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A Farewell to Arms

by Ernest Hemingway

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What sets the tone in A Farewell To Arms?

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Hemingway sets the tone of the novel in the very first chapter. Hemingway’s style is direct and focuses mainly on concrete details and facts, which contributes to the overall tone of the novel. Hemingway does not glorify or romanticize war with dramatic descriptions and patriotic imagery. He also does not dramatize the horror of war. Instead, he presents the reader with the facts, which often speak for themselves. For example, the narrator tells us that “in the end only seven thousand died” of a cholera outbreak in the army. To him, this is a fact, and he is not shocked by it, hence the use of the word “only.” However, to the reader, this fact is horrifying and shocking. Hemingway’s writing style therefore prepares the reader for a novel that will be stark and sober in tone.

Additionally, Hemingway’s matter-of-fact style sets a tone of boredom from the beginning. One of Hemingway’s intentions in writing this novel was to show how boring and static war often was. When the men weren’t fighting on the front lines, they often had nothing to do and so did a lot of waiting around. This novel looks at what happens in the daily, often mundane, lives of soldiers. Much of the first chapter comprises of detailed, lengthy descriptions of the landscape. For example, in this passage, special attention is given on the pebbles in the river:

In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.

If a reader came to this novel expecting an action-filled story about warfare and fighting, they would be disappointed. A Farewell To Arms is instead realistic, stark, and truthful.

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The famous novel A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway tells of a wartime romance between an American paramedic in the Italian ambulance corps named Frederic Henry and an English nurse named Catherine Barkley. It takes place mainly in Italy during World War I.

Hemingway sets the tone of the novel in its first chapter as he describes the background of the story in his precise, lean, tight prose. He begins with a description of a house in a village "that looked across the plain to the mountains." He then writes of the clear water running swiftly through channels in the river. However, by the third sentence, he adds that troops marching by the house had raised dust that powders the leaves of the trees. In the second paragraph, Hemingway writes that the plains are rich with crops, but then he adds that there is fighting in the mountains and that at night the narrator can see flashes of light from artillery.

In other words, Hemingway sets the tone by contrasting what should be a beautiful, idyllic countryside with descriptions of the troop movements, weaponry, and other equipment crossing it that renders it ugly. This is a reminder of what war does to a country and its people. The last paragraph of the opening chapter is brutal in its seeming simplicity:

At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.

This paragraph highlights the relative indifference to death during wartime. Hemingway states that "only" seven thousand soldiers die of cholera as if this number of casualties is acceptable. This prepares the reader for a love story set against the stark realities of war.

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In Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms the tone is set immediately in the very short (two pages) first chapter.  Hemingway does not introduce the characters right away. Instead he writes about the movement of troops and weapons and the effect of war on the countryside.

One way that a writer sets tone is by his diction. Diction is a writer’s word choice. There are many different ways to communicate an idea, and the words a writer picks have a tremendous influence on how the reader will perceive the story.  The following words and phrases from chapter one are important in communicating the idea that the war is going to have a devastating effect on the lives of the characters.

  • The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year
  • Afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves
  • There was not the feeling of a storm coming [this is irony, because a metaphorical storm—war—is coming].
  • In the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain.
  • The vineyards were thin and bare-branched
  • All the country wet and brown and dead with the autumn.

At the end of the chapter he mentions a cholera outbreak, noting that it wasn’t too bad, as “only seven thousand died of it in the army.” How’s that for tone? How bad can things get if seven thousand deaths aren’t too bad?

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