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Ernest Hemingway called his novel A Farewell to Arms his “Romeo and Juliet.” The most obvious similarity between these works is their star-crossed lovers, as noted by critic Carlos Baker; another is that the deaths of both Juliet and Hemingway’s Catherine are precipitated by ironic accidents. In Catherine’s case, the irony is that it’s a biological mistake that killed her and not the war she and her lover had managed to escape. Hemingway’s novel also shares the five-part format of Romeo and Juliet (introduction, complication, climax, resolution, and conclusion) and integrates short scenes into the whole tale of love and loss.
In Book One, Hemingway introduces his major characters and setting with a slightly journalistic style that is detached but sorrowful as he sketches the harsh life on the battlefront of a small Italian town Catherine, an English nurse’s aide in the town’s British hospital. Henry is a conflicted soldier; having enlisted in the army with neither a thirst for glory nor a hearty belief in its cause, he is easily drained by the war. Catherine mourns the death of her fiancé from the war the previous year. As the book goes on, their love affair between the two revives their spirits after their suffering and loss. Another key character is Henry’s friend Rinaldi, a surgeon who uses sex as an escape but avoids love because he views it as complicated. A final main character is the priest, a kind young man who provides spiritual guidance to the few soldiers interested in it and who serves as the mischievous Rinaldi’s foil. Often the butt of the officers’ jokes, the priest responds with good-natured understanding.
Book Two presents the “complication” or rising action of the story. Most obvious is the complication of Henry’s wound and how this changes his life and relationship with Catherine, but love becomes a more dominant complication. Rinaldi, with his endless talk about the need for multiple woman, sex and alcohol, embodies the overactive male sex drive and his need to escape through physical pleasures. The priest challenges this idea in his conversation with Henry; in his opinion, sex is not enough to satisfy a man. The priest believes that Henry lacks someone to love and, when Henry protests, draws an evident distinction between lust and love. As Book Two goes on, true love develops. When Catherine arrives in Milan the “game” between Henry and the nurse quickly transforms to love. The moment Henry sees Catherine in the doorway, he states: “When I saw her I was in love with her. Everything turned over inside of me” (98). Catherine’s pregnancy further complicates the story. Catherine worries that Henry feels trapped, and he admits that he feels “biologically trapped” (103). Henry’s comment shows his hatred for the world and natural order of life but not Catherine herself – he blames biology and fate for his current position.
Book Three’s story forces the reader to acknowledge the horrors of war. The book starts with the major admitting that he is tired of the war: “If I was away I do not believe I would come back” (175). His lack of drive and passion seems to be contagious as even the priest notes that all the men have become “gentle.” The men do not have the drive they once did and are eager to get home, even at the cost of losing the war. At dinner Rinaldi attempts to relive old times by loudly picking on the priest, trying to animate the nearly empty dining hall for Henry’s sake, but it is a poor attempt. Rinaldi confides in Henry: “This war is killing me,” he says. “I am very depressed by it” (Hemingway 175). Evidently Rinaldi is no longer the cheerful man filled with laughter and jokes. After dinner, Henry talks with the priest. The priest believes that the war will end soon, though he cannot say why he thinks so. Henry’s exchange of ideas with the priest confirms the darkness of living with a disbelief in God, love, and honor – essential elements that help to give life meaning.
Next arrives the retreat, debatably the climax of the novel. The retreat is chaotic and terrifying, as exemplified by Henry’s comment: “We are in more danger Italians than Germans” (229). The Italians are panicked, making a crazed effort to restore order no matter what the cost, and guards begin massacring their own men. Yet Henry is neither interested in saving face nor defeated when the battle police grab him. He flees not out of cowardice but out of an unwillingness to make a sacrifice for a cause that, to him, seems meaningless. Self-preservation seems to him as prime a choice as any. The peak of arrives when Henry decides to abandon the army and leaps to his escape in the river. There is no reason for him to stay, as he does not believe in the concept of honor – especially for a cause that’s not his – and he longs to return to Catherine. Henry decides in chapter 32 that “(It) was not my show anymore.” Henry’s escape sends the story away from the war and towards Catherine.
Book Four appears be a resolution. Henry reunites with Catherine in the town of Stresa and is overcome with happiness to be in her presence. At first life is peaceful and the war seems far away. Henry appears content with his decision to abandon the military, though several times he has to assure himself that he is done with the war. His sense of peace is perhaps more a matter of wishful thinking than his actual view on the situation. Henry tells Catherine that he will one day share his experience, if he can “get it straight in [his] head” (Hemingway 268). This psychological turmoil and Henry’s declaration that he feels like a criminal for leaving the front speak to a conflict that penetrates deeper than Henry is willing to admit. Henry feels partially guilty for leaving his friends behind but masks this guilt by focusing his attention on Catherine. Clearly this book is not a “resolution” as the reader first thought, and unfortunately for Henry and Catherine, the complications keep coming. They learn that they will be arrested in the morning and escape to safety in Switzerland, rowing all night in a tiny borrowed boat.
Book Five, the heart of the tragedy, begins with the couple settling happily in a lovely alpine town called Monteux and agreeing to put the war behind them. Their life is ideal and cheerful; they have wonderful neighbors and go into town regularly. But the tone of the book changes when Catherine acknowledges concern about her baby’s health; she believes a beer will help keep the baby small because the doctor has warned her that she has a narrow pelvis. Indeed, the child is stillborn and Catherine dies in labor. Henry’s reporting of Catherine’s death is painfully simple manner: “It seems she had one hemorrhage after another. They couldn’t stop it. I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died” (355). The reader feels the immeasurable grief beneath these words. The story ends with Henry attempting to say goodbye but instead just leaving the hospital and walking back to his hotel in the rain. The death is not a revelation or catalyst for change – it is just loss.
From ill-fated lovers to accidents to traditional tragic structure, A Farewell to Arms and Romeo and Juliet share key characteristics that depict human tragedy in extraordinarily poignant ways.
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