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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:
Likewise, Catherine goes through six stages:
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.