One of the primary themes of the novel centers on the notion of a "separate peace." Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American in the Italian Army, is severely wounded, recovers, returns to the war and, finally, after the powerfully rendered retreat from Caporetto, he deserts from the army in an effort to resolve and to escape the contradictions and chaos of a war-maddened world. In a kind of baptismal rite, he plunges into the Tagliamento River: "Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation." His immersion in the river and flight from the war seal and signify his rebirth in love.
To be redeemed by love, of course, does not imply in Hemingway's tragic vision anything like a "happy ending." As Carlos Baker has succinctly stated the themes of this novel, Frederic and Catherine are "star-crossed," Catherine is "biologically double-crossed, Europe is war-crossed, and life is death-crossed." By the time Catherine dies in childbirth at the end of the novel, Frederic has not only been chastened by tragedy, but he has learned the meaning of commitment and love, and he is a better man for it.
The novel's intricately interwoven themes are perhaps distilled in this famous passage:
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 everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It...
In A Farewell to Arms, one of the themes of Frederic Henry’s adventure as an ambulance driver during World War I is identity. This theme compounds other themes that Hemingway is exploring through the war story. Identity is important to the story because it expresses the general question of the individual in the postwar world. The First World War raised some unsettling questions about the values the war generation had inherited. People began to question the validity of their national leaders and institutions which seemed to have led directly to such an incredible loss of life and economic devastation. Frederic represents, for Hemingway, this questioning of what is man that he can cause such awful destruction and human suffering.
Frederic’s identity is displaced by the late introduction of his name to the reader, the fact of his being an American in the Italian army, and his constant play with words. He speaks Italian, but not well enough to advance in rank. He also understands French and German but remains unmistakably American. None of this is surprising but because Hemingway depends on dialogue to a great extent, the play of words between languages serves to heighten such issues as alienation and patriotism. The former is heightened because jokes do not translate and thus Frederic’s efforts to lighten moods fall into silence. Beyond the curious problems of voice, Frederic always seems to be in the wrong outfit. This fact is exaggerated when he borrows clothes from Ralph Simmons to make his escape and when he says that his English gas mask works—whereas the Italian models do not. He continues to be someone else until the end. Finally, Frederic attempts to identify not as himself but as lost in Catherine—“We’re the same one.” He is forced to give this up when she dies.
Hemingway’s novel demonstrates the demise of loyalty to traditions and institutions that had been brought forward from the nineteenth century, a refocusing on the self often referred to as “individualism.” His characters, especially Catherine Barkley (in terms of her fiance’s death at the hand of sophisticated infantry), all have war disgust. Each of them is able to avoid becoming crazy by falling back on the self. In doing so, each person rejects the “higher callings” of tradition, society, or institution. For example, Rinaldi has the satisfaction of having become a better surgeon through practice. He is also better with women for the same reason. When prodded by Frederic’s suggestion that there may be more than these two self-centered items in life, Rinaldi responds with a very existentialist statement, “We never get anything. We are born with all we have and we never learn. We never get anything new.”
It is out of this effort to come to terms with the stupidity and horror of the Great War that the school of thought known as existentialism emerges, a movement which suggested that men and women should not accept society’s or someone else’s values, but rather examine the truth in him or herself. Hemingway was not an existentialist, but his characters clearly exhibit a great deal of alienation from each other. They cope with their situation of doubt in society by developing an acute personal meaning. In A Farewell to Arms this is debated once by the priest and Frederic in the latter’s hospital room. Not for the first time, the reader is...