A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway - Essay

Ernest Hemingway


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway

The following entry presents criticism on Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929). See also, Ernest Hemingway Criticism.

A giant in the field of American literary modernism, Ernest Hemingway has long been called an important spokesman for the “lost generation” of disillusioned, war-wounded young Americans after the First World War. His 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms, a tragic love story about an American ambulance lieutenant and an English nurse, was based on Hemingway's own experiences on the Italian front. In the novel, Hemingway uses his characteristic unadorned prose, clipped dialogue, and understatement to convey an essentially cynical view of the world. Critics were at first skittish about Hemingway's linguistic and sexual frankness but soon began to regard him as a pioneer in establishing a writing style that came to dominate realistic writing for many decades. Although feminist critics have denigrated Hemingway's alleged male bias, and others have found the love story unsatisfying, A Farewell to Arms remains a powerful statement about the effects of the horrors of war on ordinary people.

Plot and Major Characters

A Farewell to Arms is autobiographical in that Hemingway himself was with the Red Cross ambulance corps in Italy and also had a romance with a nurse after he was wounded by shrapnel. His protagonist, Frederic Henry, is a young American who joins the Italian ambulance corps, only to be wounded and sent to a hospital in Milan. He soon falls in love with his English nurse, Catherine Barkley, who then spends a happy summer with him in the country while he recuperates. In the fall, Catherine reveals that she is pregnant but refuses to marry Frederic, fearing that she will be sent back to England and asserting that the two are “married” in all but a legal way. A depressing scene ensues, with Frederic back at the front commiserating with his despondent comrade Rinaldi. With him he shares the further disappointment of the retreat from Caporetto. Discouraged and disillusioned, Frederic deserts, finding his way back to Stresa, to which Catherine has been transferred. Although in civilian clothes, Frederic fears detection, and he and Catherine flee to Lausanne to await the birth of their child. After a traumatic childbirth scene, both Catherine and the child die. Frederic walks away alone in the rain, chastened by his experiences and feeling alone in the universe.

Major Themes

An overarching theme in A Farewell to Arms is the hopelessness of war and the futility of searching for meaning in a wartime setting. Further, Hemingway suggests that the only true values people can cling to are in individual human relationships, not in abstract ideas of patriotism or service. A Farewell to Arms is above all a story of the development of Frederic Henry, who begins as a rather rootless character who does not really know why he joined the war effort. His own wound, however, teaches him to value life and prepares him to enter into a love relationship with Catherine. When Frederic makes his “separate peace” by deserting, he begins to take responsibility for his own actions. By the end of the novel, with love and hope seemingly dead, he has come to an understanding that one must be engaged in life, despite the vicissitudes of an indifferent universe.

Critical Reception

Early critics of the novel emphasized its realistic picture of war and disagreed over the effectiveness of Hemingway's laconic literary style. A number of critics were squeamish about the frank language and sexual situations Hemingway presented. A Farewell to Arms was in fact banned in Boston in its first serialization in Scribner's Magazine. By the 1940s, however, proponents of the New Criticism had begun to do closer textual studies of A Farewell to Arms, finding it rich in language, symbolism, and irony. Other critics praised Hemingway's narrative structure and explored themes such as the conflict between abstract ideas (like honor and service) and concrete experience with love and death.

The 1970s and early 1980s saw a new flurry of Hemingway scholarship after his papers and manuscripts were opened to the public at the John F. Kennedy Library, allowing insight into Hemingway's processes of composition. In the early 1970s, feminist critics began to lambast Hemingway for his treatment of the character of Catherine, whom they saw as little more than a projection of male needs and desires. Her relative lack of development, compared with Frederic's evolution as a character, was called a weakness in the novel. In answer to feminist critics, others argued that one should not judge the novel from a particular ideological framework. In the 1980s and 1990s, criticism shifted back to close analyses of the text itself and explorations of the ways in which Hemingway's life and the culture in which he lived influenced the novel. Reader-response critics sought to infer what Hemingway expected from readers, psychoanalytic critics delved into the character of Frederic, and deconstructionists noted subtle uses of language, which often masked deep meanings not at first evident.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Three Stories & Ten Poems (short stories) 1923

in our time (sketches) 1924

In Our Time (short stories) 1925

The Sun Also Rises (novel) 1926; published in England asFiesta (novel) 1926

Today Is Friday (journalism) 1926

The Torrents of Spring: A Romantic Novel in Honor of the Passing of a Great Race (novel) 1926

Men Without Women (short stories) 1927

A Farewell to Arms (novel) 1929

Death in the Afternoon (nonfiction) 1932

Winner Take Nothing (short stories) 1933

Green Hills of Africa (nonfiction) 1935

To Have and Have Not (novel) 1937

Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories (short stories and play) 1938

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (short stories) 1938

The Spanish Earth (criticism and broadcasts) 1938

The Fifth Column: A Play in Three Acts (play) 1940

For Whom the Bell Tolls (novel) 1940

The Portable Hemingway (novels and short stories) 1944

Across the River and Into the Trees (novel) 1950

The Old Man and the Sea (novel) 1952

The Hemingway Reader (novel) 1953

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories (short stories) 1961

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and Other Stories (short stories) 1963

A Moveable Feast (memoir) 1964

Hemingway's African Stories: The Stories, Their Sources, Their Critics (short stories) 1969

Collected Poems (poetry) 1970

Islands in the Stream (novel) 1970

The Nick Adams Stories (short stories) 1972

Ernest Hemingway: Eighty-Eight Poems (poetry) 1979

Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters, 1917-1961 (letters) 1981

Hemingway on Writing (essay) 1984

The Dangerous Summer (nonfiction) 1985

Conversations With Ernest Hemingway (interviews) 1986

The Garden of Eden (novel) 1986

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition (short stories) 1987

The Only Thing That Counts: The Ernest Hemingway/Maxwell Perkins Correspondence (letters) 1996

The Short Stories (short stories) 1997

J. B. Priestley (essay date Winter 1929)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Farewell to Arms, in Now and Then, Vol. 34, Winter 1929, pp. 11–12.

[In the following essay, the Priestley recommends Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms to readers while expressing some reservations about its franker aspects.]

Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms is one of the very best novels that have passed through the hands of the Book Society Committee. Why, then, didn't we choose it? Well, I think anybody who reads our first choice, Whiteoaks,1 and then this novel will understand why. Whiteoaks, an equally good piece of writing, is one of those novels that all sensible readers can enjoy. A...

(The entire section is 743 words.)

T. S. Matthews (review date 9 October 1929)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Farewell to Arms, in Hemingway: The Critical Heritage, edited by Jeffrey Meyers, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, pp.121–26.

[In the following review, originally published in 1929, Matthews outlines Hemingway's transition in A Farewell to Arms from the realism of war to the idealism of a love story.]

The writings of Ernest Hemingway have very quickly put him in a prominent place among American writers, and his numerous admirers have looked forward with impatience and great expectations to his second novel. They should not be disappointed: A Farewell to Arms is worthy of their hopes and of its author's promise.


(The entire section is 2178 words.)

Robert Herrick (essay date November 1929)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “What Is Dirt?” in The Bookman, November, 1929, pp. 258-62.

[In the following essay, Herrick raises questions about the propriety of certain frank sexual references in A Farewell to Arms, comparing them unfavorably with similarly explicit passages in Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.]

The censor, whatever he may think of himself, is always a ridiculous figure to the impartial observer. Latterly the censoring spirit has been especially active around Boston, that ancient home of witch hangers, offering comic relief to the gods. That a community which could perpetrate the Sacco-Vanzetti outrage on justice should try to...

(The entire section is 3006 words.)

Donald Davidson (review date 3 November 1929)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Farewell to Arms, in Hemingway: The Critical Heritage, edited by Jeffrey Meyers, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, pp. 126–30.

[In the following review, originally published in 1929, Davidson criticizes what he calls Hemingway's behaviorist, “scientific” approach to writing in A Farewell to Arms.]

Ernest Hemingway's novel A Farewell to Arms is like a direct and most remarkable answer to the recent wish of Dr. Watson,1 prophet of behaviorism, that somebody would write a novel containing people who act in a lifelike and scientific manner. That is exactly what Mr. Hemingway does, with such astounding verity as to...

(The entire section is 1521 words.)

L. P. Hartley (review date 7 December 1929)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Farewell to Arms, in Hemingway: The Critical Heritage, edited by Jeffrey Meyers, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, pp. 134–35.

[In the following review, originally published in 1929, Hartley states that A Farewell to Arms is particularly interesting because of its account of war on the Italian front.]

Mr. Hemingway is a novelist of the expatriated. Fiesta showed us a group of Americans and one Englishwoman being violently idle, first in Paris and then in Spain. They went to bull-fights, they made love, they drank. Above all, they drank. They were not congenial company even in a book, but they knew how to get the utmost out...

(The entire section is 657 words.)

Ford Madox Ford (essay date 1932)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to A Farewell to Arms, in Hemingway: The Critical Heritage, edited by Jeffrey Meyers, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, pp. 151-59.

[In this introduction, originally published in the 1932 edition of A Farewell to Arms, Ford, a novelist himself and a friend and colleague of Hemingway's from his days in Paris in the 1920s, dwells on Hemingway's literary discipline, clarity of language, and economy of form.]

I experienced a singular sensation on reading the first sentence of A Farewell to Arms. There are sensations you cannot describe. You may know what causes them but you cannot tell what portions of your mind they affect nor...

(The entire section is 3360 words.)

Wyndham Lewis (essay date 1934)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ernest Hemingway: The ‘Dumb Ox’,” in Men Without Art, 1934. Reprint by Russell & Russell, Inc., 1964, pp. 17-41.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1934, Lewis accuses Hemingway of borrowing the style of Gertrude Stein, purveying brutish speech patterns, and championing the unthinking masses, but at the same time praises his skill as a writer.]

Ernest Hemingway is a very considerable artist in prose-fiction.

Besides this, or with this, his work possesses a penetrating quality, like an animal speaking. Compared often with Hemingway, William Faulkner is an excellent, big-strong, novelist: but a conscious artist he...

(The entire section is 9242 words.)

Robert Penn Warren (essay date Winter 1947)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hemingway,” in The Kenyon Review, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1947, pp. 1-28.

[In the following essay, Warren answers critics of Hemingway and explores themes of the quasi-religious significance of human love and the solitariness of the individual in A Farewell to Arms.]

The situations and characters of Hemingway's world are usually violent. There is the hard-drinking and sexually promiscuous world of The Sun Also Rises; the chaotic and brutal world of war as in A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, many of the inserted sketches of In Our Time, the play The Fifth Column, and some of the stories; the world of...

(The entire section is 3989 words.)

Francis Hackett (essay date 6 August 1949)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Farewell to Arms, in Saturday Review of Literature, August 6, 1949, pp. 32-3.

[In the following essay, Hackett asserts that Hemingway's hero in the novel represents a false concept of male dignity.]

In one detail time has dulled the luster of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. He had gone through the First World War with the Italians and he put much of his own experience into that brilliant book. When he issued it in 1929 the story was still fresh but familiarity with war material now makes it a little trite. A wholly imagined experience, as in The Red Badge of Courage, is the kind that keeps its salience, though Stendhal...

(The entire section is 927 words.)

James F. Light (essay date Summer 1961)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Religion of Death in A Farewell to Arms,” in Ernest Hemingway: Critiques of Four Major Novels, edited by Carlos Baker, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962, pp. 37-40.

[In the following essay,originally published in 1961, Light discusses the four ideals of service in A Farewell to Arms.]

One way of looking at Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms is to see its close involvement in four ideals of service.1 Each of these ideals is dramatized by a character of some importance, and it is between these four that Lt. Henry wavers in the course of the novel. The orthodoxly religious ideal of service is that of the Priest, who wishes to serve...

(The entire section is 2709 words.)

Daniel Schneider (essay date Autumn 1968)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms: The Novel as Pure Poetry,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 14, Autumn, 1968, pp. 283-96.

[In the following essay, Schneider compares A Farewell to Arms to a lyric poem, where plot, character, and images all contribute perfectly to a feeling of hopelessness and desolation.]

In a well-known essay1 Robert Penn Warren has drawn a distinction between two kinds of poetry, a “pure” poetry, which seeks more or less systematically to exclude so-called “unpoetic” elements from its hushed and hypnotic atmosphere, and an “impure,” a poetry of inclusion or synthesis, which welcomes into itself such...

(The entire section is 7025 words.)

Floyd C. Watkins (essay date 1971)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “World Pessimism and Personal Cheeriness in A Farewell to Arms,” in The Flesh and the World: Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, Vanderbilt University Press, 1971, pp. 109-26.

[In the following essay, Watkins asserts that, in both theme and style, A Farewell to Arms sets up a conflict between abstract notions of patriotism and honor and the concrete world of individual choice.]

After describing every nation fighting in World War I as “cooked,” a British major in Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms tells Frederic Henry “Good-by” cheerfully and wishes him “Every sort of luck!” Henry reflects on the contradictions in the major:...

(The entire section is 6804 words.)

David L. Carson (essay date December 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Symbolism in A Farewell to Arms,” in English Studies, Vol. 53, December, 1972, pp. 518-22.

[In the following essay, Carson explores the ways in which A Farewell to Arms fuses a naturalistic approach with compressed, symbolic language.]

Edmund Wilson proclaimed in 1931 that the ‘literary history of our time is to a great extent that of the development of Symbolism and of its fusion or conflict with Naturalism.1’ History and the course of literary criticism have proved him correct. Strangely, however, he neglected all but passing mention of Ernest Hemingway, who had already demonstrated successful fusion of these elements in A...

(The entire section is 2165 words.)

Judith Fetterley (essay date 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Farewell to Arms: Hemingway's ‘Resentful Cryptogram,’” in The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction, Indiana University Press, 1978, pp. 46-71.

[In the following essay, Fetterley states that the character of Catherine is a scapegoat for Frederic's hostility rather than a true object of romantic love, providing a way for Frederic to avoid commitment.]


Once upon a time there was a writer who told the truth. He wrote a story called “Indian Camp” and in that story a little boy watches his doctor-father perform a contemptuous and grotesque Caesarean section on an Indian woman while her husband in...

(The entire section is 9206 words.)

Millicent Bell (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Farewell to Arms: Pseudoautobiography and Personal Metaphor,” in Ernest Hemingway: The Writer in Context, edited by James Nagel, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984, pp. 107-28.

[In the following essay, Bell uses drafts and revisions of the novel to show that, while not autobiographical in every detail, A Farewell to Arms is highly realistic as a reflection of Hemingway's state of mind.]

Autobiographic novels are, of course, fictions, constructs of the imagination, even when they seem to incorporate authenticating bits and pieces of personal history. But all fiction is autobiography, no matter how remote from the author's experience the...

(The entire section is 8556 words.)

Robert Merrill (essay date May 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Denoting Hemingway: Feminist Criticism and the Canon,” in American Literature, Vol. 60, No. 2, May, 1988, pp. 255-68.

[In the following essay, Merrill asserts that a work of art should not be divorced from aesthetic judgments because of an author's alleged male bias.]

In the “Extra” for March 1987 Lawrence Buell presents a deeply informed overview of what feminist revisionism can do for American literary history.1 As Buell's reasoning and examples are quite persuasive, it will perhaps seem ungenerous for me to take issue with a single comment, offered as a parenthetical illustration. Nonetheless, I think the comment in question points up the...

(The entire section is 5466 words.)

Margot Norris (essay date Winter 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Novel as War: Lies and Truth in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 689-710.

[In the following essay, Norris uses reader-response criticism to argue that Hemingway uses the love story in the novel to turn readers' attention from the brutal realities of war.]

The project of reevaluating Modernism in terms of the political interests that informed its formalistic claims has particularly questioned the aesthetics of the American moderns—Pound, Eliot, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. Hemingway's style has suffered an especially damaging translation into its ideological determinants—for...

(The entire section is 8718 words.)

James Phelan (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Voice, Distance, Temporal Perspective, and the Dynamics of A Farewell to Arms,” in Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology, Ohio State University Press, 1996, pp. 59-84.

[In the following essay, Phelan emphasizes the novel's progression in voice which allows Frederic's character to develop gradually into a manifestation of Hemingway's views of the universe.]

This chapter builds on the model of voice outlined in the essay on Vanity Fair by deploying it to reexamine Hemingway's famous style in A Farewell to Arms and to offer an account of how voice contributes to the novel's progression. Although I want to claim...

(The entire section is 10293 words.)

Ben Stoltzfus (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms Pronominal Shifts and Metaphorical Slippage,” in Lacan and Literature: Purloined Pretexts, State University of New York Press, 1996, pp. 66-89.

[In the following essay, Stoltzfus presents a complex analysis of the use of language in A Farewell to Arms, with particular reference to the way in which Hemingway's use of metaphor and shifting pronoun references masks the primal story of Frederic's (and the author's) unconscious separation anxiety.]

The realization of perfect love is a fruit not of nature but of grace—that is to say, the fruit of an intersubjective agreement imposing its...

(The entire section is 10722 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Monteiro, George. “Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms—The First Sixty-Five Years: A Checklist of Criticism, Scholarship, and Commentary.” Bulletin of Bibliography 53 (4) (December 1996): 273-92.

Comprehensive, chronological list of works about the novel and its film, radio, and television adaptations through 1994.


Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Scribner, 1969. 697 p.

One of the first authoritative biographies of Hemingway, with a short section on A Farewell to Arms.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A...

(The entire section is 755 words.)