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Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is inspired by his work as an ambulance driver for Italy during WWI. In the novel, Hemingway takes the atrocities of the war and treats them as the inevitable, everyday familiarities that they were to those who lived through the conflict. This creates a subtle, but powerful impact. We’re hit in the face by the horrors of war without being hit in the face.

At its crux the novel is a love story between an American ambulance driver working for the Italians, and a British nurse. The story is told in first person, from the driver’s point of view.

Hemingway is noted for his mastery of ‘iceberg’ dialogue—that is, the characters’ spoken words reflect only a small portion of their actual emotions, the rest—like an iceberg—are hidden below the surface. We learn through seemingly trivial dialogue that the nurse, Catherine, is loving; needy; and somewhat neurotic, and the ambulance driver, Fred, seems to enjoy the idea of being in love more than actually being in love—though it is a gray area that he wrestles with.


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An interesting side note – there’s a small discussion instigated by Catherine regarding her and Fred growing their hair the same length so they’d look alike. (Hemingway’s mother kept his hair girlishly long as a child and appeared to be an issue for him, and one that he explored in other works.)

One of the stronger, and most surprising elements of the book is Hemingway’s use of inner dialogue for Fred, despite the iceberg method of dialogue that he perfected. Particularly moving were Fred’s thoughts regarding death. Hemingway approaches it in a partial stream of consciousness with brilliant use of repetition.

A Farewell to Arms is a character driven novel draped in the cruelty of war.