Themes in A Farewell to Arms

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  • 0:04 Ernest Hemingway
  • 1:29 A Farewell to Arms
  • 3:13 Themes
  • 5:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

In this lesson, we will briefly examine the life of Ernest Hemingway and his writing accomplishments. We will then summarize his novel, 'A Farewell to Arms,' and focus on its major themes.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899 in Illinois. As a child, he learned to fish and hunt, and he spent much of his time outside. The future writer worked on his high school newspaper and went on to work for the Kansas City Star after graduation. In 1918, Hemingway served in World War I as an ambulance driver. After he was injured, Hemingway was placed in a hospital in Milan. There, he met a nurse, who accepted his proposal for marriage, but then left him for another man. This event inspired his book A Farewell to Arms. He returned to the U.S. briefly before taking a job at the Toronto Star. He then met his first wife and the two moved to Paris.

In Paris, Hemingway became a part of the lost generation. This group of writers and artists, which included Fitzgerald, Picasso, and Joyce, were said to have focused their work on characters who feel lost and selfish as they move through society.

Hemingway divorced his first wife and remarried three more times. In 1951, Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize, an achievement in American literature, for his novel The Old Man and the Sea. In 1954, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and he was considered to be at the peak of his career. However, Hemingway suffered from depression and was being treated for liver disease. In 1961, Hemingway committed suicide.

A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms takes place during World War I. The main character, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, is an American serving in the Italian Army as an ambulance driver. Henry meets Catherine Barkley, an English nurse's aide at a British hospital. The two form a relationship, but Catherine wants a deeper emotional connection, something that Henry is not able to give. Henry is wounded in battle and taken to a hospital in Milan. The doctors recommend that Henry stay in bed for six months to recover and then operate on his knee. Henry insists that the doctors operate immediately. He also learns that Catherine has been transferred to the same hospital. Their relationship grows, and the two fall in love.

Henry's leg heals and he is given three weeks before he has to return to the front. However, Henry is diagnosed with jaundice, and the superintendent of the hospital believes he is drinking to avoid returning to war. He is told once the jaundice is clear, he will return immediately. At the same time, Catherine tells him that she is pregnant.

Henry returns to war and leads the ambulance drivers to help pick up evacuating troops. He and another driver are caught in a battle as they try to rescue soldiers. There is a lot of chaos with many men being killed and executed. Henry is able to escape by jumping in a river and swimming away until he can board a train.

He is reunited with Catherine and the two move to Switzerland. They decide to put the war behind them and create a life together. Catherine goes into labor and delivers a stillborn baby boy. She dies later that night from a hemorrhage. Although he stays with her until she dies, Henry is unable to say goodbye. The novel ends with Henry walking back to a hotel alone.

Themes

The themes in A Farewell to Arms often show contradiction with each other. There are themes of war and love, masculinity and femininity, and courage and fear.

The setting of the novel creates its first theme: war. Hemingway shows the hardships and horror of war through his descriptions of those who die and how they die. He also shows how relationships are formed through such a trying time. The men and women serving keep a hope of what could come. This is seen in Henry and Catherine's plans for the future and to have a child together. The characters also often debate the different viewpoints of war.

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