The First World War wreaked more havoc and destruction than the world had ever seen before. All around them, people could only see death and devastation. The existing moral structure and value systems were coming crumbling down as men killed fellow men without so much as a second thought. This led to people questioning faith, religion, and the existence of God. They began to feel that if there really was a God, then surely he would stop the pain and suffering that man was facing at that time? A movement slowly began to sweep over Europe, where people began to re-think and question the very meaning of life. This school of thought came to be known as Existentialism.
Very similar to Existentialism, was Modernism. The Modernists were people who revolted against the music, art and architecture of the times, and targeted mainly the classical and romantic strains of literature. They were people who were depressed and disillusioned by the militarism of the times, and challenged fundamental values such as progress and enlightenment. Like the Existentialists, they too did not believe in the existing set of rules and morals that governed society, and believed it was time for a change.
Both of these concepts influenced Hemingway greatly, and we can see the effect of this influence clearly in his writing. The novel. “A Farewell to Arms” is narrated entirely from Frederick Henry’s point of view. He has a very distinct way of describing things-short and crisp. Throughout the novel, though Henry is surrounded on all sides by death, destruction and the wreckage of war, never once do we see him dramatizing or romanticizing it. He has what one might call a “reporter’s eye”-everything is portrayed as if being reported by a journalist, concentrating only on the concrete facts and nothing else. Hemingway does not give the reader the opportunity to pass moral judgement on any of the characters or situations, infact, Henry gives us a perfect 360 degree view of things, and the way in which he speaks of death and casualties with such practiced normalcy almost unsettles the reader.
In this part of the novel, Hemingway also stresses on the differences that have grown between Rinaldi and Henry. Henry was injured and had to leave the front, which subsequently led to him spending time and falling deeply in love with Catherine. This episode in his life gave him the chance to change and grow as a person, he becomes more mature and very different from the Henry that we came to know at the beginning of the book. Rinaldi, on the other hand, remains the way he has always been, and seems to have grown embittered and hostile towards the war. “It is killing me,” he says. Of Henry he says, “you act like a married man,” almost accusing him of having changed. In this manner, Hemingway uses Rinaldi as a foil to bring out and emphasize the change and growth that has taken place in Henry.
In Book Three of the novel, Henry and Catherine’s romantic interlude has ended, and the focus shifts once more from love to war. It is once again Autumn, and “the trees were all bare and the roads were muddy;” Hemingway continues with his use of rain and water as a bad omen. Mud here also represents the unclarity and uncertainty of the times. Later, in chapter 28, mud acts as an antagonist of sorts, when the ambulances get stuck in it, and this leads to Henry shooting a fellow Italian officer.
The contrast between the plains and the mountains, which Hemingway had established in earlier chapters, is laid out more explicitly here when Henry, while speaking to a driver named Gino, tells him that he does not believe that a war can be fought and won in the mountains. This establishes the mountains not only as a place of peace and tranquility, but also of refuge.
Rain also seems to be ever-present during Book Three. In Chapter 27, it begins to pour, and this marks the beginning of the Italian retreat. By the evening, the rain turns to snow for a while, giving the men a glimmer of hope, only to start raining again. The reader is so tuned into the rain- death symbolism by now that when, over dinner, a driver known as Amyno says, “To-morrow maybe we drink rainwater,” we are left with a deep sense of foreboding and doom.
Perhaps the most important bit of symbolism in the whole novel comes in Chapter 28 of Book Three. It is the climax of the novel, and the action is all downhill from then onwards. Here, Henry deserts the war at long last, it is something that has been in the pipeline for many a chapter. Chaos seems to be at large, as Henry witnesses Amyno being shot by a fellow Italian. As he says, “We are in more danger from Italians than from Germans.” Henry had never felt any duty or obligation to the Italian army, he always seemed to be isolated from the war, and so it seems as if all this time Hemingway was preparing us for this very moment. When Henry plunges headlong into the river, effectively abandoning the war, the reader is not shocked, and does not feel the urge to pass judgement of any sort, because he understands Henry’s motives for desertion. His dive into the river is Hemingway’s way of signaling a Re-Birth or Baptism of sorts, as when Henry comes out of the water, he is a changed man, who has made his own peace with the war. This is further exemplified when Henry says, “Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation,”
Also, while Henry is clutching on to the piece of timber and floating down the river, we notice that though the entire novel up until that point has been entirely in the first person (“I”), the narration now shifts for a brief moment, and Henry begins to use the words “you” and “we”. The result of this is that the reader feels much closer to Henry, and gets a chance to put himself in Henry’s shoes. Its as if Hemingway wants us all to be Fredrick Henry, if only for a moment.
At the end of Book Three, we see Henry traveling in a train car used to transport guns, and thinking quietly about what he has just done, and about his love for Catherine. Again, Hemingway uses the second-person narrative, as Henry justifies his desertion to himself by thinking, “You were out of it now, you had no more obligation.”
Thus, Hemingway effectively utilizes these various descriptive techniques and employs them to peel away the layers of glory and honour that surround the war, instead showing us the honest, brutal face of war. The novel reaches its climax in Book Three, and we see descending action from here onwards.
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