Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in the summer of 1899. He later portrayed his middle-class parents rather harshly, condemning them for their conventional morality and values. As a young man, he left home to become a newspaper writer in Kansas City. Early in 1918, he joined the Italian Red Cross and served as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I, in which the Italians allied with the British, French, and Americans against Germany and Austria-Hungary. During his time abroad, Hemingway had two experiences that affected him profoundly and that would later inspire one of his most celebrated novels, A Farewell to Arms. The first occurred on July 8, 1918, when a trench mortar shell struck him while he crouched beyond the front lines with three Italian soldiers. Though Hemingway embellished the story over the years, it is certain that he was transferred to a hospital in Milan, where he fell in love with a Red Cross nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky. Scholars are divided over Agnes's role in Hemingway's life and writing, but there is little doubt that his relationship with her informed the relationship between Lieutenant Henry and Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms.
After his recovery, Hemingway spent several years as a reporter, during which time he honed the clear, concise, and emotionally evocative writing style that generations of authors after him would imitate. In September 1921, he married his first of four wives and settled in Paris, where he made valuable connections with American expatriate writers like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Hemingway's landmark collection of stories, In Our Time, introduced Nick Adams, one of the author's favorite protagonists, whose difficult road from youth into maturity he chronicled. Hemingway's reputation as a writer, however, was most firmly established by the publication of The Sun Also Rises in 1926 and A Farewell to Arms in 1929.
Critics generally agree that A Farewell to Arms is Hemingway's most accomplished novel. It offers powerful descriptions of life during and immediately following World War I and brilliantly maps the psychological complexities of its characters using a revolutionary, pared-down prose style. Furthermore, the novel, like much of Hemingway's writing during what were to be his golden years, helped to establish the author's myth of himself as a master of many trades: writing, soldiering, boxing, bullfighting, big-game hunting.
Hemingway was skilled, to a greater or lesser extent, in each of these arts, but many critics maintain that his writing fizzled after World War II, when his physical and mental health declined. Despite fantastic bouts of depression, Hemingway did muster enough energy to write The Old Man and the Sea, one of his most beloved stories, in 1952. This novella earned him a Pulitzer Prize, and three years later Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Still, not even these accolades could soothe the devastating effects of a lifetime of debilitating depression. On July 2, 1961, Hemingway killed himself in his home in Ketchum, Idaho.
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Lieutenant Frederic Henry is a young American ambulance driver serving in the Italian army during World War I. At the beginning of the novel, the war is winding down with the onset of winter, and Henry arranges to tour Italy. The following spring, upon his return to the front, Henry meets Catherine Barkley, an English nurse's aide at the nearby British hospital and the love interest of his friend Rinaldi. Rinaldi, however, quickly fades from the picture as Catherine and Henry become involved in an elaborate game of seduction. Grieving the recent death of her fiancé, Catherine longs for love so deeply that she will settle for the illusion of it. Her passion, even though pretended, wakens a desire for emotional interaction in Henry, whom the war has left coolly detached and numb.
When Henry is wounded on the battlefield, he is brought to a hospital in Milan to recover. Several doctors recommend that he stay in bed for six months and then undergo a necessary operation on his knee. Unable to accept such a long period of recovery, Henry finds a bold, garrulous surgeon named Dr. Valentini who agrees to operate immediately. Henry learns happily that Catherine has been transferred to Milan and begins his recuperation under her care. During the following months, his relationship with Catherine intensifies. No longer simply a game in which they exchange empty promises and playful kisses, their love becomes powerful and real. As the lines between scripted and genuine emotions begin to blur, Henry and Catherine become tangled in their love for each other.
Once Henry's damaged leg has healed, the army grants him three weeks convalescence leave, after which he is scheduled to return to the front. He tries to plan a trip with Catherine, who reveals to him that she is pregnant. The following day, Henry is diagnosed with jaundice, and Miss Van Campen, the superintendent of the hospital, accuses him of bringing the disease on himself through excessive drinking. Believing Henry's illness to be an attempt to avoid his duty as a serviceman, Miss Van Campen has Henry's leave revoked, and he is sent to the front once the jaundice has cleared. As they part, Catherine and Henry pledge their mutual devotion.
Henry travels to the front, where Italian forces are losing ground and manpower daily. Soon after Henry's arrival, a bombardment begins. When word comes that German troops are breaking through the Italian lines, the Allied forces prepare to retreat. Henry leads his team of ambulance drivers into the great column of evacuating troops. The men pick up two engineering sergeants and two frightened young girls on their way. Henry and his drivers then decide to leave the column and take secondary roads, which they assume will be faster. When one of their vehicles bogs down in the mud, Henry orders the two engineers to help in the effort to free the vehicle. When they refuse, he shoots one of them. The drivers continue in the other trucks until they get stuck again. They send off the young girls and continue on foot toward Udine. As they march, one of the drivers is shot dead by the easily frightened rear guard of the Italian army. Another driver marches off to surrender himself, while Henry and the remaining driver seek refuge at a farmhouse. When they rejoin the retreat the following day, chaos has broken out: soldiers, angered by the Italian defeat, pull commanding officers from the melee and execute them on sight. The battle police seize Henry, who, at a crucial moment, breaks away and dives into the river. After swimming a safe distance downstream, Henry boards a train bound for Milan. He hides beneath a tarp that covers stockpiled artillery, thinking that his obligations to the war effort are over and dreaming of his return to Catherine.
Henry reunites with Catherine in the town of Stresa. From there, the two escape to safety in Switzerland, rowing all night in a tiny borrowed boat. They settle happily in a lovely alpine town called Montreux and agree to put the war behind them forever. Although Henry is sometimes plagued by guilt for abandoning the men on the front, the two succeed in living a beautiful, peaceful life. When spring arrives, the couple moves to Lausanne so that they can be closer to the hospital. Early one morning, Catherine goes into labor. The delivery is exceptionally painful and complicated. Catherine delivers a stillborn baby boy and, later that night, dies of a hemorrhage. Henry stays at her side until she is gone. He attempts to say goodbye but cannot. He walks back to his hotel in the rain.
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Lieutenant Frederic Henry - The novel's narrator and protagonist. A young American ambulance driver in the Italian army during World War I, Henry meets his military duties with quiet stoicism. He displays courage in battle, but his selfish motivations undermine all sense of glory and heroism, abstract terms for which Henry has little patience. His life lacks real passion until he meets the beautiful CatherineBarkley.
Catherine Barkley - An English nurse's aide who falls in love with Henry. Catherine is exceptionally beautiful and possesses, perhaps, the most sensuously described hair in all of literature. When the novel opens, Catherine's grief for her dead fiancé launches her headlong into a playful, though reckless, game of seduction. Her feelings for Henry soon intensify and become more complicated, however, and she eventually swears lifelong fidelity to him.
Rinaldi - A surgeon in the Italian army. Mischievous, wry, and oversexed, Rinaldi is Henry's closest friend. Although Rinaldi is a skilled doctor, his primary practice is seducing beautiful women. When Henry returns to Gorizia, Rinaldi tries to whip up a convivial atmosphere.
The priest - A kind, sweet, young man who provides spiritual guidance to the few soldiers interested in it. Often the butt of the officers' jokes, the priest responds with good-natured understanding. Through Henry's conversations with him regarding the war, the novel challenges abstract ideals like glory, honor, and sacredness.
Helen Ferguson - A nurse's aide who works at the American hospital and a dear friend of Catherine. Though Helen is friendly and accepting of Henry and Rinaldi's visits to Catherine early in the novel, her hysterical outburst over Henry and Catherine's "immoral" affair establishes her as an unhappy woman who is paranoid about her friend's safety and anxious about her own loneliness.
Miss Gage - An American nurse who helps Henry through his recovery at the hospital in Milan. At ease and accepting, Miss Gage becomes a friend to Henry, someone with whom he can share a drink and gossip.
Miss Van Campen - The superintendent of nurses at the American hospital in which Catherine works. Miss Van Campen is strict, cold, and unpleasant. She disapproves of Henry and remains on cool terms with him throughout his stay.
Dr. Valentini - An Italian surgeon who comes to the American hospital to contradict the hospital's opinion that Henry must wait six months before having an operation on his leg. In agreeing to perform surgery the next morning, Dr. Valentini displays the kind of self-assurance and confidence that Henry (and the novel) celebrates.
Count Greffi - A spry, ninety-four-year-old nobleman. The count represents a more mature version of Henry's character and Hemingway's masculine ideal. He lives life to the fullest and thinks for himself. Though the count dismisses the label "wise," Henry clearly values his thoughts and sees him as a sort of father figure.
Ettore Moretti - An American soldier from San Francisco. Ettore, like Henry, fights for the Italian army. Unlike Henry, however, Ettore is an obnoxious braggart. Quick to instigate a fight or display the medals that he claims to have worked so hard to win, he believes in and pursues the glory and honor that Henry eschews.
Gino - A young Italian whom Henry meets at a decimated village. Gino's patriotic belief that his fatherland is sacred and should be protected at all costs contrasts sharply to Henry's attitude toward war.
Ralph Simmons - An opera student of dubious talent. Simmons is the first person that Henry goes to see after fleeing from battle. Simmons proves to be a generous friend, giving Henry civilian clothes so that he can travel to Switzerland without drawing suspicion.
Emilio - A bartender in the town of Stresa. Emilio proves a good friend to Henry and Catherine, helping them reunite, saving them from arrest, and ushering them off to safety.
Bonello - An ambulance driver under Henry's command. Bonello displays his ruthlessness when he brutally unloads a pistol round into the head of an uncooperative engineer whom Henry has already shot.
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Analysis of Major Characters
Frederic Henry - In the sections of the novel in which he describes his experience in the war, Henry portrays himself as a man of duty. He attaches to this understanding of himself no sense of honor, nor does he expect any praise for his service. Even after he has been severely wounded, he discourages Rinaldi from pursuing medals of distinction for him. Time and again, through conversations with men like the priest, Ettore Moretti, and Gino, Henry distances himself from such abstract notions as faith, honor, and patriotism. Concepts such as these mean nothing to him beside such concrete facts of war as the names of the cities in which he has fought and the numbers of decimated streets.
Against this bleak backdrop, Henry's reaction to Catherine Barkley is rather astonishing. The reader understands why Henry responds to the game that Catherine proposes—why he pledges his love to a woman he barely knows: like Rinaldi, he hopes for a night's simple pleasures. But an active sex drive does not explain why Henry returns to Catherine—why he continues to swear his love even after Catherine insists that he stop playing. In his fondness for Catherine, Henry reveals a vulnerability usually hidden by his stoicism and masculinity. The quality of the language that Henry uses to describe Catherine's hair and her presence in bed testifies to the genuine depth of his feelings for her. Furthermore, because he allows Henry to narrate the book, Hemingway is able to suffuse the entire novel with the power and pathos of an elegy: A Farewell to Arms, which Henry narrates after Catherine's death, confirms his love and his loss.
Catherine Barkley - Much has been written regarding Hemingway's portrayal of female characters. With the advent of feminist criticism, readers have become more vocal about their dissatisfaction with Hemingway's depictions of women, which, according to critics such as Leslie A. Fiedler, tend to fall into one of two categories: overly dominant shrews, like Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises, and overly submissive confections, like Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway, Fiedler maintains, was at his best dealing with men without women; when he started to involve female characters in his writing, he reverted to uncomplicated stereotypes. A Farewell to Arms certainly supports such a reading: it is easy to see how Catherine's blissful submission to domesticity, especially at the novel's end, might rankle contemporary readers for whom lines such as "I'm having a child and that makes me contented not to do anything" suggest a bygone era in which a woman's work centered around maintaining a home and filling it with children.
Still, even though Catherine's excessive desire to live a lovely life may, at times, make her more archetypal than real, it is unfair to deny her the nuances of her character. Although Catherine alludes to her initial days with Henry as a period when she was slightly "crazy," she seems perfectly aware of the fact that she and Henry are, at first, playing an elaborate game of seduction. Rather than being swept off her feet by Henry's declarations of love, she capably draws the line, telling him when she has had enough for the night or reminding him that their budding love is a lie. In fact, Catherine's resistance holds out much longer than Henry's: even after Henry emphatically states that he loves her and that their lives together will be splendid, Catherine exhibits the occasional doubt, telling him that she is sure that dreadful things await them and claiming that she fears having a baby because she has never loved anyone. Privy only to what Catherine says, not to what she thinks, the reader is left to explain these infrequent lapses in her otherwise uncompromised devotion. Her premonition of dreadful things, for instance, may simply be a general alarm about the war-torn world or residual guilt for loving a man other than the fiancé whom she is mourning as the book opens. While the degree to which Catherine is conflicted remains open to debate, her loyalty to Henry does not. She is a loving, dedicated woman whose desire and capacity for a redemptive, otherworldly love makes her the inevitable victim of tragedy.
Rinaldi - Rinaldi's character serves an important function in A Farewell to Arms. He dominates an array of minor male characters who embody the kind of virile, competent, and good-natured masculinity that, for better or worse, so much of Hemingway's fiction celebrates. Rinaldi is an unbelievable womanizer, professing to be in love with Catherine at the beginning of the novel but claiming soon thereafter to be relieved that he is not, like Henry, saddled with the complicated emotional baggage that the love of a woman entails. Considering Rinaldi's frequent visits to the local whorehouses, Henry later muses that his friend has most likely succumbed to syphilis. While this registers as an unpleasant end, it is presented with an air of detached likelihood rather than fervent moralizing. It is, in other words, not punishment for a man's bad behavior but rather the consequence of a man behaving as a man—living large, living boldly, and being true to himself.
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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work. The Grim Reality of War - As the title of the novel makes clear, A Farewell to Arms concerns itself primarily with war, namely the process by which Frederic Henry removes himself from it and leaves it behind. The few characters in the novel who actually support the effort—Ettore Moretti and Gino—come across as a dull braggart and a naïve youth, respectively. The majority of the characters remain ambivalent about the war, resentful of the terrible destruction it causes, doubtful of the glory it supposedly brings.
The novel offers masterful descriptions of the conflict's senseless brutality and violent chaos: the scene of the Italian army's retreat remains one of the most profound evocations of war in American literature. As the neat columns of men begin to crumble, so too do the soldiers' nerves, minds, and capacity for rational thought and moral judgment. Henry's shooting of the engineer for refusing to help free the car from the mud shocks the reader for two reasons: first, the violent outburst seems at odds with Henry's coolly detached character; second, the incident occurs in a setting that robs it of its moral import—the complicity of Henry's fellow soldiers legitimizes the killing. The murder of the engineer seems justifiable because it is an inevitable by-product of the spiraling violence and disorder of the war.
Nevertheless, the novel cannot be said to condemn the war; A Farewell to Arms is hardly the work of a pacifist. Instead, just as the innocent engineer's death is an inevitability of war, so is war the inevitable outcome of a cruel, senseless world. Hemingway suggests that war is nothing more than the dark, murderous extension of a world that refuses to acknowledge, protect, or preserve true love.
The Relationship between Love and Pain - Against the backdrop of war, Hemingway offers a deep, mournful meditation on the nature of love. No sooner does Catherine announce to Henry that she is in mourning for her dead fiancé than she begins a game meant to seduce Henry. Her reasons for doing so are clear: she wants to distance herself from the pain of her loss. Likewise, Henry intends to get as far away from talk of the war as possible. In each other, Henry and Catherine find temporary solace from the things that plague them. The couple's feelings for each other quickly pass from an amusement that distracts them to the very fuel that sustains them. Henry's understanding of how meaningful his love for Catherine is outweighs any consideration for the emptiness of abstract ideals such as honor, enabling him to flee the war and seek her out. Reunited, they plan an idyllic life together that promises to act as a salve for the damage that the war has inflicted. Far away from the decimated Italian countryside, each intends to be the other's refuge. If they are to achieve physical, emotional, and psychological healing, they have found the perfect place in the safe remove of the Swiss mountains. The tragedy of the novel rests in the fact that their love, even when genuine, can never be more than temporary in this world.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
Masculinity - Readers of Hemingway's fiction will quickly notice a consistent thread in the portrayal and celebration of a certain kind of man: domineering, supremely competent, and swaggeringly virile. A Farewell to Arms holds up several of its minor male characters as examples of fine manhood. Rinaldi is a faithful friend and an oversexed womanizer; Dr. Valentini exhibits a virility to rival Rinaldi's as well as a bold competence that makes him the best surgeon. Similarly, during the scene in which Henry fires his pistol at the fleeing engineering sergeants, Bonello takes charge of the situation by brutally shooting the fallen engineer in the head. The respect with which Hemingway sketches these men, even at their lowest points, is highlighted by the humor, if not contempt, with which he depicts their opposites. The success of each of these men depends, in part, on the failure of another: Rinaldi secures his sexual prowess by attacking the priest's lack of lust; Dr. Valentini's reputation as a surgeon is thrown into relief by the three mousy, overly cautious, and physically unimpressive doctors who precede him; and Bonello's ruthlessness is prompted by the disloyal behavior of the soldier whom he kills.
Games and Divertissement - Henry and Catherine begin flirting with each other in order to forget personal troubles. Flirting, which Henry compares to bridge, allows Henry to "drop the war" and diverts Catherine's thoughts from the death of her fiancé. Likewise, the horse races that Catherine and Henry attend enable them to block out thinking of Henry's return to the front and of their imminent separation. Ironically, Henry and Catherine's relationship becomes the source of suffering from which Henry needs diversion. Henry cannot stand to be away from Catherine, and while playing pool with Count Greffi takes his mind off of her, the best divertissement turns out to be the war itself. When Catherine instructs him not to think about her when they are apart, Henry replies, "That's how I worked it at the front. But there was something to do then." The transformations of the war from fatal threat into divertissement and love from distraction into pain signal not only Henry's attachment to Catherine but also the transitory nature of happiness. Pathos radiates from this fleeting happiness because, even though happiness is temporary, the pursuit of it remains necessary. Perhaps an understanding of the limits of happiness explains the count's comment that though he values love most in life, he is not wise for doing so. The count is wiser than he claims, however. He hedges against the transitory nature of love by finding pleasure and amusement in games, birthday parties, and the taking of "a little stimulant." That one can depend on their simple pleasures lends games and divertissement a certain dignity; while they may not match up to the nobility of pursuits such as love, they prove quietly constant.
Loyalty versus Abandonment - The notions of loyalty and abandonment apply equally well to love and war. The novel, however, suggests that loyalty is more a requirement of love and friendship than of the grand political causes and abstract philosophies of battling nations. While Henry takes seriously his duty as a lieutenant, he does not subscribe to the ideals that one typically imagines fuel soldiers in combat. Unlike Ettore Moretti or Gino, the promise of honor and the duties of patriotism mean little to Henry. Although he shoots an uncooperative engineering sergeant for failing to comply with his orders, Henry's violence should be read as an inevitable outcome of a destructive war rather than as a conscious decision to enforce a code of moral conduct. Indeed, Henry eventually follows in the engineering sergeants' footsteps by abandoning the army and his responsibilities. While he does, at times, feel guilt over this course of action, he takes comfort in the knowledge that he is most loyal where loyalty counts most: in his relationship with Catherine. That these conflicting allegiances cannot be reconciled does not suggest, however, that loyalty and abandonment lie at opposite ends of a moral spectrum. Rather, they reflect the priorities of a specific individual's life.
Illusions and Fantasies - Upon meeting, Catherine and Henry rely upon a grand illusion of love and seduction for comfort. Catherine seeks solace for the death of her fiancé, while Henry will do anything to distance himself from the war. At first, their declarations of love are transparent: Catherine reminds Henry several times that their courtship is a game, sending him away when she has played her fill. After Henry is wounded, however, his desire for Catherine and the comfort and support that she offers becomes more than a distraction from the world's unpleasantness; his love begins to sustain him and blossoms into something undeniably real. Catherine's feelings for Henry follow a similar course.
While the couple acts in ways that confirm the genuine nature of their passion, however, they never escape the temptation of dreaming of a better world. In other words, the boundary between reality and illusion proves difficult to identify. After Henry and Catherine have spent months of isolation in Switzerland, Hemingway depicts their relationship as a mixture of reality and illusion. Boredom has begun to set in, and the couple effects small daily changes to reinvigorate their lives and their passion: Catherine gets a new haircut, while Henry grows a beard. Still, or perhaps because of, the comparative dullness of real life (not to mention the ongoing war), the couple turns to fantasies of a more perfect existence. They dream of life on a Swiss mountain, where they will make their own clothes and need nothing but each other, suggesting that fantasizing is an essential part of coping with the banal, sometimes damaging effects of reality.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Rain - Rain serves in the novel as a potent symbol of the inevitable disintegration of happiness in life. Catherine infuses the weather with meaning as she and Henry lie in bed listening to the storm outside. As the rain falls on the roof, Catherine admits that the rain scares her and says that it has a tendency to ruin things for lovers. Of course, no meteorological phenomenon has such power; symbolically, however, Catherine's fear proves to be prophetic, for doom does eventually come to the lovers. After Catherine's death, Henry leaves the hospital and walks home in the rain. Here, the falling rain validates Catherine's anxiety and confirms one of the novel's main contentions: great love, like anything else in the world—good or bad, innocent or deserving—cannot last.
Catherine's Hair - Although it is not a recurring symbol, Catherine's hair is an important one. In the early, easy days of their relationship, as Henry and Catherine lie in bed, Catherine takes down her hair and lets it cascade around Henry's head. The tumble of hair reminds Henry of being enclosed inside a tent or behind a waterfall. This lovely description stands as a symbol of the couple's isolation from the world. With a war raging around them, they manage to secure a blissful seclusion, believing themselves protected by something as delicate as hair. Later, however, when they are truly isolated from the ravages of war and living in peaceful Switzerland, they learn the harsh lesson that love, in the face of life's cruel reality, is as fragile and ephemeral as hair.