Ernest Hemingway: America’s Answer to Marmite.

It took me about four months and many fits and starts, but I finally finished reading A Farewell to Arms! I’ll admit that part of the reason why it took so long for me to read it was because my nighttime routine of waking up several times a night to check on or help out my mom during my dad’s work nights messed up my sleeping patterns enough that I was often feeling incredibly tired and would end up falling asleep during the day, which would take time out of my reading. And some of it did have to do with Mr. Hemingway’s writing style as well.

What follows is my own account of my experience of reading this novel. It is not a straight-up review, as reviews tend to nitpick the text itself more or less, while I like to include my own personal insight on the overall reading experience. This is not intended to be an academic analysis, so I may change subjects without much notice.

A Farewell to Arms is only the second Ernest Hemingway novel I have ever read, and the first I have read of my own volition. I have mentioned previously that when I was a freshman in high school, my English class studied The Old Man and the Sea, which I have also said is usually a typical teenager’s first exposure to the work of Mr. Hemingway. I believe my dad has said he also remembers reading it in school as well. My experience of reading The Old Man and the Sea took place so long ago that I barely remember any of it! Thus, I consider A Farewell to Arms to be my first real exposure to Mr. Hemingway’s work. I bought it on a whim at my local bookstore, as when I went into the shop that day, I had no list of any particular books in mind and just decided to go with my gut. (My local bookstore has a pretty extensive classics section and seems to have just about every notable novel you could think of! The ones I bought back in March barely scratch the surface of what was there, and I’d love to go back and add to my collection whenever I have a significant sum of money again.)

Ernest Hemingway may very well be one of the most polarizing authors in the entire American literary pantheon. This post is subtitled “America’s Answer to Marmite” for a reason: that is because just like the British delicacy Marmite (and its Australian cousin Vegemite), unless you’ve had a longtime exposure to him, you’re either going to like Ernest Hemingway and his writing style or you’re going to detest him. There is no middle ground when it comes to Hemingway (or Marmite).

Hemingway has a reputation of being the epitome of the American vision of manliness and machismo, and his writing style, as such, is not incredibly nuanced. His reputation, as such, could make him the literary equivalent of men like Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone, Teddy Roosevelt, Clint Eastwood, and John Wayne. Any twists and turns that I came across while reading A Farewell to Arms came at me in a very straightforward manner. Hemingway has no time to paint the scene for you with his words: he tells you exactly what is going on as it’s going on and puts you right there with Frederic Henry as he experiences meeting and falling in love with the beautiful English nurse, Catherine Barkley. You are there with Frederic Henry as his knee is severely wounded while eating cheese in a trench with his fellow Army medics during a battle in World War I-era Italy (“I was blown up while we were eating cheese.”). You are there as he recovers in an Italian hospital and his relationship with Catherine becomes serious, and she eventually becomes pregnant with his child. You can see a pattern here. I won’t spoil the later parts of the novel for you.

In some ways, Ernest Hemingway’s writing style reminds me a lot of my own father, who I would consider to be very much of the same mold of personality of men like Hemingway and Chuck Norris and Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. (Any Hemingway readers may have just noticed I used a Hemingway trademark literary device in that last sentence, the polysyndeton: the deliberate insertion of conjunctions to break up the rhythm of a section of prose in order to make a point.) My father is also the kind of man who doesn’t like one to spin a yarn while telling a story (as I am one to normally do), he’s very much a “get to the point already!” kind of guy. Hemingway, I found, employs that same kind of attitude to his storytelling. His tone can be very blunt and succinct at times, but he also loves to insert as much detail into certain passages to try and set up the scene for you. He’s not really one for symbolism and the bigger picture because his style is so blunt. His descriptions of things are blunt. His recounting of events is blunt. His cynicism is blunt. It can come across as cavemanesque at times, but he was a minimalist by nature, from his time as a journalist into his career in writing fiction. His practice of “iceberg theory” (or theory of omission) is very much present in A Farewell to Arms, where he doesn’t tend to ponder very long about the meanings of things that have happened to Frederic Henry over the course of the novel. At times he leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks, and reading up on Mr. Hemingway’s life and writing style, these are techniques he would employ throughout his writing career (A Farewell to Arms was only his second novel, after The Sun Also Rises, which is Hemingway’s entry on the list of 100 novels being considered for the PBS series The Great American Read. It begins airing next Tuesday in the United States).

I can understand why a lot of female readers find him off-putting and consider him a misogynist. In A Farewell to Arms, Catherine is not really portrayed much as an independent-thinking or acting character outside of her relationship and interactions with Frederic, and he tends to treat her like a delicate object meant for adoration rather than an equal partner in the relationship, even before she becomes pregnant. A couple of teenage (?) girls that his company comes upon while his unit moves through the Italian countryside after he is kicked out of the hospital are seen as sex objects by some of Frederic’s men. This, combined with his no-frills, straight-to-the-point writing style tends not to appeal to the average female reader. The average female reader tends to rely a lot upon emotional reactivity during the reading process and also relies a lot on empathy, putting herself in a character’s shoes and trying to experience the character’s experience. Hemingway’s storytelling, by practice, tends to be the very opposite of that, which can make it difficult for the average female reader to put herself in his characters’ shoes. Thus, a female reader attempting to really read Hemingway for the first time is definitely taking on a challenge when she dives into one of his works. The most emotional part of the entire novel actually comes at the very end (again, I will not spoil it for you), and even then Frederic chooses to remain emotionally distant from what has just happened to him and resigns himself to walking back to his hotel in the rain, leaving it up to the reader to wonder what will happen to Frederic in the aftermath of what he’s just gone through.

So, did I end up liking Hemingway or disliking him? I ended up giving the book itself three stars on Goodreads (out of five), mostly because the readability of it did not flow as nicely as I would have liked and I didn’t find myself emotionally engaging with the novel…but that doesn’t mean it was terrible! For me, readability plays into emotional engagement and it left my own personal experience with it a bit lacking, but once I considered Hemingway’s writing style and put it into context with his life and his personality, I feel like I understand him a little better. Perhaps a different adventure would connect with me a little better than the foreign-to-me concepts of love and war did. I haven’t moved out of the gray area just yet, but I honestly would take the risk and read another one of his novels. Perhaps I should’ve started with The Sun Also Rises! But A Farewell to Arms wasn’t too bad for my first voluntary foray into an author as polarizing as Ernest Hemingway.

So, for those of you who’ve read Hemingway, did you feel the same way I did or did you get something completely different out of it? Have you ever come across any authors that challenged you and your reading preferences like Hemingway did for me? Have you ever gone out of the box when it comes to reading choices just out of pure curiosity? Share your experiences in the comments! I look forward to hearing your insight on Mr. Hemingway or any other author you feel like discussing!

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