Ernest Hemingway once referred to A Farewell to Arms as his version of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597). Several parallels exist. Both works are about star-crossed lovers; both show erotic flirtations that rapidly develop into serious, intense love affairs; and both describe the romances against a backdrop of social and political turmoil. Whether A Farewell to Arms finally qualifies as tragic is a matter of personal opinion, but it certainly represents, for Hemingway, an attempt to broaden his concerns from the aimless tragicomic problems of the expatriates in The Sun Also Rises (1926) to the fundamental question of life’s meaning in the face of human mortality.
Frederic Henry begins the affair as a routine wartime seduction, “a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards.” He feels mildly guilty, especially after learning about Catherine’s vulnerability because of the loss of her lover in combat, but he still foresees no complications from the temporary arrangement. It is not until he is wounded and sent to her hospital in Milan that their affair deepens into love—and from that point on, they struggle to free themselves in order to realize it. However, they are constantly thwarted, first by the impersonal bureaucracy of the military effort, then by the physical separation imposed by the war itself, and, finally, by the biological “accident” that kills Catherine at the point where their “separate peace” at last seems possible.
As Henry’s love for Catherine grows, his disillusionment with the war also increases. From the beginning of the book, Henry views the military efforts with ironic detachment, but there is no suggestion that, prior to his meeting with her, he has had any deep reservations about his involvement. Hemingway’s attitude toward war was always an ambiguous one. He questioned the rationales for fighting them and the slogans offered in their defense. Like Henry, he felt that “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene.” For the individual, however, war could be the necessary test. Facing imminent death in combat, one either demonstrated “grace under pressure” and did the “one right thing” or one did not; one either emerged from the experience as a whole person with self-knowledge and control, or one came out of it lost and broken.
There is little heroism in this war as Henry describes it. The hero’s disengagement from the fighting is made most vivid in the extended “retreat from Caporetto,” generally considered one of the great sequences in modern fiction. The retreat begins in an orderly, disciplined, military manner. As it progresses, however, authority breaks down, emotions of self-preservation supersede loyalties, and the neat military procession gradually turns into a panicking mob. Henry is caught up in the momentum and carried along with the group in spite of his attempts to keep personal control and fidelity to the small band of survivors he travels with. Upon reaching the Tagliamento River, Henry is seized, along with all other identifiable officers, and held for execution. After he escapes by leaping into the river—an act of ritual purification as well as physical survival—he feels that his trial has freed him from any and all further loyalty to the Allied cause.
Henry then rejoins Catherine, and they complete the escape together. In Switzerland, they seem lucky and free at last. Up in the mountains, they hike, ski, make love, prepare for the baby, and plan for their postwar life together. Even in their most idyllic times, however, there are ominous hints; they worry about the baby; Catherine jokes about her narrow hips; she becomes frightened by a dream of herself “dead in the rain.” Throughout the novel, Hemingway associates the plains and rain with death, disease, and sorrow; the mountains and the snow with life, health, and happiness. Catherine and Henry are safe and happy in the mountains, but it is impossible to remain there indefinitely. Eventually everyone must return to the plains. When Catherine and Henry descend to the city, it is, in fact, raining, and she does, in fact, die.
Like that of Romeo and Juliet, the love between Catherine and Henry is not destroyed by any moral defect in their own characters. Henry muses that Catherine’s fate is the price paid for the good nights in Milan, but such a price is absurdly excessive. Nor, strictly speaking, is the war responsible for their fate, any more than the Montague-Capulet feud directly provokes the deaths of Shakespeare’s lovers. Nevertheless, the war and the feud provide the backdrop of violence and the accumulation of pressures that coerce the lovers into actions that contribute to their doom. In the final analysis, both couples are defeated by bad luck—the illness that prevents the friar from delivering Juliet’s note to Romeo, the accident of Catherine’s anatomy that prevents normal childbearing. Thus, both couples are star-crossed. If a “purpose” can be vaguely ascertained in Shakespeare’s version—the feud is ended by the tragedy—there is no metaphysical justification for Catherine’s death; it is, in her own words, “a dirty trick,” and nothing more.
Hemingway does not insist that the old religious meanings are completely invalid but only that they do not work for his characters. Henry would like to visit with the priest in his mountain village, but he cannot bring himself to do it. His friend Rinaldi, a combat surgeon, proclaims atheism, hedonism, and work as the only available meanings. Count Greffi, an old billiard player Henry meets in Switzerland, offers good taste, cynicism, and the fact of a long, pleasant life. Catherine and Henry have each other: “You are my religion,” she tells him.
All of these things fail in the end. Religion is only for others, patriotism is a sham, hedonism becomes boring, culture is a temporary distraction, work finally fails (the operation on Catherine was “successful”), and even love cannot last. Catherine dies; they both know, although they will not admit it, that the memory of it will fade.
All that remains is a stoic acceptance of the above facts with dignity and without bitterness. Life, like war, is absurd. Henry survives because he is lucky; Catherine dies because she is unlucky. There is no guarantee that the luck ever balances out and, since everyone ultimately dies, it probably does not matter. What does matter is the courage, dignity, and style with which one accepts these facts as a basis for life, and, more important, in the face of death.