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A Farewell to Arms

Book review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
A Farewell to Arms Book Poster Image
Classic war novel still speaks to today's readers.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

When Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms in 1929, it was a contemporary novel, but today it's a period piece. The novel depicts an ambulance driver's personal view of the Italian Campaign of World War I, and readers get a window into Italian rural life, the dangers faced by wartime medical personnel and civilians, and gender roles during the 1920s.

Positive Messages

Hemingway's classic novel includes some humor and peaceful--even cheerful--moments, so it's not a relentlessly dark book, but overall the author tells us that war is chaotic and cruel, and soldiers aren't the only casualties. Also, it's possible to find love in the direst situations.

Positive Role Models & Representations

There are plenty of decent people in Hemingway's novel: Narrator Frederic Henry is a loyal, level-headed antihero; Catherine Barkley is brave in a stiff-upper-lip way; and most of the other medical personnel and civilians that Henry encounters are generous. However, Henry and many of his friends drink heavily and engage in casual sex; they're not necessarily teen role model material.

Violence

Hemingway's depiction of the first World War is extremely effective: Most of the fighting is described in the abstract, happening at some distance from the main characters, who mention hearing shelling. So, when the author decides to include detailed, almost medical descriptions of people being injured or killed, the impact is profound. In one scene, Henry describes part of a man's leg being held on by a tendon and his own knee being blown apart. Suspected traitors are shot point blank, with no questions asked. There are also powerful descriptions of wounded men crying and dying in pain.

Sex

Sex is more suggested than graphic in Hemingway's novel. This is in part because the original version of the book--which included more explicit sexual activity and language--was edited in an effort to satisfy censors of the day. However, characters do visit brothels (referred to as "bawdy houses"), and there's some passionate kissing between Frederic Henry and Catherine Barclay. Henry describes a fantasy, as well, about being naked with Catherine in a hotel. Though their lovemaking is not clearly described, readers are told that Catherine joins Henry in his hospital bed.

Language

Similar to the sexual content of the book, vulgar language was mainly struck from the original novel in an effort to please censors at the time the book was published. Dashes were added to four-letter words such as "sh-t" and "f--k," and there's a passage where the narrator humorously, and obviously, talks around the "F" word repeatedly. Language that remains in the latest edition of the book incudes several uses of the word "whore" and one  "N" word.

Consumerism

Lots of wine and alcohol varieties mentioned in the novel, but no mentions brand names.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Frederic Henry and his cohorts drink continually throughout the novel: wine, cognac, grappa, etc. Henry drinks with breakfast, and he drinks while recovering from a leg wound in the hospital, resulting in a case of jaundice. A character drinks during her pregnancy. There's also a bit of cigarette smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Ernest Hemingway's masterful 1929 World War I novel, A Farewell to Arms, offers a suitably brutal look at combat and the job of a military ambulance driver. As in other books by this essential author, language is very carefully chosen, showing the way writers can make a greater impact with some restraint than with relentless graphic violence. The violence Hemingway describes is truly shocking, including detailed descriptions of soldiers' wounds and deaths, and the cursory executions of suspected spies. There's also some sexual activity (passionate kissing, non-graphic mentions of sex in a hospital bed, and a man's fevered fantasy). The original edition of A Farewell to Arms included curse words and more detail about the characters' sex lives, but almost all of that was edited to please 1920s censors. Still, the presence of "s-t" and "f--k" with dashes inserted and a character's unmarried pregnancy were enough to get the novel banned in some countries. Characters drink alcohol constantly, including one character drinking during pregnancy, and ther's some cigarette smoking.

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What's the story?

In Ernest Hemingway's classic World War I novel A FAREWELL TO ARMS, American expatriate Frederic Henry has enlisted with the Italian army as an ambulance driver. His job requires as much waiting as driving, and Henry fills many of those quiet hours with drinking and socializing with other medical personnel. Henry begins a flirtatious involvement with an English nurse named Catherine Barkley, and after Henry is wounded, the couple's relationship deepens. Once Henry has recovered, he's sent back to the battlefront, where it becomes clear that it's time for him to cut his losses and take Catherine out of Italy.

Is it any good?

Hemingway's genius rested in his carefully crafted, deceptively simple sentences. A Farewell to Arms, in particular, may be easy to read, but it's not easy to take. The author is unstinting in creating a full-color picture of life during wartime: the waiting, the suffering, the erosion of morals and ethics, and the deep bonds that are formed between comrades in arms. It is simply a brilliant novel, revealing the ravages of war as well as the author's great affection for Italy.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how war is portrayed in Farewell to Arms. What is Hemingway's point of view about war? How is this novel similar to or different from other war books you've read? 

  • Hemingway was known for writing about manly men who drank to excess. How did you feel about the drinking in this novel? Did it seem realistic or over the top? 

  •  How do you feel about the end of Farewell to Arms? What's Hemingway saying by ending the book this way?

Book details

  • Author: Ernest Hemingway
  • Genre: History
  • Topics: History
  • Book type: Fiction
  • Publisher: Hemingway Library
  • Publication date: January 1, 1929
  • Publisher's recommended age(s): 15 - 18
  • Number of pages: 352
  • Available on: Paperback, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
  • Last updated: January 01, 2020

Themes & Topics

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