A Farewell to Arms is an autobiographical novel written between 1899 and1961 by Ernest Hemingway and first published in 1929.The novel was written through a view point of Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American who serves as an ambulance driver in the Italian army during the First World’s War. The novel is about a catastrophic romance between Catherine Barkley, a British nurse and Frederick Henry, an American soldier. Farewells to arms by Ernest Hemingway uses symbolism to explain major themes related to the war, negative impact of the war and how it affects people’s psychology by making them lose the capacity for moral judgment and rational thought.
Henry, while serving in the front line of the Italian forces is wounded on the knee by a mortar shell and is admitted to a hospital in Milan. While in the hospital, he meets Catherine whom he falls in love. The relationship blossoms in summer as they spent time together in Milan. After three months of staying together, Catherine gets pregnant. Henry returns to his unit but after a short period, he engages in the battle of Caporetto where Austro-German forces overpowered the Italian forces and forces them to retreat. Henry and other drivers seek refuge in a farm house and resurface on the next day. Henry is seized by the battle police and after hearing that a Lt. Colonel had been executed; Henry sets himself free from the grip of the battle police and dive into a river thus escaping from a possible execution. Henry and Catherine reunite and using a boat, they flee to Switzerland. They live a quiet life in a mountainous region in Switzerland and after a while, Catherine goes into labor. After a painful and long labor, Catherine gives birth to a stillborn son, gets a Hemorrhage and soon passes on leaving Henry who gets back to the hotel in the rain as Hemingway (332) states “But after I got them to leave and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-bye to statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain”.
In 1918, during the First World War, Hemingway joined the Italian Red cross as an ambulance driver, where the Italian forces allied to French, British and Americans were fighting against Germany and Austrian Hungary. While serving as an Ambulance driver during the war, the experience Henry faced in the battle field played a key role in writing the novel. The first experience occurred in July 8, 1918 when he together with three soldiers was hit by a trench mortar shell while crouching beyond the front line. Although Hemingway overstated the story in the novel A Farewell to Arms whose time span was many years, it is clear that he was transferred to Milan to seek medical attention from where he falls in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, a Red Cross nurse. It is believed that the relationship between Henry and Catherine in the novel echoes Hemingway’s relationship with the Red Cross nurse. When Hemingway was working as a freelance journalist in Turkey and Greece, he witnessed the retreat of Greece army and its civilian which provided him a major foundation in writing his story .The story on retreat of the Italian troops was based on his experience on the retreat of Greece army and its civilians.
The novel uses symbolic language to connect to reader’s emotion by showing how war can affect people’s mode of living and thinking which results in them looking for an escapade that in the long run might have negative consequences. These symbols wrap up the major themes in the novel and are used by the writer in a big way. The widely used symbols are rain and Catherine’s hair.
As Catherine and Henry sleep in Bed listening to the storm outside, Catherine introduces the meaning of the rain. As the rain drops on the roof, Catherine admits the fact that rain frightens her and goes further to state that it has a tendency of destroying things for lovers. In real life situation, meteorological phenomena do not have such power but symbolically, Catherine fears is shown to be prophetic where after a short while, doom befalls the lovers. After the death of Catherine, Henry leaves the Hospital and walks home in the rain. In this case, the falling rain verifies Catherine’s anxiety and confirms one of the argument of the novel that great love just like other things in the world however good or bad they may be do not last forever (Mellow 103).
Catherine’s hair is an important symbol in the novel. In the early stages of their relationship, as Catherine and Henry lie in bed, Catherine takes down her hair and lets it flow over Henry’s head. The fall of Catherine’s hair reminds Henry of being behind a water fall or enclosed in a tent. The picture exhibited by the hair stand as a symbol of the isolation of the couples from the world. With a fierce war around them, they successful secure a wonderful seclusion which they believe is protected by something that is as delicate as hair. Later, when they are completely isolated from devastation of war and living in peace in Switzerland, they learn a cruel lesson that affection in the face of harsh reality is as short-lived and delicate as hair (Meyers 87).
Symbols have been used well to define major themes in the novel and have been echoed in the theme of realism that encompass the harsh reality of war, love and pain, and escape from reality. The rain shows the reality that befalls Henry where he uses love as a guise in running away from war but ends up in tragedy. The war caused him to engage in a wrong relationship that ultimately ended in death of Catherine and the baby. The reality within the symbol of the rain is that anything however genuine it is has a short lifespan and this is well exhibited in the love relationship he engages with Catherine. The delicate nature of the love affair is symbolized by Catherine’s hair. The symbols bring out the theme of realism in a number of ways.
The title of the novel, A Farewell to Arms has a basis on a war that Frederic Henry struggles to set himself free from and leave it behind. Few characters such as Gino and Ettore Moretti support the war but majority of them are hesitant about the war, doubtful of the glory it allegedly brings and resentful of the havoc it brings. The novel provides a clear description of the violent chaos and senseless brutality brought about by the conflict. War affects capacity for moral judgment and rational thought. For instance, Henry shoots an Engineer for refusing to help him free the car that had stuck in the mud, a violent outburst that contradict his coolly detached character. The murder of the engineer seemed to be justified because it is an expected result of violence and disorder of war (Waldhorn 76).
Escape from reality expounds on the theme of realism in a number of ways. Henry’s involvement with Catherine is aimed at escaping the insanity of war. Actually the extreme circumstance of the war brought the two together thus creating an environment that allowed them to fall in love. The love affair provides Henry an emotional safe landing where he can evade the reality of war. Under normal circumstances, the relationship would not have occurred but due to the conditions that surrounded both Catherine and Henry, the relationship was initiated with ease. In order to escape the reality of war in getting into a love relationship with Catherine, Henry had misunderstood his actions. He had alienated himself from the environment of war which he believed had no place in his life but when Aymo is killed by his own army, he discovered he is not really separated at all from the events and gets into a reality that he is an integral part of the war and has no chance of avoiding it. At this instance, he gets scared and so in order to escape immediately, he separates himself through love. When Catherine is about to deliver her first child, Henry becomes nervous. Although the baby is a product of their love, he becomes an important tool in connecting Henry to the reality of his current situation even though the insanity of war is over. The symbol of the rain as prophesized by Catherine’s fear is well explained where neither Catherine nor Henry handles the situation at hand. Hemingway (331) states, “It seems she had an hemorrhage after another. They could not stop it. I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died. She was unconscious all the time, and did not take her very long to die”. This shows Catherine inability to cope with the situation physically through her death and the death of the child.
Hemingway uses symbolism in explaining the Negative impact of the war. The rain as a symbol shows the tragic end of the love relationship between Catherine and Henry. The relationship was a result of the insanity of war that Henry was tried to escape. War forces people to engage in things that might seem good at the start but end in a bad note. Through the symbol of rain, the negative effect of war is well depicted where Henry engages in acts of escapism to evade insanity caused by the war. His escape from the negative reality of war ultimately leaves him a dejected man. War is a major theme in the novel and defines many evils that result from its madness. Generally, war has defined human beings for many years and shows how deeply people hate each other. The novel has little combat but exhibits numerous effects of war. For instance the town, Gorizia, functions normally although there are people dying around it. More people die from diseases than in combat which is one of the effects of war. Actually, war is always in the background. The confusion of war causes some members of the forces to engage in unethical acts in the name of duty. For instance Rinaldi and Fred chase their women and carry on with their duties. The action of chasing the women indicates that war moulds people who have no feelings and can thus do anything to win it. When the business of war commences, the men express their feeling about it where the drivers state that it is a conflict in terms of class struggle and so they were not willing to fight it at all. Shelling and shooting in the war results in injuries and death. Henry’s legs are torn apart while one of his men is killed by an explosion which rocks them. People who participate in any war might lose their moral judgment and rational thought and thus engages in horrendous acts. For instance, Fred learns a shocking fact that the wounded soldiers must be left behind the hills as it is difficult to defend the mountains against attack by the Germans and so they retreat abandoning them instead of offering assistance to them. In this case, war promotes selfishness and kills the spirit of assistance as specified by wounded people being left in the battle field. Negative impact of the war gets intense as the retreat continues. Henry shoots and kills one of the engineers after they refused to take his orders and injures another who in the long run is killed by Bonello. It is apparent that the drivers do not want to be engaged in the war but they are forced to and develop heartlessness which in turn has negative effects on their conscience. Retreat by Italian forces brought about confusion where Italian officers panicked, started interrogating and executing anyone who was not Italian. This obviously shows that war causes people to lose their sense of humanity and allows impunity to sets in. The emotional effect of the war causes people to make wrong decisions and undertake wrong actions that under normal circumstances would not have happened. As a result of the war and quest to escape from it, Henry engages in a love relationship with Catherine. Although he managed to run away from the effects of the war, the end result of this love is tragic where both Catherine and the child die leaving Henry a dejected man. Despite the fact that the novel talks about the effects of the war, it fails to condemn it harshly but states that war is an inevitable outcome of senseless and cruel world. Hemingway puts forward his opinion by stating that war is nothing more than murderous and dark extension of a world that fails to protect, acknowledge and preserve true love (Hemingway 12).
A Farewell to Arms written by Ernest Hemingway describes how war affects the moral judgment and rational thought of people. People make wrong decisions and end up in tragedies as symbolized by the rain in Henry’s situation. For instance, Henry engages in a relationship that ends in the death of Catherine and their baby. War affects the economic, social and political aspect of any society as it is an extension of the world that fails to acknowledge, protect and preserve true love.