So awhile back I was complaining about a novel; here is the resulting essay of having read previously said novel.
The Necessities of Having Not Very Much Information
Imagine you are thrown right into the middle of an event, knowing nothing about any of the people you are with. This is the situation with one of the most beloved classics of all time, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s style leaves out a plethora of background information that is never provided for the vast majority of his characters. The characters lack a comprehensive history that might shed more light on their personality and help explain the way they act. However, if this were to be the case, a massive portion of the message Hemingway wanted to convey to his audience would be left out and/or nullified. As a matter of fact the lack of historical information for Hemingway’s characters is valuable to the novel as a whole; it is a massive contributor to the story and the foundation for it. It does seem odd that Hemingway does this, but it provides the characters even more room to grow and develop so the reader is always learning more about them. As these characters grow and show more of their personalities in the story, the reader starts to become attached to them having, in a way, grown with them. Hemingway’s form of writing (which is rife with existentialistic ideas) is reinforced even more so with the absence of general a background for his characters; so much so that the work itself seems to look you straight in the eye and unwaveringly say, “It doesn’t matter what happened to these people in the past, all that matters is what’s happening right now. So carpe diem.” It is a necessity that Hemingway leaves out that overabundance of knowledge.
As Hemingway leaves out information for his characters, he leaves even more room for them to develop and gain more depth. The protagonist, Henry, is proven many times over that he is a stoic, “manly man” type of person. But as the plot thickens, Henry’s stolid demeanor is torn apart, revealing more to him than formerly appears. An example of this is Henry’s actions that he takes when the Italian army retreats from the German/Austrian forces; he is obviously shaken by the quick deterioration of the Italian army. When he chooses to pull out from the crowded line of cars and civilians and his own vehicle becomes stuck in the mud, he becomes enraged and shoots one of the engineers that refuse to help with their small group of refugees. (204) Hemingway gives no indication that Henry might ever be provoked to do something such as this beforehand, he even goes so far as to tell the reader that Henry thought it was ridiculous that he was even required to have a gun. (29) Hemingway’s shortage of background information is not exclusive to Henry, but extends to other characters such as Catherine. While Hemingway provides only necessary (and only absolutely necessary) knowledge about Catherine’s past, the knowledge being the fact of her late fiancé’s death in the war, you see her character develop greatly. In Book I of the novel, you can see that Catherine is definitely an unstable person. She makes Henry pretend to be her dead fiancé and she suddenly stops kissing Henry and cries into his arms. As the story progresses Catherine seems to find stability in her relationship with Henry. At one point she says, “I want what you want. There isn’t any me any more. Just what you want.” (106) This shows her growing love and commitment – if not obsession – with Henry, and this illustrates her reliance on him.
Just like Catherine becomes attached to Henry, and vice versa, Hemingway uses the subtraction of his characters’ history to cause the reader to become attached to the characters themselves. It is almost as if Hemingway doesn’t give the characters a past at all. He creates an illusion that he is creating or giving life to these characters and that all their life is inside the book, and thus subconsciously the reader is lured into an in depth involvement with the characters’ lives. The reader develops a close relationship with the characters and causes the events in the story to have a greater emotional impact on the reader. This makes the tragic events in this story that much more potent. So when Henry and the other drivers were shelled by a trench mortar, the reader feels his pain and his company’s (even if Henry only feels the physical pain and not the emotional because of his detached existentialist attitude and outlook) , and when Catherine died, the reader can tell that Henry started to feel pointless and lost. (55, 331) It makes the reader feel the hurt and turmoil he must have felt. Hemingway expertly leads the reader to have a much more integrated experience, even if his characters are not entirely attuned to their surroundings with much deep feeling.
Henry is a very stoic and impassive person through most of the novel. The particular traits that his character celebrates are of a very existential nature, existentialism being a foundation for the plot of the story. Hemingway uses his leaving out of the characters’ pasts to help illustrate this existentialist way of thinking. By leaving out that information of the past he is telling the reader that it really does not matter what happened before the story takes place but what happened before because all that matters, in the existentialist mind, is what is happening now. Hemingway even has his characters reference a poem by Andrew Marvell, “A Letter to His Coy Mistress.” The particular line is, “But at my back I always hear, time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” (154) This quote champions the idea of existentialism in that Henry never knows how much time he has left with Catherine so it makes him all the more eager to make the most of it. It revolves around the idea of seizing the day, carpe diem, and an “I don’t know, I don’t care” attitude towards everything. Often the reader sees Henry say the words, “I don’t care.” (22) After a while of reading the book, Henry’s, Catherine’s, and a multitude of other characters start to exhibit reoccurring mannerisms of the existentialist mindset, particularly when they are directly involved with all of the war efforts, which does tend to make sense do to the increased likelihood of having their lifespan shortened considerably. It is their insecurity that leads them to have such existentialist views. They want to make most of whatever time they might have left. Even though they try in many ways to make the most of their time, by drinking, having sex, etcetera, it all turns out to be void and purposeless at the end of the story. This is perhaps best shown by Henry’s immense feeling of emptiness after Catherine dies; because existentialism shows that when you have nothing to live for, you have no purpose. Henry’s purpose for living, or so it seemed, was Catherine. The novel, in essence, is about emptiness caused by not having a reason to exist, which caused by existentialism, which is shown through the lack of history of the characters, which makes it a necessary element to Hemingway’s work for the purpose he was hoping to achieve.
Though A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway is a book that contains virtually no history of its characters whatsoever, the novel would not have been considered such a great work and not as memorable had it not been that necessity called for novel to contain nothing but a few shreds of its characters’ past lives. Hemingway’s vagueness makes the novel whole. He crafted it in such a way that he left a vast of amount of room open to develop his characters; and that vastness leaves the characters growing and forming throughout the story, allowing the reader to become completely submersed in the plot line and the character’s lives that exist only in the book. Existentialism, a platform for which the novel has its foundations rooted, is strongly supported and upheld by Hemingway’s elusiveness to the characters’ various pasts. It goes without saying that if Hemingway had given his characters a past we would not be reading this great work of art to this day.