In his Death in the Afternoon, a meditation on the arts of bullfighting and writing, Hemingway advocates an “Iceberg Theory” of fiction:
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
True to Hemingway’s ideal, the above description of trees, leaves, and a dusty road leaves the reader with more than a simple sense of Henry’s environment. The lieutenant’s language, mournful and repetitive as an elegy, hints at the great losses that he will eventually suffer.
Once Henry picks up the narrative in Gorizia, the reader is introduced to several of the novel’s major characters and themes. Rinaldi immediately emerges as a vibrant and mischievous character (only Henry’s word positions him as a passionate and committed surgeon). Henry soon establishes himself as a conflicted soldier. Having joined the army with neither a thirst for glory nor a fierce belief in its cause, Henry is physically, psychologically, and morally drained by the war. He is not alone. Catherine Barkley, who is tense and unnerving the first time Henry meets her, softens toward him quickly. Her strange behavior—the haste with which she attaches herself to a man whom she barely knows—belies the grief that she feels over the death of her fiancé.
Two dominant themes in A Farewell to Arms are love and war. War, which is described with brutal intensity, fills the mind of everyone in Henry’s world. Thoughts of it afflict the characters like a painful, chronic headache. War fuels the sense of despair and grief at the heart of the book, establishing the harsh conditions whereby the loss of seven thousand soldiers to a cholera epidemic can be considered nominal. As Henry’s initial conversations with Catherine make clear, everyone is desperate for an antidote to the numbing effects of war. People would prefer to think any other thoughts, to feel any other emotions, and so plunge headlong into love as a means of overcoming their fear, pain, and grief. Rinaldi pretends to love every beautiful woman he meets, while Catherine and Henry, upon meeting, play a seductively distracting game in which they pretend to love and care for each other.