The novel concerns itself primarily with the development of Hemingway's philosophy of life, which will be explained here. The story focuses on Henry's discovery of this philosophy, and all of the main characters of the novel serve largely as foils to Henry-they are caught in different stages of their developing the philosophy.
Hemingway, and indeed many of his existential peers, believed that the universe is unordered one. There is no God to watch over man, to dictate codes of morality, or to ensure justice. Instead, the universe is indifferent (sometimes even hostile) to man's plight. In the book, this indifference is best exemplified by the war-an ultimately futile struggle of man against man. There are no winners in a war, and there is no reasoning behind the lives which are taken.
The true Hemingway Code Hero (exemplified here by Catherine, and later also by Henry) must first accept this fact of the universe. This calls for many things, the first of which being a disbelief in God-to Hemingway, such faith was a cheap way of falsely instilling order upon existence (this is where the priest falls short). Because there is no God, there are no universal moral codes, no abstract values such as "justice" or "glory," and certainly no need for moral conventions. The code hero rejects these, but imposes order upon his life through personal values-integrity, dignity, courage, etc. This is what Catherine knows from the beginning and Henry learns in the course of the war. In essence, the hero learns that he, himself, is a crucial source of meaning. Finally, such a person must accept the finality of death, knowing himself to be caught in a meaningless existence.
Disillusionment, however, is not part of being a hero. Rinaldi falls short of this status because once he realizes the truth about the universe, he becomes disillusioned. The true hero can hold this meaninglessness in his mind while simultaneously creating meaning and order through the struggle which is life. He does this first by seeking a worthy adversary to struggle against (in Farewell to Arms this is the war which Henry attempts to free himself from). He endures the pains of life without complaint, knowing them to be a part of life. He does not cheat, but adheres to his personal values (as seen in the horse races). In the end, there is no victory which awaits the hero-winning the struggle is impossible. Consequently, it is irrelevant: what matters is his heroism. Henry's fights the meaningless of life through his love affair with Catherine, among many other things. The universe, of course, challenges that love many times and wins in the end, but Henry's struggle is a heroic one.
To a lesser extent, Farewell to Arms is also an anti-war novel, as the vivid descriptions of its brutality and futility attest to.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Grim Reality of War
As the title of the novel makes clear, A Farewell to Arms concerns itself primarily with war, namely the process by which Frederic Henry removes himself from it and leaves it behind. The few characters in the novel who actually support the effort—Ettore Moretti and Gino—come across as a dull braggart and a naïve youth, respectively. The majority of the characters remain ambivalent about the war, resentful of the terrible destruction it causes, doubtful of the glory it supposedly brings.
The novel offers masterful descriptions of the conflict’s senseless brutality and violent chaos: the scene of the Italian army’s retreat remains one of the most profound evocations of war in American literature. As the neat columns of men begin to crumble, so too do the soldiers’ nerves, minds, and capacity for rational thought and moral judgment. Henry’s shooting of the engineer for refusing to help free the car from the mud shocks the reader for two reasons: first, the violent outburst seems at odds with Henry’s coolly detached character; second, the incident occurs in a setting that robs it of its moral import—the complicity of Henry’s fellow soldiers legitimizes the killing. The murder of the engineer seems justifiable because it is an inevitable by-product of the spiraling violence and disorder of the war.
Nevertheless, the novel cannot be said to condemn the war; A Farewell to Arms is hardly the work of a pacifist. Instead, just as the innocent engineer’s death is an inevitability of war, so is war the inevitable outcome of a cruel, senseless world. Hemingway suggests that war is nothing more than the dark, murderous extension of a world that refuses to acknowledge, protect, or preserve true love.
The Relationship Between Love and Pain
Against the backdrop of war, Hemingway offers a deep, mournful meditation on the nature of love. No sooner does Catherine announce to Henry that she is in mourning for her dead fiancé than she begins a game meant to seduce Henry. Her reasons for doing so are clear: she wants to distance herself from the pain of her loss. Likewise, Henry intends to get as far away from talk of the war as possible. In each other, Henry and Catherine find temporary solace from the things that plague them. The couple’s feelings for each other quickly pass from an amusement that distracts them to the very fuel that sustains them. Henry’s understanding of how meaningful his love for Catherine is outweighs any consideration for the emptiness of abstract ideals such as honor, enabling him to flee the war and seek her out. Reunited, they plan an idyllic life together that promises to act as a salve for the damage that the war has inflicted. Far away from the decimated Italian countryside, each intends to be the other’s refuge. If they are to achieve physical, emotional, and psychological healing, they have found the perfect place in the safe remove of the Swiss mountains. The tragedy of the novel rests in the fact that their love, even when genuine, can never be more than temporary in this world.
More main ideas from A Farewell to Arms