What’s Funny in A Farewell to Arms

One hundred years ago, a teenage Ernest Hemingway was wounded on the banks of the Piave river while volunteering in the Red Cross ambulance service during World War I. Later, in the mid 1990s, his 1929 novel inspired by those wartime experiences made its way onto my high school summer reading list.

For those who didn’t do their summer reading, A Farewell to Arms is the story of Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver in the Italian Red Cross, who is wounded and then falls in love with Catherine Barkley, his British nurse. During a chaotic retreat, in which the Italian soldiers turn on their own officers, Frederic deserts and escapes to Switzerland with Catherine, who is pregnant with his baby. Catherine suffers through a difficult birth. Both she and the baby die at the novel’s end. I remember lying prone on the floor as I read, weeping as Frederic walked away from her corpse and into the rain.

I have reread the book many times since, though the affective experience changes with time. Anyone who has read the book can understand my teenage self’s response. But what if I told you that when I read it now I laugh as much as I cry?

I can see that this claim might be a hard sell — Hemingway is not known as a humorist.  One need only read his contract-busting, deliberately-dreadful, mentor-parodying novella, The Torrents of Spring (1926), or his poems (yes, he wrote poems; no, they are not very good) to see why. One particularly awful poem, which pokes fun at Dorothy Parker’s attempted suicide, was so tasteless it ended a friendship — though not, oddly enough, his friendship with Parker herself. The offended friend, New Yorker humorist Donald Ogden Stewart, said of Hemingway “written humor was not his dish.”

However, as the ongoing project to publish Hemingway’s complete correspondence shows, in his daily life Hemingway was a good-natured, self-deprecating guy always ready with a witty remark. The latest volume in the Cambridge University Press series the Letters of Ernest Hemingway, edited by Sandra Spanier and Miriam B. Mandel, offers up some prime Depression-era snark: “Key West is increasingly unprosperous altho the sponging industry is reviving,” he writes; “I dont know whether this means more people are taking up bathing or whether sponges are now being used to manufacture home brew.”

Of the A Farewell to Arms film adaptation he grumbled: “I suppose they will have the girl Catherine give birth to the American flag at the end — And change the title to Star Spangle Whoopie.” One gets the impression that he might have been good at Twitter (and not just because of his famous economy of style).

Hemingway could take something very serious, such as his father’s suicide, and deadpan it in such a way that the humor, through antithesis, makes the tragedy that much worse. His use of the relative clause in this letter to Laurence Stallings, the playwright who adapted A Farewell to Arms for Broadway, takes my breath away: “My father, who was a marvelous shot at grouse, ducks, quail and clay birds, shot himself with equal success last year and ever since I have been broke as hell.”

In a 1941 Saturday Review article, E.B. and Katharine S. White refute the idea that humorists are sad people, arguing that, “there is a deep vein of melancholy running through everyone’s life and that a humorist, perhaps more sensible of it than some others, compensates for it actively and positively. […] Humorous writing, like poetical writing, has an extra content. It plays, like an active child, close to the big hot fire which is Truth.”

And so maybe Hemingway the humorist isn’t that strange an idea. After all, what did he do in his writing if not play close to the big hot fire of Truth?

A Farewell to Arms is no exception. The dark humor in the novel, applied to situations that are decidedly not funny, highlights the absurdity of the war and even of life itself. In among the dirty jokes, it’s the “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow [that] were obscene.” Frederic, looking back and telling the events of the novel, shares the grief of his own story, but he is nevertheless a somewhat reluctant and irreverent narrator. When asked why he joined up with the Italians he shrugs off any meaningful motivation: “I was in Italy […] and I spoke Italian,” he says, as if the war were an event he just happened across. “Let’s drop the war,” he suggests to Catherine on one of their first dates, but she quips “It’s very hard. There’s no place to drop it.” Here and elsewhere in the novel, their banter emphasizes that the war was both untenable and inescapable.

Frederic is a troubled and troubling character. An unreliable narrator, he narrates the story from a vantage point of at least five years after the events described.

Telling the story is a way of recovering from the grief of losing Catherine and coping with the trauma and disillusionment of a war in which Frederic and his compatriots were “blown up while we were eating cheese.” Through humor, Frederic-as-narrator processes his trauma while Hemingway-as-author calls out the absurdity of the First World War.

There are some light-hearted moments, of not just Frederic and Catherine but also Frederic and old friends, including an exchange with the barman at his hotel in Stresa, in which Frederic asks, “Did you ever get the tobacco I sent?” The barman answers: “Yes. Didn’t you get my card?” Frederic laughs  and admits to the reader, “I had not been able to get the tobacco.” The barman figures as a foil in a later passage, which reads like a scene in a sitcom, even as the pair is in very real danger of imminent arrest: Frederic wakes Catherine in the middle of the night and asks, “Would you like to get dressed right away and go in a boat to Switzerland?” Unflappable, Catherine replies, “Would you?” “The barman says they are going to arrest me in the morning.” Catherine asks, “Is the barman crazy?”

Upon establishing that he is not, in fact, crazy, and that they do, in fact, need to get up in the middle of the night and row a boat to Switzerland, Catherine asks another perfectly reasonable question: “why is the barman in the bathroom?”  Then we get this nice callback to the earlier joke: “He’s an old friend […] I nearly sent him some pipe-tobacco once.”

Once they are underway, we get another comic scene in which Frederic, tired from rowing, tries, like some kind of manly Mary Poppins, to use an umbrella to sail the boat with the blowing wind:  “I braced my feet and held back on it, then suddenly, it buckled; I felt a rib snap on my forehead, I tried to grab the top that was bending with the wind and the whole thing buckled and went inside out and I was astride the handle of an inside-out ripped umbrella”. This scene is, to put it bluntly, a nutshot (though Jake Barnes, one assumes, is unimpressed).

When Frederic goes to the cafe after Catherine’s Caesarian section, and right before he returns to learn that she is hemorrhaging, he reads a newspaper article about the “break through on the British front,” a ghastly pun that illustrates Hemingway’s playfulness with language as well as a particularly modernist detachment capable of viewing trauma as a type of novelty.

No one would deny that Hemingway influenced Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, and no one would deny that those writers wrote funny books. Slaughterhouse Five is a fable of PTSD, aliens, and time travel — well, so is A Farewell to Arms. A Farewell to Arms gives us a pathetic narrator, unstuck in time, who finds that telling the ridiculous is the only way to tell about the trauma he has experienced in a way that makes sense and honors the loss. Otherwise, “the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.”

These stockyards show up twice in the novel — famously, in the previous line, but also again, during the Alpine idyll, when Catherine tells Frederic which sights in America she would like to see. “There’s something else I want to see but I can’t remember it” she says. “The stockyards?” Frederic jokes. On its own, this is a striking and uncanny one-liner; taken as part of a whole, the larger joke is the one played on us just for living.

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