A Farewell to Arms

Critics usually describe Hemingway's style as simple, spare,

and journalistic. These are all good words; they all apply.

Perhaps because of his training as a newspaperman, Hemingway

is a master of the declarative, subject-verb-object

sentence. His writing has been likened to a boxer's

punches--combinations of lefts and rights coming at us

without pause. Take the following passage:

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. Was I on somebody's staff? No. He was.

It was all balls.

The style gains power because it is so full of sensory


There was an inn in the trees at the Bains de l'Allaiz where

the woodcutters stopped to drink, and we sat inside warmed

by the stove and drank hot red wine with spices and lemon in

it. They called it gluhwein and it was a good thing to warm

you and to celebrate with. The inn was dark and smoky inside

and afterward when you went out the cold air came sharply

into your lungs and numbed the edge of your nose as you


The simplicity and the sensory richness flow directly from

Hemingway's and his characters'--beliefs. The punchy, vivid

language has the immediacy of a news bulletin: these are

facts, Hemingway is telling us, and they can't be ignored.

And just as Frederic Henry comes to distrust abstractions

like "patriotism," so does Hemingway distrust them. Instead

he seeks the concrete, the tangible: "hot red wine with

spices, cold air that numbs your nose." A simple "good"

becomes higher praise than another writer's string of

decorative adjectives.

Though Hemingway is best known for the tough simplicity of

style seen in the first passage cited above, if we take a

close look at A Farewell to Arms, we will often find another

Hemingway at work--a writer who is aiming for certain

complex effects, who is experimenting with language, and who

is often self-consciously manipulating words. Some sentences

are clause-filled and eighty or more words long. Take for

example the description in Chapter 1 that begins, "There

were mists over the river and clouds on the mountain"; it

paints an entire dreary wartime autumn and foreshadows the

deaths not only of many of the soldiers but of Catherine.

Hemingway's style changes, too, when it reflects his

characters' changing states of mind. Writing from Frederic

Henry's point of view, he sometimes uses a modified

stream-of-consciousness technique, a method for spilling out

on paper the inner thoughts of a character. Usually Henry's

thoughts are choppy, staccato, but when he becomes drunk the

language does too, as in the passage in Chapter 3:

I had gone to no such place but to the smoke of cafes and

nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the

wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew

that that was all there was, and the strange excitement of

waking and not knowing who it was with you, and the world

all unreal in the dark and so exciting that you must resume

again unknowing and not caring in the night, sure that this

was all and all and all and not caring.

The rhythm, the repetition, have us reeling with Henry.

Thus, Hemingway's prose is in fact an instrument finely

tuned to reflect his characters and their world. As we read

A Farewell to Arms, we must try to underezd the thoughts

and feelings Hemingway seeks to inspire in us by the way he

uses language.