The purpose of this essay is to discuss the theme of disillusionment in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. One critic has called the novel “a parable of twentieth-century man’s disgust and disillusionment at the failure of civilization to achieve the ideals it had been promising throughout the nineteenth century”;(1) while others, including Carlos Baker, tend to see in the novel a contrast between two different types of twentieth century life, symbolized by the chaos of war and the serenity of peace. Both viewpoints take into consideration the theme of disillusionment, for both focus upon Lt. Henry and his journey into war, out of it in search of peace and love, and ultimately towards the cruel irony of Catherine’s death.
The title of the novel should give us a hint as to the process of disillusionment which Frederick undergoes, for it literally signifies both his rejection of his personal responsibility for the war and his final loss of Catherine. It is difficult to trace the roots of the former in Frederick’s character, for Hemingway characteristically does not provide extensive background information. We know only that he has a family in the States, has studied architecture, and decided to enter the war as an ambulance driver for the Italians. There is an aspect of unconsciousness about him which tends to make us believe that he does not feel things deeply, but this is apparently not the case: “I never think, yet when I begin to talk I say things I have found out in my head without thinking.”(2) Thus Frederick is a man quite capable of contemplation, as he is of action. It is not until he is wounded and thus deprived of the possibility of action that the process of disillusionment begins to set in, and even then it occurs under strange circumstances. For his stay in the hospital with the proximity to Catherine, the eventual freedom to go out to the races and on small trips with her, contrasts sharply with the brutality of the war. Just before being injured, Frederick thinks to himself: “I knew I would not be killed. Not in this war. It did not have anything to do with me.” Thus the injury, which could easily have been fatal, is the first event to shake Frederick’s naive faith in his invulnerability. The second is his affair with Catherine, the first woman he has loved, for it leaves him open to her, to her legitimate demands for a life together away from the war.
Frederick slowly discovers that there is a basic opposition between his life-affirming love for Catherine and the death-drift of the war. Yet there is a traditional and conservative side to Frederick which recoils from the notion of desertion and its implications to others of cowardice. As Frederick moves towards a rejection of the war, he also moves towards a reconciliation within himself between his thoughts and actions. Thus, he hopes to be totally free of his part in the war: “I would never see any of them now. That life was over.” The “separate peace” for which he opts is declared privately, for he is not interested in convincing anyone...
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Heroism is the essential theme of Hemingway’s novelistic output. Although some will say his longer work deals primarily with death or the efforts of a “lost generation,” the overriding concern in books like The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and A Farewell to Arms is personal honor. For Hemingway’s hero the traditional external sanctions of religion and similar cultural values have disappeared. They have been replaced by a concern of how a man shall live and die on a planet where the essential condition is violence.
Hemingway’s heroes surface in a world literally gone to hell. The First World War eradicated the belief that national governments had the good of the people at heart. Man became isolated from his natural brotherhood. Institutions, ideas, and the groups of friends that control the way of life are regarded by Hemingway and his heroes as a tyranny. The result is a sentimental or propagandistic rationalization that destroys the meaning of the “ordinary life.” The Hemingway adventurer operates outside this confining arena and enters an environment where moral values are given more credence than material existence. One must be prepared to live in a way that adheres to these “outsider” beliefs; one must also be prepared not to sacrifice them if death should threaten the horizon.
A Farewell to Arms (1929) is perhaps Hemingway’s most fatal book. It promises an abundance of life at the start; but before long, the tone shifts to one where the ethical traits of the hero, Frederic Henry, and their effect on the novel’s action predominate. His viewpoint is well expressed in the book's opening:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountain. . . . Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of trees . . . we saw the soldiers marching along the road . . . the soldiers marching and afterwards the road was bare and white except for the leaves.
The plain was rich with crops. . . . There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see the flashes from the artillery. In the dark it was like summer lightning, but the nights were cool and there was not the feeling of a storm coming.(1)
But the storm does come, and the reader enters a season of loss. It is in such times, when the fullness of summer shifts too suddenly to bleak autumn, that Hemingway’s heroes display their moral convictions. Hemingway’s moral code is based on the correlation between man and impending doom. Here, to be morally correct by Hemingway’s standards, one must display courage and nobility in the face of death. In this world, moral courage prevails, outlasting death to be passed on to others.
Therefore, despite the fact that many critics have labeled the typical Hemingway hero as ultimately insensitive in his narrowly restricted code of action and behavior, one cannot help but admire the courage of their convictions. It is, in fact, precisely this adherence to a clearly conceived standard of morality which...
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“I never think and yet when I begin to talk I say the things I have found out in my mind without thinking.” Thus does Frederick Henry, the narrator and main character in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, give a clue to the type of person he is and the way in which he tells his story. Throughout the book, Henry is both recounting the factual tale of what happened during the war and attempting to supply the insights he gained on a subconscious level. Because of this double level of events, the character of Frederick Henry is more complex than it seems to be on the basis of the surface story.
The formation of Henry’s character is unclear. We know that he has some family in the United States, but he is apparently not close to them. He has studied architecture but left his studies to join the Italian Ambulance Corps for reasons not given. We are never told about anyone who has had a profound influence on his life, and in fact very little seems to impress him. And yet, under this hard surface, Henry does exist in his desire for roots and in the fact of his awareness of that part of himself which longs for commitment. This awareness is shown early in the book when he tells his friend the priest why he did not go to his peaceful hometown on his leave: “It was what I wanted to do and I tried to explain . . . how we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things.” In the course of the book Henry learns to do only those things he wants to do, and this is a process of growing maturity for him.
Frederick Henry is a man of few words; those that he does say are most frequently understatements. He is not eager to reveal himself to anyone, not even Catherine Barkley, and his attitude of introspection makes their first few meetings difficult. Even as he kisses her for the first time, his thoughts undercut his action: “I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards.” In war, as in love, Henry finds himself doing one thing and saying another when he notes that he is in the war but does not think he will be killed. “Not in this war. It did not have anything to do with me.” And yet he has volunteered to serve and risks his life to do the job.
In some ways, Henry begins to bridge the gap between what he thinks and what he does when he deserts. In escaping from his part of the war, Henry hopes to be free of it completely: “I would never see any of them now. That life was over.” He opts for a “separate peace,” one that will allow his human relationships to take precedence over the necessities of war. He comes to a realization that is true but impossible to act on: “I was not made to think. I was made to eat. My...
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