Recently I finished reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms for the first time. For a period of about three years, while in college, I had regularly cited Hemingway as one of my favorite authors. I still admire a good deal of his work, particularly his short stories. However, this time I came away somewhat disappointed and with a better sense of his limitations as a writer.
Reading A Farewell to Arms marked a return to Hemingway after not having read him for a couple of years. His writing style is well-known for being terse and to the point, sometimes bordering on choppy. To some, this is a one of its best qualities; when it works, as it does in stories like “Hills Like White Elephants,” it really works. But when extended to a length of over 300 pages, and coupled with very little character development, Hemingway’s minimalist prose suddenly becomes repetitive and unimaginative.
One of the biggest drawbacks to this novel are the two-dimensional characters, especially the protagonist, Frederic Henry, and his love interest, Catherine Barkley. Both function as the archetypal Hemingway heroes: the stoic, detached, and masculine man; and the fawning, committed woman. Occasionally, Hemingway allows the characters room to develop past these stereotypes but these are for the most part disappointing, for they are quickly dropped and never touched upon again. Some examples include Catherine’s feelings of guilt over betraying the memory of her dead ex-fiance, or the Priest’s internal moral struggle and wavering faith, or Rinaldi’s possible slow death from syphilis.
What makes this unevenness more frustrating is that there are occasional moments of literary grandeur that show Hemingway’s rightful place in the canon of twentieth century literature. The final chapter is a masterpiece, descending into a stream of consciousness style during its most intense, ominous moments, and beautifully capturing the feelings of dread and anxiety brought about by war and personal tragedy. It is at this time that Hemingway’s prose works wonderfully, cutting away all superfluous linguistic fluff until all that remains is existence laid bare itself.
Unfortunately, these flashes of brilliance are not enough to sustain an entire novel. To that extent, For Whom the Bell Tolls is a much more balanced work, retaining Hemingway’s signature writing style but featuring a stronger plot and far better developed characters. Written when Hemingway was in his late twenties, A Farewell to Arms is clearly the work of a young author still mastering his craft.