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Free Study Guide for A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

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Ernest Hemingway - BIOGRAPHY

Ernest Hemingway was born on 21 July, 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois. His father was a doctor and his mother was an amateur musician. He was not academically successful and graduated from high school in 1917, near the bottom of his class. He sought to enlist in the army but was rejected due to his poor eyesight. He went to work as a cub reporter in Kansas City. He was doing moderately well as a reporter when he heard that Italy was recruiting ambulance drivers to serve on the Italian front and promptly offered his services. He was seriously injured and taken to a hospital where he fell in love with an English nurse, Agnes. He was no longer a young man, with stars in his eyes and romantic views about everything. War, death, disease, suffering, and decay changed his thinking. When he went back to America, his relationship with Agnes came to an end.

Hemingway then went to Paris and was a major figure in a group of writers called the “Lost Generation,” along with Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Ezra Pound. He drew on his bitter experiences and painful memories from World War I and wrote A Farewell to Arms (1929), which was an instant success. Later, Hemingway went to Spain as a newspaper reporter. He was attracted by bull fighting, a major sport in Spain. He covered the Spanish Civil War. Then, he went to live in Cuba. He participated in World War II on submarine patrol duty. He became an expert on German rockets and was among the first batch of troops to storm Normandy Beach in 1944. Later, he went back to Cuba to deep-sea fish and write. In 1953, he received the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. After the Castro Revolution, he left Cuba and returned to America. War left him disillusioned. He was disappointed in love, too; though he married four times in his life, he could not understand the real meaning of life and love. He committed suicide in 1961. His literary masterpieces, apart from his short stories, include The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and Death in the Afternoon.


A Farewell to Arms is considered a great novel of World War I. It is a complex novel dealing with the travails of a war-torn young man called Frederic Henry. A few details from Hemingway’s personal life creep into this novel. For instance, Lieutenant Henry is with an ambulance unit, serving in the Italian Army, just as Hemingway did. He falls in love with an English nurse when he is recuperating in a hospital. Apart from these factual details, others in the novel are entirely different from those in Hemingway’s life. The novel therefore deals with these two major themes, love and war, carefully interwoven with each other. In fact, the title itself suggests these two themes, with a pun on the word “Arms.” The hero, Henry, bids farewell to “Arms” as in weapons and also, when Catherine dies, to the loving “arms,” of a human being.

A Note on the Structure of the Novel

This novel is divided into five books, each having eight to twelve chapters. In this respect, the novel resembles a drama, which generally has five acts, further divided into scenes. Each book reveals a carefully controlled action and finely detailed love. For, war and love are the two major themes discussed in this novel. When one theme gets into the foreground, the other recedes into the background. But the sequence of action runs parallel in both the themes, so that the reader gets the feeling of having read a single major theme rather than two.

Book I has war in the foreground; Henry meets Catherine, participates in the battle, and is grievously wounded.

Book II has love in the foreground, for the wounded Henry is sent to a hospital, meets Catherine again, and their love develops.

Book III also has war in the foreground, seen in Henry’s recuperation and recovery from his wound, getting back to war, getting caught up in a retreat, and deserting his post, a serious military offense.

Book IV has love in the foreground when Henry seeks Catherine, who is pregnant, with his child.

Book V also has love in the foreground, while war looms ominously in the background, when the lovers escape to a neutral territory, Switzerland, where Catherine dies of excessive internal hemorrhaging after a Cesarean operation.

It is also quite interesting to note the flow of action in six phases in the unfolding of the two themes of love and war. In the war, Henry goes through six stages: (1) a distant and casual participation, (2) followed by a rather serious action (3) which results in a knee-wound, (4) his being sent to a hospital to recover, (5) his going back to war and getting caught in a retreat, and (6) his desertion of his military post. Likewise, Catherine goes through six stages: (1) an inconsequential flirtation (2) that develops into genuine love (3) which culminates in her pregnancy, (4) her stay along with Henry in a Villa in Switzerland, (5) after which she goes into a hospital for delivery (6) and has the Cean which results in her death.

By the time the novel reaches its end, the two themes merge and the grimness of war is conveyed in no uncertain terms to the reader.

The novel contains a first person narrator. Love and war are seen through his eyes. As such, it becomes easier for the reader to understand him and sympathize with him when the situation arises.


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