F. Scott Fitzgerald may have named the Lost Generation, but Ernest Hemingway was its poster boy. Hyper-masculine, hard-drinking, womanizing, and a brilliant prose stylist, he embodied the nihilism and angst of the bohemian artists living between the World Wars. In the course of a prolific career he chronicled their exploits in fiction and non-fiction works ranging from The Sun Also Rises to The Green Hills of Africa and For Whom the Bell Tolls. His name has become synonymous with the radical style he developed—terse, semi-journalistic, spare, yet elegant and nuanced—a style that transformed the way literature was written in the 20th century.
A Farewell to Arms is one of the most representative among Hemingway's multiple masterpieces. It follows American Frederic Henry through his tour of duty as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I. The semi-autobiographical narrative explores the meaningless horror of war and the struggle for humanization in the face of empty conflict. The soldiers, though told they are fighting a glorious war, grapple with feelings of emasculation and ennui as they surrender to boredom and have sex and drink pointlessly. Henry falls for British nurse Catherine Barkley and attempts to find in her the meaning he can find nowhere else. An idealist vision nevertheless darkened by an inherent pessimism, A Farewell to Arms is not only representative of Hemingway, but of the entire 20th century.
Like many novels of the modern period, this one isn't really "about" anything the way older, more traditional works are about things. The characters lead largely vacuous lives, and the simple plot—love and loss in a time of war—is more a vehicle for the author's exploration of themes than it is an engaging narrative. What makes this novel important is the way in which those themes are investigated, the way Hemingway manipulates language so that the style of the prose is also the substance of the novel. Many authors attempt similar craftsmanship but usually end up lost in avant gardeism or with a text so abstruse any meaning they intended is indecipherable. Hemingway's prose is clean, and while you might find his dogged nihilism depressing or even unnerving at times, the darkness of the material is adequately balanced by the beauty of the writing.
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