[On November 26, 1942 the great Casablanca premiered in New York. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that film and four other wartime romances!]
On two important elements beyond the autobiographical in Hemingway’s war romance.
Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), the tale of an American serving with the Italian ambulance corps during World War I who is injured and falls in love with his English nurse, has frequently been read as an autobiographical novel of Hemingway’s own experiences as an American serving with the Italian ambulance corps during World War I, getting injured, and falling in love with his American nurse. The parallels are so clear that In Love and War (1996), the film adaptation of the novel which gives this week’s series its name, stars Chris O’Donnell as none other than Ernest Hemingway and Sandra Bullock as the American nurse with whom he falls in—you get the idea. While there are of course differences between Hemingway’s story and that of the novel’s narrator and male protagonist Frederic Henry—most notably in the outcome of their respective war romances—I’m not going to argue that the book wasn’t clearly and centrally inspired by the author’s personal life and identity.
Even the most autobiographical novels are works of fiction with other layers and elements beyond the life experiences, though, and A Farewell to Arms has a couple of particularly significant ones. For one thing, I think Hemingway creates a pretty nuanced portrayal of his female protagonist, Catherine Barkley. I know Hemingway’s general reputation when it comes to depictions of women, and I may have even contributed a bit to that narrative (while also trying to challenge it) in parts of this prior post. But while Farewell is certainly Frederic’s story (he is the narrator, after all), his narration and the novel still do justice to some central aspects of Catherine’s identity: her wartime work as a nurse, her status as (like Frederic) an expatriate working in Italy, and especially her experiences of the possibilities and dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. Those last subjects are most overtly outside of the autobiographical experiences of a male author, and while Hemingway again filters them through Frederic’s perspective he still depicts them in complex and thoughtful ways.
More directly part of Frederic’s perspective, but also importantly separate from and bigger than him (or any one character), is the novel’s portrayal of war. Again this element at least somewhat belies Hemingway’s reputation as a man’s man obsessed with machismo, an image bolstered by his inclusion of numerous violent activities and sports in many of his works, from boxing to bullfighting to big-game hunting. Yet as that hyperlinked post suggests, Hemingway could critique such activities at the same time that he certainly could and did celebrate them, and the portrayal of war in Farewell is far more critical than celebratory. The title alone suggests Frederic’s eventual desertion from his duties and comrades, an action often portrayed in war literature as the height of cowardice but treated far more sympathetically in Hemingway’s novel. Indeed, the nonsense and atrocities Frederic faces from those supposedly on the same “side” as him feel at times much more along the lines of a wartime satire like Catch-22 than any idealization, heroic depiction of war. One more element that makes Hemingway’s most autobiographical novel also one of his very best.
Last romance tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other wartime romances you’d highlight?
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