The Theme of Disillusionment in A Farewell To Arms
The purpose of this essay is to discuss the theme of disillusionment in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. One critic has called the novel “a parable of twentieth-century man’s disgust and disillusionment at the failure of civilization to achieve the ideals it had been promising throughout the nineteenth century”;(1) while others, including Carlos Baker, tend to see in the novel a contrast between two different types of twentieth century life, symbolized by the chaos of war and the serenity of peace. Both viewpoints take into consideration the theme of disillusionment, for both focus upon Lt. Henry and his journey into war, out of it in search of peace and love, and ultimately towards the cruel irony of Catherine’s death.
The title of the novel should give us a hint as to the process of disillusionment which Frederick undergoes, for it literally signifies both his rejection of his personal responsibility for the war and his final loss of Catherine. It is difficult to trace the roots of the former in Frederick’s character, for Hemingway characteristically does not provide extensive background information. We know only that he has a family in the States, has studied architecture, and decided to enter the war as an ambulance driver for the Italians. There is an aspect of unconsciousness about him which tends to make us believe that he does not feel things deeply, but this is apparently not the case: “I never think, yet when I begin to talk I say things I have found out in my head without thinking.”(2) Thus Frederick is a man quite capable of contemplation, as he is of action. It is not until he is wounded and thus deprived of the possibility of action that the process of disillusionment begins to set in, and even then it occurs under strange circumstances. For his stay in the hospital with the proximity to Catherine, the eventual freedom to go out to the races and on small trips with her, contrasts sharply with the brutality of the war. Just before being injured, Frederick thinks to himself: “I knew I would not be killed. Not in this war. It did not have anything to do with me.” Thus the injury, which could easily have been fatal, is the first event to shake Frederick’s naive faith in his invulnerability. The second is his affair with Catherine, the first woman he has loved, for it leaves him open to her, to her legitimate demands for a life together away from the war.
Frederick slowly discovers that there is a basic opposition between his life-affirming love for Catherine and the death-drift of the war. Yet there is a traditional and conservative side to Frederick which recoils from the notion of desertion and its implications to others of cowardice. As Frederick moves towards a rejection of the war, he also moves towards a reconciliation within himself between his thoughts and actions. Thus, he hopes to be totally free of his part in the war: “I would never see any of them now. That life was over.” The “separate peace” for which he opts is declared privately, for he is not interested in convincing anyone...
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