What is the conflict in A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Critics generally agree that assigning a clear conflict in A Farewell to Arms, a title which has a double--even a triple--meaning, is problematic. Henry's conflicts all stem from an essential inner conflict: a desire to attain something that the world circumstances--the reality of world war--make impossible to attain. Such a conflict is that between his life with Catherine and the demands of returning to his assignment on the front or that between his expectations of himself on the front and the reality of what he can truly accomplish there. The painful irony of this conflict is that such desires as devoted love and valor may have earlier been more attainable.

In light of this, the conflict of the novel might arguably be narrowed down to an inner one of Humankind versus Self with many manifestations and variations in Henry's life in a world where reconciliation with reality is as unattainable as reconciliation with inner desire. The farewell to arms that the title envisions is, first, a farewell to Catherine's loving arms as her death is a climactic moment and, second, a farewell to the glory of courage and valor shown by accomplishment in war, which are no longer possible as the justice of war is dissolved. A third farewell may be said to be a psychological farewell to idealized love and the courage, honor, valor, and accomplishment of duty in a just war.

The metaphor for the dissolution of the justice of war may be said to lie in the image of officers tearing off their insignia as they retreat from the "sacred soil of the fatherland" where captured deserters at Tagliamento River bridge were assaulted by "The questioners [who] had all the efficiency, coldness and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and not being fired on." Further, this “command” may arguably be seen as a metaphor for the novel's conflict: Henry finds reality in a world torn by war to have "all the efficiency, coldness and command" of soldiers "who are firing and not being fired upon."

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