Significance of the Title A Farewell to Arms
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In the title of the novel, A Farewell to Arms, the word ‘arms’ responds to two diverse meanings which are in keeping with the themes of the novel. The novel is concerned with the theme of war and the theme of love. Accordingly the word ‘arms can be interpreted to mean the weapons of war and on the other hand the arms of a human being here of course the arms of Catherine, the protagonist’s beloved. The novel thus discusses how the hero, Frederic Henry bids farewell to the first arms i.e. war and then how he bids farewell to the woman he loves. In both cases he bids farewell due to an external compulsion. He feels disillusioned with war due to the disorder and chaos of the retreat and is forced to flee to save his life from the Italian battle police. Again his farewell to his beloved is forced by a cruel fate. She dies in child birth, made difficult by the narrowness of her hips.
The Theme of War in A Farewell to Arms
In the novel, Hemingway first introduces the theme of war. It is the Italian front and the war is raging between the Italian and the Austrians. Frederic Henry, the protagonist is an American. He is a Lieutenant in the ambulance unit of the Italian army. However, the reason behind his joining the war is never made explicit in the novel. He is not fired by any passion for freedom or democracy or any other cause’. He has no ideals of any kind. Maybe some humanitarian instinct led him to join considering how he tries to help the soldier who had deliberately wounded himself to avoid going to the front. However it also reveals him casual attitude to war. He is a non-combatant. He is not in danger of dying and he is unconcerned. He muses,
“Well I knew I would not be killed. Not in this war. It didn’t have anything to do with me. It seemed no more dangerous to me myself that war in the movies.”
This casual attitude is reinforced by his wishing that the war were over. However it does not imply that he is not conscientious. He performs his duties efficiently and meticulously. He does not neglect his duties or evade his responsibility so much so that when he returns from his casual leave to the front and finds everything in good working order, he is rather disappointed that he was not indispensable and that it hardly seemed to matter whether he was there or not. Moreover, in spite of being at the front where the offensive was going on he seems to be having rather a fine time. Eating, drinking and being merry in the officers mess or else indulging in casual sex with the girls in the officer’s brothel. He also goes away on leave during the winter during which he visits all the big cities of Italy having a good time indulging in wine and women to a large extent.
The Brutal Reality of War
However as the novel progresses Henry comes in closer contact with the grim reality of war. Henry, after coming back to the front has to go to where the offensive is going to take place. While in a dugout with his drivers he gets severely wounded as an Austrian trench mortal shell explodes. Passini dies of his wounds right before his eyes. He sees the large number of wounded in the dressing station, the soldier in the ambulance being transferred with him bleeds to death etc. The horror of the war is further manifested in the other patients of the hospital in Milan and in the train where Henry has to sleep on the floor of the corridor crowding with other soldiers. The numbing affect of war can also be seen in the way it has depressed the ever cheerful Rinaldi and the store priest. The havoc created by the war is referred to in tiny tit bits through the novel. Henry then learns through a Major that the Italians had lost one hundred and fifty thousand men on the Bainsizza plateau and another forty thousand on the Carso. Thus along with Henry, the reader also gets to know the seamy side of war better.
In the presentation of the horrors of war, the Caporetto retreat is the climax. The Italians have been defeated and a retreat is ordered. It begins in an orderly fashion as orderly as the offensive. However, it slowly disintegrates and it becomes one disorderly chaotic mass of people as the whole country was moving. It was a gigantic retreat and Henry recounts –
“in the column there were carts loaded with household goods. On some carts the women sat huddled from the rain and others walked besides the carts keeping as close to them as they could”.
Further, Henry comes across two army sergeants who refuse to help when their ambulance car gets stuck in the mud and he is forced to shoot at them. He hits one and with his consent Bonello kills him off. Then their tortuous journey across country when even the Italian rear police fire at them, in fact killing Piani, then their search for food and shelter, Bonello’s leaving to surrender etc. etc. The chaotic horror is at its climax as Henry facing possible execution at the hands of the Italian Military police and he jumps into the Tagliamento river to escape them.
Henry’s Discretion of the Army
Henry, as he gradually develops from a casual on looker to an active participant is disillusioned and forced to desert the army. Evidence of his coming disgust can be seen in his conversation with Gino and the other drivers wherein he expresses that he was rather embarrassed by words such as “sacred, glorious, sacrifice and the expression in vain”. He feels that such words are lacking in dignity as compared to the names of places. Words such as glory, honour, courage or hallow are abstract and obscene words and only the names of villages, roads and names of rivers etc. had any value or dignity. Henry is compared and contrasted in their view with the patriot Gino who is full of nationalistic fervor. His disillusionment is complete by the time he meets the Battle police. As he jumps into the Tagliamento river to save his life and escapes, he has bid a final farewell to the army. This swim in the river has washed away bisanger and any kind of obligation that he has towards the army
He now wished to have nothing to do with the army and the war. He made ‘a separate peace’ He is “thorough” with the war it is no more his concern. He doesn’t even want to think about it. But, Henry is constantly reminded of the war and a feeling of guilt pervades these thoughts at Milan, where he comes in search of Catherine, he refuses to talk about the war with the owner of the wine shops, then Simmons who helps him by giving him civilian clothes to wear and later the barman of the Grand Hotel at Stressa and Count Greffi. Yet, he keeps thinking of the war, and ponders over the fate of Rinaldi, the priest etc. He has the feeling that he was like a school boy playing truant then wondering what might be happening at the particular hour that he was away from the school.
He has however, no intention of going back to the war. When he escapes to Switzerland with Catherine the break is total and complete.
The Theme of Love in A Farewell to Arms
The theme of love also follows a pattern similar to the theme of war. In the beginning when Henry is introduced to Catherine by Rinaldi he has a casual attitude to her and love. He comes to see because it was better than going to the girls in the brothels and making loves to her is simply a game to him. His realisation of true love is a slow progress as was his realization of war. He begins to feel a little for her, but it is only in the hospital at Milan that he realizes that he truly loves her. He says,
“God knows I had not wanted to fall in love with her. I had not wanted to fall in love with anyone. But God knows I had,”
Henry calls her a ‘lovely girl’, a ‘grand girl’, ‘a fine simple girl’. They have a lovely time together in the hospital throughout the summer. He even wants to marry her, but she refuses. He then leaves a pregnant Catherine as he returns to the front after his period of convalescence is over. He is however, fully committed to her. Later, after he deserts the army, he can think only of Catherine and comes looking for her. He finally finds her in Stressa and the lovers are re-united. Henry is guilty about having deserted the army but Catherine re-assures him. Henry is deeply in love with Catherine by now so is she.
As Catherine expresses how she was one with him, he also says that without her he was nothing and he loved her so much that he felt faint with loving her so much. In answer to Count Greffi as to who he values most in life, Henry answers “Someone I love clearly Catherine and Count Greffi tells him that his love was a religious feeling. However, their stay in Streesa comes to an abrupt end as one night they are informed that Henry may be arrested in the morning. In the middle of the night they take a boat and row across the lake towards Switzerland. But this leads to their idyll in the mountains. Henry and Catherine builds an isolated romantic idyll in the mountain of Montreux, They are completely happy in each other’s company, neither want the company of other. For the first time in the novel even the winter is free from gloom it being dry and white with snow. The nights are ‘grand’ because they are alone and together and are ‘one’ Henry at this stage feels that without Catherine his life would be meaningless and they feel that they are husband and wife without ceremony
The mountain begins to wear a bleak look with the advent of the rains. It is also time for Catherine’s delivery so they come down to Lussane. She however faces problems in her delivery due to her narrow hips. She suffers a long and difficult labour pains. In the end the doctors declare that a cesarean is necessary. However, the child had already died and is still born. Catherine herself undergoes one internal hemorrhage after another and she soon succumbs. Henry’s thoughts a Catherine lay in labour and later as she was dying are bitter. He thinks that all the problems that she was facing was a result of the nights they had spent together in Milan. In desperation he prays to God asking him fervently to spare Catherine ‘Oh, God, please don’t let her die. Please, please, please, dear God don’t let her die. However, Catherine dies in the end. Henry drives away all the nurses to be with her but it was useless. It was like saying goodbye to a statue. But Henry who had run away from the arms of war, and into Catherine’s arms for solace finds that he had to say goodbye to his beloved. As he was compelled by circumstances to flee the war, there being nothing he could do, so he is forced to see Catherine die. There was nothing he could have done to avoid it.
Thus, the appropriateness of the title can be clearly deduced. Henry bids farewell to arms both as in war and in love. However an ironic interpretation would also be valid. Henry tried to escape the impositions and obligations associated with life. He did not wish to fall in love but he did. He ran away from the war and yet he felt like a truant school boy and felt guilty because of it. Their mountain idyll is a life complete devoid of conflict. It is as though both Catherine and Henry had bid Farewell to a life of action and struggle. Both just when it seemed that they had really escaped, they are thrown into the midst of conflict as Catherine struggles to give birth to their love child. Seen from this point of view, the title can be seen as an ironic comment on the message of the novel that one cannot be the abolition of actions. One cannot sign a separate peace and stay away from the impositions of lire and the world. One has to learn to tolerate and live with live. Hemingway’s title is therefore immensely significant. It truly carries the gist of the whole novel.