Written in 1929 by Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms has always been considered a classic piece of literature. A major source of the novel’s success is how its themes tied into real life experiences during the First World War. While soldiers of the war fought for their country, they searched for love to escape total chaos and destruction. The two main themes in A Farewell to Arms are the gruesome reality of war and the relationship between love and pain. The first main theme of A Farewell to Arms is the devastation that war brings.
Just as the title explains, A Farewell to Arms deals primarily with the process by which the protagonist, Frederic Henry, disconnects himself from the war and leaves it behind. While there are a few characters in the novel who actually support the effort, such as Ettore Moretti, a majority of the characters remain uncertain about the war, angry of the complete devastation it causes, and unconvinced of the splendor it supposedly brings. For example, while Henry and Passini discuss the war, Henry says, “I believe we should get the war over…
It would not finish if one side stopped fighting. It would only be worse if we stopped fighting” (Chapter 9, Page 49). The second main theme of the novel is the connection between love and pain. While the war takes place, Hemingway depicts the true, mysterious behavior of love. Although Catherine mourns for her dead fiance, she quickly begins to seduce Henry. Her intentions for courting Henry are obvious, that is she wants to separate herself from the pain of losing her fiance by finding a new love to fill the void.
Likewise, Henry attempts to distance himself from the war as much as possible. By doing so, Henry and Catherine find comfort within each other from the dilemmas that surround them. Just like they fell in love with each other, Henry’s feelings for Catherine pass just as quickly as he witnesses her death. As he gives farewell to Catherine’s body, Henry says, “But after I got them to leave and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain” (Chapter 41, Page 332).
Although Henry and Catherine genuinely loved each other, Henry’s heart is now void without the companionship of Catherine. The tragedy of A Farewell to Arms is that their love, although authentic, can never be more than temporary. In my opinion, I enjoyed this novel for a few reasons. First, A Farewell to Arms is a semi-autobiography about Hemingway and his time fighting in the Italian campaigns during World War I. Secondly, the novel is able to give perspective of the troubles and triumphs of those soldiers that fought during the war.
Finally, the mysterious love that Henry and Catherine have for each other proved to be interesting and unusual. In conclusion, A Farewell to Arms proved to be a masterpiece in my opinion. While addressing the struggles and feats of those soldiers who fought during World War I, we are able to dive into the conscious of a unique fighter who parts himself from the war as much as possible while trying to find true love, even though the reasoning behind finding love was only to help escape from the war.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Grim Reality of War
As the title of the novel makes clear, A Farewell to Arms concerns itself primarily with war, namely the process by which Frederic Henry removes himself from it and leaves it behind. The few characters in the novel who actually support the effort—Ettore Moretti and Gino—come across as a dull braggart and a naïve youth, respectively. The majority of the characters remain ambivalent about the war, resentful of the terrible destruction it causes, doubtful of the glory it supposedly brings.
The novel offers masterful descriptions of the conflict’s senseless brutality and violent chaos: the scene of the Italian army’s retreat remains one of the most profound evocations of war in American literature. As the neat columns of men begin to crumble, so too do the soldiers’ nerves, minds, and capacity for rational thought and moral judgment. Henry’s shooting of the engineer for refusing to help free the car from the mud shocks the reader for two reasons: first, the violent outburst seems at odds with Henry’s coolly detached character; second, the incident occurs in a setting that robs it of its moral import—the complicity of Henry’s fellow soldiers legitimizes the killing. The murder of the engineer seems justifiable because it is an inevitable by-product of the spiraling violence and disorder of the war.
Nevertheless, the novel cannot be said to condemn the war; A Farewell to Arms is hardly the work of a pacifist. Instead, just as the innocent engineer’s death is an inevitability of war, so is war the inevitable outcome of a cruel, senseless world. Hemingway suggests that war is nothing more than the dark, murderous extension of a world that refuses to acknowledge, protect, or preserve true love.
The Relationship Between Love and Pain
Against the backdrop of war, Hemingway offers a deep, mournful meditation on the nature of love. No sooner does Catherine announce to Henry that she is in mourning for her dead fiancé than she begins a game meant to seduce Henry. Her reasons for doing so are clear: she wants to distance herself from the pain of her loss. Likewise, Henry intends to get as far away from talk of the war as possible. In each other, Henry and Catherine find temporary solace from the things that plague them. The couple’s feelings for each other quickly pass from an amusement that distracts them to the very fuel that sustains them. Henry’s understanding of how meaningful his love for Catherine is outweighs any consideration for the emptiness of abstract ideals such as honor, enabling him to flee the war and seek her out. Reunited, they plan an idyllic life together that promises to act as a salve for the damage that the war has inflicted. Far away from the decimated Italian countryside, each intends to be the other’s refuge. If they are to achieve physical, emotional, and psychological healing, they have found the perfect place in the safe remove of the Swiss mountains. The tragedy of the novel rests in the fact that their love, even when genuine, can never be more than temporary in this world.
More main ideas from A Farewell to Arms