Themes in A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms is a novel that is set during the World War 1. It is the story of two lovers, Henry and Catherine and the impact of the war on their life and love. The novel has several strong themes that are continuous throughout the books.

I.Tragedy

The novel ends with Catherine’s death and Henry walking alone back home in the rain. He has lost his baby and the love of his life. When authoring the book Hemmingway said “The fact that the book was a tragedy did not make me unhappy since I believed that life was a tragedy and it could only have one end” (Hemmingway, 1948, pvii-viii) The author referred to the novel as his Romeo and Juliet.

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!


order now

Unlike other forms of tragic narratives where the character suffers as a result of his wrong decision, Henry suffers for committing himself to love. He makes the decision that the readers desires him to make. He decides to be with his love and at the end it turns out to be a sad affair when Catherine dies.

As one reads the book, they sense an inevitable doom for the two lovers. The story will not end with them escaping to Switzerland to live a peaceful life. When the tragedy occurs, the readers come to concur with the author’s thoughts on life. It is indeed a tragedy (Merril, 1974).

The tragedy is inevitable similar to the way Macbeth could not be forgiven his sins and restored to virtue or Lear be allowed to live his days with the faithful Cordelia. The author from the beginning of the story creates tragic expectations which must be fulfilled for the piece of literature to succeed. The author creates a sense of foreboding in several ways.

When Henry thinks Catherine’s courage he concludes that “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them so of course it kills them…it kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially” (Hemmingway, 1948, pg258-259)

When the lovers are in Switzerland and the seasons change from summer to autumn, Catherine also has a bad premonition. She tells Henry “I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it.”(Hemmingway, 1948, pg131). The rain in the novel is symbolic of the tragedy that will occur.

The pattern of the book’s narrative structure is also a premonition of danger in the future. In the first book, Henry is deep in the war experiencing its horrors. In book two life gets better as he is off the battleground and taken to Milan. He meets Catherine and falls in love. However in book three, it again changes and he is back to the war. In book five and six, the couple escapes into Switzerland however the reader knows that it will not end well. He waits for the cyclic pattern of peace and turmoil to be fulfilled.

II. War’s devastating effects

From the beginning as the author narrates the story in the setting of the World War 1, the reader is shown the horrors and trauma of war. In the second chapter, the landscape is described as “the forest of oak trees on the mountain beyond the town was gone. The forest had been green in the summer when we had

come into the town but now there were stumps and the broken trunks and the ground torn up.”(Hemmingway, 1948, p6). The war changes the landscape from fruitfulness to barrenness.

The first dialogue shows the baiting of a priest by Italian officers. Henry is blown up while consuming a piece of cheese. As he is being transported to the hospital, a dead soldier bleeds all over him. The bleeding soldier had been put above him in the ambulance. The man bleeds on Henry till he dies.

Henry remembers that the stream of blood just kept on flowing. “In the dark I could not see where it came from the canvas overhead….After a while the stream from the stretcher above lessened and started to drip again and I heard and felt the canvas move as the man on the stretcher settled more comfortably. “How is he?” the Englishman called back. “We’re almost up.” “He’s dead I think,” I said (Hemingway, 1948, pg61).

Two of his favorite subordinates, Passini and Aymo die and he feels that they died unreasonably. By the end of the war, his best friend, Rinaldi ends up having a depression.

When Henry asks Catherine what happened to his fiancee the way she responds to the questions shows the devastating effects of the war. “He didn’t have a saber cut. They blew him all to bits” (Hemingway, p20). The author’s choice of words shows how he personally felt about the World Wars.

The wounds that the characters get in the war show the way they affect the individual’s life even when they are away from the battle field. While Henry is in Milan he runs into an American-Italian on his convalescence

leave. Ettore Moretti had been injured three times in his body. He had a wound on the shoulder, on the leg and on the foot. Moretti describes his wound in lurid detail. “There’s dead bone in my foot that stinks right now. Every morning I take new pieces out and it stinks all the time” (Hemingway, 1948, pg122).

There are feelings of helplessness, defeat and despair. Henry himself also suffers from an injury and has to take some time off recuperating in Milan.

The doctor describes his wounds in detail. “Multiple superficial wounds of the left and right thigh and the left and right knee and right foot. Profound wounds of right knee and foot. Lacerations of the scalp…with possible fracture of the skull. Incurred in the line of duty” (Hemingway, 1948, pg59).

III. Masculinity

This is one of the main themes in the novel. Women are portrayed or treated as sexual objects. The reader encounters the first hero, Rinaldi in a brothel. Catherine Barkley is a nurse in the world of the Italians where all the women are viewed as whores.

Rinaldi speaks to her and even fantasizes about marriage with her but eventually his attitude goes back to the standard attitude of male dominance and chivalry. “What a lovely girl…Does she understand that? She will make you a fine boy. A fine blonde like she is..What a lovely girl.”(Hemmingway, 1948, pg99).

If one encounters a doctor he would ask if he is great in surgery and can make a fine leg. However, in the novel, Rinaldi thinks whether the nurse is sexually adequate, if she will be able to make a fine boy! When Henry comes back from Milan, Rinaldi asks him whether Catherine was of practical help to him. The question carries with it a strong sexual connotation.

The soldiers visit whores and regard the women as nothing more as the nature of work that they do. When the whores are being loaded into a truck for a retreat, the men start talking about how much they are being overcharged for the women’s services. They speak of the low value they get from them. “Over in half an hour or fifteen minutes. Sometimes less. Sometimes a good deal less.” (Hemmingway, 1948, pg170-171).

The soldiers in another scene start baiting the priest with sexual jokes, totally disrespecting the nature of life he has chosen and making him highly uncomfortable. There is hostility between Henry and the women in authority. He also shows chivalry and a domineering masculine nature when he interacts with the head of the hospital in Milan, Miss Van Campen.

The nurse sees Henry as domineering and rude while Henry sees that she is jealous of the sexual relationship he has with Catherine. He considers Miss Campen as the old maid who persecutes those who have sex as she has never experienced sex herself.

In the final struggle with her, he actually tells her she cannot judge him since she is not a man. Secondly he does not view her as a full woman either because she has not had any sexual experiences (Fetterley, 1976).

Henry does not like being dominated by any woman which is evident when he speaks of his experiences with whores. “Does she(the whore) say that she loves him?…Yes if he wants her to. Does he say he loves her? He does if he wants to” (Hemmingway, 1948, pg105).

Catherine in speaking of her dead fiancee tells Henry how he wanted them to have sex. However, Catherine was reluctant bound by the traditional mindsets of the society at that time. This shows the difference in how sex was perceived by the men and women at that time. It is a casual affair for the men while it carries a significant weight for the women.

IV. Lack of heroism

The author does not show the traditional kind of hero that is often portrayed in war literature books. When comparing Henry to these heroes, he immediately falls short or pales in comparison. In the period that Henry is first called to serve at the Italian Front, Henry does not show any heroic thoughts on the war or retribution. He spends idyllic days with his friends in brothels and cafes.

“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” (Hemingway,1948, pg6). In fact there are feelings of detachment from Henry concerning the war (Silvester, 2002). He is not involved emotionally in the process.

He goes ahead and naively thinks “well, I knew I would not be killed. Not in this war. It did not have anything to do with me. It seemed no more dangerous than war in the movies”(Hemingway, 1948, pg37). Henry at the beginning of the novel is a naive man on the war and its close devastating effects (Dodman, 2006). When Catherine asks why as an American he is fighting in the Italian army, Henry gives a lot of evasive answers.

It is an odd thing which Catherine mentions to him but Henry just comments that in life there are at times when there is no explanation for everything.

This shows again the lack of traditional heroism attributes in Henry. A heroic individual would have taken the opportunity to elaborate on the importance of fighting in the war and the reasons for his actions. He describes how his injury occurred while he was eating cheese. There are no glorified stories as he narrates the incident. He does not show heroism or patriotism. They are almost irrelevant to him (Hatten, 1993)

He also feels a lot of helplessness at his role as an ambulance driver in the war. He does not see how he plays a critical role in the whole process. Henry observes that “Everything seemed in good condition. It evidently made no difference whether I was there or not.

I had imagined that the condition of the cars, whether, or not things were obtainable, the smooth functioning of the business of removing wounded and sick from the dressing stations . . . depended to a considerable extent on myself. Evidently it did not matter whether I was there or not (Hemingway, 1948, pg16).

Initially he had thought he was important and the smooth running of operations depended on him. Henry faces reality of the war and its horrors in the battleground that totally shatter the way he used to see things. Certain concepts lose meaning. The value of a man’s life seems not to carry much weight as he sees the dead soldiers. His thoughts are now devoid of any heroism or similar concepts. He concludes that the

“Abstract words such as glory, honor courage, or hallow were obscene…”(Hemingway, 1948, pg185).

He is under such trauma that he says “I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it” (Hemingway, 1948, pg185).

The honor and glory of the dead soldier is not expressed by Catherine either when she speaks of her dead fiancee. She tells Henry that her fiancee was killed and that was the end. Her actual words are that he was blown to bits. There is no portrayal of the woman who despite her loss speaks of her brave and patriotic man who participated in the war and lost his life.

At the end, Henry gives into his desire to be with Catherine and deserts the army. He feels a lot of shame though for what he has done and tells Catherine that they live like criminals.

“l wish we did not always have to live like criminals,” I said.

“Darling, don’t be that way. You haven’t lived like a criminal very long. . . .”

“l feel like a criminal. I’ve deserted from the army.”

“Darling, please be sensible. It ‘s not deserting from the army. It’s only the Italian army.” (Hemmingway, 1948, pg251)

V. Escapism

There is the element of individuals seeking escape in A Farewell to Arms. Catherine meets Henry when she is mourning for her dead fiance.

She does not really deal with her pain but immediately starts flirting and engaging in romance with Henry. She uses love to escape from the pain. Similarly Henry has seen the horrors of war which have had a huge impact on him. He also escapes into a love relationship with Catherine. In the end he even escapes from his duties and goes with Catherine to Switzerland where they can live an idyllic life.

He however does feel guilty for the decisions that he has made. They therefore find a form of temporary solace from the pain they have experienced. What started as an amusing distraction for both of them soon becomes what actually sustains them and prevents them from going crazy in their minds.

The novel portrays that love has some curative properties for the ones who choose to use it in order to escape from pain. However, the individual who still uses love to escape pain can never really be wholly healed; he will always to some extent be in pain. Love therefore is shown as a metaphor of illness and cure (Lahrmann, 2006)

VI. Love

In the book, love is a recurrent theme that plays a big role both in Henry’s and Catherine’s lives. The way the couple relates shows the depth of their feelings for each other. Looking at what Catherine tells Henry concerning her feelings, they are now past the age of flirting to deep feelings for each other. Initially, they had been playing and flirting with each other which Catherine knows very well.

“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. . . .

“This is a rotten game we play, isn’t it?”

“What game?”

“Don’t be dull.”

“l’m not, on purpose.”

“You’re a nice boy,” she said.

“And you play it as well as you know how. But it’s a rotten game.”

“Do you always know what people think?”

“Not always. But I do with you. You don’t have to prctend you love me. That’s over for the evening. . . .”

“But I do love you.”

“Please let’s not lie when we don’t have to. I had a very fine little show and I’m all right now. “(Hemmingway,1948, pg 30- l).

Catherine’s fiance had been killed in the war and after nearly a year in mourning she was still in pain. Henry was initially a diversion, a stand-in for the time being to play with. When Catherine slaps Henry in another scene, he gets angry but is certain of conquering her. He plans to achieve mastery of the game, seeing their interaction together as moves in a chess game.

Later, they fall in love and their conversation changes. Catherine, deep in love tells Henry “l’ll say just what you wish and I’ll do what you wish and then you will never want any other girls will you? There isn’t any me anymore. Just what you want.” (Hemmingway, 1948, pg115) Catherine is very submissive even as she expresses her love to her man (Lockridge, 1988) “There isn’t any me. I ‘m you. You’re my religion. You’re alI I’ve got ” (Hemmingway, 1948, pg 116).

Henry in the beginning had portrayed himself as an individual who does not love at all. He had actually told the priest that he does not love. In the course of the novel however, he falls deeply in love with Catherine, abandons the army and escapes with her into Switzerland.

Works Cited

Dodman, Trevor. “”Going All to Pieces”: “A Farewell to Arms” as Trauma Narrative”

Twentieth Century Literature,52.3 (2006):249-274. Print.

Fetterley, Judith. “A Farewell to Arms: Hemingway’s “Resentful Cryptogram””

The Journal of Popular Culture, X:1 (1976): 203–214.Print.

Hatten, Charles. “The Crisis of Masculinity, Reified Desire, and Catherine Barkley in “A Farewell to Arms”” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 4.1(1993): 76-98. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York. 1948. Print.

Lahrmann, Jessica. “Metaphorical Illness in Hemingway’s Works”. College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal (2006): 1-30.

Lockridge, Ernest. “Faithful in Her Fashion: Catherine Barkley, the Invisible

Hemingway Heroine”. The Journal of Narrative Technique, 18.2(1988): 170-178. Print.

Merril, Robert. “Tragic Form in a Farewell to Arms”. American Literature, 45. 4(1974): 571-579. Print.

Silvester, Katie. “The Wound in War Literature: An Image of Heroism”

Chrestomathy: Annual Review of Undergraduate Research at the College of Charleston, 1(2002):214-231. Print.