We all know that A Farewell to Arms ends tragically, with the death of Frederic and Catherine’s son. One good way to see the deeper meaning of the tragedy is to look at the way the novel is structured. It’s told in the first person, in the past tense, like a memory. So, at the beginning of the novel, the narrator already knows how it will end.
While we read, we can pretend that we’ve met Frederic in some café or bar and he’s telling us the story over multiple pasta courses and fine wines. As we discuss in "Tone," Frederic trusts us with his story. And, because it’s a memory, he gets some things wrong, and he might embellish some things (like the dialogue) to entertain us. It’s also probable that the trauma of many of the events, and the number of beers in Frederic when he experiences them, have colored his memories. Unless Frederic has changed a great deal, he’s probably drinking while he’s telling the story. In short, as we discuss in "Point of View/Narrative Voice," in some ways, at some times, Frederic can be considered an unreliable narrator. He’s only human, right?
If Frederic is telling you this story while drinking, then he’s pretty smashed by the time he gets to the end, which might have something to do with why the following passages are so weird.
[The doctor] held him by his heels and slapped him.
"Is he all right?"
"He’s magnificent. He’ll weigh 5 kilos [eleven pounds]."
I had no feeling for him. He did not seem to have anything to do with me. I felt no feeling of fatherhood.
"Aren’t you proud of your son?" the nurse asked (41.183-187).
Now, a little while later, we get this scene.
"What’s the matter with the baby?" I asked.
"Didn’t you know?"
"He wasn’t alive."
"He was dead?"
"They couldn’t start him breathing. The chord was caught around his neck or something" (41.216-222).
The fact that the baby is dead when Frederic first sees him at least partially explains why Frederic "felt no feeling of fatherhood," and we can infer that the doctor is smacking the kid around to try to revive him, but it doesn’t in any way explain why they are acting like everything is just fine. You just don’t go around calling dead babies or even near dead babies "magnificent." And even if the doctor and nurse are stalling in order to try to somehow bring the baby to life, unless they are complete sadists, they wouldn’t act like that.
In a case like this, we have to suspect that the narrator isn’t remembering things as they happened. Or is it possible he wanted the baby to be alive so badly that he misheard what they were telling him? And thus misremembered it? Frederic sometimes lies to people in the novel, but he seems to always tell us the truth. Or does he? How you answer that question relates to how you interpret the novel. Regardless, some kind of communication breakdown occurred. Of that much, at least, we can be sure. This aspect of the ending emphasizes that the book is very much about the nature of memory, and about the nature of communication.
It wouldn’t be right if we didn’t also take a look at two passages regarding Catherine’s death.
I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died. She was unconscious all the time, and it did not take her very long to die (41.275).
Wow, it’s so much different from the way the baby’s death is described. There is no uncertainty, no panic. Frederic knows this is coming. That’s why he drank (count ‘em if you doubt us) at least six beers and had two orders of ham and eggs. According to this novel, what fortifies the troops in war? What is there never quite enough of? Food and booze. Frederic even says, "An army travels on its stomach." Frederic is an army of one, gearing up for the worst battle of his life up to this point: the battle with himself to keep it cool and give Catherine his idea of what she considers a dignified death. And there is a quiet dignity in this passage. If there are tears, we aren’t told. This is a private moment, and we must trust our instincts to understand.
Things becomes even more private after Catherine’s death:
But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue (41.292).
A statue can’t respond to his good-bye, and Catherine can now only respond to it in his memory and imagination. Yet, he can receive the comfort of human responses to his good-bye when he tells the story to other people, as honestly as possible.