A Farewell to Arms

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A Farewell to Arms

Ernest Hemingway
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

Ernest Hemingway


Ernest Hemingway's 1929 novel, A Farewell to Arms, is often regarded as his best artistic achievement. It was certainly his greatest commercial success to date with 80,000 copies sold within the first four months. The money earned for the novel, though, came too late to prevent his father from committing suicide due to financial stress and a losing struggle with diabetes. The novel established Ernest Hemingway as the literary master of a style that was characterized by brisk assertive staccato, or crisp precise prose. The novel also gave rise to the infamous myth of Hemingway as the epitome of American machismo. This owed as much to the popularity of his novel and his friendship with Gary Cooper—who played Frederic Henry in the film version of the novel—as it did to Hemingway's own heroism.

The book is the story of a young American named Frederic Henry who volunteers for service with the Italian army in World War I and falls in love with his English nurse, with whom he deserts from the retreating Italian front. Having escaped to Switzerland, they live in harmony until the tragic end of her pregnancy, during which both she and the child die. Much has been said about the prose style Hemingway used and a great debate has been waged over whether the novel is about machismo and the sex object, Catherine Barkley. However, A Farewell to Arms is not a novel glorifying war. Instead, it is a tragic love story whose farewell is from Frederic to the woman whose arms held sanity in the crazy world of the Great War.

Author Biography

Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899 to Dr. Clarence Hemingway and Grace Hall Hemingway. They lived in Oak Park, Illinois, and Ernest actively pursued sports with his father and arts with his mother, but without distinction. In 1917, after graduating from high school, he took a junior position at the Kansas City Star. This paper started Hemingway on a writing career and trained him in his style. The paper gave its reporters a style book which demanded brief, declarative, and direct sentences—Hemingway became the master of this style.

In May of 1918, he volunteered for war duty and served as an ambulance driver on the Italian front. This experience later served as the source material for A Farewell to Arms. He, like his character, was wounded in the legs. However, instead of being returned to the front he was sent home, where he was greeted as a celebrity and passed his months of convalescence at the family cabin in Michigan.

Having recovered, he took a position as companion to a lame boy in Toronto in 1920. There, he again entered the world of writing through the Toronto Star. After marriage to Hadley Richardson, he became a correspondent with the paper. He and his wife left for Paris where Hemingway associated with those writers known as the "Lost Generation" (James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Ford Madox Ford). His position with the Toronto Star enabled him to begin writing for himself.

His first publishing success was a short story entitled My Old Man in 1923. For the next few years he continued to meet literary figures (F. Scott Fitzgerald among others) and edit a journal with Ford Madox Ford. Then, in 1925, he began The Sun Also Rises and The Torrents of Spring. Both were published the following year. 1926 also saw Hemingway divorce Hadley for his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer.

In 1927, Hemingway published the short story collection Men without Women and began A Farewell to Arms in 1928. His son, Patrick, was born by cesarean section and this event influenced the writing of Catherine Barkley's fate. With the publication of A Farewell to Arms in 1929, Hemingway found himself flooded with success and began a very mobile life. He frequented Cuba, Florida, and France; he went on several safaris in Africa; he contributed money for ambulance service in the Spanish Civil War and also covered the war for The North American Newspaper Alliance. In 1940 he left Pfeiffer for Martha Gellhorn and published For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway and Gellhorn then went to China. Next, he became a war correspondent with the U.S. Fourth Infantry Division where he met Mary Welsh. In 1945, he married Mary Welsh.

Hemingway continued to publish various works until 1952, when Old Man and the Sea crowned his fantastic career. This story gained him the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. He was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature the following year. Unfortunately, by the mid-1950s his adventurous life had taken its toll. Hemingway became depressed and spent time in various hospitals. Finally, he returned from a stay in the Mayo Clinic on June 30, 1961, to his home in Ketchum, Idaho. There, he took a favorite gun and committed suicide on July 2.

Plot Summary

Book One

A Farewell to Arms opens in Italy during the First World War. The novel's main character, Frederic Henry, is a young American serving as a second lieutenant in the Italian Army. He is attached to a unit in Gorizia, in which he works as an ambulance driver. In addition to Frederic, the reader is introduced to two other characters: first a priest, who Frederic's friends enjoy baiting and teasing; and second Rinaldi, a good-looking Italian surgeon and a friend of Frederic's. He shares with Frederic the typical soldier's lifestyle of heavy drinking and frequent visits to the local brothels. When Frederic returns from a leave, Rinaldi tells him that a group of British nurses have arrived in the area to set up a hospital for the wounded. Rinaldi declares that he is in love with a nurse by the name of Catherine Barkley.

Rinaldi introduces Frederic Henry to Catherine Barkley, who is described as a tall, beautiful woman with long blonde hair. She finds it odd that Frederic is an American in the Italian Army. Frederic learns that Catherine had a fiance who was killed earlier in the war. He is very much attracted to her and would like to become romantically involved with her. Although Catherine responds to his first attempt to kiss her by slapping him, they gradually become more and more interested in each other. When Frederic has to take his ambulance back to the front, Catherine gives him her St. Anthony medal for good luck. Frederic feels indifferent about the war going on around him, feeling that it has little to do with him. One day while eating macaroni with cheese and drinking wine in a dugout, a shell wounds Frederic badly, and he is taken to a field hospital where he is visited by Rinaldi and the priest.

Book Two

Frederic Henry is transferred to an American hospital in Milan. Frederic manages to find a porter whom he pays to bring him some alcohol. Soon after, Catherine comes to the hospital to visit him and eventually manages to stay and work at the hospital. Three doctors come to examine Frederic, who needs surgery on his knee, and they tell him that he will have to wait six months before he can have the operation. Asking for a second opinion, he is visited by the Italian Dr. Valentini, who tells him he can have the operation the next day. During this period, and after his operation, Frederic and Catherine begin spending nights together while she is on night-duty in the hospital. Gradually Frederic finds himself falling more and more in love with Catherine.

Frederic and Catherine spend the summer together as he recovers in the hospital. Catherine continues to visit him at night during her work shifts. As his leg improves, they are able to go outside of the hospital and visit Milan. Several new characters are introduced, including the American couple, the Meyerses, who are fond of betting on the horse races, and Ettore Moretti, an Italian captain from San Francisco. When Frederic comes down with jaundice, the stem head-nurse, Miss Van Campen, accuses him of having brought his illness on himself by drinking, in order to avoid being sent back to the front. Eventually he must go, however, and Frederic and Catherine spend a final night together in a hotel room before parting. Before Frederic leaves for the front, Catherine announces that she is pregnant.

Book Three

Frederic Henry returns to the front and reunites with Rinaldi, realizing quickly that the men at the front have lost their spirit and drive in the war. Hemingway describes the massive Italian retreat from the town of Caporetto when the German and Austrian forces began moving against them in October, 1917. Picking up two Italian sergeants, Frederic's ambulance faces many long delays caught up in the miles of forces and equipment retreating in the rain. Eventually he tries to rhake some progress by driving off of the road and across the countryside, but his ambulance gets stuck in the mud. When the two sergeants refuse to help him push it out of the mud, instead breaking into a run, Frederic shoots and injures one of them. His fellow driver Bonello finishes killing the man with a bullet to the head. Frederic strikes out on foot with his three companions, Bonello, Aymo, and Piani. Aymo does not make it very far before being shot and killed by an Italian sniper.

After hiding in a barn until they feel it is safe to continue, the three men push on. Bonello decides to turn himself in to the Germans as a prisoner of war to avoid being killed. Soon Piani and Frederic come to a long wooden bridge on the Tagliamento River, where military police, the carabinieri, are seizing their own Italian officers and executing them for calling the retreat. Frederic is detained, but he breaks free and jumps into the river to escape. Frederic floats down the river and eventually jumps a train headed for Milan and Catherine. Sick of the war and finished with fighting for a nation that is not even his own, Frederic is well content to make his "farewell to arms" and to desert his post in the Italian army:

Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation. Although that ceased when the carabiniere put his hands on my collar. I would like to have had the uniform off although I did not care much about outward forms. I had taken off the stars, but that was for convenience. It was no point of honor. I was not against them. I was through. I wished them all the luck. There were the good ones, and the brave ones, and the calm ones and the sensible ones, and they deserved it. But it was not my show any more and I wished this bloody train would get to Mestre and I would eat and stop thinking. I would have to stop.…

I was not made to think. I was made to eat. My God, yes. Eat and drink and sleep with Catherine. To-night maybe. No that was impossible. But to-morrow night, and a good meal and sheets and never going away again except together. Probably have to go damned quickly. She would go. I knew she would go. When would we go? That was something to think about. It was getting dark. I lay and thought where we would go. There were many places.

Book Four

Frederic Henry arrives in Milan and borrows civilian clothes from Ralph Simmons, a friend studying singing in Italy and preforming under the name Enrico DelCredo. Learning that the nurses have been sent to Stresa, he travels there and finds Catherine with her friend Helen Ferguson. Frederic and Catherine spend the night together in a hotel. Frederic plays billiards and converses with Count Greffi, a kind elderly man whom Frederic had met earlier while staying in Stresa. During a rainstorm, the bartender in the hotel warns Frederic that he is in danger of being caught as a deserter by the authorities and suggests that Frederic and Catherine borrow his boat and escape across the lake into Switzerland. Frederic rows all night until his hands are too sore to continue, and then Catherine takes over the rowing. When they arrive in Switzerland, they are arrested, but Frederic explains that they are tourists and that they have come to Switzerland for the winter sports. Because they have a good bit of money and valid passports, the authorities let them go.

Book Five

Frederic and Catherine travel to Montreux and spend a happy and romantic fall in a small chalet amidst the mountain pines. The couple have many happy days discussing their future life together. Frederic proposes marriage, but Catherine wishes to wait until after their child is born. While in Switzerland, Catherine visits the doctor and learns that she may have some problems during childbirth because her pelvis is very small.

When Catherine is ready to give birth, Frederic takes her to a hospital in Lausanne. Catherine's labor is extremely difficult, and the doctor gives her laughing gas to ease the pain. When it is clear that she is not going to be able to give birth to the child naturally, the doctor tries to deliver it by cesarean section, but the baby is already dead. A nurse sends Frederic out to get something to eat. When he returns, he learns that Catherine has begun to hemorrhage. The doctor is unable to stop the bleeding, and Catherine's condition gradually worsens. Once she and Frederic say good-bye, Catherine slips into unconsciousness and soon dies. Catherine is gone. Frederic walks back to the hotel alone in the rain.


Bartolomeo Aymo

Aymo is one of Frederic Henry's ambulance drivers during the Italian army's retreat. He is also the driver Frederic is closest to. During the retreat, Aymo generously picks up two peasant woman with assurances that he will not rape them. This assurance frightens them even more—they, unfortunately, only recognize the one word of Aymo's Italian. It is also Aymo who is mistakenly shot by the Italian rear guard. It is a tragic mistake both for its stupidity and because he was Frederic's friend. Aymo's role, then, is as a symbol of innocence killed by the stupidity of war.

Catherine Barkley

An English nurse with the Red Cross, Catherine Barkley is introduced to Henry through Rinaldi in Chapter IV. Frederic perceives "Miss Barkley [as] quite tall. She wore what seemed to be a nurse's uniform, was blonde and had tawny skin and gray eyes. I thought she was very beautiful." Rinaldi, on the other hand, calls her a "lovely cool goddess." These two examples summarize the critical views of Catherine—she is thought to be either a heroine or a sex object.

Not surprisingly, Catherine prefers Frederic to Rinaldi and begins a game of love with Frederic. She tells the story of how her fiance had been horribly killed in the battle of the Somme but Frederic doesn't say anything. "They blew him all to bits," Catherine tells Frederic, who says nothing. She had imagined something far more picturesque like a sabre cut, which she would have joyously attended to. But this is World War I—trenches, mortars, and "bits"—and its horrors are awesome. Catherine reveals, through the tale of her childhood lover's death, how much more hardened by war she is than Frederic. Certainly, she has known the tragedy more intimately.

Media Adaptations

  • Not long after its literary success, A Farewell to Arms was made into a movie by Paramount pictures in 1932. The lead role of Lt. Frederic Henry was played by Gary Cooper. The heroine of the tale, Catherine Barkley, was played by Helen Hayes. Directed by Frank Borzage, the film won several Academy Awards including Best Cinematography (Charles Bryant Lang, Jr.), Best Sound (Harold C. Lewis), and received nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Picture. To Hemingway's annoyance, the film departed widely from the book.
  • A remake in 1950 of the 1932 film was not successful. This version starred William Holden and Nancy Olson. It was directed by Frank Borzage and even re-titled—Force of Arms.
  • In 1957, Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones starred in another remake. The producer, David 0. Selznick, never ceased to interfere with the production. This interference led to John Huston's replacement as director with Charles Vidor. The resulting film butchered the original story so badly that Selznick wrote a letter of apology to Hemingway. The film was condemned immediately upon release, losing Selznick millions of dollars that he had invested in the film. In fact, the only virtue of the film was the cinematic capture of the panoramic Italian landscape. The color photography was done by Piero Portalupi and Oscar Morris.
  • In 1990, Hemingway's novel was adapted as a sound recording. Published by Books on Tape of California, the novel is read by Wolfram Kandinsky.
  • The story of Hemingway's romance with his nurse Agnes von Kurowsky is retold by director Richard Attenborough in his 1997 film In Love and War. Starring Chris O'Donnell as the nineteen-year-old Hemingway and Sandra Bullock as his twenty-six-year-old nurse, In Love and War explores the relationship Hemingway had with von Kurowsky during the First World War and suggests Hemingway later used this failed romance as inspiration for A Farewell to Arms. Produced by New Line Cinema, the film was noted for splendid views of the Italian countryside and interesting historical details.

As a nurse, Catherine is able to transfer herself to the hospital where Frederic is recovering. Then, she flees with him to Switzerland where she dies from internal bleeding resulting from a difficult childbirth. In her death she is the picture of heroism and her statements are full of dark humor. "I'm not afraid. I just hate it," is one of the final lines which leaves Frederic quiet and solitary.

Catherine is a close examination of femininity in wartime but filtered through the subjective eyes of Frederic. This being the case, any decision about the character of Catherine is also a reflection on Frederic. Even so, Catherine is a representation of women in war, both as the ideal being defended by the army and the ideal sought by the individual soldier. In response to critics who have reacted negatively to her role, it can be suggested that while Catherine is won by Frederic, becomes pregnant, and then killed in a rather typical manner of a war novel, she also shows a certain assertiveness that is certainly lacking in Frederic Henry.


Another of Frederic's drivers, Bonello is a lively sort who is looking forward to champagne at Udine—the end of the retreat. It is Bonello who asks to kill the sergeant that Frederic shot and wounded for not obeying orders. Later, after Aymo is shot, Bonello decides he would rather risk capture by the Germans than be killed by the Italians.


See Catherine Barkley

Enrico DelCredo

See Ralph Simmons

Helen Ferguson

Helen is a Scottish nurse with the Red Cross and a friend to Catherine Barkley. She makes it a point to tell Rinaldi that there is a difference between the Scottish and English. However, the translation is not very clear and Rinaldi understands her to mean that she dislikes Catherine. Helen is protective of Catherine in the same way that Rinaldi looks out for Frederic. Helen, like Rinaldi, represents the importance of social ties that become forged in war. The two characters regret the love of Frederic and Catherine because it disrupts the social network which was making the war bearable. Thus, when Frederic deserts the army and finds Helen and Catherine in Stresa, Helen is angry. She admonishes Frederic for being so irresponsible as to "compromise" and desert Catherine, but she eventually calms down. She eventually blesses the union if only because it is Catherine's wish. Having assented to the coupling, Helen is left alone.


He is the first of the drivers and mechanics that Frederic meets upon his return to the front. They discuss the war and war tactics generally until Gino begins to patriotically call his country sacred. It is after this that Frederic reveals how uncomfortable the words of honor and glory make him. He thus labels Gino a patriot, meaning Gino is a naive boy who will not be so quick to defend war once he is in it.

Count Greffi

The Count is staying in the same hotel where Frederic and Catherine stop while in Stresa. A very old man and formerly of great political importance, Count Greffi is the clearest representative of tradition and institution in the novel. Count Greffi, whose ideals were now being questioned and abandoned, helped make that nineteenth-century world which had been the cause of the devastating war. Frederic knew the Count from before the war and understands him to represent all those values, thus, he cannot refuse a game of pool. The Count is another of Frederic's tutors who wisely tries to impart lessons the priest has already tried to share, though not as concisely. The Count tells Frederic, while he beats him in pool, that a person ought to love one's fellow citizens, not abstract values. He says that the love of abstract values leads one to a foolish pursuit of illusions.

Frederic Henry

A Farewell to Arms is Frederic Henry's story of what happened to him during the First World War. Frederic is an American serving the Italian anny as an ambulance driver. While in the service of the Italians, he falls in love with an English nurse named Catherine Barkley. He is wounded and sent to a hospital in Milan. Catherine transfers to the same hospital and they spend an idyllic time together as he recovers. Once his wounds have healed, Frederic must return to the front. Soon after he arrives, the Italian line breaks, and during the retreat from the Germans, he decides he has had enough of the war and deserts rather than be killed by battle police. After reuniting with his love, they flee to Switzerland. Once safely in the neutral nation, they pass the time playing cards until Catherine's baby is due. Both she and the baby die in childbirth and Frederic is left alone.

Frederic Henry's story reveals his education by various "tutors": the priest, Rinaldi, Catherine, the mechanics, and the war. Each try to impress upon Frederic a different lesson but he merely reacts to each. For example, the priest tries to persuade Frederic onto a moral and Christian path. In doing so, he extends an invitation to Frederic to visit his family. Frederic accepts, but instead chooses the more typical adventures of an officer on leave—he goes drinking and visits the brothels. He tries to explain his decision to the priest, saying, "we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things." Ultimately, Frederic must learn from his experiences and, thus, his education is self-instructed. That is, from his beginning as a rootless boy, he gains such experience that even in his position as reactor, he must react to his own collection of experience. It is this that he must finally face in Catherine's death and which leads him to write it out, like an essay in answer to a test question. It is from this position that his retrospective narration is told.

Throughout the novel Frederic maintains his curious outsider status. He is an American who volunteered. "It did not have anything to do with me. It seemed no more dangerous to me myself than war in the movies," he says early in Chapter VII. Thus, as a foreigner, he finds it possible to observe the Italians without direct involvement, but then he is wounded. He is part of it as much as an ambulance driver is a part of any war. This position, as well as his forced reaction to his various tutors, leads Frederic into his separate relation with the world and this, in turn, affords him the ability to make a separate peace with the war and withdraw his involvement. Still, though he decides this is a possibility for him, there remains the fact that Henry is a reactor to events. That is, in the key moment that ends his belonging in the Italian army, he is merely risking his life to avoid summary execution. He decides, in his first bold move of the book, to jump into the river rather than face the stupidity of the guards.


Passini is killed in the same mortar attack which wounds Frederic. Passini talks against the war from a very socialist standpoint. He believes that the class controlling the country is stupid and that is why there is war. Frederic tolerates such troublesome talk out of good humor but also because he doesn't disbelieve him. It is after this conversation about politics that the mortar hits.

Luigi Piani

Luigi Piani is an ambulance driver under Frederic's direction when he returns to the front. While of lesser rank, Piani is Frederic's equal in every other way. Though he allows Frederic to be in charge, it is Piani who finds food, who leads Frederic the right way when they have left the ambulances, and who keeps him from being roughed up by the regular troops when they approach the battle police. Piani knows what is happening so far as the war is concerned, but he can do nothing to protect Frederic as they near the police. Piani is successful in his role as the brains of the group who feeds information to the leader, thereby insuring the group's survival. It is not his fault that Frederic is such a poor leader.


The chaplain of the Italian army stationed with the forces Frederic serves with, the priest is the subject of mess-hall jokes. He senses that Frederic is sympathetic to the Christian message, and they view each other as friends. He tries to persuade Frederic to spend leave time with his family in Abruzzi so he might have time to reflect and rest from the front. Then, when Frederic is in hospital, the priest comes to visit. This visit causes the clearest moment of insight into the human condition in war according to Frederic. The topic is invoked because the Priest attributes his fatigue to disgust of the war. Still, nothing is decided, though they both agree that war is the product of lust and not love.

Lt. Rinaldo Rinaldi

A surgeon for the Italian Army, Rinaldi is Frederic's roommate and friend. He is very protective of Frederic and calls him names full of endearment, for example, often referring to Frederic as "baby". He even comes to visit Frederic in the hospital and assists in the transfer of Catherine to Milan. He tries to be a good person and strives to be the best surgeon. However, the war is stressful, and he drinks to keep his hands steady. His visits to the brothel eventually give him gonorrhea. Stereotypically, he is the romantic Italian, and the novel loses track of him in the retreat.

Ralph Simmons

Ralph Simmons is an American friend of Frederic who is trying to earn a living as a singer under the name Enrico DelCredo. He seems to have little success. His purpose in the novel is to offer an opposite of Frederic, a kind of alternate self. Ralph truly has no involvement in the war but wants to be Italian, whereas Frederic is involved in the war as an Italian but doesn't want to be. Frederic goes to Ralph after he makes his escape from the battle police. Ralph lends him some clothes and Frederic goes on his way.


See Mr. Frederic Henry



In A Farewell to Arms, one of the themes of Frederic Henry's adventure as an ambulance driver during World War I is identity. This theme compounds other themes that Hemingway is exploring through the war story. Identity is important to the story because it expresses the general question of the individual in the postwar world. The First World War raised some unsettling questions about the values the war generation had inherited. People began to question the validity of their national leaders and institutions which seemed to have led directly to such an incredible loss of life and economic devastation. Frederic represents, for Hemingway, this questioning of what is man that he can cause such awful destruction and human suffering.

Frederic's identity is displaced by the late introduction of his name to the reader, the fact of his being an American in the Italian army, and his constant play with words. He speaks Italian, but not well enough to advance in rank. He also understands French and German but remains unmistakably American. None of this is surprising but because Hemingway depends on dialogue to a great extent, the play of words between languages serves to heighten such issues as alienation and patriotism. The former is heightened because jokes do not translate and thus Frederic's efforts to lighten moods fall into silence. Beyond the curious problems of voice, Frederic always seems to be in the wrong outfit. This fact is exaggerated when he borrows clothes from Ralph Simmons to make his escape and when he says that his English gas mask works—whereas the Italian models do not. He continues to be someone else until the end. Finally, Frederic attempts to identify not as himself but as lost in Catherine—"We're the same one." He is forced to give this up when she dies.


Hemingway's novel demonstrates the demise of loyalty to traditions and institutions that had been brought forward from the nineteenth century, a refocusing on the self often referred to as "individualism." His characters, especially Catherine Barkley (in terms of her fiance's death at the hand of sophisticated infantry), all have war disgust. Each of them is able to avoid becoming crazy by falling back on the self. In doing so, each person rejects the "higher callings" of tradition, society, or institution. For example, Rinaldi has the satisfaction of having become a better surgeon through practice. He is also better with women for the same reason. When prodded by Frederic's suggestion that there may be more than these two self-centered items in life, Rinaldi responds with a very existentialist statement, "We never get anything. We are born with all we have and we never learn. We never get anything new."

Topics for Further Study

  • The character of Hemingway's Catherine Barkley has undergone a great deal of scrutiny. This attention has alternated from seeing her as a strong, independent, and assertive woman to a needy, weak, and dependent person. Using the text, support both sides of the position. What do these views say about Hemingway's attitude toward gender roles?
  • If Catherine's position as heroine is uncertain, what about the hero Frederic Henry's? Using the text, support or reject Henry's role as hero in A Farewell to Arms.
  • Hemingway's style has been said to be a purely masculinist form of writing. What does it mean to say a writing style is male or female? Do you agree or disagree that his style is masculinist? Why?
  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is a story about a soldier wounded in the Italy of World War II. Compare it with Hemingway's story and discuss the genre of wounded men cared for by nurses. How do these stories compare with actual historical accounts of fighting in Italy during World War I?

It is out of this effort to come to terms with the stupidity and horror of the Great War that the school of thought known as existentialism emerges, a movement which suggested that men and women should not accept society's or someone else's values, but rather examine the truth in him or herself. Hemingway was not an existentialist, but his characters clearly exhibit a great deal of alienation from each other. They cope with their situation of doubt in society by developing an acute personal meaning. In A Farewell to Arms this is debated once by the priest and Frederic in the latter's hospital room. Not for the first time, the reader is forced to examine the discomforting notions of love. The priest loves God and this comforts him during the war. Frederic and Catherine, alternately, display another route to coping. This one is ironic and looms large over the novel—"I want you so much I want to be you too." This statement must be compared to their actions during the childbirth—Catherine is given hell by nature, while Frederic eats. The effort to be each other is an alienation from self and a failed method of coping. Thus, Frederic faces the tragedy of his love as well as the tragedy of himself—he did not listen to any of the tutors who warned him of this inevitability. Certainly, the inevitability is seen in hindsight since Catherine, as tradition and institution, died in the ghastly war leaving the "Everyman" tragically alone with himself.


The novel suggests that war has become a habit, a disgusting habit. At some point, Frederic has learned that this war is not romantic, and it most certainly does not concern him personally. He does not become a war-hardened soldier, but a disgusted ambulance driver who observes more facets of war than a soldier or politician would. Consequently, the notion of the patriot is reflected upon a few times, and the reader gains a definite sense that being a patriot is never to be equated to a love of war. However, that is not to say that Frederic ever clearly denounces or supports war because it is not in his character to be so passionate.

In the most obvious instance, Frederic returns to the front after his convalescence and chats about the war's progress with one of his drivers, Gino. This driver declares himself a patriot and says he does not like to hear so many people talk of the Italians losing. Gino then launches into an invocation of patriotic language which Frederic cannot help but see as naive. It is at this point that Frederic admits his problem with words like "glorious," "sacred," and "sacrifice." Frederic compares the notion of sacrifice to the stockyards of Chicago—one large slaughterhouse. Such a comparison, to the American reader at the time, was enough to question patriotism as a reason for war. If, Frederic asks, to love one's country is to be an animal slaughtered in the stockyards, then is it smart to be a patriot?

Doubt about the calling of every man to be a patriot is put to rest ambiguously when Count Greffi challenges Frederic to a game of pool. The wise old man tells Frederic that the slaughter does not define patriotism. Instead, a patriot is a lover of one's countrymen. However, this is ambiguous precisely because there is little of this type of love on display during the retreat. All that Frederic saw in the retreat was the stupidity of war. The men who questioned his patriotism in retreat did not love him because he was an officer, and the battle police were present to kill him for his supposed betrayal. Unfortunately, one supposes, Count Greffi is no longer in charge and his vision of love is thus retired. The reader is left with an unanswered question: whether or not patriotism is an abstract value which is no longer possible to pursue rationally given the technical sophistication of death.


War is not glamorized in this novel. Instead, it is presented in a very real and horrifying fashion from the perspective of the ambulance driver. At some moments, war is derided as a game for the ruling classes in which the poor suffer. It is after this discussion, in Chapter IX, that the mortar hits. War is only rarely viewed in a patriotic light and more often seen as tiresome.

However, the negative portrayal of war in the novel may have as much to do with the almost futile effort of the Italian army. Frederic comments on this several times because he says he would be ashamed to be seen by the American, English, or French in such a "silly" army. Further ironies arise when his friends attempt to get him a medal for being wounded while eating macaroni.

Catherine tries to bolster the image of bravery at the end of Chapter XXI and even says that Frederic is brave. Frederic disagrees, saying that he is only a mediocre hitter. Thus war is a game, like baseball, and Frederic is not an outstanding player, but at best someone who can only do the most basic things.

War is also a disease. Rinaldi refers to his own condition of gonorrhea and says everyone has it. However, we know from earlier discussions that everyone too has war disgust. Therefore, Rinaldi's generalization equates war to a disease. That is, war is great, but like most things, after a time of too much indulgence, even pleasurable things become tiresome. The disease spreads and all one can do is have hope for a cure—the political end to the war. However, the cure simply allows a breathing space before the next burst of the disease.


In Media Res

A Farewell to Arms opens in media res—literally, in the middle of the thing. For the novel, this "thing," constantly referred to as "it," is the war. Hemingway is certainly not the first to use this technique to bring the reader immediately into the story. In fact, one of the greatest Western war stories of all time—Homer's Iliad—opens in the middle of the Trojan war. Hemingway's use of the technique sets the tone of the novel as one of disjointure and alienation. The reader steps immediately into a world described by someone remembering. However, we are given no clues about time, place, or even the characters. In fact, it takes a good deal of reading before even the name of the narrator is learned.


Originally referring to the mask worn by stage actors in ancient Greece, the persona is the image of the character as it is expressed in reaction to its environment. Hemingway reveals the persona of his main character by the way he reacts to the statements of others. This is demonstrated early in the novel by Frederic's non-reaction to Catherine's story. She describes how her fiance was "blown to bits," and Frederic's response is to say nothing. Rinaldi, on the other hand, is full of chivalry and charm because his persona is one of Italian machismo. The story is told from Frederic's point of view and thus it has his voice. However, as a further development of his persona, his voicing of the story rarely devolves to a personal—"I did this." Instead, he speaks in terms of "we" until finally he is all alone and, by default, an "I".

Black humor

Black humor is a nervous humor which famous psychologist Sigmund Freud described as a way of repressing fear through laughter. Also known as graveyard humor, it is used throughout the novel to mask the very real fear of death. The starkest use of this type of humor is by Catherine Barkley when she is dying from internal bleeding suffered from a stillbirth. Though in great pain she manages to utter "black humor" when the doctor says she must not be silly because she is not going to die. To this she repeats a phrase she used earlier in the book when Frederic was in the hospital, "All right… I'll come and stay with you nights.…" The inevitability of death and the impossibility of the decision make the comment painfully ironic.


Hemingway employs dialogue at the expense of narrative whenever he can. He does this in order to avoid long passages of "unnecessary prose." Thus, he reveals information about the plot through a dialogue marked by terse, direct language which could be called common speech. This effort at realism also disables any attempt to define Hemingway's actual position on any of the themes in the novel. Since the story tells itself through the characters who are involved, the reader is left with his or her own thoughts on the subject—thoughts which are influenced by the speech of the characters, not Hemingway.

According to the critic Henry Hazlitt, dialogue is best when it is of a narrow range. He continues, "one may think of this either as cause or result of the narrow range of the characters." This is a good thing, he says, for Hemingway's characters "are never complicated people, either emotionally or intellectually, for if they were, the casual hard-boiled Hemingway manner would be incapable of dealing with them."

Historical Context

World War I

World War I was also known as the Great War because it was war on a scale previously unimagined in modern history. The war broke out after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand ignited an already tense territorial feud between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. France, Great Britain, and Russia joined together as the Allied powers against the Central Power alliance of Austria-Hungary and Germany. Eventually, America joined the war on the side of the Allies after Russia had withdrawn and the Lusitania, a British passenger ship carrying 128 American citizens, had been sunk. The conflict lasted four years, cost $350 billion, and claimed the lives of twenty-two million. Technologically, it was the most advanced war ever seen because of the number of new inventions introduced: biological weapons, mortar, improved artillery, machine guns, and barbed wire. Not until World War II, when the airplane played such a devastating role, would the destructive power of these new weapons be surpassed.

Compare & Contrast

  • World War I: America spent around thirty billion dollars on the war effort. At war's end, due to disagreements with the allies, the United States refused to ratify the peace treaty, join the League of Nations, or be part of the European recovery.

    1929: British interest rates rose and lured capital away from America's Wall Street. Prices on the New York Stock Exchange plummeted in late October. The Great Depression set in and the American economy did not see serious inprovement until the beginning of World War II.

    Today: After a severe recession during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the stock market reaches record highs in the 1990s, and the American dollar becomes very strong in foreign markets. The United States, Mexico, and Canada begin cooperating in the North American Free Trade Agreement, while Europe works towards creating a stronger European Union, a organization among European countries promoting free trade, a common policy for defense, and a single monetary unit.

  • World War I: In 1917 Russia sued for a separate peace with Germany when the government of the Tsar, Nicholas II, was threatened by civil war. The Duma, Russia's legislative body under the czar, asked the czar to step down in March and placed Russia under a provisional government. In the fall, under the leadership of Lenin, the communists seized power, and Russia became a Soviet Union modeled on Marxist principles.

    1929: Josef Stalin expelled Leon Trotsky from the Soviet Union and began an unchallenged dictatorship of the Soviet Union.

    Today: While the Soviet Union has collapsed, twelve of fifteen former Soviet states join to form the Commonwealth of Independent States. Some former eastern European countries under the influence of the Soviets dissolve peacefully, such as the former Czechoslovakia dividing into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. However, other countries cannot agree on the future of their new nations and serious fighting erupts, especially in the former Yugoslavia.

  • World War 1: At the end of the war, the suffragette movement gained women the right to vote in Britain in 1918, and in America with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. The Eighteenth Amendment began Prohibition, making the drinking and manufacturing of alcoholic beverages illegal.

    1929: Organized crime violence reached an historic high; illegal drinking establishments, known as "speakeasies," surged in popularity. Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933 with the Twenty-First Amendment.

    Today: In 1972, the United States Senate approves a proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting discriminating against women because of their gender. Never receiving enough votes by states for ratification, the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated in 1982. While the consumption of alcohol remains legal, national campaigns have focused on educating adults to drink responsibly. Public awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving have increased with many Americans joining national associations, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), to help keep roads free of intoxicated drivers.

In the novel A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry is serving in the Italian army. The role of Italy in World War I was as decoy. Traditionally, Italy was an ally of Germany and Austria. However, the allies promised Italy the land it had requested from Austria—the region of South Tyrol, several islands in the Adriatic, and assistance with expansion of its colonies in Africa—if it would switch sides. The only role of Italy's ill-equipped army was to attempt to divert the force of the Austrians from helping the Germans in France, a role which caused the death of 500,000 Italians in 1916 alone. It is in that year that Frederic Henry is wounded. Surprisingly, Italy was able to turn back the Austrians and rightfully claim their share in the spoils of victory with the Allied cause.

The Roaring Twenties

The 1920s were marked by what Joseph Wood Krutch labeled as The Modern Temper. This was a "temper," or zeitgeist (spirit of the age), which viewed traditional beliefs of progress, perfectibility, and the success of democracy as dead on the battlefield. Consequently, other philosophies of life were being looked at, such as the growing popularity of Freudian psychoanalysis. This new method of treating the self reinforced a belief in individualism in the United States. For the same insistence on the self it was banned from Communist Russia. The decade of the twenties is also often seen as a wild decade of jazz, flappers, and the "speakeasy," gathering places which served banned alcohol. Jazz became popular music throughout America. Women finally gained the vote on August 26, 1920, with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Their new freedoms were epitomized by the more unconventional girls who were known as "flappers," identified by their short, bobbed hair and daringly short (for the time) dresses. Prohibition and the Eighteenth Amendment made alcohol illegal in 1920, but organized crime invented the "speakeasy" (with the many bribes it involved) to provide a place for Americans to find the outlawed drink. The economy, both legal and black-market, was stable, and unemployment low. Things were almost too good; after the Great War, Americans were ready to enjoy themselves. Few could forecast or believe what loomed ahead for the United States.

The Stock Market Crash

The year 1929 destroyed the momentum of the twenties. The roaring Jazz Age ground to a virtual halt in October when the New York Stock Exchange began to nosedive. After the First World War, America enjoyed a healthy economy in the 1920s, and many investors saw opportunities to make money on the stock exchange. Investors often purchased stock on credit, expecting to pay off any loan with the profits they reaped as stock prices climbed. However, after several days of falling stock prices in late October, panicky investors began to sell whatever stock they held at any price. As the market flooded with stock for sale, prices plummeted and many investors could not sell their stock at high enough prices to pay off their creditors. Investors went bankrupt, businesses lost capital, and banks failed. Unlike in previous years when the stock market fell but quickly recovered, the early 1930s became increasingly worse for Americans with millions of men and women out of work and struggling to survive.

Europe also suffered a severe economic downturn. Never fully recovered from World War I, European countries struggled with high rates of joblessness and inflation. In Britain unemployment rates exceeded twelve percent; in Germany over six million people were unemployed by 1932. Due to the sudden collapse of the American economy, aid to Germany was halted. Consequently, with no jobs, little food, and no money, the German people lost confidence in their postwar government, the Weimar Republic. Faced with a disintegrating economy, Germans began to take interest in the ideas of a rising young fascist, Adolph Hitler. Promising a return to prosperity, Hitler and the Nazi party were voted into power in 1933.

Critical Overview

Hemingway's second novel, A Farewell to Arms, is viewed as his finest artistic accomplishment because the subject matter is finely blended with his method. To the critics, by and large, Hemingway had become a master of the short, staccato style of writing by this novel. Further, this mastery made Hemingway the most celebrated American writer of the twentieth century. This celebration is both enhanced and questioned by his reputation as a bold warrior, whose depiction of women is often negative. Such an aura is no doubt partially the responsibility of the movie industry, which felt encouraging his legend and the identification with Gary Cooper would only help the marketing of army stories in general and Hemingway films specifically.

In 1929, when A Farewell to Arms was first released, the critics were impressed because it surpassed his first work dramatically. However, not every critic enjoyed the novel, and many were bothered by its diction. Robert Herrick of the New York World called the novel "dirt" on account of its vulgarity. He was not the only one upset by the thenunprintable words. This led to an edited version of the novel, with words like testicles and shit removed from the text. Fortunately, the dialogue was sound enough without this soldier talk and the novel functioned without them. Still, other critics could not say enough in praise of the best-selling work.

Henry Hazlitt's review in the New York Sun got right to the point: "In the year of our Lord 1929 Ernest Hemingway is the single greatest influence on the American novel and short story." Further, Hazlitt put Hemingway ahead of other writers who also employed sparse prose, saying, "Hardboiled novels, monosyllabic novels, novels without commas … are like Hemingway." In a Chicago Daily Tribune article, Fanny Butcher also praised Hemingway's terse writing style. After comparing Hemingway with Gertrude Stein, she said, " A Farewell to Arms [uses] a technique which is purely subjective, and a style which is articulate entirely in its bones and not at all in its flesh." Thus, when compared to literature of the 1920s, Hemingway was a master in capturing the essence of the story and eliminating nonessential elements often employed by less talented writers.

The praise for Hemingway continued with few exceptions. Critics, such as Ray B. West, Jr., summed up the work as a reflection of a society disturbed by war. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, more attention was given to the individualist philosophy being expressed by the novel. Earl Rovit, in his essay "Learning to Care," said that the novel is not a tragedy in any sense, since the individual protagonist learns "who he is." Apparently, for Rovit the point of the novel, as well as of life, is that one realizes what is significant in life. By this recognition one can come to terms with what one's life is. Having followed these various lessons, one can live a fulfilled life. "The total effect of the story depends on the degree of Frederic's self-realization or acceptance of the implicit meanings in his experience … the identity of man is measured by the processive recognitions of his meaningful experience." Understandably, readings of a story which ends in the death of the heroine after giving birth to a stillborn child combined with the masculinist mythos which surrounded Hemingway caused a critical revolt. However, by the 1970s, debate had shifted, concentrating more on condemning the ideas of Rovit and critics like him rather than responding to Hemingway's story of Frederic and Catherine.

From the start, Hemingway was heralded as a genius. Such an early reception into fame also led to Hemingway being the most widely recognized and photographed writer (featured in both Time and Life magazines). This reputation stayed with his works until feminist critics took hold of Hemingway. They denounced his portrayal of women and summed up the Catherine Barkley character as a one-dimensional sex object. This was a sharp departure from the earlier view of Catherine as a brave woman. During the 1970s, Hemingway was viewed as the epitome of the chauvinist male who viewed women as secondary creatures whose proper place is in the home. Unfortunately, the application of this view of Hemingway's myth affected the reading of his novels unjustly. That is, much of the reading of, for example, Catherine Barkley as simply a pasteboard figure came from a justifiable loathing of Hemingway's misogynist cult, rather than from any textual basis.

Throughout the 1980s, there has been a gradual renewal of the possible readings of Hemingway. This has partly been the result of Judith Fetterley's 1978 work The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. New directions have now been taken that no longer focus on the simple gender polarity. In fact, the posthumous publication of Hemingway's The Garden of Eden led to examinations of Hemingway's interest in androgyny, the state of having both male and female characterisics. Now, rather than being fought over, Catherine Barkley is widely regarded as a complex figure.

Most recent criticism on A Farewell to Arms has focused on some of the more curious aspects of Hemingway's work. For example, critics are interested in Hemingway's words as a mode of war or play. Recent criticism has not limited itself to an argument on Hemingway's sexist attitudes as much as it was in the 1970s. Instead that gender war has itself become the subject for critics like Sandra Whipple Spaniers in essays such as Hemingway's Unknown Soldier: Catherine Barkley, the Critics, and the Great War. Other approaches include examining slices of the uncontested strength in the novel such as Frederic Henry's narration. There is still much praise and admiration for Hemingway, and he is still regarded as influential many years after his first publication.


Arnold A. Markley

Markley is an assistant professor at the Penn State University, Delaware County campus. In the following essay he examines Hemingway's distinctive writing style, use of his own war experiences, and examination of themes of identity as they appear in A Farewell to Arms.

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 chief's 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.

What Do I Read Next?

  • For a better sense of the "Lost Generation" as well as the general disillusionment brought about by the aftermath of World War I, see Hemingway's first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926). The novel is also the first depiction of the American expatriates living in Paris.
  • A view of America in World War I is given in John Steinbeck's East of Eden. The novel itself concerns a family saga, but the middle of the work was made into a movie starring James Dean. That 1954 film, East of Eden, focuses on Steinbeck's portrayal of the impact of the war on a small community—from the power of draft boards, to the morality of profiteering from war.
  • Another view of World War I was also published early in 1929 from the perspective of a German soldier. Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front was also a great success and found its way onto film. The idea that someone else had published on the same topic—the First World War—months before his book came out alarmed Hemingway but did not affect his sales.
  • Indispensible to an understanding of the impact and the horror of the First World War, especially to Europeans, is a reading of the poetry written on the front lines and in a general response to the war. The horror of war was illustrated in ground breaking poetry by such authors as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and others. Some of their poetry and other poems on World War I can be found in recently republished collections, such as World War One British Poets: Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Rosenburg, and Others, collected by Candace Ward and printed by Dover in 1997.
  • If you want to read more about Emest Hemingway, Jeffrey Meyers's Hemingway: A Biography, published in 1985, offers a thorough account of Hemingway's life.
  • For a simple overview of World War I, see James L. Stokesbury's A Short History of World War I, published in 1981.
  • A more technical insight into the growing sophistication of weaponry and the role of the ambulance in the war can be found in John S. Haller's From Farcarts to Fords, A History of the Military Ambulance, 1790-1925, published in 1992.

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 caids.

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 strikes 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 III 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.

Carlos Baker

In the following excerpt, Baker explores how Hemingway adds depth to his novel through the repetition of symbols.

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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.

Daniel J. Schneider

In the following excerpt, Schneider reveals how Hemingway systematically uses images of rain, desolation, and impurity to reinforce the events in the novel.

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 tninks 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"onlyseven 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?"


"What's to stop itT'

"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.


Carlos Baker, editor, Ernest Hemingway: Critiques of Four Major Novels, Scribners, 1962.

Harold Bloom, editor, Modern Critical Views: Ernest Hemingway, Chelsea, 1985.

Fanny Butcher, "Here is Genius, Critic Declares of Hemingway," in Chicago Daily Tribune, September 28, 1929, p. 11.

Judith Fetterley, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction, Indiana University Press, 1978.

Henry Hazlitt, "Take Hemingway," in New York Sun, September 28, 1929, p. 38.

Robert Herrick, "What Is Dirt?", in Bookman, November, 1929, p. 258–62.

George Monteiro, editor, Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, G. K. Hall, 1994.

Earl Rovit, "Learning to Care," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of A Farewell to Arms, edited by Jay Gellens, Prentice-Hall, 1970, pp. 33-40.

Sandra Whipple Spanier, "Hemingway's Unknown Soldier: Catherine Barkley, the Critics, and the Great War," New Essays on A Farewell to Arms, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 75-108.

For Further Study

Matthew J. Bruccoli, Conversations with Ernest Hemingway, University Press of Mississippi, 1986.

Contains interviews with Hemingway that provide the author's point of view on a variety of issues concerning his life and works.

Scott Donaldson, The Cambridge Companion to Hemingway, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Contains a wealth of background information on Hemingway and his writings.

Scott Donaldson, editor, New Essays on A Farewell to Arms, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

A collection of four outstanding recent interpretations of the novel, as well as a useful introduction by the editor.

Jay Gellens, editor, Twentieth Century Interpretations of A Farewell to Arms, Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Contains seven critical interpretations of the novel, including a "symposium" bringing together four critics' views on Hemingway's use of symbolism. Also includes six shorter critical "View Points" on vatious aspects of the work.

Peter Hutchinson, "Love and War in the Pages of Mr. Hemingway," in New York Times Book Review, September 29, 1929, p. 5.

This critic reminds the audience that Hemingway did not invent the prose style he is known for. However, he continues, Hemingway has proven to be the master of the style.

Robert W. Lewis, A Farewell to Arms: The War of Words, Twayne, 1992.

A recent review of the themes, characters, and techniques of A Farewell to Arms. Lewis also reviews the critical reception of the work and provides a chronology of Hemingway's life.

Miriam B. Mandall, Reading Hemingway: The Facts in the Fictions, Scarecrow, 1995.

A valuable reference tool for the study of any of Hemingway's novels; contains detailed annotations and commentary for A Farewell to Arms, among other works.

Jeffrey Meyers, Hemingway: A Biography, Harper and Row, 1985.

A thorough and detailed biography of the author that provides a great deal of insight into the composition of his major works.

James Nagel, "Ernest Hemingway," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by James J. Martine, Vol. 9, Gale, 1981, pp. 100-120.

Nagel presents an overview of Hemingway's life and his major works.

Michael S. Reynolds, Hemingway's First War: The Making of A Farewell to Arms, Princeton University Press, 1976.

Surveys the experiences that led to Hemingway's writing of the novel, including analyses of Hemingway's manner of composing the work, the structure of the novel, critical responses, and an essay on A Farewell to Arms as travel literature.

Arthur Waldhom, Reader's Guide to Ernest Hemingway, Fafrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.

An excellent resource for information on Hemingway's life and his style of writing, including material on A Farewell to Arms and his other works.