Ernest Hemingway’s work has incorporated a number of standard fiction elements including symbolism, characterization and themes in its bid to explain the events of the World War I. His experience as a war veteran helps in conjuring up details that are well captured through symbolism. The novel contains a great deal of symbolism from the start to the end. Carson (518) says that Hemingway practiced the “Mallarme’s dictum that ‘to name an object is to do away with three quarters of the enjoyment.’” This paper seeks out to explore the use of symbolism in the novel and the themes that the author pursues.
Rain has been used by Hemingway to represent death. Rain has been widely used in the novel as a potent symbol of death. Throughout the plot, there is a feeling that when rain pours, it brings with it scenes of isolation and loss of lives. In the opening of the work, the narrator talks about the massive rain that led to the spread of cholera that claimed 7000 lives in a short period. Based on this part, rain is a symbol of death.
As the narration progresses, the impact of rain on the loss of Italian lives is again highlighted. The novel states that, during the same period, the rain compromised the Italian positions and allowed enemy fire to get to them. This led to a retreat that would have been avoided if the rain had not come. Again, here, the narrator uses rain to symbolize death as some of the military personnel succumb to injuries borne out of confrontations that were; as a result of severe weather. He further claims, “I am afraid of rain because sometimes I see me dead in it” (167). In this phrase, the narrator talks about how rain leads to his emotional and psychological death.
Again the role of rain in death is highlighted during Henry’s escape from Stress. It rains all night and day as he runs away from imminent death. The dangerous open boat trip across the lake is also in the rain. This means the hazardous nature of the trip as the lake is filling with waves that may capsize the open boat.
In the opening parts of the book, rain is associated with death, in the same way, as portrayed in the boat trip only that, this time the cause is not the tides but the winds. It claims that, in the summer, the land was full of crops and harvests were in plenty. The onset of rains led to winds that destroyed the lands and left trees without leaves. The author uses this part of the book to paint a picture of desolation occasioned by the onset of rains. He also uses the same to depict the genesis of death as the population fights to survive the harsh conditions of the rainy season.
Finally, rain portrays death in the last chapter of the book. When Henry leaves the delivery room where Catherine is undergoing agonizing pain, he is met with rain although the sun is trying to appear. The appearance of the sun signifies an array of hope that Catherine will be fine. The sun is immediately overcome by the strong rains signifies the loss of hope and true to prediction, Catherine succumbs to her pains. The author uses rain to replace the obvious. Catherine dies and instead of an emotional downpour, the reader is introduced to another heavy downpour.
Catherine’s relationship with Henry is a symbol of hope. Despite the hardship that those at war are undergoing, they know that one day they will need to move on with their lives. Forming new relationships shows that they want to be prepared when that time comes. The relationship is also a symbol of peace amidst war and conflict. When Henry escapes from the ambush, he goes to Catherine to seek some peace. Similarly, Catherine seeks peace by initiating the relationship with Henry after her heartbreak. When Catherine dies, Henry is ruined. This brings about the idea that with the end of the relationship, Henry’s hope is lost.
The riding crop has also been used symbolically to represent Catherine’s unwillingness to get over the past. When she meets Henry, she is carrying a riding crop that belongs to her late fiancé. The book uses this to represent Catherine’s past effectively. Through the riding crop, the reader is introduced to Catherine’s deceased fiancé thereby helping the reader to understand Catherine’s pursuit of love. Her fiancé’s untimely and unfair death is used to show Henry’s shared view that the world is a cruel place, a sentiment echoed by Catherine during their conversation. They both believe that the world crushes the people with courage.
Officer’s stars have also been symbolically used to represent competence and sacrifice. Through the stars, one can note the level of competence and the amount of sacrifice that one has had to undertake for the country. It can, therefore, agreeable that the stars have are a representation of the officer’s willingness to die for their course. Indeed, at one point, Henry argues that the opinion of a first Captain is not sufficient to determine if he has an operation or not. He says that if the first captain was good enough, he would be promoted to a major (128).
Hair and beards are also used symbolically in the novel. Henry decides to grow a long beard while Catherine keeps her hair long. These two instances are used to represent the pair insulation to the world. At the beginning of their relationships, Henry likes to loosen Catherine’s hair so that it would resemble a tent. This can be taken to represent protection and shelter. As Catherine lives alone in Switzerland, Henry decides to keep his beard as a sign of protection to her.
Snow and ice have also been used symbolically to represent temporary relief on the pairs’ lives. The two natural features have been sued to represent Henry’s relief from impending death and pains of life. Although snow cannot stop the condition of mortality, it can easily prolong it for a particular period. A good example is when the war is halted due to the onset of winter. Therefore, snow has been sued as a medium for temporary peace and relief from the death. When Henry and Catherine escape to the mountains of Switzerland, they find it covered with snow. This offers them protection against imminent danger from wild animals that would have otherwise been prowling the woody parts of the mountain. There is also the aspect of using clay as symbol for obstruction. This was clearly expressed in the author’s explanation of the events of the battlefields.
Mud has been used to represent the many obstacles that service members faced during retreats and offensives. It represents nature’s hostility to the human population. The presence of mud not only restricts the movement of the service members but also is also responsible for the many deaths of the officers.
A number of themes have also been employed in the novel. Perhaps the most notable theme of the book is the reality of war. The theme is first captured in the novel’s title. The narrator removes himself from war and leaves the events of the war behind although he feels guilty of abandoning his men at the hour of need. This is also being captured in his exclamation “Let’s drop the war,” “There’s no place to drop it,” “Let’s drop it anyway” (Ernest 5.43-45), throughout the novel, the reader is introduced to the grim realities of war. Every event is lace with the desolation and destruction that is brought about by war. Henry’s relationship with Catherine is significantly hindered by war. The country’s development is pegged on the effects of the war while Henry’s future cannot be decided without factoring the direction of the war. Although the novel is not condemning war, it is pointing an accusing finger at the proponents of war as agents of social disintegration. The narrator indirectly accuses the existing political powers as the main forces behind rampant loss of lives from military confrontations. War is widely covered in the book till the end where Henry leaves Catherine’s body to head back to the hotel where he intends to consider going back to the ballet field.
According to Surber, Hemingway displays the difficulties and horrors undergone by those at war. He takes us through the descriptions of death and how it happens. He also shows regardless of the trying times, new relations are being formed. The formation of new relationships, as mentioned earlier, portrays hope. Those at war are hopeful that one day the war will end and they will continue with their lives. A good example is the relationship between Henry and Catherine. They make plans of how they are going to have a future together and have a child. The characters also share their opinions about the war (Surber par. 7-8).
Another important theme that is widely spread thorough the novel is love and pain. The interesting relationship between Henry and Catherine is being filled with joy and pain. Their introduction to each other happened when they were undergoing some painful situations. When Catherine is introduced to Henry, she is recovering from the death of her fiancé. She is, therefore, undergoing emotional pain. Henry’s relationship with Catherine is a product of their close contact during his recuperation at the Milan hospital. He has undergone surgery and needs to heal before he can head back to the battlefront. Henry suffers a different form of pain from Catherine. While Catherine is nursing emotional pains, Henry is nursing physical pain as he has become numb to emotions. As they grow closer, the relationship grows leading to a presumed marriage “You don’t have to pretend you love me (Ernest 45).” The product of a marriage is a stillborn. However, the message is effectively communicated throughout the novel as the reader comes to learn of a romantic relationship between Henry and Catherine.
The death of the child also makes another face of pain where the two individuals undergo the same kind of pain in equal measure. This is the first instance where Henry and Catherine share the same pain. The narrator gives a moving account of Catherine’s agonizing pains before the birth of the child and her subsequent feats of pain. His wife’s pain moves Henry that he resolves to stay by her side “We won’t quarrel, baby. I love you too much. But don’t be a fool.” (Ernest 66). There is an aspect of emotional connection that connects the two individual’s response to pain. The subsequent death of Catherine adds more pain to Henry as he trudges back to the hotel room. The novel highlights the flow of pain in the successive events that completely turn Henry’s world upside down in a span of twenty-five hours. There is an aspect of illusion when the two characters first meet. Catherine believes that her dead fiancé was the correct person for her, and no one can replace him. Henry has undergone major battles that his emotional paella is dead and believes no one can reinstate it. Because of their strong beliefs, the two are involved in a game of illusion trying to lure each other into their lives.
According to Cain, it is an open question as to whether the decision of Henry to meet with Catherine was a wise one. The love relationship that begins between them is a wonderful thing for Henry. However, it is then ruthlessly taken away from him. The result is that Catherine dies and he is ruined (Cain 381). It is the role of the reader to choose which is greater, the momentous relief or the guilt and pain that follows.
According to Donaldson (5), the publishers of the book referred to the book as a true and genuine portrayal of love inherent of physical aspiration. They referred to the book as a very moral text. The novel practices realism (Donaldson 4) in dealing with the issue of love. Upon conclusion however, the publishers accept that though it may not have been moral, the lack of the relationship part would have rendered the story insufficient.
About pain however, Wister had felt the texts too outspoken in regard to medical details. He thought that Catherine’s pain should have been better communicated if the ether had been left out and the agony illustrated only by suggestion. Wister had however not rallied this opinion further (Donaldson 7). His stand however holds that pain was deeply portrayed in the texts. Wister’s view of Hemingway’s text as being vivid in his descriptions is mirrored by Fries in his review of themes (349).
Masculinity is also another major theme in the novel. Any reader would likely establish a link between Henry’s domineering role and his near immortality status. While Catherine is seen as the one undergoing most of the pains, Henry is described as a muscular individual immune to emotional pains. Even after the loss of Catherine, Henry does not sit down and weep but instead elects to move back to his hotel room to make plans for the next move. Masculinity is also present in the way men are being portrayed throughout the novels. It is vital to note that all the major characters in the novel are men except Catherine. It is also notable that all the senior military officials have male names. On the other hand, all women in the novel are either nurses or prostitutes. None of the people exposed to danger are female. So this gives credence to the feeling that the story sees masculinity as a way of defining man. It is also a representation of an ideology that, men are made to endure much pain compared to women. After Catherine’s death, Henry is left to wander in the emotional wilderness as he tries to find his footing. The entree story is being built on presenting man as an ideal force in the society and the family setting. It gives much emphasis on the role of men in the society and their importance.
There is also the theme of loyalty and abandonment. The first instance of loyalty and abandonment is highlighted in the meeting of the two major characters. Catherine remains faithful to her dead fiancé while Henry is loyal to his friend Rinaldi. However, after periods of staying close, the two abandon their loyalties and become loyal only to each other. Henry escapes his loyalty to Rinaldi and starts dating his love interest while Catherine abandons her fiancé and puts up with Henry.
The theme of abandonment is also apparent when Henry runs away from the battlefield leaving behind some of his men. This action remains to haunt him until the end of the book. Another case of abandonment is explored in the Milan hospital when the medical superintendent insists that, Henry is faking his condition, therefore, must be taken back to the battlefield. In this case, the superintendent abandons her patient whom she swore to protect after training. The abandonment of nursing beliefs as expressed by the superintendent helps in the projection of the theme of loyalty and abandonment.
Hemingway uses many literary forms to pass over his messages. To symbolism, he sticks throughout the novel. He also pursues several themes while keeping the two primary themes as war and love. The interesting nature of his work is however as prevalent as the immoral nature. The book has met with lots of opposition with certain critics arguing that the very basics of his work were not intended. Love for example has come out as immorality and prostitution according to certain critics. While war is supposed to be sign of courage, some parts of his work show fear, an attribute that is opposed by certain critics as improper. However, it is to the joy of the reader that Hemingway departs from the traditional perspectives of literature to provide more original elements for critics and readers alike to devour.
While the author is attempting to pass his message of war
and love to his audience, he sees the need to use literary devices to raise
more interest in his readers. The use of symbolism is continuous and
persistent. He does not tire to introduce new symbols. The symbol of rain as a
sign of death has been used throughout the novel. Other symbols include each
other’s hair as a sign of protection, officers’ stars as a sign of achievement
and competence and snow and ice which are used to depict temporary relief from
the looming dangers of being at the forefront. The various themes depicted in
the novel include love, war, pain, masculinity, and loyalty and abandonment.
Cain W. The Death of Love in a Farewell to Arms. Sewanee Review [serial online]. 2013;(3):376. Available from: Project MUSE, Ipswich, MA. Accessed August 20, 2014
Donaldson, Scott, ed. New essays on A farewell to arms. Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Fries, Peter H. “Themes, Methods of Development, and Texts ‘k.” On subject and theme: A discourse functional perspective 118 (1995): 317.
Surber, Katie. “Themes in A Farewell to Arms.” Education Portal. N.p., 2014. Web. 20 Aug. 2014. Obtained from: https://education-portal.com/academy/lesson/themes-in-a-farewell-to-arms.html#lesson
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