“A Farewell to Arms”: In Search of a Sense of Life

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Ernest Hemingway is one of the most famed American writers of our time. His name is acknowledged all over the world, even by many people who have never read any of his books. His familiar image has been used to sell cars, clothes, and furniture. He is famous in part for how he lived – spending time in exotic and glamorous settings such as Paris, Pamplona, Key West and Havana, witnessing forefront battles in several wars, traveling to East Africa to hunt dangerous game, fishing in the Gulf Stream and running with the bulls in the fiesta of San Fermin in Spanish Pamplona, Spain (Tyler 1).

But he is best renowned for the quality of his writing – famous short stories and novels. For instance, Carlos Baker said that “he was one of the foremost writers that America has produced; an epoch-making stylist with a highly original talent” (qtd. in Whitlow 4). Among Hemingway’s novels “A Farewell to Arms” is one of the best known and most discussed in literary circles works.

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The themes of war and love, tenderness and atrocity, death and loneliness have always agitated mankind. Thus, it is not surprising that when a certain literary work appears which explores these themes in a special delicate and distinct manner, it gains a rapt attention and wins high recognition from the public. Besides, the late 1920s in the United States represented “the high-water mark of postwar revulsion” (qtd. in Tyler 69). Thus, “A Farewell to Arms” upon its appearing in print found a ready audience.

Some critics have judged it harshly. For example, Dwight Macdonald admitted that when he reread this novel he found it to be “aged and shrivelled from what I remembered”, another critic B. E. Todd in his review devoted to novel labelled it “an epic of weariness” (qtd. in Whitlow 17). Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of critics and reviewers have been generous in their high appreciation.

The purpose of this study is to critically analyze the Hemingway’s famous work “A Farewell to Arms” and define its place in world literature. Towards this end we will reveal the main theme of this work, scrutinize its characters, analyze Hemingway’s literary touch allowing him to achieve inimitable style of it, and make the conclusions with regard to the importance of “A Farewell to Arms” for world literary heritage.

Form and Genre of the Novel

Many readers regarded “A Farewell to Arms” as an autobiography (Wagner-Martin 6), but it is not autobiographical in a literal sense (Martin 168). In fact, the novel supplies the precise details of its descriptions of historic battle scenes on the Italian front in World War I, and we know that Hemingway served as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy in 1917 (Tyler 3). But the novel’s love story is no closer to Hemingway’s personal reality. He did go to Italy and see action, but not the action he describes; there he did fall in love with a nurse Agnes von Kurowsky (Whitlow 107), but she was no Catherine Barkley. Still, there is much that must represent authentic recall in the book.

Innumerable small details and a sense of general conditions in battle, the character of the Italian landscape, the Italian soldiers and the ambulance corps – all clearly testifies that the author used his Italian experience while writing the novel. Indeed, autobiographic novels are nevertheless fictions, constructs of the imagination, even when they seem to incorporate authenticating bits and pieces of personal history. But all fiction is autobiography, no matter how remote from the author’s experience the story seems to be. The author leaves his mark, expresses his being, his life, in any story (Bell 119). “A Farewell to Arms” illustrates this statement very clearly.

As for the genre of the novel, this issue did not get much attention in scholarly literature (Wagner-Martin 10). Even though “A Farewell to Arms” is perhaps Hemingway’s most enraptured work, a small number of critics paid any substantial attention to his personal definition that the novel is a tragedy (Merill 26). At that Hemingway called this novel his “Romeo and Juliet” and admitted: “The fact that the book was a tragic one did not make me unhappy since I believed that life was a tragedy and knew it could only have one end” (qtd. in Merill 25).

Some critics define it as a lyric novel (Schneider 10), some ascribe it to dramatic genre (Wagner-Martin 7), but unanimity on this issue is absent in literary circles. Hence, the issue of the novel’s genre remains to be undisclosed (Bloom 4), thus, it demands further research and discussion.

Theme of the Novel

At the same time many features of “A Farewell to Arms” prove that it is really tragic novel. In narrating the story of love between an American soldier Frederic Henry and a British nurse Catherine Barkley Hemingway rise to the true peaks of tragedy. They are depicted as two grains of sand grasped by bloody tornado of the World War I. The war is a tragedy by its nature, and love during the war, among sufferings, blood and death, is even more tragic.

It is not surprising that love of the novel’s heroes is penetrated with presentiment of catastrophe. Catherine says: “I suppose all sorts of dreadful things will happen to us” (Hemingway 116), and ultimately she appeared to be right. Although Henry made his “separate peace” (Hemingway 242), deserted from the army and went to neutral Switzerland together with his beloved woman, where they took pleasure with silence and peace (Hemingway 293), fate caught them – Catherine died in childbed (Hemingway 332).

Hemingway’s vision of man’s destination and the essence of death is full of deep philosophical sense: That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had any time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. Or they killed you gratuitously like Aymo. Or gave you the syphilis like Rinaldi. But they killed you in the end. You could count on that. Stay around and they would kill you. (Hemingway 327)

Summing up the above considered we can argue that “A Farewell to Arms” is not just a love story on the level of taken separately personal fortunes, but its theme is also narration about the search of sense of life and self-confidence in this world. Undoubtedly, the novel concerns itself primarily with the development of Hemingway’s philosophy of life (Martin 170). The novel concentrates on discovery of this philosophy by Frederick Henry, and other characters of it are represented for the most part as foils to him as they are caught in various phases of their evolving the philosophy (Wagner-Martin 5).

While the novel is not autobiographical as we discussed above, it is evident that Hemingway drew heavily on his personal experience to portray Frederic Henry’s world and to provide sublimation for his own war trauma. Frederic, who starts out as an idealistic volunteer on the Italian front lines, finally must face his devastating personal loss alone, and although the novel is not a religious one, it deals with an important theological problem which is important even nowadays – the individual’s search for ethics and values under modern conditions. Thus, “A Farewell to Arms” is depicting Hemingway’s own and his romantic hero’s gradual initiation into a chaotic, indifferent world that is brutally stripped of illusion and controlled by fate (Donaldson 106).

The Main Characters of the Novel

As it was mentioned above the story of love is in the center of narration, and naturally the lovers are the main characters of it – Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver and a lieutenant in the Italian army, and Catherine Barkley, a British nurse. Being a protagonist of the novel Frederic is the narrator as well. In the beginning of the novel he is featured by a kind of aloofness from life. Although possessing a reliable and friendly personality, he feels as if he has no relation to the war: “I knew I would not be killed. Not in this war. It did not have anything to do with me” (Hemingway 37).

But in the course of maturing of his love to Catherine he starts to realize the unfriendly nature of the world. When such comprehension comes to him, the hero becomes to depict himself as a passive victim inundated by the flow of events. It is the same in war as in love. At the beginning, as Frederic tells us, he simply goes along. An American in Rome when World War I breaks out, he joins the Italian ambulance corps for no particular reason: “There isn’t always an explanation for everything” (Hemingway 17).

He falls into the drinking and whoring routine of the other officers largely out of inertia. He follows and gives orders as required, but hardly as a consequence of patriotism or dedication to any cause. He suffers a series of disillusionments – his wound, the war disgust of his comrades, the overt pacifism of his men, the theatricality and incompetence of the Italian military (Martin 169).

Frederic’s desertion, subsequent arrival in Milan, and the making of his “separate peace” lead to a re-comprehension of such words as courage, good, gentle, and brave that are often applied to the victims of war, and thereby, for Frederic, lose their former meanings. The world’s animosity by that moment has already been taken for granted by the hero, which is confirmed by the following passage:

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry. (Hemingway 249)

Through Frederic’s evolution of mind Hemingway clearly expresses his own essential philosophy and his perception of the world. His narration encompasses the tragic action involving failure, humiliation and ultimately the punishment and defeat of lovers which prove this.

Catherine Barkley is depicted not so deeply as Frederic (Whitlow 14). Submissive and subtle person, she long has been regarded by the critics as the ultimate dream-girl, as some sort of the abstraction of a lyric emotion. Devoid of any personality or character of her own, Catherine becomes Frederic’s shadow (Lockridge 172).

Most feminist critics also have assumed Catherine as the antithesis of Frederic, whether objecting to her voluntary submissiveness or simply dismissing her as a colorless fantasy of the male imagination whose character is too vitiated due to such role (Bell 117). But her disregard of social conventions and implicit devotion to Frederic reveal her lovely personality and inherent feminine traits: “There’s no way to be married except by church or state. We are married privately. […] it would mean everything to me if I had any religion. But I haven’t any religion. […] You’re my religion. You’re all I’ve got” (Hemingway 116). Being considered from the other point of view these traits can be regarded as an alternative kind of heroism while Frederic has lost his own heroism under the pressure of the war.

The other characters of the novel, as it was argued above, serve mainly as a background for Frederic. Among the most important for the author’s ideas expression are the priest, Frederick’s roommate Rinaldi, and Catherine’s friend Helen Ferguson. The priest of the division represents a kind of counsellor for Henry, a highly moral person who manages to sustain faith in God despite of all atrocities of the war. It is him who helped Frederic to realize that love is a willingness “to do things for [someone else], […] to sacrifice for, […] to serve” (Hemingway 63), and that real happiness may be attained through love. A surgeon Rinaldi, in his turn, looks for instant carnal pleasures, but ultimately he becomes to understand the vainness of the war: “You’re dry and you’re empty and there’s nothing else. There’s nothing else I tell you. Not a damned thing” (Hemingway 174).

Helen Ferguson initially expresses the view on social conventions opposite to Catherine’s one, but eventually she helps in the latter’s love affair showing attractive devotion rather to personal values that to dimensionless moral ones. These characters are the author’s assistants in developing his philosophy of life, as all of them ultimately come to comprehension of futility of war and a high value of humaneness.

Hemingway’s Touch in “A Farewell to Arms”

To express his philosophy and depict the way of his hero’s search of sense of life Hemingway use many stylistic, literary and linguistic techniques. One of the most apparent touch he uses is contained even in the title of the novel – here a play upon words is evident which is very characteristic for Hemingway’s style (Harrington 64). Expressive and easy to remember title relates both to Frederic’s desertion from the army and to his later parting with Catherine after her death in Switzerland (Harrington 59).

Even if the narration is carried out from the first person, it is not evident whether the author has kept his own viewpoint limited to Frederic’s perspective or he just assigned him the role of surrogate narrator. Anyway, the hero evolves within the course of the novel – from a passive young man somewhat given to self-pity, and the later, far more active and courageous person (Martin 171), so we can assume that Frederic is an exponent of Hemingway’s own philosophy. At the same time, the narration is characterized by a disparity between what is overtly stated and what is covertly expressed (Schneider 14).

The author obviously asks the reader to believe in the perfection of love whose substance seems miserably inadequate during wartime and whose final is death. That is why we are continually struck with emotional dynamics of the novel and with the disparity between its visible outline of idealized romance and its underlying vision of the radical limitations of love (Tyler 61), with heavy use of the metaphor by the author (Bell 116) and his motif of disguise.

The book is cast in the novel-diary form which assists to show the evolution of the hero’s thoughts. Linguistic structure of Hemingway’s narration, as scholars argue, in “A Farewell to Arms” is based on so called unliterary style, on the tone which suggests a roughly educated but sensitive writer who is prouder of his muscles than of his vocabulary.

This style is now accustomed to associate with Hemingway’s name (Wagner-Martin 2). Despite of such characteristic of the author’s stylistics many researches argue that the strength of Hemingway’s novels, and of “A Farewell to Arms” in particular, is in their rather pure lyrical than epical character which is reflected in sustaining a single emotion: it starts with it and finishes with it, and any scenes, characters, thoughts or stylistic components that might be likely to deteriorate the prevailing emotion are discarded (Schneider 9). The stylistic character of “A Farewell to Arms” proves this – here the author devotes a major part of narration to the main hero’s state of mind, and rather limited part to the others.

The final act of enclosure in the novel represent a highly dramatic piece, it proves to be as structurally sound and effective as the evocative overture with which the novel opens. Thus, it comes as no surprise that this last passage of the novel has been long admired among the critics (Donaldson 110) and has become one of the most famous segments in American fiction – having been used in college classrooms across the country as a model of compositional compression and as an object lesson of successful result of hard working and multiple polishing rewritings by the author (Dow 78).


Hemingway’s celebrity prominence is unquestioned nowadays not only in the United States but all over the world. The conducted study clearly demonstrates that readers’ fascination with Hemingway and his famous novel “A Farewell to Arms” is the natural return. His narration in this novel is lyrical, dramatic and tragic concurrently. He transfers his philosophy to the readers in a masterly fashion using various stylistic and linguistic techniques without any moralization. His simple laconic style is recognizable and favoured by the readers, although some critics call it ‘unliterary’ one. This terse prose serves him perfectly in expressing his ideas in the novel.

The love affair between Henry and Catherine is a very elegant one, although it is developing on the background of war. But due to Hemingway’s mastery it turns out to be more of a meaning of existence rather than the primary focus of “A Farewell to Arms”. Frederic’s aspiration to self-knowledge and realization of own place in the world looks like as Hemingway’s personal values, while the author’s style becomes the perfect correlative of the emotions of despair and bitterness of the war. The careful selection of prevailing images by the writer and their repetition convey both the central meaning and the central emotion which is maintained throughout narration.

All these traits undoubtedly place the Hemingway’s novel onto extremely high place in world literature. The overwhelming majority of critics recognized “A Farewell to Arms” as the best American novel of World War I. The conducted study evidently demonstrates that it is a true masterpiece of fiction which occupies an outstanding place in world literary heritage – now and for the years to come.

Works Cited

  1. Bell, Millicent. “Pseudoautobiography and Personal Metaphor.” Ernest Hemingway’s a Farewell to Arms. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1987. 113-130.
  2. Bloom, Harold. “Introduction.” Ernest Hemingway’s a Farewell to Arms. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1987. 1-8.
  3. Donaldson, Scott. “Frederic Henry’s Escape and the Pose of Passivity.” Ernest Hemingway’s a Farewell to Arms. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1987. 97-112.
  4. Dow, William. “‘A Farewell to Arms’ and Hemingway Protest Stance: To Tell the Truth without Screaming.” The Hemingway Review 15.1 (1995): 72-88.
  5. Harrington, Gary. “Partial Articulation: Word Play in A Farewell to Arms.” The Hemingway Review 20.2 (2001): 59-75.
  6. Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
  7. Lockridge, Ernest. “Faithful in Her Fashion: Catherine Barkley, the Invisible Hemingway Heroine.” Journal of Narrative Technique 18 (1988): 170-78.
  8. Martin, Robert A. “Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: The World beyond Oak Park and Idealism.” Hemingway: Up in Michigan Perspectives. Eds. Frederic J. Svoboda and Joseph J. Waldmeir. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1995. 167-176.
  9. Merrill, Robert. “Tragic Form in A Farewell to Arms.” Ernest Hemingway’s a Farewell to Arms. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1987. 25-32.
  10. Schneider, Daniel J.  “The Novel as Pure Poetry.” Ernest Hemingway’s a Farewell to Arms. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1987. 9-24.
  11. Tyler, Lisa. Student Companion to Ernest Hemingway. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.
  12. Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Introduction.” Ernest Hemingway: Seven Decades of Criticism. Ed. Linda Wagner-Martin. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1998. 1-16.
  13. Whitlow, Roger. Cassandra’s Daughters: The Women in Hemingway. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.


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“A Farewell to Arms”: In Search of a Sense of Life. (2017, Jan 15). Retrieved from


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