How important is the setting in A Farewell to Arms?

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A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway was first published in 1929. It is set during World War I and reflects the events of the war as seen through the eyes of Frederic Henry, a young American officer who is wounded in the fighting; his role in the war is...

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A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway was first published in 1929. It is set during World War I and reflects the events of the war as seen through the eyes of Frederic Henry, a young American officer who is wounded in the fighting; his role in the war is as an ambulance driver.

The setting is very important to the novel. First, as with several other works by Hemingway, a central theme is that of how American expatriates negotiate their identity in relationship to European contexts. Thus Henry's receiving treatment in an Italian hospital, falling in love with a British nurse (Catherine Barkley), and mentoring by an Italian Lieutenant (Rinaldi)—in addition to his interactions with other Italian and foreign characters—are central elements of the plot.

It is important that the novel is set during World War I, which was not only a major conflict within Europe but also one which was regarded as the beginning of true modernity. In this setting, many of the characters see the chaos of war as emblematic of the fading away of old verities and securities and a descent into a new world of doubt, uncertainty, and violence and destruction on a new and devastating scale.

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Heralded as Ernest Hemingway's greatest achievement, A Farewell to Arms is a novel whose plot revolves within the setting of World War I's Italian front, a site of humiliation and tragedy within the horrors of war. Working as an ambulance driver for the Italians, Frederic Henry, who suffers from identity crisis as an American on the Italian front, often sees Catherine Barkley, who captures his attention.

With the senselessness and violence of war as the environment in which the characters exist, the love as escape between Catherine, who has lost her fiance to the war, and Henry who is disillusioned, is made possible.  Their lovemaking in which Catherine takes down her hair and makes a tent for Henry offers a shelter from the reality of war; together in love, they are isolated and insulated from the battlefield.  Their attempt to live in the neutral country of Switzerland furthers the motif of escape from the setting of the war front and the death and humilation of the Italians in World War I.  Indeed, the plot of Hemingway's great novel would not attain its credibility without the setting that it has, and the themes of war, individualism, and war are completely dependent upon this setting.

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