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A Farewell to Arms, part two

June 14, 2012

A Farewell to Arms: Chapters 10-20

If I thought I’d had a strong reaction to re-reading the first ten chapters of this novel, it was nothing to the second ten chapters, which are about a hospital stay and then physical therapy for the protagonist’s injured knee. This blog had its origin in my last recovery from knee surgery, during the physical therapy part. Once a knee has been operated on, you have to learn to bend it again, and this is not an easy or a pleasant process.

So, having gone through several knee surgeries in a foggy and helpless haze, I was impressed at how firmly himself the narrator remains throughout his journeys to various hospitals and his dealings with the staff there. He is still being referred to mostly by the Italian word for his rank, Tenente, and his actions reflect that rank more than anything personal about him.

When he is asked about his actions during the incident in which he was wounded, his friend Rinaldi asks “Didn’t you refuse to be medically aided before the others?” and he replies “Not very firmly.” He doesn’t see this as heroic, but I’m trying to imagine having my knee blown open and not begging to go to the front of the line for surcease of pain.

When he is transferred from a field hospital to another hospital, for surgery, they aren’t ready to receive him. He has to be carried into an elevator small enough that his injured knee gets bent and then when he gets to the hospital, the nurses don’t have any of the beds made up and there is no doctor. However, he has the presence of mind to take care of things himself:
“There is money in my pocket,” I said to the porter. “In the buttoned-down pocket.” The porter took out the money. The two stretcher-bearers stood beside the bed holding their caps. “Give them five lire apiece and five lire for yourself. My papers are in the other pocket. You may give them to the nurse.”
….”Those papers,” I said to the nurse, “describe my case and the treatment already given.”
The woman picked them up and looked at them through her glasses. There were three papers and they were folded. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I can’t read Italian. I can’t do anything without the doctor’s orders.” She commenced to cry and put the paprs in her apron pocket. “Are you an American?” she asked crying.
“Yes. Please put the papers on the table by the bed.”
Since he mostly seems to be using liquor as his anesthetic, he’s not all fuzzy and out of it, but capable of looking after himself. Still, it strikes me as extraordinary that the person who is wounded is the one getting everyone else organized. Even more amazing, he has kept his wits about him enough to get a second opinion when a group of three doctors tell him he must wait six months before knee surgery. The second doctor he consults says he can operate the next morning, and the surgery is successful.

The Tenente then spends a few months in physical therapy, the pain of which he passes over in the manner of one who is alive and has kept both his legs during a war:
“Then I started treatments at the Ospedale Maggiore for bending the knees, mechanical treatments, baking in a box of mirros with violet rays, massage, and baths. I went over there afternoons and afterward stopped at the café and had a drink and read the papers.” He makes his recuperation, which I remember as a time of continuous pain and exhaustion, sound like a vacation.

It also struck me, this time through, that between Rinaldi and the Tenente, there’s a lot of adolescent trying-on of roles in the attempt to find the one that fits best:
“Sometimes I think you and he are a little that way. You know.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do sometimes. A little that way like the number of the first regiment of the Brigata Ancona.”
“Oh, go to hell.”
He stood up and put on his gloves.
“Oh I love to tease you, baby. With your priest and your English girl, and really you are just like me underneath.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, we are. You are really an Italian. All fire and smoke and nothing inside. You only pretend to be American. We are brothers and we love each other.”

With Catherine, the nurse who has been transferred to his present hospital, the Tenente lets himself fall deeper in love, and they consider themselves to have a “secret wedding,” which is something that usually only happens in stories about very young people.

That’s still my main reaction to re-reading this novel—that so many of the things the main character does show how young he is, and how resilient, so far.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2012 8:18 am

    I’m also impressed by Henry’s presence of mind even as he is severely wounded. I get that he has to put others before himself and is why he refuses medical treatment, but he does make it seem like the recovery and before surgery process is a vacation…It boggles my mind. After watching my husband go through three ACL replacement surgeries (the third to correct a problem with one of the bolts), I cannot imagine this kind of resolve in a man!

    • June 15, 2012 8:13 am

      It does seem that the resolve must have to do with his idealism in the war.

  2. June 14, 2012 9:31 am

    You’re mildly tempting me to get past my innate loathing of Hemingway and try this book again.

  3. June 17, 2012 2:32 pm

    I’m definitely not enjoying it as much as you are, so I’m really enjoying your posts and seeing Hemingway through your eyes. I think the part where Henry takes charge at the hospital is the best look we’ve been given at his character so far. I’m still not buying the love thing, though. I think the fact that she’s there and he’s bored or lonely or both plays a big role in their being together. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, we’ll see 🙂

    • June 17, 2012 4:19 pm

      The “love thing” seems to me to be a game they’re playing because they’re both so frightened. Their relationship is something to hold onto, literally. It doesn’t seem to be all that different from any other wartime romance, except that they’re both better at the game of pretending that the romance is all-consuming than other fictional lovers are.

  4. June 17, 2012 4:18 pm

    I’m glad to get your perspective! Thanks. I will try to remember these things when I want to bonk Catherine over the head with something.

  5. June 17, 2012 4:20 pm

    I think of Catherine as someone who would like to be more ascerbic and sophisticated, but who is, as she says, really not very complicated.

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