The Theme of Disillusionment in A Farewell To Arms

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1253

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.

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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 else of the validity of his decision but rather hopes to be left alone to allow his love with Catherine to absorb him completely.

Frederick has come almost to his decision in the hospital, yet he returns to duty on the front. And there he is almost killed by those very soldiers he has been risking his life to save. There can be no further question of duty or honor. Frederic runs and escapes by diving into the Taglimento. This escape has been rightly seen as a type of baptism for Frederick, for it marks his final conversion to the peace of a life alone with Catherine away from the war.(3) Frederick never loses his ironic viewpoint, for the process of disillusionment gradually extends from the war to ordinary life. Even with Catherine, he finds death the only concrete element in his philosophy: “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these, you can be sure it will kill you, too, but there will be no special hurry.”

In many ways, Frederick’s disillusionment involves both a loss of selfishness and a growing strength in dealing with his owns desires and Catherine. Yet he also, having escaped from the trap of the war, feels “trapped biologically” by Catherine and her pregnancy. Frederick grows to realize that it is only inside of himself, with no reference to either Catherine or the war, that he can find a peaceful center. Thus the disillusionment with the moral and political situation in the war spreads into his personal relationship with Catherine, and we note some cooling on his part toward her as if she too might turn against him. It is interesting to note that Hemingway contrasts Frederick’s disillusionment with ideas such as that of duty, and emotions such as love with the simple pleasures which he pursues throughout the book. Thus, he turns constantly to his whisky and his feed from the very beginning to the end. Even when Catherine lies dying in the hospital, Frederick goes out for a drink or a meal and is careful to record this fact, for it represents perhaps the only reliable and secure pleasure for him. This is, of course, a damning observation upon the rewards of civilized life by Hemingway. In this connection, we should note that Henry loves Catherine most when they make love and is somewhat uncertain the rest of the time. Again, he has come to trust only the concrete aspects of life, for he has found neither security nor pleasure in ideals.

Frederick Henry never really believed that death would touch him, no matter how much he joked about it. He believed that the very concreteness of his love for Catherine, in the form of their expected child, was a sign that they both would be spared in a world gone mad. But in such a world there is no assurance that a “dirty trick” will not be played, and it is. The child dies. Catherine dies. Frederick is left with absolutely nothing. “But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-bye to a statue.”

The process of disillusionment is complete. It is not based only upon the horrors of war but also upon the absurdity of the universe. Frederick matures during the course of the novel, but it is a maturity which merely prepares him to accept further tragedy and pain. The reader of this novel easily understands Gertrude Stein’s comment that Hemingway and his friends were members of and were writing about a “lost generation.”

Notes
1. Ray B. West, Jr., “Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms,” in Sewanee Revew, LV (Winter, 1945) p. 120.

2. Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms (New York, 1957). All quotations from the novel are from this edition.

3. West, p. 125.

Bibliography
Baker, Carlos. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribners, 1957.

West, Ray B. “Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms.” In Sewanee Review, LV (Winter, 1945), p. 120-135.

Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1959.

The Theme of the Undefeated in Hemingway’s Work: How Moral Values Prevail Over the Material

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Heroism is the essential theme of Hemingway’s novelistic output. Although some will say his longer work deals primarily with death or the efforts of a “lost generation,” the overriding concern in books like The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and A Farewell to Arms is personal honor. For Hemingway’s hero the traditional external sanctions of religion and similar cultural values have disappeared. They have been replaced by a concern of how a man shall live and die on a planet where the essential condition is violence.

Hemingway’s heroes surface in a world literally gone to hell. The First World War eradicated the belief that national governments had the good of the people at heart. Man became isolated from his natural brotherhood. Institutions, ideas, and the groups of friends that control the way of life are regarded by Hemingway and his heroes as a tyranny. The result is a sentimental or propagandistic rationalization that destroys the meaning of the “ordinary life.” The Hemingway adventurer operates outside this confining arena and enters an environment where moral values are given more credence than material existence. One must be prepared to live in a way that adheres to these “outsider” beliefs; one must also be prepared not to sacrifice them if death should threaten the horizon.

A Farewell to Arms (1929) is perhaps Hemingway’s most fatal book. It promises an abundance of life at the start; but before long, the tone shifts to one where the ethical traits of the hero, Frederic Henry, and their effect on the novel’s action predominate. His viewpoint is well expressed in the book's opening:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountain. . . . Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of trees . . . we saw the soldiers marching along the road . . . the soldiers marching and afterwards the road was bare and white except for the leaves.

The plain was rich with crops. . . . There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see the flashes from the artillery. In the dark it was like summer lightning, but the nights were cool and there was not the feeling of a storm coming.(1)

But the storm does come, and the reader enters a season of loss. It is in such times, when the fullness of summer shifts too suddenly to bleak autumn, that Hemingway’s heroes display their moral convictions. Hemingway’s moral code is based on the correlation between man and impending doom. Here, to be morally correct by Hemingway’s standards, one must display courage and nobility in the face of death. In this world, moral courage prevails, outlasting death to be passed on to others.

Therefore, despite the fact that many critics have labeled the typical Hemingway hero as ultimately insensitive in his narrowly restricted code of action and behavior, one cannot help but admire the courage of their convictions. It is, in fact, precisely this adherence to a clearly conceived standard of morality which permits Hemingway’s heroes to overcome physical defeat and gain an ethical, often spiritual, victory, even in cases of their death. In Hemingway’s worldview, materiality (i.e., physical being in the world) is far inferior to the manner in which a life is led. What good is living, Hemingway repeatedly asks, if it is composed of compromises that limit its value? Merely being alive is not the true test of existence nor is it sufficient reason for living or any of the activities living might entail. What is more important is reaching, through trial and error, a state on individual and internal realization where both physical courage and moral substance become intrinsic parts of a person’s character and way of confronting the world. Personal honor is more important than life; there can be something to die for. Existence is not meaningless. In modern fiction, no characters struggle harder to reach moral certainties that they can call their own and live by; none exercise a greater degree of moral awareness, a trait that informs the core of their consciousness.

The character of Romero, the bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises, is a case in point. In the bull ring, he defeats one bull and is injured in doing so. A second bull is sent into the ring and, despite his injuries, Romero handles the beast masterfully. He displays that courage under extreme danger, in authentic homage to his own personal code of behavior that Hemingway finds so meaningful:

When he . . . was ready to kill, the crowd made him go on. They did not want the bull killed yet, they did not want it to be over. Romero went on. It was like a course in bullfighting. All the passes he linked up, all completed, all slow, templed and smooth. There were no tricks and no mystifications. There was no brusqueness. And each pass as it reached the summit gave you a sudden ache inside. The crowd did not want it ever finished.(2)

Eventually, the bull is killed. Romero “killed not as he had been forced to kill the last bull, but as he wanted to.”(3) This exhibition of daring and prowess in the face of possible death is what Hemingway admires. If Romero had been killed instead of the bull but had fought the bull in the same manner, Hemingway’s admiration would not have diminished.

Conversely, there is in the same book the case of Robert Cohn, a novelist and amateur pugilist who is rather handy with his fists. On several occasions he engages in fisticuffs with other characters in the book and is successful. He becomes something of a bully; he fights without meaning or moral conviction. He finds Brett Ashley, whom he loves, with Romero and beats him very badly in a fight. Yet, he loses. He fought in anger and cannot face the bullfighter or his lady love. Cohn offers to help Romero to his feet. As he does so, Romero hits him in the face. As one character, Mike, says: “He ruined Cohn. . . . I don’t think Cohn will ever want to knock people about again.”(4) He begins to cry and runs from the run and out of the novel in disgrace. Cohn cannot hope to enter the pantheon Hemingway reserves for his heroes because he is incapable of displaying the correct ethical convictions. When he dies, he will leave nothing of use to mankind.

Although some of Hemingway’s characters possess a strong moral code, they are seldom born with one. Rather, the code has to be learned through life experience. Often, the protagonist is placed in a learning situation with another character. If a character learns his moral lessons and lives by them, he can become a hero despite physical defeat or even death. When the time comes for such a character to meet his death, he may struggle to survive; but the inevitable encounter with death is met with calm, dignity, and a belief in what must be done. There is substantial freedom for action within this moral code. Human responsibility is judged in terms of active rather than passive response. Physical defeat must be accepted; moral victories are of the highest order.

Notes
1. E. Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (N.Y.: Scribner's, 1929) pp. 1-2.

2. E. Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (N.Y.: Scribner's, 1926) pp. 219-220.

3. Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, p. 220.

4. Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, p. 203.

Bibliography
Alien, W. The Modern Novel. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1964.

Connolly, C. Previous Convictions. London: H. Hamilton, 1963.

Hemingway, E. The Sun Also Rises. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1926.

——— . A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribner's, 1929.

——— . For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Scribner's, 1940.

Rovit, E. Ernest Hemingway. Boston: Twayne. 1963.

Waldhorn, A. A Reader's Guide to Hemingway. New York: Octogon Books, 1983.

Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms: A Character Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1142

“I never think and yet when I begin to talk I say the things I have found out in my mind without thinking.” Thus does Frederick Henry, the narrator and main character in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, give a clue to the type of person he is and the way in which he tells his story. Throughout the book, Henry is both recounting the factual tale of what happened during the war and attempting to supply the insights he gained on a subconscious level. Because of this double level of events, the character of Frederick Henry is more complex than it seems to be on the basis of the surface story.

The formation of Henry’s character is unclear. We know that he has some family in the United States, but he is apparently not close to them. He has studied architecture but left his studies to join the Italian Ambulance Corps for reasons not given. We are never told about anyone who has had a profound influence on his life, and in fact very little seems to impress him. And yet, under this hard surface, Henry does exist in his desire for roots and in the fact of his awareness of that part of himself which longs for commitment. This awareness is shown early in the book when he tells his friend the priest why he did not go to his peaceful hometown on his leave: “It was what I wanted to do and I tried to explain . . . how we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things.” In the course of the book Henry learns to do only those things he wants to do, and this is a process of growing maturity for him.

Frederick Henry is a man of few words; those that he does say are most frequently understatements. He is not eager to reveal himself to anyone, not even Catherine Barkley, and his attitude of introspection makes their first few meetings difficult. Even as he kisses her for the first time, his thoughts undercut his action: “I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards.” In war, as in love, Henry finds himself doing one thing and saying another when he notes that he is in the war but does not think he will be killed. “Not in this war. It did not have anything to do with me.” And yet he has volunteered to serve and risks his life to do the job.

In some ways, Henry begins to bridge the gap between what he thinks and what he does when he deserts. In escaping from his part of the war, Henry hopes to be free of it completely: “I would never see any of them now. That life was over.” He opts for a “separate peace,” one that will allow his human relationships to take precedence over the necessities of war. He comes to a realization that is true but impossible to act on: “I was not made to think. I was made to eat. My God, yes. Eat and drink and sleep with Catherine.” There is no way, however, in which Henry can escape his thoughts; what he does is try to align them with the realities of his life, and he is somewhat successful.

One of the more interesting aspects of Henry’s character is his trust in people and institutions, which eventually leads to tragedy and accounts for the ironic tone of the book. He gives his services to the Italian army and is almost shot for his pains; he wants to marry Catherine, but trusts her when she tells him not to worry about a baby or anything; he prays to God that Catherine won’t die, but she does. When he finally realizes that he has been wasting his time when he could have been moving towards a personal freedom, he says: “That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you.”

There is a profound change in Henry after he has renounced his involvement in the war. He describes himself in the beginning of the book as a young man who is happiest when he can pursue the simple physical pleasures of wine and sex and sleep, all of which are self-centered and which only minimally involve other people. After falling in love against his will, he finds that he requires Catherine’s pleasure as well as his own. He is no longer in complete control of his own universe; he has left himself open to pain and even tragedy. In a sense, the naive trust that is a part of his character has allowed him to become a victim. His love for Catherine and the happiness he feels in being alone with her in Switzerland are marred by the fact that he feels trapped: “You always feel trapped biologically.” The simplicity of his single life was traded for the complexities of love. Henry cannot understand how the impersonal sexual pleasures of the army whorehouse could be uncomplicated, and the warmth and love and sexuality which he shared with Catherine could lead to tragedy.

Frederick Henry never loses his desire for the physical comforts of life, and if any aspect of his character remains the same throughout the book, this is it. There is a concreteness which he requires and gets from his whiskey and food and sex, and from the activity of his own body in war or boxing. Even as Catherine is dying in the hospital, Henry goes out several times for beer and food and is careful to recount this in his narrative. In a sense these simple pleasures are Henry’s prime point of reference whether he is alone or with Catherine. Their love does not have an intellectual nor even spiritual dimension for Henry. It has the most reality when they make love and when Catherine dies. Even the rain serves as a symbol of Henry’s grounding in the concrete.

As Frederick Henry narrates his story, we are aware of a man who was young and rather empty and only half alive, who learned to love and then to act on his love, and finally to accept the consequences of that love. The trusting Henry of the war became a victim of love and finally the ironic teller of his history. If his character has been enriched, it has been a painful maturity and yet a valuable one, because it produced a book capable of making us feel the process itself.

Hemingway’s Writing Style, War Experiences, and Themes of Identity

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1942

Ernest Hemingway is known for his distinctive writing style, an unusually bare, straightforward prose in which he characteristically uses plain words, few adjectives, simple sentences, and frequent repetition. Nevertheless his powers of description are not diminished by his taking care to choose such simple language. Take a look, for example, at the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. 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. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

This beautifully written paragraph exemplifies the simplicity of Hemingway’s language, and his tendency towards both vivid description and repetition. Hemingway worked hard to write in such a way as to give his readers highly descriptive passages without distracting them with “big words,” and he hoped that his writing would leave his readers with distinct visual impressions, without their being able to recall anything unusual or memorable about the language itself. Despite the simplicity of the language in a paragraph such as the one above, the effect is quite complex. Not only does the author provide a vivid description of the geographical setting for the novel, but he also achieves a sense of the passing of time. The season gradually passes from summer into fall as the paragraph progresses, and likewise the sense of time passing is emphasized by the repeated detail of the soldiers marching by, signalling the reader to the fact that this novel is set in a time of war.

A Farewell to Arms was first published in 1929, and Hemingway had to be persistent in convincing his editor, Maxwell Perkins at Charles Scribner’s Sons, not to censor language that the publishing house felt was “indecent.” In addition, some contemporary readers found the novel’s frank depiction of pre-marital sex to be distasteful, and the book was banned for a time in Boston due to a particular police chiefs feeling that it was “salacious.” Nevertheless, the novel was immediately popular, and it has enjoyed a warm reception from literary critics throughout the twentieth century. The novel was Hemingway’s first big success, and it cemented his growing reputation as an author of great talent.

The novel is narrated by the central character, Frederic Henry, an American who is serving in an Italian ambulance unit during the First World War. Hemingway’s style is very effective in his development of Frederic’s character. Because the novel is written as if it were Frederic’s autobiography, or memoirs, the events of the novel are filtered through Frederic’s own consciousness. The simple style and plain language contribute to the realistic nature of Frederic’s voice and his thoughts; at times it even seems as if the reader has been given access to the inner workings of Frederic’s mind, as in the excerpt included in the plot summary. The fact that all of the events are seen through Frederic’s eyes also means that the reader’s impressions of the other characters in the novel must also come through Frederic’s impressions. In fact, Hemingway relies heavily on his highly realistic dialogue in sketching portraits of the other characters, and in revealing how Frederic relates to them, and what each character experiences in the way of feelings, concerns, and motivations.

As a novel of war, based on Hemingway’s own experiences in World War I one of the work’s major concerns lies in its critique of the concept of war. At the beginning of the novel Frederic Henry is nonchalant about the war that is going on around him. He is, after all, an American fighting in the Italian army, and he feels a sense of displacement and detachment as a result. Moreover, other characters, particularly Catherine Barkley, comment on the peculiarity of his being an American in the Italian army. Initially Frederic does not feel that he will be affected by this war—it has nothing to do with him, he says. He lives a hedonistic lifestyle, focusing on his pleasures—drinking and sex. Even after meeting Catherine and getting to know her, he does not initially feel that he will fall in love with her. He merely wishes to become involved with her as if in a game like bridge, but a game in which one makes moves by making statements rather than with cards.

Nevertheless, Frederic is changed by the war. When he is wounded and falls in love with Catherine over the long summer of his recuperation, he returns to the front to find conditions much changed. Things have not been going well for the Italians during his absence, and he notices a distinct difference in the attitudes of his peers—they are much more depressed and anxious about the war, even his usually carefree friend Rinaldi. The war has become darker and more threatening, and when Frederic is caught up in the chaotic retreat of the Italians from Caporetto, he is confronted with the grimmest realities of war for the first time; he watches as a companion is downed by a sniper, and he himself has a narrow brush with death when he approaches the carbinieri, or military police, as they are executing Italian officers at the bridge over the Tagliamento. Enough is enough. This isn’t my war anyway, Frederic says to himself, and he makes his “farewell to arms” with no reservations about deserting his post in a war that has turned into a horrible nightmare.

Like many of Hemingway’s main characters, Frederic Henry is a man who is in search of something to believe in. Robert Penn Warren called his search a search for truth and for ethical standards. Frederic detests words that are separated from actions—words like “glory” and “courage” were disgusting to him; for Frederic, it is only in one’s actions that such concepts have any value or meaning. A religion, or any organized system of beliefs, has to be tried and tested before Frederic will be able to accept it, and as yet, he has found no system of beliefs or values to which to commit himself entirely. Early in the novel when his companions bait and tease the priest, Frederic nevertheless respects the humble man. Even though he doesn’t agree with many of the priest’s beliefs concerning Christianity he admires the priest for believing in his religion and for loving his country so strongly. As the war progresses, Frederic is better able to decide what he does not believe in—he cannot be involved with the horror of war any longer, and instead he devotes himself to his love for Catherine Barkley. And Catherine devotes herself to Frederic, even telling him that he is her religion at one point.

Frederic’s search is also a search for home—a place where he can be comfortable and safe. Throughout the novel he finds it difficult to sleep at night, frightened by the sense of nothingness he feels then. With Catherine, he finally finds a kind of home, first in the hospital in Milan and later in their mountain chalet in Switzerland. Frederic seems to have found what he has been looking for in his love for Catherine, until Catherine suddenly and unexpectedly dies, just as they are beginning plans for their new life together. Some critics, such as Ray B. West, Jr. and E. M. Halliday, have chosen to read Hemingway’s title as ironic, interpreting Hemingway’s message that one cannot actually make a “farewell to arms.” Frederic may have escaped the brutality and cruelty of war, but ultimately there is no way to escape pain, and solitude, and the difficult aspects of life. There is only entrapment, wherever one turns. Gerry Brenner has written that A Farewell to Arms, which involves an ambulance driver and a nurse and situates a number of its key scenes in hospitals, is less a novel about war or about love than it is a novel about wounds.

Hemingway makes use of some very important symbolism in this novel. Even as early as the first paragraph, he sets up two major symbols—the plains and the mountains—which will be in conflict throughout the story. Hemingway represents the plains as dangerous, miserable, dry, and barren. The mountains, on the other hand, represent safety, happiness, and good health. The military action that Frederic Henry witnesses takes place on the plains, and his escape, through the cleansing, baptismal ritual of jumping into the river, reaches its end in the secluded mountain chalet with Catherine. But when Frederic must take Catherine out of the mountains and back down to the city below to the hospital where she is to give birth, disaster stakes again. Rain is another important symbol throughout the novel. Often the rain suggests impending doom; there is a storm the night that Frederic learns he must leave Italy at once to avoid being arrested, Catherine dreams that she is dead in the rain, and indeed at the conclusion of the novel, it is raining when Frederic returns to his hotel. The critic Carlos Baker’s essay, “The Mountain and the Plain,” is an excellent source for studying these aspects of Hemingway’s use of symbolism.

A Farewell to Arms is a very dramatic book. Many scholars, such as Ray B. West, Jr., have compared its five-book structure to that of the traditional English five-act play. There are similarities to be drawn between the structure of the novel and tragic drama: the first book, like the first act in a play, introduces the characters and the situation of the story, and in the second book the romantic plot is developed. Book in provides a climactic turning point: Frederic’s desertion of his post in the army and his decision to return to Catherine. In Book IV it looks as if Frederic and Catherine have successfully escaped the threats of the past, only to meet a tragic end to their love in the final book, which brings the drama to a close like the last act of a tragedy. Moreover, Hemingway’s heavy reliance on dialogue between his characters to develop both character and the story line makes the novel similar to a dramatic piece. Hemingway even called the novel his version of Romeo and Juliet. Like Romeo and Juliet, Frederic and Catherine are lovers who are kept from finding a permanent happiness together, but unlike the world view of William Shakespeare in which there is a foolish family feud to blame for the lovers’ deaths, in Hemingway, there is no one to blame for Catherine’s fate and Frederic’s ultimate solitude. Frederic is left alone in a world in which nothing is permanent, all is subject to chance, and the best one can do, ultimately, is to face that world with acceptance. The story, like Hemingway’s style of writing, is bare-boned and realistic, simple and stark.

Source: Arnold A. Markley, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997. Markley is an assistant professor at the Penn State University, Delaware County campus.

Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1974

Symbolic effects in this novel are achieved through a subtle process of reiterated suggestion. Among the many which might be mentioned, we shall be concerned with only three: the weather, the emblematic people, and the landscapes. The best known of these is the first: the almost poetic care with which Hemingway slowly builds up in his readers a mental association between rain and disaster. This was an association which came naturally enough to Hemingway himself. His letters throughout his life are full of complaints against rain and damp weather. He always took it personally, partly because he was susceptible to the common cold, partly because damp dark weather induced in his spirit a comparable gloom. Moreover, in his second experience of war and its effects, he had personally watched the pitiful stream of refugees plodding through mud and sodden with rain during the memorable evacuation of the civilian population from the city of Adrianople. Anyone who reads A Farewell to Arms with one eye on the weather will eventually marvel as he watches the author playing with falling rain as a symbol of imminent doom. Near the close of the book, when Catherine is approaching her time of confinement, the weather warms and the rains arrive. For a whole miraculous winter the lovers have gloried in then-isolation, living happily in their high mountain fastness, surrounded by healthy cold air and clean snow, far from the mud and muck of war. Now at last the rains come, the time for the lying-in draws near, some great change lurks just beyond the lovers’ limited horizon, and we begin to sense that Catherine is in mortal danger, as indeed she is.

A second aspect of the symbolism is the way in which Hemingway endows two of Lieutenant Henry’s friends with special moral attributes. One is the young Italian surgeon, Rinaldi, a merry comrade and a capable doctor, enthusiastic about his work with the wounded, boasting of his attainments at the operating table, delighted to be of service to humanity. But Hemingway is at pains to present Rinaldi as the victim of his own virtues. The sadness and fatigue of war soon affect him. As we watch, he becomes the homeless man, without visible antecedents, cut off from saving domesticity, driven to desperate expedients in order to keep his sanity in the vast and gloomy theatre of the war. Trying to relax from the rigors of his duties, he contracts syphilis in an army brothel. The man of science is eventually victimized by the filth and disease which surround him.

The second close friend is a nameless Italian priest, a gentle little nut-brown man who seeks as well as he can to exemplify the Christian virtues in a situation where almost everything seems to conspire against them. It is he who tries to persuade Henry to visit the Abruzzi during one of his military leaves. The priest paints an idyllic picture of this mountainous region, with its clear cool air, its plump game birds, its vineyards and orchards, its flute music, its peasant population living simply and amicably as they have done for a thousand years. It is a region close to heaven—or at any rate closer than the Veneto would seem to be. “There,” says the priest, “a man may love God without being satirized for his beliefs.”

After the first half of the novel, Rinaldi and the priest disappear from the scene. But the qualities they stand for continue to affect the action of the story. When Henry and Catherine reach Switzerland and begin the only approximation of married life that they will ever know, it is the spirit of the priest which dominates their lives. When, on the other hand, they are compelled to leave their lofty station and descend to Lausanne, where Catherine will die, we are forcibly reminded of the world of Rinaldi—the world of doctors and hospitals and imminent death.

The third and last manifestation of symbolic intent in the novel is the subtle way in which the author plays off two levels of landscape against each other. Without following it slavishly, he carefully establishes a pattern in which plains or lowlands are associated in the reader’s mind with war, death, pain, sadness, or gloom, while the high mountain regions, whether in the Abruzzi where the priest originated, or in Switzerland, high above Lausanne, where the lovers establish their temporary heartland, are just as carefully associated with pleasure and the good life, joy and health, or whatever stands opposed to the plains of the Veneto where the war is being fought and the great retreat has been made. This poetic association of the heights with pleasure and the depths with pain is Hemingway’s version of the paysage moralise, the moralized landscape which he was teaching himself to use as a backdrop for his narratives of action.

In sum, we are suggesting that A Farewell to Arms is not at all the naturalistic report which we might at first take it for. One of the major reasons for its continuing freshness, its proven power of survival, is the care which Hemingway lavished on its structure and texture by the symbolic use of weather and character and moralized landscape.

As we approach the end of this demonstration, there is just time to consider one more point about A Farewell to Arms. This is the famous conclusion where Catherine dies and her lover says a silent farewell before he walks back to the hotel alone in the falling rain. For years it has been rumored that Hemingway rewrote the closing pages of the novel some thirty-seven times. The figure is very likely exaggerated. But whatever it was, there can be no doubt that Hemingway spent considerable effort on the conclusion, and that the final version, familiar to readers since 1929, is almost infinitely superior to the penultimate version, which has only recently come to light.

In the accepted and familiar version, Hemingway’s hero stays with Catherine until her death. Then he goes out to speak to the surgeon: “Is there anything I can do tonight?” The doctor replies that there is nothing to be done and offers Henry a ride back to his hotel. Henry says that he will stay for a while at the hospital. “It was the only thing to do,” says the surgeon, apologetically; speaking of the fatal Caesarean section. “The operation proved—”

“I do not want to talk about it,” says Henry. The doctor goes away down the corridor and Henry opens the door to the room where Catherine’s body lies.

“You can’t come in now,” says one of the nurses in charge.

“Yes, I can.”

“You can’t come in yet.”

“You get out," says Henry "The other one, too.”

But after he has got them out and closed the door and turned off the light, he discovers that it is no good. It is like saying good-bye to a statue. After a while he goes out and leaves the hospital, and walks back to the hotel in the rain.

This is where the novel ends. Much has been made of this justly famous and tight-lipped conclusion. To many readers it has seemed to be one of the high points of lonely bereavement in modern fiction, a peak of tragic lostness from a generation which suffered thousands of similar deprivations during and after World War I. It has also been seen as the epitome of stoic acceptance of the inevitable. There can be no doubt that this was precisely the effect Hemingway sought to achieve during all his rewritings of the conclusion.

The penultimate version is another matter entirely, and it is very revealing. In place of the laconic interchange between Henry and the attending surgeon, the visit to the room to say goodbye, and the lonely walk back to the hotel in the rain, we have three quite different paragraphs. Henry talks about the difficulty of making funeral arrangements in a foreign country, then of the postwar destinies of the priest and Rinaldi and one or two more, and finally of the return to the hotel, where he falls asleep to awake in the morning to his sense of loss. All the sharp poignancy of the final version is here blunted and destroyed. What is worse, the words themselves seem moist with self-pity.

Hemingway wrote, in the simulated character of Frederic Henry:

There are a great many more details, starting with my first meeting with an undertaker, and all the business of burial in a foreign country, and going on with the rest of my life—which has gone on and seems likely to go on for a long time.

I could tell how Rinaldi was cured of the syphilis and lived to find that the technique learned in wartime surgery is not of much practical use in peace. I could tell how the priest in our mess lived to be a priest in Italy under Fascism. I could tell how Ettore became a Fascist and the part he took in that organization. I could tell how Piani got to be a taxi-driver in New York and what sort of a singer Simmons became. Many things have happened. Everything blunts and the world keeps on. It never stops. It only stops for you. Some of it stops while you are still alive. The rest goes on and you go on with it.

I could tell you what I have done since March 1918 when I walked that night in the rain back to the hotel where Catherine and I had lived and went upstairs to our room and undressed and slept finally, because I was so tired—to wake in the morning with the sun shining in the window, then suddenly to realize what had happened. I could tell what has happened since then, but that is the end of the story.

The difficulty with this conclusion is that it drowns us with words and moisture. The rather garrulous self-pity, so visible here, when we juxtapose it with the far more objective stoicism of the final version, offers us a hint that may be worth developing. It suggests what I believe to be true, that the stoicism of the last version was only a mask, adopted and assumed for dramatic show, while under it Hemingway’s still wounded feelings were bleeding and suppurating almost as intensively as they had been doing ten years before. Within the short space of seven months, he had been badly smashed up in both war and love. Now, much later, his double wound of body and soul rose to the surface of his memory, and manifested itself in the trial conclusion which we have just examined.

There is no time to expand further upon the matters here. Yet the idea of the stoic mask, assumed as a facade to conceal the psychic warfare which is going on beneath, may help us to explain and to understand much of the braggadoccio which struck his detractors as all too apparent in Hemingway’s later life. It may also explain his espousal of the stoic code as a standard of behavior—a standard to which he required all his later heroes to conform. But these are hypotheses better suited to the biographer than to the literary critic. If the next-to-last conclusion of A Farewell to Arms betrays a kind of psychological quicksand just below the surface, the final version does not. . . . Whatever Hemingway’s future reputation, A Farewell to Arms will surely stand for at least another forty years as the best novel written by an American about the First World War.

Source: Carlos Baker, “Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms,” in The Merrill Studies in A Farewell to Arms, edited by John Graham, Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, 1971, pp. 27-38.

Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: The Novel as Pure Poetry

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1918

Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is I think one of the purest lyric novels ever written. But if we are fully to appreciate its power—and the power of a number of other works by Hemingway—we are driven to examine the poetics of this lyricism and to assess, if we can, the extent to which Hemingway has exploited the possibilities of the type. . . .

In A Farewell to Arms the dominant state of mind—the sense of death, defeat, failure, nothingness, emptiness—is conveyed chiefly by the image of the rain (with all its tonal associates, mist, wet, damp, river, fog), by images and epithets of desolation (chiefly bare, thin, small, and fallen leaves), and by images and epithets of impurity and corruption (chiefly dust, mud, dirt, and disease). Hemingway’s method of working with the images is surprisingly uniform. . . .

The images are repeated so frequently that they begin to toll like bells in the mind. Virtually every sentence says, “Death, despair, failure, emptiness,” because virtually every sentence contains an image or symbol associated with the dominant state of mind.

The novel begins with this state of mind, and it is established so firmly, through the repetition of the central symbols, that any emotions other than bitterness and despair may thereafter intrude only with difficulty. The typical procedure, as in lyric poetry, is to intensify the dominant emotion by means of a simple contrast of images. Thus the images of purity and vitality, introduced in the second sentence of the novel, are contrasted throughout the chapter with the images of dirt and failure:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. 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. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Purity has been defiled, the life-force has been thwarted and defeated. The leaves are “powdered” by dust; the trunks too are “dusty,” the leaves fall “early”; and the empty road, “bare and white except for the leaves,” becomes a perfect correlative of the inner desolation. The defilement and violation of life is further suggested by a reference to camouflage (“There were big guns that passed in the day drawn by tractors, the long barrels of the guns covered with green branches and green leafy branches and vines laid over the tractor.”) and by a reference to the cartridge-boxes bulging under the capes of the soldiers “so that the men, passing on the road, marched as though they were six months gone with child.” And these bitter ironies are reinforced by the introduction of the dominant symbol of the rain: not life-giving rain causing the leaves to grow but the autumnal and winter rain causing them to fall, a rain associated with darkness, mud, and death:

There was fighting for that mountain too, but it was not successful, and in the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks were black with rain. The vineyards were thin and bare-branched too and all the country wet and brown and dead with the autumn. There were mists over the river and clouds on the mountain and the trucks splashed mud on the road and the troops were muddy and wet in their capes; their rifles were wet. . . .

The sense of failure and impotence is also reinforced by the studious avoidance of action-verbs. Almost invariably Hemingway employs the copulative to be, and the expletives there were and there was occur ten times in the twenty-one sentences of the chapter, six of the sentences being introduced by them. The repetitions give a sense of endless sameness and weariness: abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

The concluding paragraphs of the chapter reinforce what has already been established powerfully. The guns, the tractors, the motor-cars show a ruthless power, and it is as if life, in the presence of these overwhelming forces of death, had withered and shrunk. The “very small” king, sitting in the speeding motor-car “between two generals,” becomes a fine correlative of the sense of impotence:

There were small gray motor cars that passed going very fast; usually there was an officer in the seat with the driver and more officers in the back seat. They splashed more mud than the camions even and if one of the officers in the back was very small and sitting between two generals, he himself so small that you could not see his face but only the top of his cap and his narrow back, and if the car went especially fast it was probably the king. He lived in Udine and came out in this way nearly every day to see how things were going, and things went very badly.

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.

With this last paragraph the sense of doom is complete. The rain is “permanent” and the apparent consolation, the fact that the cholera is checked, is viciously undercut by the irony that “only seven thousand died of it in the army.”

The mood of the first chapter is thus established powerfully through the proliferation of associated images, images written in a single key. But to continue in this way—that is, to continue to present events and people as the objectification of feeling through the modulation of images—would of course be to drive narrative out of the novel; there would be no “story,” only bitterness distilled. Hemingway’s artistic problem accordingly becomes that of presenting action and conflict in such a way that the central emotion will not be shattered by the inclusion of elements hostile to it. As I have indicated, action must be converted into passion; characters must become embodiments of the central bitterness. When it becomes necessary, then, in Chapter II, to introduce characters and to develop a scene whose essential quality is potentially uncongenial to the established emotion, Hemingway must take pains to weaken or nullify the inharmonious effects and to absorb character and scene into the dominant mood. So it is that when the priest, the captain, and the other soldiers are introduced, Hemingway guards against any dilution of the central emotion by framing the scene with a description expressive, once again, of the profound regret and bitterness:

Later, below in the town, I watched the snow falling, looking out of the window of the bawdy house, the house for officers, where I sat with a friend and two glasses drinking a bottle of Asti, and, looking out at the snow falling slowly and heavily, we knew it was all over for that year. Up the river the mountains had not been taken; none of the mountains beyond the river had been taken. That was all left for next year. My friend saw the priest from our mess going by in the street, walking carefully in the slush, and pounded on the window to attract his attention. The priest looked up. He saw us and smiled. My friend motioned for him to come in. The priest shook his head and went on. That night in the mess after the spaghetti course . . . the captain commenced picking on the priest.

In the scene that follows, the captain’s baiting of the priest takes its tone from the frame and is anything but humorous. The “good fun” is swallowed up by the pervasive sadness and bitterness, and the episode acts upon the reader in much the same way as an episode in The Waste Land affects Eliot’s readers: dialogue, narrative, description are all viewed as expressions of the central fears and desires. The characters introduced are not important in themselves; their development as characters does not interest the writer. They are aspects of the hero’s state of mind, and represent, covertly, the conflicts of his soul. . . .

The depression of Frederic Henry continues into Chapter III, but by this time the impressions of bitterness and failure have accumulated so densely that one is ready for a shift to an opposite state of mind. Returning from his leave, Frederic finds everything at the front unchanged. He has not gone to Abruzzi, as the priest urged him to, and, as the symbolism suggests delicately, he is mired in moral filth and inertia. Rinaldi, after kissing him, says: “You’re dirty. . . . You ought to wash,” and in Chapter IV Frederic observes, “I was very dusty and dirty and went up to my room to wash.” In truth he needs a kind of purification. Thus when he sees Catherine Barkley for the first time in the garden of the British hospital, the imagery hints at the purity, the Edenlike peace that Frederic most deeply craves: “Miss Barkley was in the garden. Another nurse was with her. We saw their white uniforms through the trees and walked toward them.” But the first conversation of the lovers, with its truncated, tight-lipped exchanges, only reiterates the desperation and despair that have already pervaded the novel. Once a key word has been sounded, Hemingway modulates it beautifully in half a dozen different shadings, until the conversation, like the descriptions already quoted, becomes a refrain on the theme of failure:

“Yes,” she said. “People can’t realize what France is like. If they did, it couldn’t go on. He didn’t have a sabre cut. They blew him all to bits.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Do you suppose it will always go on?”

“No.”

“What’s to stop it?”

“It will crack somewhere.”

“We’ll crack. We’ll crack in France. They can’t go on doing things like the Somme and not crack.”

“They won’t crack here,” I said.

“You think not?”

“No. They did very well last summer.”

“They may crack,” she said. “Anybody may crack.”

“The Germans too.”

“No,” she said “I think not.”

Catherine here exists almost as the echo of Frederic's own bitterness and despair. She is Despair turning desperately to the religion of love. She has no past beyond the absolute minimum required for plausibility. Like another Catherine, [Emily] Bronte’s Catherine Earnshaw, she is her lover: her temperamental affinity to Frederic is so marked that their right to each other is accepted almost from the first moment of meeting. Thus she is, in a sense, not a distinct character at all but Frederic’s bitterness or his desire objectified. She will presently become the peace or bliss that stands at farthest remove from the war: the white snows of the mountaintops, the idyllic serenity of Switzerland, the Beatrice of the Paradiso. To lose her will be to lose Love. The lyric novel requires no deeper characterization.

Source: Daniel J. Schneider, “Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: The Novel as Pure Poetry,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Autumn, 1968, pp. 283-96.

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Critical Overview