Death, Despair, Cynicism & Failure in A Farewell To Arms

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Sense of Doom, Death and Despair

      The novel A Farewell to Arms, opens with a sense of doom and death. The very first chapter of the novel conveys a sense of nothingness and emptiness. A gloomy, bleak and desolate atmosphere is built up with the description of the leaves falling, the rain, dirt and mud and the troops marching in the rain. Death is brought to the surface starkly. The narrator states at the end of the chapter that “At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.” A note of bitter cynicism can also be detected in the above quotation.

The Dominant Emotions

      The dominant emotion or state of mind in this novel is disgust, a deep remorse, bitterness and a desolation of the soul which colors the events and action of the novel. There is the sense of death, defeat, failures, nothingness, emptiness etc. And this state of mind is chiefly conveyed through the images of the rain and all the other phenomena associated with it such as “mist,” “wet”, “fog”, “river”, “damp” etc. and the images and epithets associated with desolation such as “bare”, “thin”, “small”, and “fallen leaves” and also by images and epithets associated with impurity and corruption, these images are chiefly “dust”, “mud”, “dirty”, and “disease”. The constant note of death, despair, failure, bitterness and emptiness that is conveyed in the novel is achieved by the frequent repetition and references to these images.

The Dominant Emotions in Chapter 2-22

      The very first chapter has already established what the dominant emotions of the novel are going to be. We shall now examine this state of mind as it appears in the subsequent chapters. In chapter 4, the main protagonist, Henry and Catherine are brought together for a conversation. This conversation emphasizes the desperation and despair that have marked the preceding chapters. In this conversation, it appears as though one is echoing the other’s sense of bitterness and despair. Catherine is full of despair as her finance has been killed. She is seen desperately turning towards the religion of love after this despair. Shortly she shall be the blissful peace that stands for removed from the war. Hemingway is ready to bring about the first qualitative shift in the novel as soon as she is introduced. Hemingway has to simply contrive a situation or circumstance that will make a brief interlude of peace, love and joy possible in the midst, of the war. This is a state of mind completely opposite to the mood of the first few opening chapter which was one of intolerable gloom. However, the interlude doesn't last long. By chapter 7, Henry is back at the war front from his furlough and again the picture of sweat, heat and the dust are emphasized. Then in chapter 9, Henry is severely wounded and Hemingway informs us that the wound hardly bleeds because as large amount of dust dirt has blown into it. The next few chapters then take the form of divulging how there is a gradual move from the darkness and filth towards the purity and light of love. Henry’s wound heals slowly during the period of his stay with Catherine in the hospital in Milan. During this period dominated by developing feelings of love. Henry’s soul also undergoes a subtle and incomplete healing. His love for Catherine becomes his religion and before his return to the front, Henry shall have developed the feeling that neither Rinaldi nor the priest can stake a claim on his soul. This first brief of love and happiness is a move towards purity but the purity to be found in the mountain retreat has not, been achieved yet. However, this interlude alters Henry’s disposition. It teaches Henry the feelings of genuine love and to differentiate between love and lust but the complete pure joy achieved in Switzerland is still a long way off. At this stage Hemingway presents only so much of the lover’s joy as can establish a strong contrast between Henry’s old state of mind and his new state of mind. However, even here in the midst of love and even after Henry’s recovery, there are lots of ominous suggestions of the same despair, bitterness and hollowness. For example, Ettore Moretti’s ambition to win glory in the war and attain a higher rank in the army is a sharp reminder of the war that the lovers wish to forget. From here on the mood of despair and gloom again predominates. Catherine expresses her fear of the rain saying that she sometimes saw herself and sometimes Henry dead in it and cries inconsolably. In chapter 21, Catherine announces that she is pregnant and that she couldn’t help it. A mood of helplessness is brought up and the mood along with the mood of the uncertainty of the future, the fear is continued. The rain becomes a constant background. Henry gets an attack of jaundice, he loses his convalescence leave due to an argument with the superintendent nurse and this also loses precious time with Catherine in a way developing a sense of sadness that their love and peace cannot continue.

The Dominant Feelings in Chapters 23-24

      The feeling of despair is strong and irrefutable in Chapter 23. The rain is constantly beating in the background and Henry who has to return to the front leaving Catherine, their helplessness and sadness all contribute to a mood of pathos and anguish Here, the bitterness seems even more acute and intense than it was in the opening chapters. Henry takes Catherine to a Hotel before he leaves and there Catherine suddenly feels sad and says “I never felt like a whore before and both of them become conscious and uncomfortable. However, this mood is brief. It passes quickly and they enjoy their time together in the room even feeling that the room is their home. But they have to leave and this reminder comes from the rain which they rear in a moment of stillness. The symbolic rain now finds its way into almost every line, as if doom were complete and inescapable. The atmosphere of bitterness is complete almost as soon as Henry enters the train. Everybody is hostile and an argument ensues about his seat. He gives it up and travels, sleeping on the floor of the corridor. The train is very, very crowded and he sleeps thinking that “they could all walk over me if they wouldn’t step over me”. More and more people get on the train and there are many other sleeping on the floor of the corridor.

The Dominant Moods in Chapters 25-33

      As Book III opens, a sense of desolation, despair, and horror and failure similar to that in the opening chapter comes to the fore. The feeling aroused here is that the world has again triumphed over the individual. Once again it is autumn, and as done previously Hemingway uses the images of ‘bare’ and references to ‘rain’ and ‘shrunken’ life in order to depict the emotions in the very first paragraph of Book III. As Henry comes back to the front again, he meets Rinaldi who is in a desperate state due to being overworked and a feeling that he had caught syphilis. A sense of pollution parades especially when Rinaldi accuses Henry of trying to cleanse his conscience with a toothbrush. In Chapter 27, the rain begins to make its presence felt again. The word ‘rain’ itself appears twenty-four times in this chapter and seventeen times in the next chapter. Because of this repetition, an atmosphere of desperation comes over the scene. Similarly, the word ‘sleep’ supposed to signify ‘nothing’, creates a feeling of emptiness and the feeling of accumulated bitterness becomes too intense.

      The mood reaches a crescendo when Henry confronts the military police on the banks of the river Tagliamento and the feeling of inner violence to the sense of bitterness, failure and doom is expressed in the following lines taken from Chapter 34 :

      If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course, it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places but those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

Interludes of Respite Overshadowed by Feeling of Gloom

      Chapter 35 offers a brief respite from the gloom as Henry is reunited with Catherine and as he and the barman goes fishing etc. But this is overshadowed as the very next chapter begins with “that night there was a storm and I woke to hear the rain lashing the window panes”, immediately we sense trouble more so since the rain has turned into a storm and it does come. Henry might be arrested and so the lovers flee to Switzerland during the night, rowing across the lake in the dark and rain. Again, as the lovers set foot in Switzerland a period of calm and peace follows. However this period of happiness in short and interspersed with anxious feelings. Hemingway refrains from sentimentalizing this period of love. Love doesn’t seem to be enough. There is an anxiety about the future Catherine quickly recognizes that Henry is feeling restless. After the prolonged period of suffering and failure, an impression of non-perfect joy is conveyed through images of wholesomeness, purity and peace. However, the notion that it is not perfect is also conveyed in Henry’s constant guilty reminiscences of the war and his concern for the unborn child.

The Final Chapter: A Re-assertion of Failure and Doom

      In Chapter 40, the end of winter is signaled by the atmosphere of failure and bitterness returns and it threatens to shatter the lover’s happiness. This pattern is re-assertion in the last chapter. The last chapter is a confirmation of all the negative feelings so far aroused in the novel. Catherine is subjected to enormous pain as she tries to give birth to their child. All her efforts fail. Henry is numb and he senses that there is nothing he can do. Catherine undergoes a cesarean operation. It fails as the child is stillborn. Then Catherine dies. Henry’s prayer to God fails. His attempt to say a final goodbye is also a failure. There is nothing he can do in the face of death and he walks back in the rain.


      Thus the novel is a tragedy wherein tragic emotions and feelings of failure, death, despondency, melancholy, cynicism dominate. As in a Shakespearean tragedy, Hemingway provides small scenes, episodes or interludes that serve to bring comic relief but the book begins with a somber and gloomy mood, and this mood dominates all other moods throughout the book be it is the love theme or war theme and continues and culminates in a tragedy beyond comparison.

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