Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”: Philosophical and Religious Views Seen through Symbolism and Naturalism


In A Farewell to Arms, one of the themes of Frederic Henry's adventure as an ambulance driver during World War I is identity seen through a text of a judicious admixture of naturalism and symbolism. Hemingway has not only portrayed war, death, sex, love and religion, but has also intensified the effects of his writings through his use of symbols and ironies.  Carlos Baker has analyzed the central themes of A Farewell to Arms in terms of the Mountain and the plain. Mountains are of dryness and comfort, where as the plain represents rain and the fog. 

The Home concept, for example, is associated the mountains with dry, cold weather, with peace and quiet, with love dignity, health, happiness and good life, and with worship at least the consciousness of God. The not- Home concept is associated with the low plains, with rain and for, with obscenity indignity, suffering nervousness, war and death, and with religion. This theme compounds other themes that Hemingway is exploring through the war story. Identity is important to the story because it expresses the general question of the individual in the postwar world. The First World War raised some unsettling questions about the values the war generation had inherited. People began to question the validity of their national leaders and institutions, which seemed to have led directly to such an incredible loss of life and economic devastation. Frederic represents, for Hemingway, this questioning of what is man that he can cause such awful destruction and human suffering.

Malcolm Cowley has rightly commented that Hemingway belongs to the company of Poet, and Hawthorne and Melville the haunted and nocturnal writers, the men who deal in images that were symbols of an inner world. Caroline Gordon has even compassed Hemingway to Kafka as a symbolist. Frederic's identity is displaced by the late introduction of his name to the reader, the fact of his being an American in the Italian army, and his constant play with words. He speaks Italian, but not well enough to advance in rank. He also understands French and German though remaining unmistakably American. None of this is surprising but because Hemingway depends on dialogue to a great extent, the play of words between languages serves to heighten such issues as alienation and patriotism. The former is heightened because jokes do not translate and thus Frederic's efforts to lighten moods fall into silence. Beyond the curious problems of voice, Frederic always seems to be in the wrong outfit. This fact is exaggerated when he borrows clothes from Ralph Simmons to make his escape and when he says that his English gas mask works—whereas the Italian models do not. He continues to be someone else until the end. Finally, Frederic attempts to identify not as himself but as lost in Catherine—'We're the same one.' He is forced to give this up when she dies.

In A Farewell to Arms Hemingway achieves symbolic effects through a subtle process of reiterated suggestion. Here important devices are the weather, the emblematic people and the escapes. The association between rain and disaster is too not to be missed. Anyone who reads A Farewell to Arms with one the weather will eventually marvel as he watches the author playing with falling rain as a symbol of imminent doom. The association between rain and disaster is too prominent take mined. Every time these is disaster, whether consciously or unconsciously, it is accompanied by rain. When Henry and Catherine separate in Milan, There is a Gusty wind accompanied by rain. The lovers’ escape from stress across the lakes is in rain. Henry leaves Catherine in hospital in rain. Near the close of the book when Catherine is approaching time of confinement the weather warms and the rains arrive for a whole miraculous winter. The lovers have gloried in their isolation living happily in their high mountains fastness, surrounded by the healthy cold air and clean snow, far from the mud and much of war. Now at last the rains come, the time for the lying in draws near. Some quant change lurks just beyond the lovers’ limited horizon and we begin to sense that Catherine is in mortal danger as indeed she is. Thus rain is the symbol of human misery and disaster. Frederic Henry himself is the every-man of America after the First World War his, experience of war is a common experience ‘of the Americans. The two friends of Frederic Henry also heighten the symbolic effect, so do the contrasted landscapes: Hemingway's novel demonstrates the demise of loyalty to traditions and institutions that had been brought forward from the nineteenth century, a refocusing on the self often referred to as “individualism.” His characters, especially Catherine Barkley (in terms of her fiance's death at the hand of sophisticated infantry), all have war disgust. Each of them is able to avoid becoming crazy by falling back on the self. In doing so, each person rejects the 'higher callings' of tradition, society, or institution. For example, Rinaldi has the satisfaction of having become a better surgeon through practice. He is also better with women for the same reason. When prodded by Frederic's suggestion that there may be more than these two self-centered items in life, Rinaldi responds with a very existentialist statement, 'We never get anything. We are born with all we have and we never learn. We never get anything new.'

Naturalism and realism of Hemingway can be seen in the story, the theme, the, characterization and the language of the novel above all it is in the biological trapping of the hero and the heroine.

According to Ray B Best, Henry and Catherine both have been biologically trapped by the war their love and by death. This biological trap reminds us of the element of determinism and pessimism in the naturalistic fiction. The death of the heroine takes place because of some biological defect and not because of any supernatural intervention. Thus naturalism apart from symbolism is quite evident in the novel.

It is out of this effort to come to terms with the stupidity and horror of the Great War that the school of thought known as existentialism emerges, a movement which suggested that men and women should not accept society's or someone else's values, but rather examine the truth in him or herself. Hemingway was not an existentialist, but his characters clearly exhibit a great deal of alienation from each other. They cope with their situation of doubt in society by developing an acute personal meaning. In A Farewell to Arms this is debated once by the priest and Frederic in the latter's hospital room. Not for the first time, the reader is forced to examine the discomforting notions of love. The priest loves God and this comforts him during the war. Frederic and Catherine, alternately, display another route to coping. This one is ironic and looms large over the novel—'I want you so much I want to be you too.' This statement must be compared to their actions during the childbirth—Catherine is given hell by nature, while Frederic eats. The effort to be each other is an alienation from self and a failed method of coping. Thus, Frederic faces the tragedy of his love as well as the tragedy of himself—he did not listen to any of the tutors who warned him of this inevitability. Certainly, the inevitability is seen in hindsight since Catherine, as tradition and institution, died in the ghastly war leaving the 'Everyman' tragically alone with himself.

Critics have found philosophy and religion in A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway never wanted to write about everyday life the poor, dear, foolish life that Howells loved so much instead, he wanted to concern himself with the ultimate crises of human experience to surprise the human soul if there was a soul make as it faced up to an ultimate challenge. In this case in this unceasing preoccupation with the problems of conduct it must be admitted that those admirers are right who discern in him a profoundly moral write.

Frederic the hero does not love God, but he is afraid of him in the right sometimes. He and Catherine cannot find sanctuary in the church Frederic is worried when the new born child is dead and has not been baptized. Henry’s attitude towards religion is the modern man’s attitude to religion.

According to James F. Light the novel has experimented with four ideals of service. The orthodox religions ideal of service is that of the priest who wishes to serve God but who aspects the broader concept of service. When your love you wish to do things for which to sacrifice for you wish to serve, Another ideal of service is that of patriot Ginc who wishes to serve his country so will and full that he is willing to die for it. For him the alien soil is sacred and death is a reward the third ideal is the code of Catherine Barkley which is that of selfless Secular love. She serves her lover and in such service she realizes her personal substitute for conventional religion. Henry has learnt the priest’s ideal to serve without any return in exchange. The last ideal is that of the surgeon. Dr. Rinaldi, who as a doctor wishes to serve mankind by alleviating the wounds of war.

Never the less, in moments of despair Hemingway has praised on the edge of nothingness just as the existentialists. Anguish is universal phenomenon. Like the existentialists Hemingway also believers that in the face of ultimate doom and extinction one must live each moment properly and skillfully. Thus in A Farewell to Arms there are woes of existentialism also.

Ref: Wikipedia, Encarta


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