Welcome to the final week of the Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms read-a-long. If you missed week 1 , week 2, and week 3 check them out.
For this week, we read chapters 31-end. Here are this week’s questions, feel free to join the discussion. Watch out for spoilers.
1. In Chapter 31, as Henry is swept down the river, he refers to a “we”. Who do you think this “we” is?
S: At first glance, I felt like he was anthropomorphizing the log, which may be the case. But I kept reading the “we” and wondered if there were not two of himself floating on that river — the dedicated, courageous stoic engaged in the fighting and his duty and the man who was becoming disillusioned and heartbroken about what the war had become and had taken from him.
A: I didn’t give that much thought to be honest, but it’s an interesting question. I must say that I like your answer.
2. After Henry’s escape into the river, he talks about not having any obligation to the war effort on either side, though he wishes both sides luck. Do you think he is no longer brave/courageous or is it something else? Explain.
S: I think after being targeted simply for being an officer once the lines of defense are broken and for being an American, Henry has a new perspective on his comrades in arms. There is a greater sense of “otherness” in Henry’s statements. I wouldn’t say that he is any less brave or courageous, but I would definitely say that he’s fed up with war and all that it entails.
A: I was going to say the same thing, that he’s just fed up. He even says something about it not being his show anymore, which could mean that he’s done with the entire war or that as an American in the Italian army, he’s realized that it’s not his fight. I do think that running away from the police and jumping in the river while being shot at was pretty courageous, especially when you consider that none of the other officers followed him.
3. In this last section, it seems that some humor comes into play between Henry and Catherine. Did this impact your feelings about the characters and/or their relationship?
S: I think it was good to see Catherine and Henry away from the immediate effects of the war and the front. While I, overall, do not like Catherine’s subservience to Henry emotionally and psychologically, I did see a side to them that was tender and playful. I chuckled a bit when she threw the pillow at him after he mentioned that he had a baby at the recovery hospital after she said that she knew little about babies because very few of the soldiers had them. I also saw a tenderness between them as they rowed across the lake to Switzerland, which was good to see after thinking that their relationship was based on mutual comfort in war time. Of course, the final scene in the book tells all about Henry’s love for Catherine.
A: I liked the part where he’s all tired and sore from rowing, and she’s laughing at him because the umbrella he uses as a sail turns inside out. And her having him grow a beard and him watching her get her hair done, that was pretty intimate in the long-term-relationship kind of way. Although I found the chapters when they were in Switzerland kind of boring, I did like two of them a little bit more because they were away from the war and settling into a more comfortable relationship.
4. What did you think of the ending? Did you think it was too abrupt?
S: The ending for me was not too abrupt so much as I wanted it to have ended when he was in the room with Catherine’s dead body. I wasn’t too crazy about the ending, but I can see that Hemingway was going for total desolation here, though he could have achieved it more easily with an ending that came sooner. I don’t think the conversation with the doctor was necessary.
A: I agree that the conversation with the doctor was unnecessary, and I really wanted to know what happened next. Where did he go? Did he make it through the rest of the war without being arrested?
5. What did you think of Catherine’s death and Henry’s reaction to losing her?
S: I knew her death was on the horizon, but that could be because Hemingway is not a happy writer, at least not in my experience. When the doctor said he could do the Caesarian, I knew that was the end for her. I think I was more dumbfounded by his reaction to her death than anything, but he’s definitely a broken man by this point and probably can’t muster much else in response. What bothered me more than anything was his reaction to the baby; he “had not feeling of fatherhood!” And there was such a disregard on his part for finding out what was going on with the baby! If that’s not telling about his character and his relationship, I don’t know what is! Yes, he’s devastated and overwhelmed, but this is your child for god-sake!
A: I wasn’t surprised at his reaction to the baby. Maybe he was in shock and still needed to process his son’s death, and at the same time, he has this feeling that Catherine is going to die, and those thoughts consume him. However, they didn’t seem to think too much about the baby during the previous months, even waiting until the last minute to buy baby clothes and other supplies.
I thought it was interesting how the book ended with Henry so lost without Catherine because it reminded me of all the times that she indicated that she was lost without him. I know I didn’t buy their being in love at the beginning, but by the end, I was more convinced of it. I’m still not sure whether it would have lasted, but that ended up being a non-issue with her death. I figured she was going to die, and even though she’s a fictional character, it did make me feel a little guilty for being so annoyed with her throughout the book. She may have been a weak, nagging woman, but she didn’t deserve to die like that.
6. What are your overall impressions of A Farewell to Arms?
S: Hemingway’s writing style here worked for me best when Henry was at the front, escaping his enemies, or fleeing Italy for Switzerland with Catherine. The short, declarative sentences increased the tension of those moments for me. Where the style didn’t work for me is in Henry’s exchanges with Catherine, which just seemed like staged conversation or even ridiculous. Moreover, there was a distance between the reader and the narrator, Henry, who seemed to be telling his tail in the first person, but from somewhere in the future and looking back.
There are a great many losses piling up throughout the novel and these really crush Henry in the end where he wonders what is left to do. Without the war effort, his friends, his escape, and Catherine, what is left for him but to merely survive. It makes me wonder if he is strong enough in spirit and faith to find a new dream and to live life fully in the aftermath. Although he seems brave and courageous, is that enough to see him through this tragedy?
This book was just an OK read for me; having read other books of his, I don’t think this was his best.
A: I don’t think I’ll be running out and buying other Hemingway novels, that’s for sure. I didn’t prefer his writing style, but there were times that it worked, like when Henry goes back to the front. I thought the book started out slow and boring, then picked up when he goes back to the front and escapes, but once they make it to Switzerland, it was really boring again, until the very end.
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