“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterwards many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot recently. It comes from A Farewell To Arms, one of Ernest Hemingway’s more overrated novels, although some claim it to be his best. The quote is often used without the first sentence in the paragraph- alongside taking it completely out of context.
The story itself is about a man named Henry, an American in the Italian Red Cross working out in the Italian Front during the First World War. Henry is injured and falls in love with a nurse. Upon recovering he’s sent back to the front, only to find that the Austro-Hungarian forces have completely decimated the frontier alongside the help of the Germans.
A retreat is issued. Henry and his regiment lose their vehicles in a poorly hatched out short cut. Some of his men die or become deserters, the latter of which makes Henry initially despise them- seeing as there’s no honour in it. Eventually Henry and his remaining troops reach back to the Italian caravan only to find that anyone over the rank of Lieutenant is being taken aside by the “Battle Police” and immediately executed.
Henry is taken aside, but eventually flees. Jumping into the nearby river and swimming down stream until the coast is clear. He gets a train, changes clothes and tries to find his wife in Milan. He eventually does find his wife, who at this point is five months pregnant with his child. They lay low for a while but eventually are forced to flee Italy to Switzerland.
The quote in question takes place upon that reunification, in chapter thirty four. It’s part of a longer paragraph that goes like this;
“That night at the hotel, in our room with the long empty hall outside and our shoes outside the door, a thick carpet on the floor of the room, outside the windows the rain falling and in the room light and pleasant and cheerful, then the light out and it exciting with smooth sheets and the bed comfortable, feeling that we had come home, feeling no longer alone, waking in the night to find the other one there, and not gone away; all other things were unreal. We slept when we were tired and if we woke the other one woke too so one was not alone. Often a man wishes to be alone and a girl wishes to be alone too and if they love each other they are jealous of that in each other, but I can truly say we never felt that. We could feel alone when we were together, alone against the others. It has only happened to me like that once. I have been alone while I was with many girls and that is the way that you can be most lonely. But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together. I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started. But with Catherine there was almost no difference in the night except that it was an even better time. If people bring so much courage to the world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
Like most of Hemingway’s works, the novel is laced with Irony. Just like how Henry was appalled at a soldier for becoming a deserter when he too would become a deserter. So too would that final paragraph be prophetic, because both the baby and the mother would die during childbirth- meaning that Henry had risked everything for nothing. The world had killed those that he loved and now it dealt a devastating blow to break him.
The quote is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly it’s a great example of what Hemingway referred to as “Iceberg Writing” in which you write in such a way that the descriptions are brief but posses a superb level of depth to them. Kind of like an Iceberg in that you’ll only see the tip, but there’s a whole lot more underneath the surface.
Most modern literature, music and film contain this technique to varying degrees. The ability to say a lot without saying much is a very valuable skill. It’s what makes reading authors such as Dostoevsky exhausting- because he has to explain everything in intricate detail. It’s information overload.
The actual context of the paragraph is namely a reflection of the World perceived by Hemingway, particularity during that time. In which social norms, values and honour were so strict that those who refused to conform had a great deal of difficulty living. Those who refused to fight were considered cowards and many of them took their own lives.
But the interpretation of the paragraph is even greater. It implies that life for everyone, regardless of social status, is in some way shape or form- a struggle. That struggle, for most people, makes them stronger. Pain contextualises Pleasure, Grief intensifies Joy. But some people never overcome their struggle. That causes the world to kill them- not because they could not break, but because they were too broken.
Some people of course refuse to be broken, demanding that the world change- not them. But eventually the world will kill them upon realising it cannot break them. The world being society, or an individual influenced by a cause to create harm. You see this case in the people who killed Ghandi, JFK or Martin Luther King. It kills the very good, the very gentle and the brave impartially.
The last part of the sentence is arguably the most tragic. The people who are neither good, nor gentle, nor brave- and yet they remain. Unbroken. How many good people are dead today while so many scumbags roam the earth? How many people escape Karma, escape the grasp of Justice? How many people does the world take their time in killing?
Too many, it may seem.
But of course there’s some flaws in Hemingway’s logic. Such as that those who are broken become stronger in the broken places. If I were to shatter my knee, it would eventually heal. But it would not be stronger than it was before it was broken. If anything it would be weaker.
Everything else on the hand would grow stronger as I put more attention on it. A shattered knee means that I won’t be walking about for a while. So I’d spend most of my time using my arms, expanding my mind, relying more on my eyes. So there is room for growth, and that growth will make me stronger- but not in the place I was broken.
If anything the broken place will only get worse with age. When my bones start to ache with arthritis that shattered knee will be especially painful. But at that stage I will either have the sense not to put so much weight on it, or find another means of transportation.
A similar example can be seen in drug addiction. You see, you can’t just get over addiction. It’s a daily struggle you have to deal with- the highs come with terrible lows. This struggle allows for excellent leeway to growth, but it does not grant eternal strength. Some days you will be tired, your wits will be at their ends- some day you’ll want to give in to whatever urge that pesters you.
The same thing happens with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. They never really go away. While some grow stronger when they are broken, some just remain broken. Some break so hard that the world accidentally kills them.
I find most of existence to be extremely bizarre, how we live day to day is bewildering to me. But the thing that makes me hysterical is suicide. The act of killing yourself is quite peculiar, very few other animals are observed in engaging in such activities. The human brain is not designed to make you happy, it’s designed to keep you alive.
So when you’re having suicidal thoughts, or commitments to self harm, your brain is essentially being manipulated to go against it’s nature. Neurons go haywire, hormones all over the place, you’re overwhelmed with intrusive thoughts. Such as the lie that nobody loves you, that your existence is a burden and that death is but a sweet release from pain.
We live in a world where people kill themselves and people are of course devastated by their deaths, but eventually move on. No one really finds the whole act absurd. It has become a way of life for many people- and while the world tries to stop these people from crossing the line, it is also responsible for pushing them there in the first place.
I myself believe I will die due to a Cold Sweat, at around fifty or sixty years old. But life sometimes gets you sometimes where you think that the world will kill you sooner rather than later. Society is not so intricately designed as it is barely surviving, like a dingy carrying fifty people over a violent sea- barely afloat.
The dingy and the people on board often times seem unbearable, so the idea of jumping off seems more an more plausible. But nothing is guaranteed upon entry into that violent sea. You may sink or float, but most certainly will never live to fond out. Only in the boat is there a chance to reach the shore, whatever shore, and stay alive as long as possible.
Because like it or not, this is the only world we have and it’s worth keeping. Even if it kills you.