A Farewell to Arms
by Ernest Hemingway
Challenges & Opportunities
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Sample of Challenges & Opportunities
A Farewell to Arms can be a tough read, maybe one of the tougher ones in the Hemingway canon. The reason: it's really long and often boring. That, and it's told from a pretty narrow perspective: Frederic Henry, the American turned Italian ambulance driver. So how do you sell the reading of this book to students?
Life During Wartime
The novel may bore you, but the boredom is not without purpose. Hemingway's semi-autobiographical story shows what happens when armies aren't fighting each other on the front. It's almost a behind-the-scenes look at what real wartime is like: men in mess halls and bars making fun of each other; men taking leave to travel; men trying to hook up with women. Surrounding these men are the small communities they affect: the villagers, the women, the doctors and nurses. This portrayal of war is a rarity. Most people assume war is about constant chaos and strife (which it often is). What gets lost in those stories are the habits and rhythm of daily life, which often continue despite the fighting. Hemingway's novel gives you that sense of daily life, the tediousness, the boredom, and the loneliness too. As a result, you really can't romanticize war. Everything becomes so mundane.
The Ethics of War
If Hemingway gives us a non-romantic view of war, then he also gives us non-heroic characters. There really are no heroes in Hemingway's novel, just complicated men who go about their business of saving and killing each other. For example, even though one can argue that Frederic is a hero for trying to save his buddies in the beginning of the book, that picture of him definitely gets warped once you get to Book 3, when he kills a sergeant for a fairly petty reason. So, rather than settle for a simplistic view of Frederic, we're forced to think of Frederic as a guy who's trying to figure out and sustain a sense of ethics in a time when killing another person is not only perfectly acceptable but expected.
Men and Masculinity
Of course, as one might expect from Hemingway, a novel about war is really a novel about men, or in this case, one man and his (masculine) perspective. For that reason alone, it might be easier for male students to relate to not just the book as a whole, but to Frederic as a character. The way Frederic and his male friends relate to each other is both stereotypical (they act like frat boys often enough) and surprisingly complex (Frederic's relationship with the priest is marked by acceptance and gentleness). Thus, readers can't help but to walk away with a sense of men that extends well beyond the faulty image of men as non-communicative Neanderthals.
Female students might take issue with the one-dimensional portrayal of women, though. But, if anything, Hemingway's novel can spark some lively discussions about what women and men are like and what the novel (and one guy's perspective) may lack when it comes to issues like women and femininity.