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Free Study Guide for A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

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Lieutenant Frederic Henry, who does not suffer from any grand illusions about honor, glory, patriotism, or courage, deserts the army by leaving his post. He is wounded in the knee, is in love with Catherine Barkley, lives with her, gets her pregnant, but in the end, loses both his son and Catherine.


The war, with its devastating effect on the individual’s life, the tragic disillusionment it fosters, and the despair that is its consequence, is the antagonist in the novel. On a secondary level, biology, that claims Catherine’s life, is the second antagonist.


The climax occurs in Caporetto where a retreat is forced on the Italian army. Henry tries to put up a brave and dogged fight but in the ensuing chaos, he is forced to desert his post. From now on, he becomes the hunted rather the hunter and has to live incognito. The action too undergoes a marked change after the climax. Before the retreat, it seems slow-paced but after it becomes faster and the events unfold so quickly that they leave the reader breathless. Here the setting shifts from Italy to Switzerland.


The conflict ends in a tragedy that is double-edged or twin-peaked. Henry cannot pursue a military career because he has abandoned his post. There are no more choices for him as far as professions go because he had given up architecture to join the army and now he has given up the army too. He intends to lead a life of married bliss with Catherine and his son but both die, leaving him a victim of unalterable circumstances. As Henry says, though he lives on after Catherine’s death, his tragic story has come to an end. This novel is tragic because it shows Catherine biologically double-crossed, Europe war-crossed and life, death-crossed.


The novel opens with World War I raging all over Europe. A young American student, studying architecture in Italy, offers his services to the Italian army. In Gorizia, he is wounded in the knee and is sent to recuperate in a hospital in Milan. He falls in love with an English nurse, Catherine Barkley, lives with her, and she becomes pregnant. He returns to the front in Gorizia and is caught in the Italian retreat. In order to save his life, he deserts his post and goes away to a hospital in Milan to take Catherine and go some place where they can start life anew. They go to Switzerland but cannot live happily, for a fresh tragedy awaits them. Their eagerly awaited son is stillborn and Catherine who can never have a normal delivery, dies after a Caesarian operation.


Main Themes

The main theme of the novel is that war creates or makes a tragedy of everything. Therein, a person has to bid farewell to everything she cherishes in life. It revolves round the yawning, aching loneliness that exists in the midst of war, which ensures that one cannot even find solace in love. She has to pay a very high price for wanting love, let alone achieving it, and most often death forms the most natural and suitable price one could pay. Though one has struggled hard, at the end of the reckoning, she is left with nothing.

Minor Themes

The minor theme of the novel is the passage of Henry from a cheap life to a noble one. When he enters the army, he has not many feelings: he is disinterested and disillusioned with the war, eats and drinks heavily, and regularly visits sordid brothels. He progresses from there to a sense of participation in the war and to an elevated, dignified love life. His initiation into the vicissitudes of war, molds him into a well-adjusted individual, who is competent enough to make a “separate peace” with himself. His initiation into the pleasures of dignified love convert him from a drinking, debauched soldier to a loving, caring husband. However, as the novel ends, the initiation, on both levels, becomes inconclusive and inconsequential. For, Henry cannot make use of it in his future.


The mood of the novel is pessimistic. Tragedy lurks behind every action and, as such, robs it of meaning. Men and women, caught in the war, despair and move to bitterness and cynicism. Throughout the novel, a mood of continuous boredom, disappointment, and apathy, generated from a sense of inevitability of fate, dominates. The somber mood in the novel, describing the horrors of war, turns tragic, as it details the problems of undergoing a Caesarian section. The mood throughout the novel is one of disappointment, dullness, and pain.

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