The most compelling character in A Farewell to Arms was Frederick Henry. The main conflict he faces is his inability to choose between Catharine or serving the military. Henry is almost constantly at a crossroads.
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He could be a peaceful, god loving man, like the priest, or have a pleasant disposition with an inclination to violence like Rinaldi. In the end, the only thing he worships is Catharine, and the only physically violent act he commits is killing the sergeant. He is a fully realized creation who is three dimensional and he feels real. He’s a deserter who drinks and lies, but he also wanted to do right by helping soldiers as an ambulance driver, and he almost never fights with Catharine. When he does finally fall in love with her for real, he feels guilty for treating her poorly, suddenly I felt lonely and empty. I had treated seeing Catherine very lightly, (Hemingway, 44). Her death only amplifies every slight he committed towards her.
A Farewell to Arms is written from a first person perspective. Frederick is an alcoholic, and heavily traumatized from both the war and the death of Catharine. This has the building blocks for an unreliable narrator, but as the book progresses Frederick admits to lying, and it allows the reader to trust him more. I had not killed any but I was anxious to pleaseand I said I had killed plenty, (Hemingway, 101). He even admits to things he thinks are shameful, like resenting the baby Catharine was pregnant with. The mood and tone swing wildly from Frederick’s despair, to domesticity with Catharine, and back to despair again. The use of weather to dictate the mood in a scene has the reader on edge whenever rain is mentioned, and lulled into a false sense of security whenever it snows. The emotional roller coaster has a strong effect on the reader. Hemingway writes with heavy dialogue, and it gives the book a more modern feel, but it comes at the expense of roundabout conversations that could have been much shorter. The dialogue between Catherine and Frederick feels more like a mantra in the beginning, as if by saying they only have eyes for one another, it would breathe some life into the game that they play. Their romance as a whole is unappealing, but it helps Frederick become more appealing. He views the war in a journalistic, objective way. In one passage his morning breakfast is held at the same thematic level as living through a bombing. That’s not to say it had no effect on him, but rather that he views it as something of a background hum in most of his life, rather than a catastrophic event.
The setting of A Farewell to Arms is spread out across Italy and Switzerland in the early 1900’s during world war one. All of the characters are in some way affected by this. A stable marriage isn’t something many of the soldiers can rely on, so they turn to the prostitutes. Having casual sex with no emotional connection leads Frederick to become immature when it comes to forming a romantic relationship with a woman. Rinaldi’s punishment is syphilis, and it is heavily implied that Catharine’s sex with Frederick outside of wedlock is the cause of her stillborn baby, and eventually her death.
Weather is an important motif in A Farewell to Arms. Typically, rain would be a harbinger of new growth, or it is equated to a baptismal thunderstorm. Snow is usually something to be feared, and is associated with hypothermia and death. Hemingway turns this on it’s head. The snow is what causes the fighting to cease, There will be no more offensive now that the snow has come,”” (Hemingway, 8). The rain is what must be feared. Catharine confesses that she sometimes has visions of Frederick dead in the rain, which makes the symbolism clear to the reader. Weather also plays a crucial role during Catharine’s labour. The fog in the mountains during their retreat turns to rain, a sense of foreboding arises. It rains through most of her operation, and the ray of sunshine that appears fades just as quickly as it came. When Frederick is told that Catherine has died from her hemorrhage, he walks back to his hotel in the rain.
All of the men in A Farewell to Arms fulfill the traditional role of war hardened men. They drink, they have sex, they fight, but they aren’t all caricatures of masculinity. Their depictions always come at the expense of their foil. Rinaldi’s prowess with women contrasts with the priest’s chastity, and the surgeon seems so capable because he has the three meek doctors behind him. Rinaldi is physically affectionate and cares deeply for Frederick. Eventually Frederick learns to love Catherine. The women on the other hand, often fill the role of either a prostitute or a nurse. They mostly abide by strict morals. Catherine offhandedly mentions that she feels dirty for having sex outside of wedlock, and Helen is scandalized when she learns that Catherine is pregnant.
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