Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms deals frankly and extensively with the sexual behavior of its principle characters. What role does sex play in the novel?

It would be easy to read A Farewell to Arms as a celebration of modern, freewheeling sexual liberation. For a book published in 1929, Hemingway’s novel features a surprising amount of sexual activity as well as a plainspoken candor on the subject. Characters regularly visit brothels and talk and joke about sex, and the romance between the novel’s narrator, Frederic Henry, and the nurse Catherine Barkley is grounded in their covert sexual relationship as much as anything else. However, a close examination reveals a more conflicted portrayal than we might first imagine. Hemingway clearly shows that his characters’ sexual activities lead to profound negative consequences. In this way, he actually advances a relatively conservative view of sexual ethics, using the prevalence of casual, unmarried sex in the novel to demonstrate the terrible effects of wartime on the traditional moral order.

Throughout the novel, Frederic and his friends talk about sex and visit brothels in a strikingly casual way. For men in the military, this behavior is just part of daily life during wartime. Frederic’s friend Rinaldi is probably the most appealing character in the whole book, and he also happens to be the most oversexed. He’s a good doctor with a great sense of humor and a positive attitude, but he also has a penchant for drinking and prostitutes. Many of the other admirable characters in the book, such as Dr. Valentini, share Rinaldi’s unsavory habits. Ironically, the characters portrayed most negatively, such as the pompous, abstemious war hero Ettore Moretti and the prudish head nurse Miss Van Campen, refrain from vices. In this way, Hemingway seems to prize certain characteristics (here, virility) that also predispose a man to certain weaknesses—at least during wartime, when marriage is impossible and there are special whorehouses set up for military officers. Nonetheless, Hemingway shows that moral vices can have dire consequences. In the end, Rinaldi contracts syphilis, a terrible disease that stems from his sexual behavior.

Frederic and Catherine’s romance follows the same pattern: Their secret affair in the hospital seems exciting and attractive to the reader most of the time, but it eventually ends in disaster. In the final chapter, Catherine dies after giving birth to a stillborn child. Both her pregnancy and her death are clearly the result of her sexual relationship with Frederic. It would be simplistic to argue that Hemingway portrays Catherine’s death as a just punishment for sexual indiscretion, but there is a moral element to the novel’s grim conclusion. Catherine’s demise is portrayed as the final act in a tragedy set against the disfigured moral landscape of wartime.

Catherine’s relationship with Frederic is always placed in implicit contrast to her relationship with her fiancé, who died in France. Catherine and her fiancé were engaged for eight years but the couple remained chaste. (She explains this, somewhat obliquely, to Frederic in their first meeting). By comparison, Catherine and Frederic jump into a sexual relationship very quickly, sleeping together right after they are reunited in the hospital following Frederic’s injury, and then postpone marriage indefinitely. Hemingway shows the ugly side of their affair when they spend a last night together in a sleazy hotel before he returns to the front. Catherine says she feels like a “whore,” emphasizing how far their relationship in fact is from a normal courtship or marriage. In some regards, Catherine and Frederic’s relationship functions exactly the way a good union between two people shouldn’t, as the two grow increasingly isolated from society. They lose interest in their friends and promise they won’t have to meet each other’s parents. In the end, they flee to the total isolation of Switzerland. Instead of laying the foundation for a future life, surrounded by friends, family, and a supportive community—as in a good, traditional marriage—they cut themselves off from the world as much as possible.

In a broad sense, A Farewell to Arms is about the supreme difficulty of trying to live ethically in a situation—wartime—where the usual moral order has collapsed. During the Italian army’s chaotic retreat, Frederic shoots an engineer who refuses to help with a vehicle, moments before Frederic himself abandons the same car. Later, he decides he can make a “separate peace” with war and abandon his post, implicitly asserting that his own conscience can trump the laws that ought to bind him to the army. But the episode with the engineer shows that, in a world that doesn’t make sense, Frederic is morally adrift. Likewise, Frederic and Catherine try to have a romantic and sexual relationship outside of the normal moral framework of peacetime: marriage. Though their romance is beautifully and lyrically described, it ultimately leaves Catherine dead and, over its course, strips both of all their attachments to other people. Because the moral order is so upset by war, even good men, such as Rinaldi, and good relationships, such as Frederic and Catherine’s, must end tragically.