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A Farewell to Arms | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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A Farewell to Arms | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


Why does Hemingway use different writing styles in A Farewell to Arms?

Overall Hemingway's characteristic style remains intact: he writes short, simple sentences that state the facts with very little description or emotion. This style of writing forces the reader to focus on a specific image or phrase rather than be distracted by flowery language. The only time Hemingway strays from this style is when he writes in rambling steam of consciousness. The purpose of this shift is to highlight an altered sense of reality. This is most noticeable in scenes in which Henry is fantasizing or drunk and when he struggles to comprehend Catherine's impending death, an event that shatters his reality.

In A Farewell to Arms, is Henry's desertion justified?

Henry's desertion is foreshadowed heavily throughout A Farewell to Arms in his apathy toward other deserting soldiers, his disillusionment with the war efforts, and the war's never-ending length. At the time of Henry's desertion in Book 3, Chapter 30, he is faced with certain death and is saving himself. While other soldiers, like the lieutenant colonel, accept their death sentences, Henry believes he has something more important than the war to live for. Henry deserts his duty (and his death) and chooses to embrace love. The novel reminds readers over and over that death is inevitable, so Henry chases happiness while he still can.

What is the effect of knowing so little of Henry's and Catherine's backstories in A Farewell to Arms?

Providing few details and descriptions is a classic characteristic of Hemingway's writing style, but the lack of detail in A Farewell to Arms serves another purpose. As narrator, Henry chooses which details to include and which to omit. He focuses the story almost completely on his relationship with Catherine. In the idyllic bubble they've created, nothing else matters, including the reality of the war that surrounds them. In this way the omission of each character's backstory highlights the novel's theme of escapism.

How does the description of medical care in A Farewell to Arms support the novel's themes?

Throughout the novel medical care is depicted as disorganized, painful, and chaotic. In Milan, for example, Henry is struck by the fact that the hospital has only two nurses and no doctor on-site. Almost every time Henry comes into contact with a doctor, the doctor is bumbling, emotional, confused, or overwhelmed. The doctors offer little relief for Henry's excruciating pain, and, in the midst of the chaos, soldiers die grisly deaths. The scenes of pain, blood, gore, and grisly death reinforce the theme of the heartbreak of war, and Henry's experiences with the medical establishment feed into his disillusionment.

Does isolation positively or negatively affect Henry's life in A Farewell to Arms?

Initially isolation is a defense mechanism that Henry embraces to protect himself from the horrors of war. He is an an American fighting for Italy, and occasionally even his allies view him as an enemy (the barber and the battle police, for example). Because of this he doubts his contributions. As its first patient, Henry is isolated in the hospital, but this allows his relationship with Catherine to blossom. Within their romance, Catherine and Henry isolate themselves from the world, creating an idyllic space for love ("We were never lonely and never afraid when we were together"). This positive isolation comes crashing down around Henry when Catherine dies, leaving him alone and heartbroken.

A Farewell to Arms was banned in Italy for its portrayal of the Caporetto retreat scene. Why do you think the government objected to this scene?

Described in Book 3, Chapters 29 and 30, the Caporetto retreat scene casts a negative light on the Italian army by depicting the retreat as a scene of chaos and disorder. Communication breaks down between commanding officers and their soldiers, frightened soldiers shoot at anything that moves (including their fellow soldiers), no one defends the land from German invasion, soldiers desert, and battle officers brutally (and without cause) execute high-ranking officials. The army is characterized as being dangerously inept and ineffective, which at the time of publication would have been a terrible insult to the Italian government.

Why do feminists criticize Catherine's character in A Farewell to Arms?

Feminists have used Catherine's character to accuse Hemingway of misunderstanding or outright hating women. In A Farewell to Arms, Catherine is presented as a fanciful (even crazy) character obsessed with appearances and completely submissive to Henry. She seems incapable of being happy without male approval. She even suggests that she bases her own self-image on the men in her life when she tells Henry, "There isn't any me. I'm you. Don't make up a separate me." Her character remains static and experiences very little growth in the novel. Her death provides fodder for Henry's growth. In this way the novel "uses" Catherine's character for Henry's benefit.

When Henry's narration occasionally slips into second person, who is the "you" he is speaking to?

Henry's narration slips into second person twice in the novel: in Book 3, Chapter 31, and Book 5, Chapter 41. The first time is when he is floating down the river after deserting. He speaks directly to readers, pulling them into the desperation of the moment, suggesting that anyone would have done the same. The second time is right before Catherine's death. He seems to be speaking directly to Catherine even though she is already dead. In this moment it becomes clear that all along Henry has been narrating the story to Catherine, speaking to her after her death as a way of processing his loss.

Hemingway does not identify the narrator of A Farewell to Arms in any way until Book 1, Chapter 5. What are the effects of Hemingway's choice?

Although Frederic Henry is the narrator of A Farewell to Arms, he is not identified by that full name until Book 2, Chapter 13. Before that, in Book 1, Chapter 5, he is referred to only as "Tenente" (Lieutenant). The effect is to give the story a universal feel. Without a specific name, the narrator is an everyman. It can be any young man who served in or witnessed the war. It also brings the reader into the action. The use of the pronoun we in the first paragraphs of the book helps accomplish this: "In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village." The reader is implicitly included in that "we."

What role does jealousy play in Henry and Catherine's relationship in A Farewell to Arms?

In the beginning Catherine is the jealous one, fretting over how many lovers Henry knew before her, and Henry seems not to care that Catherine was in an eight-year relationship and almost married someone else, but that changes when they become closer in the Milan hospital. Henry is steeped in jealousy, and he openly expresses it by begging her to marry him. When she gives him numerous excuses, he is astounded that a woman would be disinterested in marriage. When Catherine needed reassurance for her jealous inclinations and insecurities, Henry kindly complied, saying whatever she wanted or needed to hear even though he did not truly empathize with her. The tables turn on him, and he learns how insecurity feels. In Book 2, Chapter 18, Henry reaches the summit of his vulnerability, needing to possess Catherine totally. At this point she returns his earlier favor by reassuring him. "You'll be sick of me I'll be so faithful," she says. Jealousy typically pulls two lovers apart, but it works as glue between Catherine and Henry.

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