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Critics usually describe Hemingway's style as simple, spare, and journalistic.

These are all good words; they all apply. Perhaps because of his training as a newspaperman, Hemingway is a master of the declarative, subject-verb-object sentence. His writing has been likened to a boxer's punches-combinations of lefts and rights coming at you without pause. Take the following passage:

We were all cooked. The thing was not to recognize it. The last country to realize they were cooked would win the war. We had another drink. Was I on somebody's staff? No. He was. It was all balls.

The style gains power because it is so full of sensory detail.

There was an inn in the trees at the Bains de l'Allaiz where the woodcutters stopped to drink, and we sat inside warmed by the stove and drank hot red wine with spices and lemon in it. They called it gluhwein and it was a good thing to warm you and to celebrate with. The inn was dark and smoky inside and afterward when you went out the cold air came sharply into your lungs and numbed the edge of your nose as you inhaled.

The simplicity and the sensory richness flow directly from Hemingway's-and his characters'- beliefs. The punchy, vivid language has the immediacy of a news bulletin: these are facts, Hemingway is telling us, and they can't be ignored. And just as Frederic Henry comes to distrust abstractions like "patriotism," so does Hemingway distrust them. Instead he seeks the concrete, the tangible: hot red wine with spices, cold air that numbs your nose. A simple "good" becomes higher praise than another writer's string of decorative adjectives.

Though Hemingway is best known for the tough simplicity of style seen in the first passage cited above, if you take a close look at A Farewell to Arms, you will often find another Hemingway at work-a writer who is aiming for certain complex effects, who is experimenting with language, and who is often self-consciously manipulating words. Some sentences are clause-filled and eighty or more words long. Take for example the description in Chapter 1 that begins, "There were mists over the river and clouds on the mountain"; it paints an entire dreary wartime autumn and foreshadows the deaths not only of many of the soldiers but of Catherine.

Hemingway's style changes, too, when it reflects his characters' changing states of mind. Writing from Frederic Henry's point of view, he sometimes uses a modified stream-of-consciousness technique, a method for spilling out on paper the inner thoughts of a character. Usually Henry's thoughts are choppy, staccato, but when he becomes drunk the language does too, as in the passage in Chapter 3:

I had gone to no such place but to the smoke of cafes and nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that was all there was, and the strange excitement of waking and not knowing who it was with you, and the world all unreal in the dark and so exciting that you must resume again unknowing and not caring in the night, sure that this was all and all and all and not caring.

The rhythm, the repetition, have you reeling with Henry.

Thus, Hemingway's prose is in fact an instrument finely tuned to reflect his characters and their world. As you read A Farewell to Arms, try to understand the thoughts and feelings Hemingway seeks to inspire in you by the way he uses language.


Literary critics call the point of view employed by Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms limited, first-person narrator/participant. This means that he writes from the point of view of one of the characters in the story (in this case, Frederic Henry), and that the character tells you only what he himself sees, hears, feels, and thinks, never reporting scenes in which he wasn't involved, never entering other characters' minds.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of this narrative method is that it gives you a tremendous sense of involvement with the story. Seeing everything through the eyes of an active narrator lets you participate in the events almost as intensely as he does. This stance, coupled with Hemingway's vivid prose, makes it hard not to feel that you are sharing Frederic Henry's wartime trials: you are there when the shell strikes the dugout, on the brutal retreat from Caporetto, in the boat gliding over the dark waters of Lake Maggiore, and, most bitterly, in the hospital room where Catherine Barkley lies dying. And having shared these trials you are in a position to share more completely the changes they bring: you feel firsthand Frederic Henry's transformation from the callow boy to the mature lover and then to the disillusioned, tragic figure of the book's end. By this wise choice of point of view, Hemingway has made sure that his theme-the pain that is the fate of even the best and bravest of us-strikes us with great force.


Hemingway once called A Farewell to Arms his Romeo and Juliet.

The resemblance goes deeper than the fact that both tell tragic love stories. Both works are constructed along the same lines. A Shakespearean tragedy has five acts that work out the plot in a standard pattern: 1. introduction; 2. complication; 3. climax; 4. resolution; 5. conclusion. As the acts progress toward the conclusion, they get shorter, the fifth often being half the length of the first. Additionally, each act is divided into a number of scenes. The scenes are usually short. Very often they are like miniature stories, the sum of all the stories making up the entire play.

Hemingway builds his novel in much the same way. It consists of five books, arranged in the same introduction-to-conclusion pattern.

Book I introduces us to the major characters and to the book's setting, war-torn Italy.

Book II provides complications in the form of Frederic's growing love for Catherine, his wounding, and her pregnancy.

The climax of the novel comes in Book III, when the disastrous retreat at Caporetto and his near-execution by the carabinieri completely change Henry's attitude toward the war.

Book IV achieves a seemingly happy resolution as the lovers escape to Switzerland; but like Romeo and Juliet, the story concludes in tragedy in Book V.

Book I goes on for twelve chapters, Book V for only three. Most of the chapters, moreover, have what can be called a dramatic structure. Typically, a chapter will open with the establishment of the setting, frequently a short description. Then the actors arrive. Their conversation often points toward a revelation of character, a promise of action. Finally there is a conclusion, often a terse statement. For example, "Let's not think about anything." "All right." in Chapter 34 sums up the entire scene.

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