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A Farewell to Arms

Critics usually describe Hemingway’s style as simple, spare,
and journalistic. These are all good words; they all apply.
Perhaps because of his training as a newspaperman, Hemingway
is a master of the declarative, subject-verb-object
sentence. His writing has been likened to a boxer’s
punches–combinations of lefts and rights coming at us
without pause. Take the following passage:
We were all cooked. The thing was not to recognize it. The
last country to realize they were cooked would win the war.
We had another drink. Was I on somebody’s staff? No. He was.
It was all balls.

The style gains power because it is so full of sensory

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There was an inn in the trees at the Bains de l’Allaiz where
the woodcutters stopped to drink, and we sat inside warmed
by the stove and drank hot red wine with spices and lemon in
it. They called it gluhwein and it was a good thing to warm
you and to celebrate with. The inn was dark and smoky inside
and afterward when you went out the cold air came sharply
into your lungs and numbed the edge of your nose as you

The simplicity and the sensory richness flow directly from
Hemingway’s and his characters’–beliefs. The punchy, vivid
language has the immediacy of a news bulletin: these are
facts, Hemingway is telling us, and they can’t be ignored.
And just as Frederic Henry comes to distrust abstractions
like “patriotism,” so does Hemingway distrust them. Instead
he seeks the concrete, the tangible: “hot red wine with
spices, cold air that numbs your nose.” A simple “good”
becomes higher praise than another writer’s string of
decorative adjectives.

Though Hemingway is best known for the tough simplicity of
style seen in the first passage cited above, if we take a
close look at A Farewell to Arms, we will often find another
Hemingway at work–a writer who is aiming for certain
complex effects, who is experimenting with language, and who
is often self-consciously manipulating words. Some sentences
are clause-filled and eighty or more words long. Take for
example the description in Chapter 1 that begins, “There
were mists over the river and clouds on the mountain”; it
paints an entire dreary wartime autumn and foreshadows the
deaths not only of many of the soldiers but of Catherine.

Hemingway’s style changes, too, when it reflects his
characters’ changing states of mind. Writing from Frederic
Henry’s point of view, he sometimes uses a modified
stream-of-consciousness technique, a method for spilling out
on paper the inner thoughts of a character. Usually Henry’s
thoughts are choppy, staccato, but when he becomes drunk the
language does too, as in the passage in Chapter 3:
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 make it 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.

The rhythm, the repetition, have us reeling with Henry.

Thus, Hemingway’s prose is in fact an instrument finely
tuned to reflect his characters and their world. As we read
A Farewell to Arms, we must try to underezd the thoughts
and feelings Hemingway seeks to inspire in us by the way he
uses language.


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