Frederic Henry tells it all, and doesn’t spare himself. He confesses the constant drinking, the prostitutes, the lies, the desperate thoughts. In the scene where he and Aymo shoot the soldier during the retreat, isn’t he confessing to some kind of murder? And what about at the beginning of the novel when he confesses that, at first, he only pretends to love Catherine and is just playing a game with her? And what about that scene with the baby? Even though it seems like an unreliable narrative (Check out "What’s Up With the Ending?" for more on this), Frederic is perhaps telling his darkest moment – the moment when he felt nothing for his dead or dying lovechild. As if we had any doubts, this guy is not lying to make himself look good. And this makes us trust him when he describes how loving he was with Catherine and with his brothers in arms.
This presents both a compliment and a contrast to his dedication to detailed accuracy when narrating the factual elements of World War I. Here he takes no liberties, and leaves no actual historical fact unverified. He has allegiance to no country, but all the allegiance in the world to humankind, and thus no reason to spin the facts. Frederic’s insistence on historical truth-telling helps us trust that his beautiful and terrible confession is, at least, very close to the truth.
Ernest Hemingway is a major contributor to Modernism, a genre literally born from the tragic events of World One. It was impossible to process the millions of casualties and the scope of the war’s destruction. Hemingway and other Modernists are known as "The Lost Generation," (see the "Overview" for more) in part because they were lost in a world blown to pieces by the war. They sought to make something new out of some of those pieces, to find something new which could help the world to heal. For Hemingway, that something new was his storytelling style, which we talk about, coincidentally, in "Style," and which we can see in A Farewell to Arms.
This probably goes without saying, but the novel is a War Drama, because it directly shows us the war. It’s also Historical Fiction since it recounts historic events. As you might have guessed, mortality rates are high in this novel, and the devastating fate of one main character means we’re definitely in Tragedy-land. The treatment of bad weather as a portentous mood-setter is a good indication of Gothic literature (again, the death, death, and more death is a flashing sign, too). But what makes the Tragedy all the more tragic, and the Horror all the more horrific? The intensity of the Romance, that’s what. The love story between Catherine and Frederic is unforgettable, as is Frederic’s love for the men he works with. Finally, the exquisite craft and the depth of the characters found in the novel, and the fact that intellectual types don’t mind being seen reading it, means we can also call it Literary Fiction. And we’re done.
Critics are basically in agreement that there are three straightforward interpretations of the title, though there are many different ways to analyze the novel in terms of those interpretations. The first two interpretations stem from the dual meaning of the word "arms." "Arms" refers to the "arms" or weapons used in wars, and to the embracing "arms" of human beings. There is also a poem, written by George Peel in the 1500s, called "A Farewell to Arms." (Check it out here.)
Although it has become a commonly accepted "fact," it is only assumed that Hemingway consciously borrowed his title from the George Peele poem. Nobody knows for sure if he even knew the poem existed. Critics note that the poem shows the poet undergoing a series of transformations, somewhat similar to those experienced by Frederic Henry.
If Hemingway did refer to the poem intentionally, it’s an ironic homage for sure. The poem was written to Queen Elizabeth and is a lament that the poet can longer serve the queen by fighting in battles. Unless the poem is ironic as well, we don’t think this is quite what Hemingway had in mind. While the novel presents a romantic view of war, in that the fact of war intensifies the characters’ relationships, some of the characters wound themselves in terrible ways to keep from facing the horror of the battlefield. The fighting itself is not romanticized, but instead presented starkly and realistically as something nobody in their right mind would be sad to stop doing.
Now let’s look at a few ways we can analyze the title using the word "arms." Since the book spends much time describing the horrors of World War I, the title can be seen as a plea to the world to say "farewell" to wars and the weapons we use to fight them. Since Frederic leaves his post as ambulance driver for the Italian army during the retreat, and then flees with Catherine to Switzerland to avoid being arrested for desertion, the title can refer specifically to Frederic’s "farewell" to the weapons of war when he decides to end his personal involvement with it. There is some irony at work here, because when Frederic says "farewell" to the Italian army, he also says hello to the lover’s arms of Catherine. (There are those two meanings of "arms" again.) When she dies, he must say farewell to those arms as well.
Catherine’s death also parallels the death of a soldier in battle. Remember this famous scene? When Frederic is transported in the ambulance, the wounded soldier above him has "hemorrhaged" and the blood drips on Frederic. Catherine too dies of "hemorrhage," though her wound comes from her battle with childbirth.
Looking at the parallel between Catherine and the soldier helps us remember how much love exists between Frederic and the men he encounters in the war. In addition to saying farewell to Catherine’s loving arms, Frederic says farewell to the loving arms of many of these men in the novel. Also, because the novel is written in the past tense as Frederic’s memory of both World War I and of Catherine, the title can be a comment on the paradoxical way that Frederic is dealing with the trauma of both such experiences.
To deal with such intense pain and loss, he relives it through remembering it and telling it. By preserving the events in a narrated memory, he can try to say "farewell" to the arms of pain that bind him, and perhaps make things hurt a little bit less. He also honors the loving arms behind the pain by giving them a place in remembered history.
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.
We are given specific place names, and specific events, and even days of the week, but we must go outside the text to get the years. Luckily, Ernest Hemingway is accurate, right down to the weather (which is incredibly important to the story), and it doesn’t take too much research to pin things down. When we read that Catherine’s fiancé died the year before, we can look up the Battle of Somme and learn that it must be 1917. When we read about the Italian retreat from Caporetto, we can look it up and confirm that it’s 1917. Still, the hazy temporal setting is disorienting, especially when we read the novel decades after World War I. Italy in World War I is a fractured and broken landscape which mirrors the tragic and breaking lives of the characters. The only safe places are bedrooms, bars, and hospitals, and even the seemingly safest settings in the novel are suffused with fragility. Safe places are also places to break down. Hospitals are also places to die. Bedrooms can be the loneliest places on earth.
The frailty of setting in the novel is magnified when Frederic and Catherine get to Switzerland. They’ve finessed their way in and everything is almost too good to be true. And it is. The rain that’s been haunting them throughout the novel finally catches up to them and everything gets more broken than we imagined. This mirrors the disbelief that many encountered when faced with the reality of World War I, both during and after. Through the novel’s settings Hemingway expresses that sense of disbelief, and the extreme sense of frailty that accompanies it.
You’ve probably heard about Ernest Hemingway’s "Iceberg Principle" or theory of omission. It’s the simple idea that the reader is to be trusted. All the reader needs is the surface information (the part of the iceberg we can see) to understand the situations being discussed (or the water below the visible iceberg). Whether it’s a world at war or the battles raging within human minds, the situations in A Farewell to Arms are chaotic. By presenting a very ordered surface for the reader, the reader is able to examine the chaos and complexity with a fairly clear head. Here’s an example:
Well, we were in it. Every one was caught in it and the small rain would not quiet it. "Good-night, Catherine," I said out loud. "I hope you sleep well. If it’s too uncomfortable, darling, lie on the other side," I said. "I’ll get you some cold water. In a little while it will be morning and then it won’t be so bad. I’m sorry he makes you so uncomfortable. Try and go to sleep, sweet."
I was asleep all the time, she said. You’ve been talking in your sleep (28.24).
All the chaos is right there. The loneliness and despair of Frederic and the other men, the deep love he shares with Catherine, the pain of being apart from her, his worry for her pregnancy, his resentment of the baby, his belief that he and Catherine have a psychic connection, and so much more, in three ordered paragraphs. Nobody has to tell us that Frederic is dreaming. Just like when Catherine is prepping Frederic for surgery, and she says, "There darling. Now you’re all clean inside and out" (16.56). We know she’s just given him an enema, and that her words there imply that Catherine thinks Frederic has undergone a rite of purification.
This is what Modernism is all about, creating a form, in this case a very ordered one (for a more chaotic form of Modernism see F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.) to represent the chaos of the times.
There are two kinds of papers we keep see constantly in A Farewell to Arms.
This kind: I had his papers in my pocket and would write his family (30.67). – Identification documents, military documents, and the like.
And this kind: I went over there afternoons and afterwards stopped at a café and had a drink and read the papers (19.1). – Newspapers that report on the state of the war.
The first kind of papers relate to the identities of the people who possess them. If you have papers saying you are wounded and need to rest, then rest you will have. If you are out wandering around and you don’t have the papers to show you have permission to do so, you get arrested. Unless, like Frederic, you have a U.S. passport, and can row like crazy to neutral Switzerland. If, like Aymo in our example above, somebody else has your papers, you are probably dead. This is important to understanding how the identities of the characters (and of all of us) in the novel are defined and redefined, to themselves and others, by the papers they carry.
If you are searching for meta-fictional elements in A Farewell to Arms, look no further than the newspapers Frederic is constantly reading. As we discuss in the novel’s "Overview," while the historical events Frederic narrates were actually occurring, eighteen-year-old Ernest Hemingway was reading about them in the papers, and working as a fledgling journalist for…you guess it, a newspaper, the Kansas City Star. Frederic doesn’t do any writing that we can see in the novel, but when he reads the papers, he becomes a symbol of a part of Hemingway’s writing process.
Ever wondered who invented wine? Why the mythological god Bacchus, of course. And since we can find him in the text, we can use him to understand the never-ending wine drinking in the novel. Here’s part of the big Bacchus passage:
The major said he had heard a report that I could drink. I denied this. He said it was true and by the corpse of Bacchus we would test whether it was true or not. Not Bacchus, I said. Not Bacchus. Yes, Bacchus he said.
"You better not go up there drunk."
"I’m not drunk, Rinin. Really."
"You better chew some coffee."
"Chew those, baby, and God be with you."
"Bacchus," I said (7.61, 66-71).
Like wine, there are many sides to Bacchus. Wine can take the edge off and let the creative juices flow, and, like its god, it is a symbol of spring, rebirth, art, fertility, sexual freedom, and orgiastic divine ecstasy. But, too much Bacchus and you get the flip side: death, senseless violence, and destruction. Like everything else in the novel, wine and its god are a complicated business.
In the section we are examining, wine first represents a momentary respite from the pressures of war. And it’s funny to read, unlike much of the novel. On the other hand, the spirit of Bacchus, once evoked, possesses Frederic, makes him hurt Catherine and himself by showing up late for their evening rendezvous, and keeps him from getting see her at all that night. This represents the destructive element of Bacchus. But, missing Catherine that night did in some ways awaken Frederic to his love for her. Or maybe that was the coffee beans he was chewing…. Hmm….
As you know, most of the men in the novel drink constantly. And often, when they do, wine seems to represent survival. They don’t get stinking drunk, like above, when they are on the actual battlefield, but the wine makes the experience, not really tolerable, but almost bearable, at least for the moment. It keeps them from cracking up. And here Bacchus gets complicated. As we’ve seen, one side of Bacchus is senseless violence and destruction – we’ve heard it and seen it a million times: too much booze leads to violence. But it wasn’t booze that caused World War I. And in A Farewell to Arms, booze, usually wine, often operates as a temporary buffer against something it is said to produce – senseless violence and destruction. The novel doesn’t exactly condone hard drinking, but it argues that it has its place. And everybody’s going to have a different opinion about this complicated and controversial aspect of the novel.
On the surface, Frederic Henry is the quintessential unreliable narrator. He’s always boozing, he’s going through severe trauma, and he admits to lying to other characters in the novel, while at the same time supposedly telling us how he really feels. Does Shmoop believe him? Yes and no, as we discuss in his "Character Analysis." Each reader is called upon to assess Frederic’s reliability, and each reader will respond differently. Still, there a couple of key aspects of Frederic Henry’s narrative voice that can take us a long way in analyzing his reliability, and in discovering what makes this novel tick.
First, it’s in the past tense. Everything is known at the beginning. The events in the story are being told after they’ve occurred, though how long after we can only guess. In a present-tense narrative, the narrator is describing the feelings and events as they occur. In Frederic’s narrative there is a time gap between the action and the telling of the action.
Second, Frederic never claims to be a writer, never claims to be writing anything but postcards and whatever he has to sign. So we can’t say that Frederic was writing stuff down when it was happening, or that the story he’s telling is being written down. Of course, we know that for Hemingway, and for us, this story is actually a book, but for Frederic it’s something different.
So…what is it? It’s a memory, and a memorial to Catherine, the baby, and all the others dead he talks about. It can also be thought of as confession. Why do you think Frederic is always trying to get the priest to come up to his room and talk? Because he respects him and likes him, of course, and because he wants to ask him questions. But, he also wants to confess. Frederic doesn’t directly say he feels guilty about things, but his desire to talk to the priest is symbolic of confession.
But the priest is too busy to listen to Frederic’s long confession, so he has to go to the bar and find you. (Of course, Frederic never says he’s in a bar confessing his story. He never says where he is at all. We base our suspicion on his previous bar-going behavior discussed in the novel). It’s lonely to be the last man standing, the guy that’s left with the ghosts. By confessing his memory of what went down, Frederic simultaneously offers himself up for judgment, and, through the act of sharing, preserves the memories of his loved ones.
Booker says the hero is "in some way incomplete" in this stage, and in need of "unusual gratification." Though she is dedicated to her nursing work, it shows her a ton of pain and death. Catherine is lonely, she wants to love, and she wants to meet someone to help stop the pain of her work and the pain of her lost love. Since her attraction to Frederic is instant, he’s the perfect "focus" for her excess "energies."
You have to be a bit cynical to work this into Booker, where, at this stage, the tragic hero does something bad to get what she wants, and then seems to be "getting away with it." Catherine is at that particular hospital so she can be with Frederic, and she does actually wish there were more patients so that she won’t be sent away. She gets her wish and more patients come, but Catherine’s wishes didn’t cause any of the wounds in World War I. To the contrary, she never neglects her patients and foregoes sleep to be with both the patients and Frederic. All she’s "getting away" with is a little bit of happiness in a very difficult situation.
Catherine and Frederic are both happy about her pregnancy, but they are also afraid to bring a baby into a war-torn world. But when Frederic’s leave is cancelled because he offends Miss Van Campen, the lovers are ripped apart. Catherine differs from Booker’s tragic hero in that she performs no "dark acts" to keep Frederic with her. Booker also talks about a "shadow figure" showing up to threaten the hero. Since we know she dies giving birth, we suppose her pregnancy could be considered a "shadow figure."
Catherine is doing OK until she hurts so badly that the anesthesia is no longer effective. It’s safe to say that "forces of opposition" are threatening to defeat her.
A Booker tragic hero dies as a result of her own acts, when the consequences of those acts blow up in her face. Unless loving is a crime, Catherine commits no devious acts which bring on her death.
We don’t even know the narrator’s name until after he gets wounded. And the people around him are as puzzled as we are about what an American is doing driving Red Cross ambulances for the Italian army. The facts trickle out over many chapters, and the initial situation is one of getting to know Frederic Henry.
When Catherine and Frederic meet, she falls in love instantly, but he thinks that love is the last thing he needs. Anybody can die at any moment, but, in the middle of a war, death weighs heavy on the scales of chance. So who wants to fall in love?
That’s right: we said "bear," not beer. Catherine is pregnant and Frederic has to go back to the front in three weeks. In the meantime, they plan a little vacation. Unfortunately, Miss Van Campen thinks that a liquor bottle shaped like a bear is evidence that his jaundice is self-inflicted. When he defends himself by talking about his "groin," he gets his butt sent immediately back to the front, not knowing if he will ever see Catherine again.
After you swim across the river to get to the woman you love, climax is ensured! At least in A Farewell to Arms. And Frederic was forced into deserting anyway. He held on as long as he could, but it was either swim or die, and he chose to swim.
And that, dear friends, is suspense. Everything is so nice for them in Switzerland until Catherine goes into labor. Suspense over whether the baby will die, and whether the baby is dead, just warm us up for the suspense Frederic is feeling in the lines we quote above.
The baby is dead. Catherine is dead. And that’s the only thing clear. Frederic tries, but he can’t say good-by and have it feel like anything.
Such a lonely conclusion. Frederic can evade death, but he can’t help Catherine do it. And, at the end, he is all alone in the rain.
The narrator slowly exposes himself to us, tries not to fall in love, gets his leg torn up while eating cheese and waiting to help the men who are about to be wounded, and then does fall in love, and helps make a baby.
Frederic gets sent back to the front for being a smart aleck, and then flees from the army to save his life by swimming up a roaring river. He finds his Catherine, and they escape into neutral Switzerland and live the good life.
But when Catherine goes into labor, the gig is up. First their love-child dies, and then so does Catherine. And Frederic walks off into the rain alone.