Summer Reading Series: Gene Ciarlo on “A Farewell to Arms”

Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms is widely considered to be one of his finest works. This might have something to do with the close resemblances between the book and the author’s life. Like his protagonist, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, Hemingway was an American soldier who served as an ambulance driver with the Italian military during World War I; he too was wounded in battle, landed in a military hospital in Milan, and met the woman with whom he would begin a loving and exclusive relationship during his convalescence. As for the remaining details of the story, who knows how many of them relate to the actual events in the author’s life? But the broad strokes are there, giving the narrative a veracity, a relationship to life, a profundity that can come about only through personal experience. 

Hemingway looks at war in A Farewell to Arms and sees it as a singular example of wretchedness and evil in the world. He describes the Italian army as panic stricken and thrown into chaos once the enemy forced them to retreat during the battle at Caporetto, not far from Venice. The novel avoids the war story, but Hemingway captures particular scenes of ignominy in order to make his point about the chaos, evil, senselessness, and absurdity of war and how it stands for all that is destructive of the human spirit in our world.

There is no “God talk” in this book. Hemingway is not the sort of author who prattles on about God or religion. There are two chaplains in the story, Ettore and Gino. Ettore, the group chaplain, is harmless. They call him in whenever someone is dying so that he can minister to them the last rites. There is something appalling in this reductive view of the chaplain’s role. Is that all that a military priest does—sit on the sidelines and wait to be called to the bedside of a dying soldier? I’m sure many military men can testify that their chaplains meant and mean much more to them than that.

Even apart from the perfunctory service of this particular clergyman, Hemingway makes clear that religion for him is peripheral to real life. This begs the question: Does faith in God, religious fervor, make a difference in one’s outlook on life? And, if so, is this new outlook real or just a way to make it through the day? It seems that the more a person is involved in the beliefs and practices of their religion, the less likely are they to be overwhelmed by the negative forces of life. So let us go on, be piously religious, and we can thumb our noses at the sad, tragic, and depressing things of life all around us, the wars and insurrections, tornadoes, hurricanes, and all the human-made trials and challenges with which we are confronted daily. Is it really that easy, or does religious fervor falsify reality? The historical Jesus gives the answer. He saw everything as it was but grew in human stature so that he was able to face life at its best, its most joyful, and at its worst, in suffering and apparent defeat. Is that a definition of holiness for us, or shall we call it wholeness?

A key theme in Hemingway’s works is that the world is harsh and that it crushes people in a variety of ways. Life is more difficult for some than for others, depending on one’s state of mind. We battle constantly for peace, happiness, wholeness, and some kind of escape from the things that want to beat us into submission to negativity and fatalism. Recall that Hemingway himself was 62 years old when he took his own life after battling depression.

This does not mean A Farewell to Arms is devoid of spiritual content, the fundamental goodness with which all humanity is imbued as part of God’s universe. For Lieutenant Henry, the catalyst for his love, the divine element of all life, is his nurse, Catherine Barkley. She is the woman with whom he will eventually find goodness and a reason for living. There it is: it is in falling in love that he receives his human wholeness and fulfillment, the divine meets the human, the yin meets its yang, the earth gives meaning to sky. 

One brief chapter in the novel is a turning point, a point at which the superficial and merely earthly is touched by the divine, like the two fingers ever so slightly meeting in Michelangelo’s creation scene depicted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The chapter in question is two pages long. Lieutenant Henry escapes from the chaos of northeastern Italy (present-day Slovenia) and steals onto the gun-bearing flatbed car of a freight train headed for Milan—away from evil and, hopefully, toward good. Yes, he’s a deserter, deserting evil. A turning point, filled with hope, and the thought of Catherine, love. 

It happens in the last chapter of Book III. It is the way Hemingway saw life, and a metaphor for every life. There is pain, hunger, discomfort, human encounters that afford some relief in the form of hope and love. It is an escape made while lying with weapons of destruction. There is always the proximity of evil:

Lying on the floor of the flat-car with the guns beside me under the canvas I was wet, cold and very hungry. . . .

I could remember Catherine but I knew I would get crazy if I thought about her when I was not sure yet I would see her, so I would not think about her, only about her a little, only about her with the car going slowly and clickingly, and some light through the canvas . . .

This is his reality, for the moment. But in a later scene, God, the deus ex machina that most of us resort to in times of trouble, need, despair, joy, and sometimes just for nothing special, comes to the fore for Lieutenant Henry. This is begging. There are very few of us who cannot relate to this scene:

Everything was gone inside of me. I did not think. I could not think. I knew she was going to die and I prayed that she would not. Don’t let her die. Oh, God, please don’t let her die. I’ll do anything for you if you won’t let her die. Please, please, please, dear God, don’t let her die. Dear God, don’t let her die. Please, please, please don’t let her die. God please make her not die. I’ll do anything you say if you don’t let her die . . .

This prayer is overwhelmingly sad and tragic. In such hopelessness and despair, what else do people do? There are no atheists in foxholes, goes the old saying. This is the first time Lieutenant Henry is caught praying, the first time in this novel Hemingway is caught in religion. It is a very spiritual moment for Henry, though he has had other, more deeply spiritual moments when he acknowledges and actualizes his love for Catherine. God does not have to be overtly mentioned by the spiritual heart, nor do the rituals of religion have to be embraced to enjoy the grace of God. The idea of seven sacraments, overt signs of the bestowal of God-life, confuses people. There is an infinite number of sacraments because God comes to us in innumerable ways if we chose to break through the barriers of the senses.

Teilhard de Chardin’s stunning definition of a human being—“Creation reflecting upon itself”—is applicable here. Meditation is reflection, and most of it happens when we are not in church. The best kind is intentional, simply to consciously reflect on what is. A Farewell to Arms, on the level of its title alone, is a hopeful prayer: a farewell to all that is an enemy of goodness, of the human spirit, of God.

Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white. 

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