Hemingway strove for realism in all his stories. He believed people to be little more than animals in many respects. As a lifelong hunter, he respected the intelligence of animals and viewed mankind as a somewhat cleverer creature but humanity itself as deeply flawed. Yet, even for his gritty depiction of human brutality, his stories have a touch of romance.
In A Farewell to Arms, the cynical and romantic meet. Hemingway's goal in the book is to show that war, despite its romantic ideals and the call to action that many men revel in, is a waste of time. He tells a love story in the midst of ruin caused by battles, bloodshed, wounds, and death.
Frederic, his protagonist, served as a paramedic in World War I, and after being wounded was sent to an army hospital, where he met Catherine, a nurse. They fell in love, but he was required to return to the front lines. To escape certain death, he eventually went AWOL and found Catherine, who was pregnant.
Hemingway's purpose is to show the tragedy of war by contrasting it with the beauty—however fleeting—of love. It seems as if Frederic will escape the death squads that are executing his comrades after the defeat of the Italians. It seems he will reunite with his lover. At the end, it seems their retreat to a peaceful life is proof that war, like love, is only transient.
But death wins again when Catherine gives birth to a stillborn baby, then dies in childbirth. It is a bleak end to an oppressive story, with a glimmer of hope in the form of their love affair. The depictions of war were some of the first to reveal the horror, suffering, and pointlessness of World War I trench warfare.
This book was a bestseller and heralded for describing battle conditions in a way no other book had before it.