A Farewell to Arms is one of the most famous war novels ever written. Unlike many war stories, however, the novel does not glorify the experience of combat or offer us portraits of heroes as they are traditionally conceived. What is the novel’s attitude toward war? Is it fair to call A Farewell to Arms an antiwar novel?
As the title suggests, A Farewell to Arms is in many ways an antiwar novel, but it would not be fair to connect this novel with a literature of pacifism or social protest. In the novel’s value system, violence is not necessarily wrong—neither Henry nor Bonello feels any remorse for shooting the engineering sergeant, and the reader believes Henry when he tells Catherine that he will kill the police if they come to arrest him. Furthermore, the novel glorifies discipline, competence, and masculinity and portrays war as a setting in which those qualities are constantly on display.
Nevertheless, A Farewell to Arms opposes the thoughtless violence, massive destruction, and sheer senselessness of war. It also criticizes the psychological damage that war inflicts on individuals and populations and its brutal upheaval of the lives of survivors. In the face of such devastation, the novel posits, victory and defeat are meaningless terms. Unlike many novels that glorify courage in battle, A Farewell to Arms attempts to give a realistic portrayal of a terrifying and, at the time of World War I, new kind of war. Never before had men fought with machines and artillery capable of bringing about such annihilation. Still, the aim of the novel is not to protest war or encourage peace; it is simply to depict the hostility and violence of a universe in which such a conflict is possible.
Discuss the various ways in which characters seek solace from the pains of a war-ravaged world. In the end, what does the novel suggest about such comforts?
From the beginning of the novel, nearly every character has a habit to which he or she turns to help alleviate his or her private suffering. Mourning the death of her fiancé, Catherine plays a distracting game of seduction with Henry. Rinaldi loses himself in the comforts of women, while the priest uses his faith in God to ease the pain of the war and the ruthless taunting of the soldiers. Nearly all of the characters rely heavily on alcohol to numb the daily assaults of the war, both physical and emotional.
The most appealing of all of these comforts is love, which Hemingway explores for its power to endow characters with a sense of security. Upon meeting, Henry and Catherine imitate conventional courtship, speaking words that seem stolen from a scripted romance. They engage in such behavior, they admit, in order to take their minds off the war. As their love grows stronger and more legitimate, they continue to treat it as a protective shelter: Henry abandons the army and ends up living in the supposed safety of neutral Switzerland.
In the end, however, nothing offers lasting protection. Rinaldi, Henry suspects, has succumbed to syphilis, reflecting the degenerate nature of Rinaldi’s values. The priest’s philosophies regarding God are outdone by Henry’s belief in the hollowness of lofty abstractions. Catherine, despite her all-consuming love, dies in childbirth. The novel suggests that no matter where characters turn for solace from the harsh circumstances of the world, the need for comfort and protection can never be fulfilled.
Discuss Frederic Henry as a narrator. Assuming that, as a character, he is writing his story many years after living it, how does he convey its sense of extreme immediacy?
The descriptive immediacy of A Farewell to Arms is the novel’s most distinctive feature, and Hemingway achieves it through a simple, but expertly executed, technique: he allows Henry, as the narrator, to describe events according to his own perception and memories. The story never strays from Henry’s vantage point. Even panoramic scenes of war and the afflicted Italian countryside, such as the passages describing the great retreat, are filtered through Henry’s eyes—the reader sees only what Henry sees. Because Hemingway never offers objective narration (in which an omniscient, omnipresent voice tells the story), he must render the chaos and confusion and brutality of war by using only Henry’s experiences. In choosing these experiences so skillfully, Hemingway is able to communicate the bleakness of one of the most traumatic times in world history—World War I—by focusing, for instance, on a conflict between two men: when Henry shoots the fleeing engineering sergeant, his actions convey the grim reality of a world that enables him to behave in such a way.
Additionally, the lack of other viewpoints contributes to the immediacy of the story—Henry, as though he is perpetually too engrossed in the moment to think outside of himself, never imagines the perceptions or feelings of other characters. He does not, for instance, presume to know what Catherine thinks or that she ever thinks anything other than what she says. Like a reporter, he simply reports what he sees and hears. This technique binds the reader to Henry’s experience, and interpretation, of the events that he details.