I doubt very much that we need a "new" reading of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. The novel has been discussed many times, often intelligently. No one would suggest that it is a "problem" in the sense that Billy Budd is a problem, or The Turn of the Screw. I do think, however, that a basic question about the book has been somewhat neglected. This is a matter of its form. A Farewell to Arms is probably Hemingway's most admired novel, but few critics have taken seriously his suggestion that the book is a tragedy I think this is unfortunate, for it obscures Hemingway's contribution to the history of tragic form.
There is little question that Hemingway conceived of A Farewell to Arms as a tragedy. He once referred to the novel as his Romeo and Juliet and later wrote: "The fact that the book was a tragic one did not make me unhappy since I believed that life was a tragedy and knew it could only have one end." Why, then, have Hemingway's critics resisted this classification? Basically, they have asked how much we can feel toward such "victims" as Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley, the novel's hero and heroine. They have argued that A Farewell to Arms is not a tragedy because its lovers make no fatal error in judgment or deed and suffer a "catastrophe" which is merely accidental. They have insisted that Hemingway's lovers are not responsible for what happens to them, whereas moral responsibility is at the heart of tragedy.
Hemingway's critics have obviously read their Aristotle.And they are right, of course, in suggesting that A Farewell to Arms is not Aristotle's idea of a tragedy. Since Aristotle it has been thought necessary to tragedy____________________