Essays and Criticism
The Theme of Disillusionment in A Farewell To Arms
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.
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The Theme of the Undefeated in Hemingway’s Work: How Moral Values Prevail Over the Material
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...
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Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms: A Character Analysis
“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...
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Hemingway’s Writing Style, War Experiences, and Themes of Identity
Ernest Hemingway is known for his distinctive writing style, an unusually bare, straightforward prose in which he characteristically uses plain words, few adjectives, simple sentences, and frequent repetition. Nevertheless his powers of description are not diminished by his taking care to choose such simple language. Take a look, for example, at the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms.
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 mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
This beautifully written paragraph exemplifies the simplicity of Hemingway’s language, and his tendency towards both vivid description and repetition. Hemingway worked hard to write in such a way as to give his readers highly descriptive passages without distracting them with “big words,” and he hoped that his writing would leave his readers with distinct visual impressions,...
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Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms
Symbolic effects in this novel are achieved through a subtle process of reiterated suggestion. Among the many which might be mentioned, we shall be concerned with only three: the weather, the emblematic people, and the landscapes. The best known of these is the first: the almost poetic care with which Hemingway slowly builds up in his readers a mental association between rain and disaster. This was an association which came naturally enough to Hemingway himself. His letters throughout his life are full of complaints against rain and damp weather. He always took it personally, partly because he was susceptible to the common cold, partly because damp dark weather induced in his spirit a comparable gloom. Moreover, in his second experience of war and its effects, he had personally watched the pitiful stream of refugees plodding through mud and sodden with rain during the memorable evacuation of the civilian population from the city of Adrianople. Anyone who reads A Farewell to Arms with one eye on the weather will eventually marvel as he watches the author playing with falling rain as a symbol of imminent doom. Near the close of the book, when Catherine is approaching her time of confinement, the weather warms and the rains arrive. For a whole miraculous winter the lovers have gloried in then-isolation, living happily in their high mountain fastness, surrounded by healthy cold air and clean snow, far from the mud and muck of war. Now at last the rains come, the...
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Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: The Novel as Pure Poetry
Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is I think one of the purest lyric novels ever written. But if we are fully to appreciate its power—and the power of a number of other works by Hemingway—we are driven to examine the poetics of this lyricism and to assess, if we can, the extent to which Hemingway has exploited the possibilities of the type. . . .
In A Farewell to Arms the dominant state of mind—the sense of death, defeat, failure, nothingness, emptiness—is conveyed chiefly by the image of the rain (with all its tonal associates, mist, wet, damp, river, fog), by images and epithets of desolation (chiefly bare, thin, small, and fallen leaves), and by images and epithets of impurity and corruption (chiefly dust, mud, dirt, and disease). Hemingway’s method of working with the images is surprisingly uniform. . . .
The images are repeated so frequently that they begin to toll like bells in the mind. Virtually every sentence says, “Death, despair, failure, emptiness,” because virtually every sentence contains an image or symbol associated with the dominant state of mind.
The novel begins with this state of mind, and it is established so firmly, through the repetition of the central symbols, that any emotions other than bitterness and despair may thereafter intrude only with difficulty. The typical procedure, as in lyric poetry, is to intensify the dominant emotion by...
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