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Hemingway - A Farewell To Arms - Themes and Analysis

Updated on May 6, 2013

The Grim Reality

Hemingway writes in a very minimalistic fashion throughout A Farewell To Arms, something that he is quite famous for. He expresses things to readers in such a way that keeping information from them relays information far better than any amount of detail does. While Hemingway usually keeps from going into unnecessary detail, he seems to dwell on things that may seem insignificant at times. By doing this he relays to the reader a message about the grim reality of life, and contrasts it with simple pleasures such as romance and wine, which are merely a distraction. He relays this message through apathy, pessimism, and escapism. By using these motifs, Hemingway engages the reader with the writing in such a way that aids in connecting with the characters and events more sympathetically because they experience.


The ultimate grim reality of life is expressed throughout the book, and reflected in the apathy of the main character Henry. Throughout the novel, Henry is fairly inexpressive about any of the events that go on around him. When asked by Rinaldi about what happened during the explosion, Henry simply replies, "I was blown up while we were eating cheese." (Hemingway 63). Henry doesn't get excited about good things, nor seems to get too down when things go wrong. He's depicted as a character that accepts reality the way it is, though often resorts to alcohol to aid him in dealing with it. Even towards the end of the novel, when Henry is asking the nurse about his dead child, he shows little emotion:

"What's the matter with the baby?" I asked

Didn't you know?


"He wasn't alive."

"He was dead?"

"They couldn't start him breathing, the chord was caught around his neck..."

"So he's dead." (Hemingway 326-327)

As hollow as Henry seems, he does often miss his friends on the Front, and Catherine when he is away from her. Henry's mechanism for dealing with the grievances of life is to not grow too attached to anything, and maybe that is what Hemingway is trying to portray to the reader. Attachment leads to loss, and loss leads to sadness.

Escape and pessimism

Hemingway also utilizes pessimism as a way of dealing with loss. Essentially, if one has low expectations to begin with, there isn't much room for disappointment. For example, when Henry is conversing with Nurse Ferguson about his plan to marry Catherine, she keeps rebutting that it isn't going to happen. When Henry asks if she'll come to the wedding, she replies, "You'll never get married." (Hemingway 108). He assures her that they never fight; yet she replies, "You've time yet." (Hemingway 108). Henry is pessimistic about his relationship with Catherine at the beginning as well, such as when they first kiss and he recounts, "I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards." (Hemingway 30). Catherine also mentions early on in the relationship that she "[supposes] all sorts of dreadful things will happen to [them]." (Hemingway 116). By using pessimism persistently throughout the book, Hemingway establishes a contrast between the few happy moments, which Henry describes as "bliss," as opposed to the rest of the book that conveys feelings of uneasiness throughout. What this means is, the few moments in the novel that don't have a depressing undertone are to be cherished by the reader, just as they are by Henry. This is why Hemingway goes into great detail during such instants where just for the moment, everything seems to be okay. A great of example of this is where Henry and Catherine are having a simply conversation at the hotel, and just being with each other in the moment puts them at peace. Catherine states, "We have such a fine time... I don't take any interest in anything else any more. I'm so very happy married to you." (Hemingway 154).

Escape is another theme that Hemingway exploits throughout the book. In a literal sense, Henry is always avoiding confrontation with Catherine, or even himself, about his feelings. It is also mentioned that many soldiers pretend to be ill on purpose in order to avoid going to the Front. Figuratively however, escape is used in a sense of freedom, where Hemingway wants the reader to forget about the conflicts in the book. Just as Henry wants to forget about the war, the reader also forgets about Henry's problems. This is one of the major reasons that Hemingway seems to go off on a limb at times, to make the reader feel the roller-coaster of emotions. For a few paragraphs, the reader focuses on another aspect of Henry's life, such as when he is describing the view from his room and he explains how "the clouds were down over the lake but it would be beautiful with the sunlight." (Hemingway 244). Alcohol is also used as a form of escape throughout the book, and Henry even explicitly states that "wine is a grand thing... it makes you forget all the bad" (Hemingway 154). Henry and his friends are drinking at various times throughout the book, and these drunken conversations always seem to focus on light-hearted common woes, such as relationship problems. These simple problems are devices that connect with the reader, who can relate to them and compare them to the greater problems in life and realize who really has it hard. For instance, one of the problems that the reader most likely would not have faced was when Henry was hiding out in the water and he described, "I was lucky to have a heavy timber to hold on to, and I lay in the icy water with my chin on the wood, holding as easily as I could with both hands." (Hemingway 226).

Another form of escape that Hemingway employed was a sort of dark humor, such as "[the] fine boy who had tried to unscrew the fuse-cap from a combination shrapnel shell..." and try and use it as a souvenir (Hemingway 108). It wasn't humorous in the sense that it was funny, but more so at the pathetic nature of the event that sickens the reader whilst at the same time they can't help but be amused. Catherine is another character that seems to want to escape from reality. While it was discussed in class that her character was pretty hollow and two-dimensional, and that Hemingway didn't really portray her female role that well, her lack of motivation throughout the novel could be interpreted as a form of escapism. She doesn't feel alive anymore in a sense, and thus finds Henry to confide in. A great example of her desperation is when she says to Henry, ""I've plenty of faults but I'm very faithful. You'll be sick of me I'm so faithful." (Hemingway 116). She basically just wants someone, and anyone at this point.

By using apathy, pessimism, and escapism, Hemingway juxtaposes the primary tone of the novel with the few moments of joy or "bliss." For this reason, he often goes into great detail over little things that may seem insignificant, but put the reader in a different mind-set for the time being before returning to the reality of the novel, just as the characters feel before returning back to the reality of their lives. Essentially, apathy sets the tone for the novel, pessimism enhances the contrast between the moments of bliss, and escapism allows for the moment of bliss to occur. These three themes are exploited throughout the book and are experienced by the readers just as much as they are by the characters themselves.


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