January 30, 2013

100 Best Novels: A Farewell to Arms

In my quest to read the 100 best novels, I decided that my next venture would be A Farewell to Arms. Truthfully, I did not expect to like it all that much. I tend to fall for flowery descriptions and gripping tragedies, and while Ernest Hemingway could hardly be called a comedic optimist, my memories of joylessly reading The Old Man and the Sea in middle school left me thinking that Hemingway just couldn't capture my love the way that Fitzgerald does. I opened up my battered library copy of A Farewell to Arms, sighed, and reminded myself that if I didn't like it, I could just stop reading it.

Then I didn't put it down.

The thing about Hemingway is that he is deceptively simple. By that I mean that his writing can at first seem terse and even dispassionate at times. It's easy to interpret this as being boring and basic. However, after a few lines, something strange starts to happen. Those basic sentences, despite their brevity, start to change shape and describe very intense situations and emotions. He just hints at what is happening beneath the surface, but if you're listening, you soon have a sense of the fuller emotions and turmoil. As I read more and more, I found myself being sucked in to the story of Frederic Henry, an American fighting for the Italians in World War I.

Spoilers below!


This novel follows Henry as he meets Catherine Barkley, an English nurse, and kind of sort of falls in love with her. At first their interest in each other seems to be driven mostly by a desire for distraction,  and their interactions seem rather superficial. As Henry recovers from a brutal injury and spends more time with Catherine, however, I got the impression that maybe they really did need each other to find solace from the war and from the memory of Catherine's late fianc√©. Catherine becomes pregnant, and Henry has to leave to return to the front, leaving the reader to wonder just what will become of the both of them.

The descriptions of the front are quite memorable, not necessarily because they bring to life what it was like to be fighting in the army, but because they highlight the emotion of the war. Throughout the book, soldiers are debating when the war will end, and the men seem so detached from the fighting. They are tired, and they have little more to give. The most powerful moment for me was when Henry and his men get separated from the rest of their unit, and their ambulance is stuck in the mud. Two men refuse to help get the ambulance out of fear of staying in the area for too long, and as they run away, Henry shoots one of them. His fellow solider, the ruthless Bonello, shoots that man in the head, and they leave his body on the side of the road. As they finally rejoin the rest of the troops, the Italians are retreating, and officers are being executed by other soldiers for seemingly meaningless reasons. Henry manages to escape and find his way back to Catherine.

The violence of those scenes really stuck with me. Any rationale for the war that might have lingered was by now long gone. Violence, it seemed, was inevitable, including from Henry, but it was also a violence that had the distinct air of desperation and confusion. Nobody wanted to be fighting anymore, yet they were trapped to continue to do so, anyway.

The true tragedy comes in the reunion with Catherine. Henry is facing arrest for deserting the army, and the two of them manage to escape to Switzerland. By now Catherine is nearly ready to give birth, and they start to construct a fantasy life in the mountains. However, as Catherine nears the end of her pregnancy, she is overcome with a sense of dread about their fates. Sadly, their child is a stillborn, and Catherine dies soon after from complications. The final scene of Henry walking alone in the rain back to their hotel stabbed me in the heart. After all of that, after all they had been through, Henry ends up alone. There is no happy ending here. Death is inescapable, whether on the front or in private lives.There is no hope, no permanent solace from the elements.

A Farewell to Arms was an easy, quick read, and I enjoyed it so much more than I thought I would. It is a sad story, but one that I think is important for how it portrays how people try to make sense and escape from violence and death. It is ultimately heartbreaking, for the characters never truly experience any relief or solace. There are no answers, just the sense that this uneasy tension will continue to persist. It's uncomfortable and sad, and that is what makes this novel an unforgettable one.

"Maybe... you'll fall in love with me all over again."
"Hell," I said, "I love you enough now. What do you want to do? Ruin me?"
"Yes. I want to ruin you."
"Good," I said. "That's what I want too."

100 Best Novels

1. "Ulysses," James Joyce
2. "The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald
3. "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," James Joyce
4. "Lolita," Vladimir Nabokov
5. "Brave New World," Aldous Huxley
6. "The Sound and the Fury," William Faulkner
7. "Catch-22," Joseph Heller
8. "Darkness at Noon," Arthur Koestler
9. "Sons and Lovers," D. H. Lawrence
10. "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck
11. "Under the Volcano," Malcolm Lowry
12. "The Way of All Flesh," Samuel Butler
13. "1984," George Orwell
14. "I, Claudius," Robert Graves
15. "To the Lighthouse," Virginia Woolf
16. "An American Tragedy," Theodore Dreiser
17. "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," Carson McCullers
18. "Slaughterhouse Five," Kurt Vonnegut
19. "Invisible Man," Ralph Ellison
20. "Native Son," Richard Wright
21. "Henderson the Rain King," Saul Bellow
22. "Appointment in Samarra," John O' Hara
23. "U.S.A." (trilogy), John Dos Passos
24. "Winesburg, Ohio," Sherwood Anderson
25. "A Passage to India," E. M. Forster
26. "The Wings of the Dove," Henry James
27. "The Ambassadors," Henry James
29. "The Studs Lonigan Trilogy," James T. Farrell
30. "The Good Soldier," Ford Madox Ford
31. "Animal Farm," George Orwell
32. "The Golden Bowl," Henry James
33. "Sister Carrie," Theodore Dreiser
34. "A Handful of Dust," Evelyn Waugh
35. "As I Lay Dying," William Faulkner
36. "All the King's Men," Robert Penn Warren
37. "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," Thornton Wilder
38. "Howards End," E. M. Forster
39. "Go Tell It on the Mountain," James Baldwin
40. "The Heart of the Matter," Graham Greene
41. "Lord of the Flies," William Golding
42. "Deliverance," James Dickey
43. "A Dance to the Music of Time" (series), Anthony Powell
44. "Point Counter Point," Aldous Huxley
45. "The Sun Also Rises," Ernest Hemingway
46. "The Secret Agent," Joseph Conrad
47. "Nostromo," Joseph Conrad
48. "The Rainbow," D. H. Lawrence
49. "Women in Love," D. H. Lawrence
50. "Tropic of Cancer," Henry Miller
51. "The Naked and the Dead," Norman Mailer
52. "Portnoy's Complaint," Philip Roth
53. "Pale Fire," Vladimir Nabokov
54. "Light in August," William Faulkner
55. "On the Road," Jack Kerouac
56. "The Maltese Falcon," Dashiell Hammett
57. "Parade's End," Ford Madox Ford
58. "The Age of Innocence," Edith Wharton
59. "Zuleika Dobson," Max Beerbohm
60. "The Moviegoer," Walker Percy
61. "Death Comes to the Archbishop," Willa Cather
62. "From Here to Eternity," James Jones
63. "The Wapshot Chronicles," John Cheever
64. "The Catcher in the Rye," J. D. Salinger
65. "A Clockwork Orange," Anthony Burgess
66. "Of Human Bondage," W. Somerset Maugham
67. "Heart of Darkness," Joseph Conrad
68. "Main Street," Sinclair Lewis
69. "The House of Mirth," Edith Wharton
70. "The Alexandria Quartet," Lawrence Durrell
71. "A High Wind in Jamaica," Richard Hughes
72. "A House for Ms. Biswas," V. S. Naipaul
73. "The Day of the Locust," Nathaniel West
74. "A Farewell to Arms," Ernest Hemingway
75. "Scoop," Evelyn Waugh
76. "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," Muriel Spark
77. "Finnegans Wake," James Joyce
78. "Kim," Rudyard Kipling
79. "A Room With a View," E. M. Forster
80. "Brideshead Revisited," Evelyn Waugh
81. "The Adventures of Augie March," Saul Bellow
82. "Angle of Repose," Wallace Stegner
83. "A Bend in the River," V. S. Naipaul
84. "The Death of the Heart," Elizabeth Bowen
85. "Lord Jim," Joseph Conrad
86. "Ragtime," E. L. Doctorow
87. "The Old Wives' Tale," Arnold Bennett
88. "The Call of the Wild," Jack London
89. "Loving," Henry Green
90. "Midnight's Children," Salman Rushdie
91. "Tobacco Road," Erskine Caldwell
92. "Ironweed," William Kennedy
93. "The Magus," John Fowles
94. "Wide Sargasso Sea," Jean Rhys
95. "Under the Net," Iris Murdoch
96. "Sophie's Choice," William Styron
97. "The Sheltering Sky," Paul Bowles
98. "The Postman Always Rings Twice," James M. Cain
99. "The Ginger Man," J. P. Donleavy
100. "The Magnificent Ambersons," Booth Tarkington