A Farewell to Arms | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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A Farewell to Arms | Context


A Farewell to Arms was published 11 years after World War I ended. Hemingway did not feel obligated to explain geographical or political references, as they were well remembered by most of his audience. Known originally as the Great War, World War I (1914–1918) pitted the Allied Forces (Great Britain, Italy, France, Japan, and Russia, joined by the United States in 1917) against the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Germany). The majority of the novel's fighting takes place in the Alps, along the northeastern border of Italy and Austria. Henry recovers in a Milan hospital, in northern Italy, far from the front lines, and convalesces in Stresa, a lakeside resort town in the northwestern corner of Italy, near the border with Switzerland.

World War I was a harrowing war that took the lives of more than 8 million soldiers and injured more than 21 million others. Almost the entire war was fought using an intricate maze of trenches, where soldiers ate, slept, and fought. Life in the trenches was brutal. Soldiers lived in narrow holes dug in the ground, often exposed to challenging conditions, including bad weather, insects, and rodents. Nearby latrines and mass graves contributed to trench filth and stench. Soldiers were given daily rations of food, but supplies could be dangerous to distribute, which meant soldiers often went without, especially toward the end of the war. Additionally, World War I was the first war in which combatants used chemical weapons. Victims of chemical attacks were defenseless, and they died painful, sickening deaths.

During World War I, governments used propaganda to encourage young men to defend their country's honor by fighting on the front. Chasing wartime glory, young men signed up in droves, unaware of what war was really like. Even before the United States entered the war in 1917, many Americans volunteered on the Allied side. Henry is one of these volunteers, having signed up to be an ambulance driver in the Italian army. As the conflict dragged on, however, volunteer forces were not enough to sustain the war effort. Governments had to draft young men into service to fill out their armed forces.

Upon arriving at the front, however, some soldiers became disillusioned. Those who survived the war were often scarred by their experiences. Gertrude Stein, a mentor of Hemingway's, referred to these young people as "a lost generation." The name Lost Generation came to apply to the group of artists and writers—including Hemingway—who came of age during World War I. For them the war was a common theme in their work. A Farewell to Arms, for example, describes the disorganization, bewilderment, and mindless tragedy of the war. These descriptions place the novel in the genre of antiwar literature.

American audiences loved A Farewell to Arms when it was first released. Publishing wartime novels was in vogue in the late 1920s, yet the New York Times called Hemingway's venture "unique ... moving and beautiful." Still, his manuscript was censored at publication; publishers feared that its "barracks talk" would be too offensive. International audiences were not as enamored of Hemingway's depiction of the war. Italy banned the book for its less-than-ideal portrayal of the Italian army. Hemingway even went so far as to publish a disclaimer reminding Italian audiences that the novel was a work of fiction and not based on his experiences, but to no avail. A Farewell to Arms would not be printed or sold in Italy until after World War II.

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