All fiction is autobiographical, no matter how obscure from the author’s experience it may be, marks of their life can be detected in any of their tales. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway is based largely on Hemingway’s own personal experiences. The main character of the novel, Frederic Henry, experiences many of the same situations that Hemingway lived. Some of these similarities are exact, while some are less similar, and some events have a completely different outcome.
Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois. Hemingway worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Star after graduating from high school in 1917. During World War I, he served as an ambulance driver in the Italian infantry and was wounded just before his 19th birthday. Hospitalized, Hemingway fell in love with an older nurse. Later, while working in Paris as a correspondent for the Toronto Star, he became involved with the expatriate literary and artistic circle surrounding Gertrude Stein. During the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway served as a correspondent on the loyalist side. He fought in World War II and then settled in Cuba in 1945. In 1954, Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. After his expulsion from Cuba by the Castro regime, he moved to Idaho. In his life, Hemingway married four times and wrote numerous essays, short stories and novels. The effects of Hemingway’s lifelong depressions, illnesses and accidents caught up with him. In July 1961, he committed suicide in Ketchum, Idaho. What remains, are his works, the product of a talented author.
A Farewell to Arms is the story of Frederic Henry, an American, driving an ambulance for the Italian Army during World War I. The novel takes us through Frederic’s experiences in war and his love affair with Catherine Barkley, an American nurse in Italy. The novel starts in the northern mountains of Italy at the beginning of World War I. Rinaldi, Frederic’s roommate, takes him to visit a nurse he has taken a liking to. Catherine Barkley, the nurse Rinaldi speaks of, is instantly attracted to Frederic and he is to her. Frederic courts her for a brief time before he goes to the front.
At the front, Frederic is wounded in the legs and taken to an aid station and then to an army hospital. He is then transferred to an American hospital in Milan where he meets up with Catherine again. Their love flourishes. They spend their nights together in Frederic’s hospital bed and their days going to restaurants, horse races and taking carriage rides.
Frederic returns to the war after his recovery. The war is going badly in Italy. The German troops forced a full-scale retreat. Soon after Frederic’s return, he deserts the war in a daring escape. Frederic leaves and meets a pregnant Catherine in Stresa.
The two go over to Switzerland where they spend an idyllic time waiting for the birth of their baby. Catherine has a long and difficult labor. Their baby is delivered dead. Catherine dies soon after from “one hemorrhage after another.” After Catherine dies, Frederic leaves and walks back to his hotel. A Farewell to Arms is a story of love and pain and of loyalty and desertion set in the tragic time of war.
There are many similarities in the experiences of Ernest Hemingway and his character Frederic Henry, in A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway and Henry were both involved in World War I, in a medical capacity, but neither of them were regular army personnel. Like Hemingway, Henry was shot in his right knee during a battle. Both men were Americans but were ambulance drivers for the Italian Army. In real life, Hemingway met his love, Agnes, a nurse, in the hospital after being shot; Henry met his love, Catherine Barkley, also a nurse, before he was shot and hospitalized. In both cases, the relationships with these women were strengthened while the men were hospitalized. Another difference is that in A Farewell to Arms, Catherine and her child died while she was giving birth, this was not the case with Agnes, who left Henry for another Italian Army officer. Nevertheless, these differences are only surface. These slight changes allowed Hemingway, an extremely private man, to try and prove to the public that it was not himself and his own experiences which he was writing about. On the contrary, In the book Modern Critical Interpretations of A Farewell to Arms, Millicent Bell sees the novel as “not the autobiography some readers have thought it” (Bloom 113). Instead, Bell perceives the novel to be a “pseudoautobiography and a personal metaphor.” One can see that Bell ignored the deep psychological similarities that Henry and Hemingway share. Their similar escapes, their morbid nature, their avoidance of relationships, their obsession with war, and their similar views on death.
There is great power in being an author; you can make things happen which do not necessarily occur in real life. Hemingway felt throughout his life, powerless, and so to escape this, he created alternative lives by writing stories. Hemingway, who fell in love with Agnes, an American nurse, seven years older than he, while wounded in Milan, was deeply hurt after she didn’t return his affections. While the beginning of A Farewell to Arms, up until this point is similar, this is where the story changes. In the book, Frederic and Catherine are both in love with each other. Hemingway continued his affair with Agnes through Frederic and Catherine. He put his dreams of what his faded love affair would have been like in the love scenes between Catherine and Frederic: “When I saw her I was in love with her. Everything turned over inside of me. She looked toward the door, saw there was no one, then she sat on the side of the bed and leaned over and kissed me. I pulled her down and kissed her and felt her heart beating.” Writing about what could have been was one way that Hemingway escaped from his life. Like Frederic Henry, Hemingway also acted out his feelings of inadequacy among other problems by hunting, drinking, spending lots of money and sleeping with many women. Escapism, which is a theme of the novel, is largely by Frederic and Ernest to deal with their similar wounds, psychological and physical.
Hemingway and Henry also have similar unhealthy obsessions and personality flaws. Both men are eternally morbid, which shows itself in their obsessions with war and death. Hemingway shows his melancholy belief that death is inevitable through Frederic. Hemingway shows the reader that death ends life before you have the chance to live it. This was undoubtedly one of the reason’s that Hemingway ended the book in Catherine Barkley’s death and the death of her child. Frederic says in response to the deaths: “You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you^Å they killed you in the end. You could count on that. Stay around and they would kill you.” Hemingway fought in more that one war and subsequently wrote more than one novel about his experiences in them. Henry also could not leave the war for even a moment, up until the end when he decides to desert. When Catherine asks Frederic to stop talking about the war for awhile, he counters with, “It’s very hard, there’s no place to drop it.” Essayist Wyndham Lewis in the book Twentieth Century Interpretations of A Farewell to Arms says that the war years “were a democratic, a leveling school” for Hemingway. Lewis feels that war was “a release” for Hemingway, an “opportunity to show that he is a real man” (Gellens 76). The statement made by Lewis is evidently true of Hemingway. One can see that he is obsessed with war, much like Frederic Henry, because it is an outlet for him, or another form of escape.
Another striking similarity between Hemingway and his character Henry, is their isolationism. Edgar Johnson in Twentieth Century Interpretations of A Farewell to Arms writes, “it is society as a whole that is rejected, social responsibility, social concern.” Henry, like Hemingway, leads a private life as a detached, isolated individual. He socializes with the officers, talks with the priest and visits the officer’s brothel, but maintains only superficial relationships. The only relationship that means anything to him is Catherine, which is Hemingway’s Agnes, both of which are isolated relationships. Johnson says about Hemingway, “He will solve the problem of dealing with the world by taking refuge in individualism and isolated personal relationships and sensations” (Gellens 112-113). Happiness comes for Hemingway and Henry only when they are in these relationships, away from the pressures of society and their lives.
Ernest Hemingway once gave some advice to his fellow writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. If something in life hurts you, you should use it in your writing. In writing a Farewell to Arms, Hemingway followed his own advice. In many ways, Frederic Henry was a psychological parallel to Hemingway. The painful experiences of his own life, which were consciously and unconsciously placed in this novel, helped make it a major literary achievement.