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A Farewell to Arms | Themes

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Hemingway's themes primarily sit just under the surface and rise to the top through dialogue and action. He does not stop the story's forward trajectory to divulge meaning to the reader. The messages in the story must often be deciphered by considering what is not said and what does not happen.

Disillusionment

Many young men signed up to defend their countries when the the Great War broke out in 1914, believing their valor would bring recognition and glory. These bright-eyed men faced the horrors of war: senseless violence, horrific living conditions, and terrible loss. These soldiers soon realized that they were nameless, faceless bodies whose efforts amounted to little more than a death toll. In A Farewell to Arms, brave men such as Passini, Rinaldi, Bonello, and even Frederic Henry question why they joined the battle and what they could possibly contribute.

The theme of disillusionment also plays out in Henry's struggle with religion. At the opening of the novel, Henry is at a spiritual crossroads, unsure what, if anything, he should believe in. Religious feelings flicker in him only briefly, through his love for Catherine. When he discovers that death is indiscriminate, killing the good and the bad, the brave and the cowardly, he finds it impossible to believe in a higher power. By the end of the novel, Henry, a brave and good man, has lost everything.

Escapism

Life in the trenches is tough for the soldiers. The trenches are dirty and crowded, supplies are difficult to come by, and there is the constant threat of attack. On the battlefield losses are common, deaths are grisly, and recoveries are painful. The men are given few opportunities to recover from their daily stress, so they use base pleasures as a means of escaping their realities. Throughout the novel Henry and other soldiers drink to excess to forget where they are and what they have experienced. They frequent brothels, using sex as a quick "feel-good" activity.

For Catherine and Henry, romance is a form of escapism. By conjuring a fantasy with Henry, Catherine eases the heartache of her fiancé's death. Throughout their relationship Catherine and Henry take every opportunity to create a sense of adventure and civilian life, from dining out to socializing to making love in the hospital bed in Milan. They believe that, as long as they are "good," nothing bad can happen to them, even though bad things have already happened. After deserting Henry and Catherine create "a separate peace" in their isolated hotel and refuse to prepare for the child arriving soon.

Chance

Neither Henry nor Catherine believe in an all-powerful God acting out his divine will through a master plan. For them life is a matter of chance, a wonderful, complex game. The "game" begins when Catherine and Henry first meet. Catherine feeds Henry romantic lines, and they play at being in love. In Chapter 6 Henry compares their romance to the card game bridge. The theme of chance is heightened when the couple travels to the racetrack, taking great pleasure in placing bets on a horse on a whim. Throughout the novel the narrator points out that soldiers are playing cards, a reminder that life on the battlefield comes down to chance and luck, much like poker. In the hospital Catherine's final words to Henry are "It's just a dirty trick," reminding the reader that life is a game that always ends with death.

Doomed Love

The theme of doomed love is threaded throughout the novel by use of foreshadowing and mirroring of events. Catherine repeats the mistake she made by not marrying her fiancé when she refuses to marry Henry. She forecasts her own death in Chapter 19 when she says she sees herself dead in the rain. Catherine also fights her general sense of impossible love from the beginning. In Chapter 21 she says, "[Lovers] misunderstand on purpose ... then suddenly they aren't the same one." Henry's feelings of love emerge to fill a void and then dissolve, leaving him empty, mirroring the rain, which makes rivers rise and recede. Rain, like love, chases them throughout the novel.

Heartbreak of War

The setting reflects the idea that, for Henry, there is no glory in war, just an endless slog through a dangerous landscape. Steep roads, gutted woods, and crushed villages create the backdrop of the narrative. The mountains are nearly impossible to defend or overtake for the countries on both sides of them. Chapter 27 merges the terrain with ideas of sacrifice and honor during Henry's conversation with an Italian soldier named Gino.

The landscape plays a role in the retreat, which is a failure. The muddy field swallows the troops' cars and Henry's sense of duty, and he flings himself into the moving river, away from the current heartbreak of war into the final heartbreak waiting for him.

Questions for Themes

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