A Farewell to Arms

In 1918, an idealistic American teenager named Ernest Hemingway signed up to drive ambulances in Italy. Entering World War One in its final act, he saw death and carnage everywhere – and was wounded himself. A decade later, he drew on his experiences to write A Farewell to Arms. The novel follows Frederic Henry, an American lieutenant who has lost faith in the war’s cause. His desire to flee is spurred by his love for Catherine, a British nurse who tends to his injuries. A Farewell to Arms made Hemingway famous, and set down themes that he would revisit many times. It gives a rare American take on the conflict. And in neat, punchy sentences, it captures the sheer bloody chaos of war.


A fairly obscure chapter of World War One – the chaotic collapse of the Italian front – sets the scene for Hemingway’s deeply ambivalent portrayal of war in general. Henry sees no glory or heroism in battle, and he does not care for medals of bravery. Yet Hemingway was fascinated by war: as well as participating in this one, he reported on the Spanish Civil War.


In Hemingway’s world, love is the antithesis to war. Henry and Catherine begin their romance as a kind of escapism, a way to forget the war. Later on, the chaos of the battlefront distracts Henry from Catherine’s absence. But the novel has a twist in store. When the couple finally flee the war, they find that love has its limits too.


Anyone who has read a Hemingway novel will have some idea of his ideal man: bold, confident, virile. Several male characters in A Farewell to Arms display these traits – not least Rinaldi, Henry’s womanising friend. Henry too, with his bravery and passionate love for Catherine, embodies a traditional view of masculinity.


In contrast to the bold, sometimes reckless men, Catherine is caring and devoted. Meanwhile, Hemingway’s descriptions of her appearance – especially her cascading hair, which envelops Henry like a tent – are some of the most sensual in all literature. His idealised vision of womanhood has stirred debate among feminist critics.


Weather is central to our image of World War One: we tend to picture grey skies and muddy trenches. Hemingway deploys weather metaphors in a powerful and original way. Catherine confesses that rain scares her, and indeed it is associated with death and misfortune throughout the novel. By contrast, snow is a gleaming symbol of hope.