It was in year 2003 when someone gifted me sets of classic books, with his impression that I love to read. (He was right about it, but he was wrong to think that I have loved classic books. At that time, I thought of them boring.)I might have shown keen interest listening to his discussions of his reading and constantly debating and arguing with his reasonings, so he brought me more books to read. (I really did not get the chance to read all those thick books, but they still lie in one of those boxes at home that I have not opened for years.)
Now, year 2012, 9 years later, while looking for a book to gift to someone at Barnes and Noble, there lies in the “Summer Must Read” section a book that is so much familiar: Farewell to Arms. No doubt, I had to have it.
They say that reading a book for the second time will allow you to appreciate it more, to understand it deeper, and to value it more. Indeed, for as I have opened to first page, I have understood why “Farewell to Arms” remains to be a must read. It gives that kind of simplicity, yet with depth.
In this story, a North American, Frederick Henry, is enlisted as an ambulance driver for the Italian army during World War I. He learned to love, and to lose his love during the war.
With the war going on, with ‘much traffic’ where there are ‘mules’ ‘with boxes of ammunition’, ‘long barrels of the guns’, Henry describes how to live through it:
I had gone to no such place but to the smoke of cafes and nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that was all there was, and the strange excitement of waking and not knowing who it was with you, and the world all unreal in the dark and so exciting that you must resume again unknowing and not caring in the night, sure that this was all and all and all and not caring. Suddenly to care very much and to sleep to wake with it sometimes and all that had been there gone and everything sharp and hard and clear and sometimes a dispute about the cost.
Then he meets Catherine Barkley, an English nurse, whose fiance never returns back from war. Henry, who says, “I don’t love” (page 72), falls in love with Catherine. When Catherine comes to see him in the hospital where he is treated for being shot, “everything turned over inside” him (page 91) and he ‘felt her heart beating’, too. Catherine says:
“…there’s only us two in the world there’s all the rest of them. If anything comes between us we’re gone and they have us.” (page 139).
Henry wishes for them to get married, but Catherine thinks they would separate them. Driven by their love for each other, they pretend to be married, to be a husband and a wife.
“What good would it do to marry now? We’re really married. I couldn’t be any more married.”(Catherine, page 115)
“There isn’t any me. I’m you. Don’t make up a separate me.” (Catherine, page 115)
“…You see I’m happy, darling, and we have a lovely time. I haven’t been happy for a long time and when I met you perhaps I was nearly crazy. Perhaps I was crazy. But now we’re happy and we love each other. Do let’s please just be happy….” (Catherine, page 116)
Before reporting back to the front (after staying in the hospital for the treatment of his wounded knew), Catherine tells Henry that she is pregnant. He leaves for the front, leaving Catherine with the promise that he will write letters, and that he will return safe to her.
During a mission to bring an ambulance into the retreat, he ends up being caught by the battle police. Knowing that the police will kill him, he escapes by running into the river. In his escape, he reflects:
“Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation…I would like to have had the uniform off although I did not care much about the outward forms. I had taken off the stars, but that was for convenience. It was no point of honor. I was not against them. I was through. I wished them all the luck. There were good ones, and the brave ones, and the calm ones, and the sensible ones, and they deserved it. But it was not my show anymore….” (Henry, page 232)
Henry and Catherine then reunite, and they escape to Switzerland, where they live a peaceful life in the mountains. Henry’s reflection on page 249 speaks strongly of his love for Catherine:
“…Often a man wishes to be alone and a girl wishes to be alone too and they love each other they are jealous of that in each other, but i can truly say we never felt that. We could feel alone when we are together, alone against the others. It has only happened to me like that once. I have been alone while I was with many girls and that is the way that you can be most lonely. But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together. I know that the night is not the same as the day: that ll things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started. But with Catherine there was almost no difference in the night except that it was an even better time. If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them….”
Their love, which some people consider to be doomed, has to end when Catherine gives birth to a baby boy who has been dead even before being born, and suffers with hemorrhage. Henry, who, at the beginning of the novel, claims not to love God, prays hard. But Catherine dies.
Despite being written on the first point of view, the readers can understand more of what is going on through dialogues and conversations. There is not so much of a revelation of what is going on in the characters’ thoughts and feelings.
Thoughts and ideas about war are evident from these quotes:
“…There is noting as bad as war. …When people realize how bad it is they cannot do anything to stop it because they go crazy. There are some people who never realize. There are people who are afraid of their officers. It is them the war is made.” (Passini, page 50)
“We think. We read. We are not peasants. We are mechanics. But even the peasants know better than to believe in war. Everybody hates this war.” (Passini, page 51)
“…There are people who would make war. In this country there are many like that….” (the priest, page 71)
“..life isn’t hard to manage when you’ve nothing to lose.” (Catherine, page 137)
“…The brave dies perhaps a thousand deaths if he’s intelligent. He simply doesn’t mention it.” (Henry, page 139)
“…I tell you this war is a bad thing. Why did we make it anyway?” (Rinaldi, page 168)
Rereading this classic is an affirmation to how simple language is being used to craft a moving story. How can war change one’s life? Read the novel, and you would understand more how both cynicism, brotherhood, love and faith are built from war.