Throughout A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway uses water in varied forms as a symbol of personal transformation, which is one of the novel’s major themes. In particular, he makes numerous references to rain. As it contrasts with a sunny day, rain represents a gloomy environment. Rather than nourishing crops, rain makes muddy conditions that imperil the troops, and it promotes disease.
Hemingway uses foreshadowing in combination with the symbol of rain to alert the reader to the novel’s sad ending, which includes both death and despair. In a different form, however, water has positive connotations. In the form of water flowing through the land, as a river, water stands for optimism and positive growth. Frederic undergoes a symbolic baptism in a river.
In the first chapter of the novel, the negative associations of rain are established, as connected to winter and disease; more generally, it characterizes the hopeless situation of the Italian troops.
At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera.
A notable instance where water as rain carries symbolic weight is Catherine’s premonition of her own death and Frederic’s death.
I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see myself dead in it .... And sometimes I see you dead in it.
Henry’s efforts to comfort her do not succeed, and it continues to rain. Much later, at the novel’s end, after Catherine and their baby both die, Frederic “walked back to the hotel in the rain.” The previously established association may imply that he feels part of him has died as well.
The river symbolizes positive personal transformation for Frederic, as it enables him to escape the war. At the point of capture, he jumps in and lets it carry him away. The association of this act of faith with baptism picks up on his earlier discussion of Christianity.