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A Farewell to Arms | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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A Farewell to Arms | Symbols


Hemingway's works are notoriously void of intentional symbols. He once said that symbols stick out in a story like "raisins in raisin bread" and no good book had them. He believed that the stories and characters he created were honest and true; they could be interpreted many different ways. Still, A Farewell to Arms can be said to have two symbols: rain and hair.


Rain is a common symbol of doom in literature, and A Farewell to Arms is no exception. Rain is symbolic of the negative outside forces Henry and Catherine fight to keep at bay. It rains in nearly every battle scene in the novel, and whenever a character has to deliver or receive bad news, a storm surges or brews. Consider the bartender's clothing when he announces in Chapter 36 that Henry is to be arrested in the morning: "He stood there, his coat wet, holding his wet hat." When Henry and Catherine row to Switzerland, the suspense reaches fever pitch, as does the weather: rain claps down on them in a terrible storm, and the howling wind destroys their makeshift sail. After Catherine and the baby die, Henry walks home alone in the rain.


Hemingway spends little time describing the physical appearances of his characters in A Farewell to Arms. However, he makes multiple mentions of Catherine's hair. For her work Catherine must wear her hair pinned back, clean and professional. But when she is alone with Henry, she shakes loose her hair and lets it cascade around them, a sensation Henry describes in Chapter 18 as "the feeling of inside a tent or behind a falls." Catherine's flowing hair symbolizes the isolation and comfort she and Henry create in their romance—the perfect, impenetrable world where they are always "good" and nothing bad can happen to them. This symbolism is enhanced in Switzerland when Henry grows a beard so magnificent he hardly recognizes his own reflection. No longer Lieutenant Henry, that identity is hidden, and he is simply Catherine's perfect lover.

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