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A Farewell to Arms, part three

June 21, 2012

All of the seemingly careless attitudes, especially the attitude of the Tenente and Catherine towards being in love, are explained in this section when the Tenente has a drink with “A British major at the club….He said we were all cooked but we were all right as long as we did not know it. We were all cooked. The thing was not to recognize it. The last country to realize they were cooked would win the war. We had another drink.”  This penultimate section, consisting of Chapters 20-30, is the account of their defeat and the increasing degrees to which they are forced to recognize it and make concessions.

Catherine prefaces her news that she is pregnant, in an era when it makes a big difference that their marriage is not legal, with the assertion that “life isn’t hard to manage when you’ve nothing to lose.”  And it is ironic that while the Tenente admires her bravado in saying she will manage to come with him during his leave, despite her official duties, the leave itself turns out to be illusory, canceled by an interfering busybody of a nurse who wants all the other characters to be earnest and face their defeat soberly.

Before the actual retreat in this section of the novel, the Tenente and Catherine have already realized what bravery means:  “The brave dies perhaps two thousand deaths if he’s intelligent. He simply doesn’t mention them.”  And the reader sees what all the drinking means:  “We’re both brave,” I said. “And I’m very brave when I’ve had a drink.”  It’s only when Catherine has poured the Tenente a drink that he claims he doesn’t want that they fall back into the defeated talk of the adolescent love affair:  “Where will we live after the war?”  It’s sobering to realize that they don’t believe there will ever be “a place for us,” or a time after the war is over.

Rinaldi is similarly sober when he and the Tenente meet again. He examines the repaired knee, sees that the physical therapy has not been quite completed, and falls into despair, thinking of all the surgery he has performed on men who are then well enough to go back to the front.  So of course, they have to “get drunk and be cheerful.”

During the actual retreat from the path of the oncoming enemy, the Tenente and his soldiers pick up refugees and do their best to protect them, but all their carefully constructed defense mechanisms have begun to break down, along with the vehicles they eventually have to abandon. The Tenente is forced to shoot a sergeant who was too afraid to stay and try to help free one of the vehicles.  They send the refugees off towards some other people, where they’ll be safer than with the retreating army, and then they set off on foot, walking “fast against time” with the Austrians right behind them.

It’s clear that there is no escape from the war, even if they manage to get away this time. And ten kilometers is a long way to walk on a recently-repaired knee.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. June 21, 2012 7:46 am

    I’m rather embarrassed to say I’ve never read this book. I really need to make an effort to go back and read some of the classics I’ve missed.

    • June 22, 2012 6:39 am

      My advice about reading Hemingway would be to start with a short story, and my favorite one is “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”

  2. June 21, 2012 8:46 am

    This is reminding me of the Dunkirk section of “Atonement” –

    • June 22, 2012 6:41 am

      A little less dark and a less focused retreat, but yes, the same feeling of “what have we been fighting for”?

  3. June 21, 2012 12:50 pm

    I love this — lit crit from the perspective of those with repaired knees. It’s a fairly small genre, I think.

    • June 22, 2012 6:42 am

      Ha! I could specialize! But can I think of any more fiction with knee surgery?

      • June 22, 2012 12:27 pm

        I don’t think I can, but I’m not paying the attention that you are —

      • June 22, 2012 4:12 pm

        My husband could specialize too…lol if he read, that is. He’s had enough knee surgeries.

  4. trapunto permalink
    June 22, 2012 2:15 pm

    I remembered this was good, but I didn’t remember why until these posts.

    • June 22, 2012 3:58 pm

      I think it’s what’s not said that makes it good, and that makes it hard to remember. It requires such active reading.

  5. June 22, 2012 4:13 pm

    I agree with your points here. I liked this section best of all, but I really dislike Catherine. My favorite Hemingway still remains The Old Man and the Sea.

    • June 22, 2012 5:09 pm

      Catherine and Frederic have created what I see as an adolescent-reminiscent infatuation as they attempt to block out their fear of imminent mortality. I don’t see much to like or dislike–you’re seeing her at a pinnacle of terror, when a person is little else except the fear.

  6. June 22, 2012 8:40 pm

    Thanks again for giving me a different perspective!

    • June 23, 2012 8:35 am

      My pleasure! I always go into reading (or rereading) a novel that’s been read, celebrated, and talked about a lot with the idea that I’m going to find things to like.

  7. June 25, 2012 5:07 pm

    I did like this part of the book better than the previous sections. There was more action, more tension, more than just the relationship stuff.

    • June 25, 2012 9:08 pm

      I see what you mean, although I’m not sure I entirely agree about more tension. In some ways, it seems to me there’s less, as the retreat dictates more and more of what they are able to do, and they have fewer choices.

      • June 26, 2012 7:34 am

        I felt the tension mainly in Henry’s decision at the last chapter of the section, whether to stay for questioning or run for it.

        • June 26, 2012 7:39 am

          Oh yes. That is tense. And swimming in that cold river with the stiff knee…that was visceral, for me!

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