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The gap between humanity's noble words and its ignoble deeds was never more apparent than during World War I. For this reason the war serves brilliantly as the setting for Hemingway's novel of love and disillusionment, A Farewell to Arms.
The war began with the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife. Soon sides were drawn-France, Great Britain, Italy, Russia, and (three years later) the United States against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. Poets and propagandists screamed of the necessity of sending young men to fight. Though the major powers had spent years and millions of dollars building their arsenals, both sides seemed strangely confident that victory would be quick and painless. No one was prepared for the enormous brutality of modern warfare: Catherine Barkley was undoubtedly not the only person who hoped and half-believed that all that could happen to her loved one would be a picturesque, minor wound, perhaps a saber cut.
Instead, her fiance was blown "all to bits." And far from ending within weeks, the war dragged on for four years. The human cost was enormous: Great Britain saw three quarters of a million of her men die; Germany and France a million each; Russia perhaps as many as all the other combatants combined. Even the United States, late to enter the war, lost eighty-eight thousand. For this reason, the "war-disgust" Frederic Henry mentions to the priest was felt not just by him but by an entire generation. In the face of such brutality, values weaken. Life becomes "a dirty trick."
Hemingway's choice of Italy as his setting reinforces his theme. One reason for its effectiveness is that Italy was where he served as an ambulance driver: he knew its terrain, and its military history, very well. But Italy is also a setting that further demonstrates the ironies of war. To most of the world, France was where the real war was taking place; even today our memories of World War I are drawn mainly from the Western front: the Somme, Belleau Wood, Verdun. Italy was, as Henry says, "the picturesque front." Yet in this picturesque land men are being slaughtered by the tens of thousands.
To Hemingway the war was a botch, cheerfully begun by men with romantic notions of glory and honor, but fought with ruthless, mechanized cruelty. And to the end, as soldiers groveled in foul trenches their leaders, safely away from the front, told tales of valor, patriotism, and duty. Small wonder that many who fought became cynical and disillusioned.
What better time and place could serve for Frederic Henry's farewell to arms?
THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS
The following are some of the major themes of A Farewell to Arms.
A Farewell to Arms is a love story. One of Hemingway's thematic purposes is to show how, even in a world wracked by war, love can bloom between two people. Yet love has its limits. Just as Frederic Henry feels "trapped biologically" by Catherine's pregnancy, so love is trapped by mortality: it ends at Catherine's death.
Hand in hand with his love story, Hemingway gives us a treatise on war. He asks and answers some questions: What is heroism? What happens to a man's ideals and morals under the stress of war? How far should one's loyalties go?
3. HUMAN VALUES
A Farewell to Arms is a study of the things people can and do believe in during times of war. When the world is dizzied by fighting, what values can people hold? Hemingway shows different possibilities through his different characters. Some are able to maintain the ideals of a world at peace. Others try to cling to those ideals but experience only frustration and tragedy. Some seem to have no values left and resort to a life of the senses. Other fluctuate. When you read this novel and the chapter-by-chapter discussion in this guide, you will be able to classify the characters by their values and by the way the war has affected them.
4. LOSS OF INNOCENCE / DISILLUSIONMENT
This is perhaps the most important theme, and Frederic Henry illustrates it best. At the start he is an innocent who goes to war for no good reason except perhaps a naive search for excitement. Experience transforms him into a cynic who has tasted glory and found it bitter. He deserts what has become a meaningless war for the most powerful personal motives: his brush with death and his love for Catherine. The irony is that in the end even this love can't triumph over fate to give meaning to his life. In a world like ours, no values can be permanent. At the end, with Catherine's death, he is left empty and disillusioned.