Study Guide

A Farewell to Arms Themes

By Ernest Hemingway

  • Love

    Love is dangerous in A Farewell to Arms. In the middle of a war zone, anyone can die at any moment, breaking the hearts of the loved ones left behind. Yet the characters in the novel risk it all, to be both good romantic lovers and good lovers of human kind. Like all humans, they make mistakes, and sometimes aren’t the lovers they want to be. But as long as they have breath in their bodies, they keep on trying. They keep on trying to love, even with tragedy exploding all around them.

    Questions About Love

    1. How would you describe Catherine and Frederic’s love? How does it compare with Helen Ferguson’s love? With Rinaldi and Frederic’s love? With the priest and God’s?
    2. How is love expressed in the novel?
    3. How does war factor into love in the novel?

    Chew on This

    Frederic’s job is an ambulance driver, a man who takes care of the wounded; his choice of profession is evidence of his deep love for humankind.

    Over the course of the novel, Frederic grows to love Catherine as much as she loves him.

  • Warfare

    Set mostly in Italy during World War I, A Farewell to Arms bemoans the horrors of war while giving a human face to those involved in it. The characters work ceaselessly to hold on to their hopes for happiness while doing right by their brothers and sisters in arms. Ernest Hemingway’s description of the war is precise and historically accurate. But his characters are intensely human and contain a variety of views and counterviews. Their colorful dialogues provoke us to join their debates, and in doing so further define our own views about war.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Is war romanticized in the novel? If so, what is romantic about it? If not, why do you consider it unromantic?
    2. What are different ways that violence is represented in the novel? What is directly told to us and what can we infer?
    3. What does the word "enemy" mean, in the context of this novel?
    4. Was Frederic "spoiled" during the war, living the good life in the Milan hospital while there is a war on, as some critics have suggested? Or did he deserve his convalescence? Is Frederic "anti-war"? If so, why does he participate in it?

    Chew on This

    Frederic Henry feels like a criminal when he "deserts" the Italian army during the retreat, but his so-called desertion is an act of bravery and heroism.

  • Men and Masculinity

    A Farewell to Arms shows men fulfilling what are often consider traditional male roles, or even stereotypes – they drink hard, fight hard, play hard, and commit heroic acts of bravery. However, as we get to know them better, their masculinity is revealed as subtle, complicated, and individual to each man. All in all, the men in this novel are human – they love, they suffer, they hurt, they hope, and, sometimes, they even break.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. Does the novel challenge your ideas of masculinity? If so, how? If not, where does it present views similar to your own?
    2. Can we get information about the men in the novel through the dialogue and actions of the female characters? If so, what are some examples of this?
    3. Do you identity with any of the men in the novel. If so, which ones? If not, why do they seem alien to you?

    Chew on This

    Rinaldi is the novel’s most vivid male character; he completely steals the show from Frederic and is the novel’s hidden protagonist.

  • Women and Femininity

    There aren’t very many women in A Farewell to Arms, but the ones we do meet are unforgettable characters. In many ways they fulfill traditional female gender roles, or even female stereotypes – they are all either nurses or prostitutes. Yet, as they to try to find happiness and do the right thing in a war-torn world, they transgress and challenge gender roles revealing themselves as simply human – flawed, breakable, strong, daring, and often full of love.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Some critics say that the female characters are all flat and underdeveloped, even Catherine. How do you feel about this?
    2. Does Helen Ferguson’s view of what a woman is supposed to differ from Catherine’s? If not, how are they similar? If so, how are they different?
    3. Why did the Italians want to keep women away from the battlefield? What are the different roles the women play in the war? Has this changed since the novel was written? How or how not?

    Chew on This

    Catherine is completely inaccessible in A Farewell to Arms because we only see her through Frederic, and Frederic is unrealizable.

  • Courage

    The characters in A Farewell to Arms push bravery to the limits as they try to do the right thing in a world breaking apart before their eyes under the pressures of war. They are even brave enough to embrace what happiness they encounter. Each such embrace causes them to doubt their own bravery – happiness seems almost obscene when pain and suffering are all around you. The nature of courage and the nature of cowardice are interrogated in Ernest Hemingway’s sensitive and provocative tragedy.

    Questions About Courage

    1. Do you see characters acting courageously in the novel? If so, what makes you think so?
    2. Is bravery presented as a vice or a virtue? Or a little of both?
    3. Does anyone in the novel profit from a cowardly act? How does the novel define cowardice?

    Chew on This

    Frederic becomes a coward when he shoots the sergeant during the retreat.

  • Language and Communication

    The characters in A Farewell to Arms struggle for understanding through effective communication, and we struggle right along with them. The novel shows that in times of war this struggle is intensified. Effective communication can mean the difference between life and death on the battlefield. Pages and pages of stunning dialogue bring communication down to a very personal level. And, because it’s Hemingway, what’s not spoken or directly communicated is as important as what we are directly told. This Modernist classic, and Hemingway’s style in general, continues to influence literary, journalistic, and even personal modes of communication.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Are there examples of miscommunication and/or communication breakdowns in the novel, either in terms of the war, or on a personal level? If so where?
    2. Do you think Ernest Hemingway is a good communicator? What about Frederic? Catherine?
    3. What are some of the different ways news of the war is transmitted?

    Chew on This

    Because so much important information is left out of A Farewell to Arms, it fails to accurately communicate its message.

    Catherine and Frederic demonstrate that couples don’t have to fight to get along.

  • Foreignness and the Other

    A Farewell to Arms often neutralizes difference springing from differing political and geographic identities. At times, when one group of men is firing on another group of men, such differences surge to the forefront. The novel features an American man and an English woman who meet in Italy during World War I. They both work tending the wounded during World War I. And when there’s pain involved, we are all from the same country. The country of pain. But pain is not the only thing that neutralizes foreignness in Ernest Hemingway’s tragic romance. Love does an even better job. The novel is a loving portrait of Italy, and its people, even the foreigners.

    Questions About Foreignness and the Other

    1. What does Rinaldi mean when he says Frederic is Italian inside? Do you agree with Rinaldi? Is Rinaldi talking about something besides nationality? If so, what else might he be discussing?
    2. How does Frederic interact with the Italians he meets? How does Catherine?
    3. What are the different nationalities we see represented in the novel?

    Chew on This

    Frederic’s winning personality guarantees that he won’t be a foreigner anywhere in the world.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    You could almost get drunk just reading this book. There’s booze on almost every page. But it’s not just for show. The novel has some surprising views on alcohol, which provoke us to examine our own views. One of the most provocative issues in the novel is the use of alcohol on the battlefield by soldiers as a temporary or partial buffer against the nightmare of World War I. The novel also examines alcohol as it’s used to buffer against heartbreak and loss. The drinking can be at times hilariously funny, and at other times tender and tragic. And that’s part of the beauty of Ernest Hemingway’s brash yet sensitive classic.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. What are some of the ways alcohol is used in the novel?
    2. Does Frederic have a drinking problem? Why do you feel the way you do?
    3. Is drinking romanticized in the novel?

    Chew on This

    A Farewell to Arms shows how alcohol can destroy relationships.

    In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic uses alcohol to both remember and forget the past.