The world is a hostile place; life is illogical and unfair. Ernest Hemingway sets this tone in his World War I autobiographical novel, A Farewell to Arms, which beautifully depicts a love story within a war story; the main theme in the novel being that war transcends all, therefore the novel, like war, ends with no winner. Although the novel primarily expresses the theme of war, the romantic theme unquestionably dominants a portion of the novel as well. In the first two Books, Hemingway immerses the reader into the war and the war verwhelms the reader as well as the characters.
Frederic Henry enters the war as a callow youth out for excitement and becomes an obedient soldier. He soon becomes disillusioned with the war (a war in which he really has no place) and abandons the war in Book III to be with his love, Catherine Barkley. Until the third Book, Henry does not seem to be agonizingly concerned with matters of right or wrong in war and maintains a distance from the war. Although Henry does not really appear to be a part of the war which surrounds him, the theme of war appears around very corner. Hemingway questions the characteristics of a war hero and how far one’s loyalties should go.
In the beginning chapters of the novel, Henry, although being badly wounded by a trench mortar shell, shows his heroic characteristics by showing concern for his fellow mates and putting the welfare of other soldiers above his. At that point, the reader sees Henry as a hero but one might change one’s minds in Book III, when Henry deserts the army. Henry attempts to justify his actions by stating that the war has ended for him because he has made a “separate eace. ” Hemingway examines the thin line between right and wrong during times of war and the conflict this dilemma creates.
For example, the barman, who helps Henry and Barkley escape to Switzerland, believes in his actions yet knows that what he has done labels him as “unpatriotic,” and not to mention, highly illegal. Hemingway also shows what happens to a man’s ideals and morals under the stress of war. Henry for instance, leaves the war because he knows that something better awaits him and his fellow war mates remain in the war for their own personal easons yet finds other means of escaping the war through their drinking and by sleeping with prostitutes.
In the last two Books, Hemingway immerses the reader in love and just as the first two Books focuses on the war with a side story of the blooming love between Henry and Barkley, the last two Books focuses on the wholehearted love the two share during this time of war. Hemingway shows that even during times of war, love can bloom between two people, yet love has limits (being trapped by mortality) and ends at death. Their love may seem distrustful in the eginning of the novel but much later in their relationship, they sincerely prove their love for each other.
After Henry resolves to desert the army, the novel shifts from a war novel to a romantic novel and Hemingway begins to expound on the love that exists between the Henry and Barkley. Henry finds Barkley in Stresa and the couple rekindles their love for each other, expressing their relief and rising excitement on being together again. Barkley heals all of Henry’s emotional wounds while Henry provides the stability that Barkley needs.
Together, they an escape the war that surrounds them but when Barkley dies, the cruelty of the world hits Henry and he realizes that although, he can escape the war symbolically, in the tent of Barkley’s hair for a short while, and literally, in Switzerland, he cannot escape the resolution of war. Although in the mist of this romantic story, Hemingway still underlines the war theme, presenting the novel as primarily a war novel. The novel ends with no conclusion, leaving the reader stunned, emotionally exhausted, and also just as alone as Henry, with nowhere to go.
The ending of the novel shares the same ending as any typical war but specifically, World War I. If Hemingway intends the novel to be a love story, the novel could have ended at the end of Book IV because a sense of closure exists there. Henry and Barkley escapes to Switzerland safely and as long as Henry’s grandfather continues to send them money, they could have lived happily ever after (typical romantic novel ending) yet Hemingway continues to remind the reader of the war and happy endings do not exist in wars.