Week 3: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms Read-a-Long

Welcome to week 3 of the Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms read-a-long.   If you missed week 1 and week 2, check them out. 

Please post your thoughts (and any questions you might have) in the comments below, or feel free to link to a post you’ve written on your blog.  Thanks for participating!

Beware that these discussions could contain spoilers.

1.  “The coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave but one” is a statement made by Henry, and he and Catherine enter into a discourse about bravery.  Do you think either character is brave and do you think Catherine is right when she says the brave die more deaths but just don’t talk about it? Explain.

S:  I don’t think either character is particularly brave, though I suppose there has to be a bit of courage in both of them given the circumstances, with Henry volunteering for the Italian army as an ambulance driver and Catherine being brave enough to disclose her pregnancy to a man that she isn’t married to and hasn’t really made a commitment to her.

As for the brave facing more deaths, that may be true in war and most of the time they brave ones likely do not talk about it.  Do they really have the luxury of talking about it if they are consistently throwing themselves in harm’s way to save the innocent or in times of war their fellow officers and soldiers?  I think not.

A:  Maybe the brave not talking about the times they’ve faced death keeps them from breaking down.  They can’t think about it because if they do, they’d become fearful and more likely to do something careless and die.  I remember a discussion along those lines in the Stephen Ambrose book, Band of Brothers.

I think they are both at least trying to be brave, with Catherine saying she’ll figure out the best place to have the baby knowing that Henry probably won’t be with her and she likely will be shunned by some of the nurses.  There is so little emotion or inner turmoil on Henry’s part, but he seems to calmly make arrangements to get back to the front, which might be construed as bravery.

2. What do you think about Henry’s reaction to Catherine’s pregnancy announcement?

S:  He doesn’t really have time to react at all; she’s too busy talking over him and telling him not to worry.  He has little time to just agree with whatever she’s talking about, and that seems to be how they relate to one another.  The short responses from Henry tell me a great deal about the shock he’s feeling and his possible mixed emotions about his relationship with her and how careless they have been.  They aren’t even married and it never really crosses their minds to change that situation, even for the sake of the child.

A:  Catherine tells him and goes on about him not worrying and whether it’s all right, and all Henry gives are short responses.  “Of course.”  “I’m not worried.”  I would have loved to know what was going on in his mind, which really is the benefit of the first-person POV, but you get none of that here.  Here he is with a woman he says he loves but probably doesn’t truly love getting ready to go back to war, and she still thinks of them as married but they’re not, and he just learns he’s going to be a father.  Maybe the short responses are very telling, but it’s difficult to know that for sure given the distance between the reader and the narrator from the very beginning.

3.  Why do you think Catherine suddenly feels like a whore rather than Henry’s wife?  What does that say about her character?

S:  She only seems to think of herself as a whore once they enter the hotel room on the day before he leaves for the front once again.  It seems as though she’s been just going along with their affair with little thought beyond the pleasure and comfort it provides her, but now that she’s in a room with deep red drapery and satin sheets, she realizes that she’s been sleeping with this man out of wedlock.  Still, she has no desire to go into the cathedral and remedy the situation before that, and part of me wonders if that’s her denial or fear of what will happen if she were to suggest it, especially now that she is pregnant.

As for her character, it’s pretty telling already what kind of woman she is.  She has no identity without him, she doesn’t plan anything ahead of time, and sort of goes with the flow to the point of the ridiculous.  She is such a weak character.

A: I suppose I would feel like a whore, too, if I were to go to a hotel with a man I don’t know all that well and am not married to just to have sex in the few hours he has left before going back to war.  And when he leaves, she’s going to be alone, with no husband, no boyfriend, most likely no job, and a baby to take care of.  I guess that put it all into perspective for her.  And don’t forget stopping on the way to buy a nightgown.

4.  When Henry is debating the feeling of defeat with the priest and the possible end to the war, Henry says, “‘They were beaten to start with.  They were beaten when they took them from their farms and put them in the army.  That is why the peasant has wisdom, because he is defeated from the start.'”  How is this statement true or not true?

S:  In many ways when farmers and peasants are “conscripted” into the military during these kinds of wars, they are taken from their homes without warning and leave their families to fend for themselves, which in many cases they are unable to do.  Many of these families are in poverty to start with and often see the military as a way out or to earn money, but the problem is that most die or never see any money from their military actions.  While the priest believes that the soldiers are seeing the war for what it is because of the things they have seen, Henry disagrees and says that these soldiers were already beaten before they came to the war.

A:  The peasant who doesn’t join up voluntarily has a pretty good idea of what’s ahead of him.  They’ve just been pulled away from their homes, their families, and their livelihoods, which is difficult in itself, to go off and fight a battle they don’t necessarily want to fight.  They are not the officers that plow ahead and follow orders and keep focused on the goal.  They know what it’s like to be down, and they know already that war isn’t going to make anything better for them.

5. What do you think about the way Hemingway describes the front?

S:  I really enjoyed this section of the book most.  The short sentences provide the right amount of tension for the movements and the hiding from the Germans who unexpectedly show up.  If I had to pick, this would be my favorite part of the book.  He gets right down to the nitty gritty.

A:  Like the rest of the description in the book, it is bland and without emotion.  Even though my mind kept wandering throughout his rambling descriptions, I think his writing style actually works here because the front is dark, desolate, and depressing.  There is no romance in war, and there is no romance in Hemingway’s prose.

6. What do you think about the shift in the story from Henry’s therapy and his relationship with Catherine to the front and the retreat?

S:  I was so glad to be rid of Catherine.  I can’t stand her constant “smoothing” over every situation and every “argument” they have.  The front and the retreat are the best parts of the book for me because this is where Hemingway shines best.  Henry’s not in control of the situation and there seems to be a little fear that he may not make it through the interrogation of the officers and the shootings.  But in true Henry fashion, he takes control again and escapes.

A: I was glad to get away from Catherine and her nagging and blabbering.  The very last chapter of this section, with the retreat, the shooting of the sergeant, spotting the Germans, and Henry being singled out with the other officers for questioning and execution by the carabinieri, was the best part of the book so far.  There was some action, some tension; Henry wasn’t in control of the situation for once.  We’re still distanced from Henry’s inner thoughts, but Hemingway lets us in just a bit when Henry has to choose between waiting for his turn to be shot or making a run for it.  If only more of the book had been that exciting!

Next week, we’ll be reading Chapters 31-41 (aka the end).  We’ll post final discussion questions on Friday, June 29.


  1. […] on over today to check out what we’re discussing, but be aware that there could be spoilers. Related […]

  2. But…but…this is the section where their bravery and their war-defying relationship get so starkly defined! What else could they do but try to cope with the ever-present terror of the war and try to ignore the circumstances that don’t allow them to make their marriage legal (remember back in the last section, when they discussed the legal impossibilities)? As I said to one of my commenters, it’s what is not said that makes this novel so powerful. Here’s my take on this section, which left me with tears in my eyes: https://necromancyneverpays.wordpress.com/2012/06/21/a-farewell-to-arms-part-three/

  3. I really enjoyed this section best, Jeanne. I may not have been as articulate as I wanted…I gather there is the war ever-present in the background and there are legal impossibilities, but I also think if people are motivated enough by love for the right reasons, that they can find a way.

  4. Yay, we got to the front! There was action! http://howlingfrog.blogspot.com/2012/06/farewell-to-arms-readalong-iii.html

  5. Hello, enjoyed this read-a-long!
    My answers @

  6. 1. I think the quote implies that the brave don’t feel fear while cowards do. I don’t think that is true. I think the main difference between being a coward and being brave is how individuals handle their fear. A coward would run from a situation in which he felt fear, while a brave person would face the situation. I don’t think it can be called bravery if you’re not afraid – bravery is doing what you have to do in spite of your fear. So I would disagree with Henry and agree with Catherine.
    2. I was surprised that Henry didn’t react more, but then he never does react much. It seemed like he didn’t really understand the implications of Catherine being pregnant. I would have expected him to offer to marry her.
    3. Catherine has been pretending that Henry’s hospital room is their house and that they are married, but when they go to a hotel, she has to face the fact that they aren’t really married.
    4. The peasants would have been drafted into the army to fight a war they would have had no interest or stake in. They would have left behind their families and farms and not been able to provide for their families, as well as risking their lives for something that had no meaning for them.
    5. I don’t find his descriptions of the front any better than his other descriptions. I will say that I was surprised when Henry shot the soldier who was running away.
    6. I don’t like Catherine, so I was relieved that she was out of the story for awhile, but I actually don’t like reading about war. I know, I’ve participated in these challenges since they began, but I prefer reading about how war affects the people at home or how soldiers cope after returning home, that sort of thing. So I didn’t like this part of the story any better.

  7. Thanks for participating, we’re winding up the read-a-long this week. I really enjoyed the way Hemingway’s writing style suited the sections about the front, bringing about more tension.

  8. Jeanne: I liked this part of the book best, too. I agree that what is not said is important here as well, but even what Hemingway does say isn’t very gripping and I think that’s the problem I’m having with the book overall. I am liking it better now but still am not totally invested in the story.

    jeanlp: I was excited that the action finally started, too!

    Cheryl: I was a bit surprised too that he shot the soldier, but then I thought about how I really don’t know much about Henry at all. I think most of us feel the same way about Catherine.

  9. […] in checking out the read-along discussion (BEWARE OF SPOILERS), go here:  Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4. Book 11 for the WWI Reading Challenge Book 26 for the Historical Fiction Reading […]

  10. I am a little behind on my reading and posting but here is my link for week #3
    There is a lot of action in this section of the book and I can’t wait to see how the book ends.

  11. Thanks for posting your thoughts on the third section. I’m going to check them out now and can’t wait to see what you think of the last section.

  12. […] out the read-a-long discussions for week 1, week 2, week 3, and week 4 at War Through the […]

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