The tones of Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms are various, and they tend to change as one moves through the book. Often the tones of the early chapters are light-hearted, as in the episodes involving Rinaldi, one of the most vividly comic characters Hemingway ever created. Thus, at one point Rinaldi mentions that he plans to court Catherine Barkley, the woman with whom Frederic Henry (the book’s main character) becomes involved. Rinaldi asks Henry for a loan by saying,
“I must make on Miss Barkley the impression of a man of great wealth. You are my great and good friend and financial protector.”
“Go the hell,” I said.
Henry’s reply catches us by comic surprise. His pretended rebuff suggests that the men are actually very good friends who feel entirely comfortable bantering with one another and pretending to provoke one another. The scenes involving Rinaldi are often quite comical. As I have written in a discussion of this novel in volume 3 of the Student’s Encyclopedia of Great American Writers, Rinaldi is one of
the most lively, funny, and memorable people Hemingway ever created, [and] he adds wit, good humor, vitality, and a spirit of affectionate friendship to the novel.
The humor of some sections of the first part of the book, moreover, helps intensify the dark, tragic tone with which the book concludes. For example, the often funny and charming depictions of the courtship between Frederic and Catherine help make the tragedies they eventually suffer all the more powerful.
Hemingway also creates an effective tone of suspense near the end of the book, where we wonder whether Frederic and Catherine will make their escape into Switzerland and where we also wonder what the outcome will be of Catherine’s attempt to deliver a baby. At the very end of the book, of course, we discover that both Catherine and the baby have died. The tone here is dark and devastating, partly because Frederic now seems utterly isolated. Part of the power of Hemingway’s novel, then, depends upon the ways the tones of the book alter, deepen, and darken as the book progresses.