Irony and Symbolism in The Novel A Farewell To Arms

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      Until 1940, critics were not very aware of the fact that Hemingway’s work abounds in symbols. As it began to be noticed however, it was suggested in 1944 through Malcolm Cowley that because of his use of symbolism, Hemingway should be classed among writers who dealt in symbols and images rather than with the ilk of realist. A consequent reaction to this was that all the critics who studied Hemingway became very keen to read symbolic meanings and give symbolic interpretations to Hemingway’s works sometimes even where it is not present. However, where the correct interpretation is given all are in agreement. For example those symbols as pointed out first by, renown critic Carlos Baker is well accepted and considered valid. According to Banker, in A Farewell to Arms, the essential meaning of the novel is conveyed through two major symbols that of the mountain and the plains which stand for the concept of Home and Not-Home respectively.

Mountain and Plain Symbols

      These are two of the more important symbols in the novel. The mountains are used as symbol of peace and quiet, of love, dignity, health, happiness, and the good life, of worship or the consciousness of God. On the other hand, in contrast to the mountains, plains are symbols of death and disease, of indignity, suffering, nervousness, obscenity, irreligious and most of all of war.

      The mountain symbol is introduced in the very first chapter. Then it begins to take meaning as early as in the very next chapter, chapter two. The war is going on and come to a stop for the winter. Henry is going on leave away from the war and the priest urges him to go to Abruzzi and the priest’s native place in the mountains of Abruzzi, in Capracottan. He tells Henry: “There is good hunting. You would like the people and though it is cold it is clear and dry. You could stay with my family. My father is a famous hunter”. The mountain are therefore associated with the concept of Home. The mountains are where everything is peaceful and uncorrupted and being dry free of disease as opposed to the wet plains where seven thousand men are killed by cholera. But Henry doesn’t go to Abruzzi during his leave. He rather goes to all the big cities in Italy, having a romp. He indulges in heavy drinking and casual sex night after night so much so that sometimes he doesn’t remember who he is with.

      That the mountain symbolises peace and a feeling of Home is clearly evident when Henry travelling towards the war front at Isonzo from Gorizia in his ambulance. He looks out from his window across the river and the river towards the mountains ranges in the distance. From the war ravaged plain, the mountain look calm and beautiful and associated with the concept of unconquerability, the symbolism becomes clear. Hemingway writes, “I looked to the north at the two ranges of mountains, green and dark to the snow-line and then white and lovely in the sun”. Already the image of the mountain and the priest have been connected and the mountain associated with the Home of the priest, with dryness and clear weather and with polite and hospitable people and though all these established as a place of beauty and ideal peace, to be desired. And by this time, Hemingway has also already established, in opposition to the mountain image, the image of the plains and its associations with negative aspects of war and the world and life. In the plains all kinds of obscenities are evident, as the obscenity of the prostitutes and brothels, the cafes and the hard drinking and most importantly the war and death, destruction and despair. The mountain symbol also acquires a religious association when the priest comes to meet Henry at the field hospital after he was wounded. The priest informs Henry that a man may love God. “It is not a dirty joke”. Therefore we see a complex pattern developing of interconnection and association between the idea of Home and the concepts of High ground, clear, cold and dry weather and over and above these, love of the ideal variety as the priest defines it as also love of God. Into the centre of this image of Home is the symbol of the mountain. Catherine Barkley is brought in. Henry begins a love affair with her merely for pleasure and considers it merely a game like bridge to seduce her. However, he genuinely begins to care for her and love her with an intensity and passion that leaves no doubt as to how much he loves her. During their affair it is then established that Catherine is such a woman as can convert anywhere, where they happened to be together into a Home of their own, and therefore Catherine, the mountains and Home are easily brought into conjunction as parts of the same symbol. Catherine reaches the centre of the image later in the novel when after Henry’s desertion, they flee to Switzerland and set up Home in the mountain of Montreux. Catherine is easily associated with image of love, peace, happiness, contentment, more so as they lead an idyllic life in the mountain far removed from the world, the war and people. Within themselves, in the mountain they find paradise, thus consolidating the symbolism of the mountain in the highest degree.

The Concept of Not-Home

      The novel’s structure is then developed around a series of images which are built on contrasting situations and events. The milieu of the novel is first based in Gorizia where the war is on. The plains of Gorizia is therefore the image of the Not-Home or war. And then this image is followed by the “Home” image which Catherine builds in the hospital room in Milan where they live in the midst of love. This gives away to the Not-Home again, as Henry returns to the front and then goes through the ordeal that the Caporetto Retreat is. Then again the Home that Henry and Catherine create and share in the mountain above Montreux. And this Home comes to an abrupt end as they come down to Laussane for Catherine’s delivery and she dies in childbirth. Thus it is evident how the novel is structured on the contrasting symbol of the mountains representing the concept of Home, and the plain, representing the concept of Not-Home.

Rain as a Symbol of Disaster

      The third and ultra significant symbol in the novel is the symbol of the rain. Rain is consistently used as a symbol of disaster. Till beginning to end, wherever rain appears, death and disaster is sure to follow. In the introductory chapter, Hemingway paints a grim picture with the troops marching in the rain and then goes on to tell us how with the winter came the permanent rain, which brought cholera and caused the death of seven thousand soldiers in the army. The Retreat which disintegrates into chaos resulting in murder, death and Henry’s disgust and desertion is accompanied by the rain. When Henry takes leave from Catherine to go back to the front after his recovery, he does so in the rain. Later, Hemingway writes that it had been storming when later in the night they are informed that he may be arrested in the morning and as they row across the lake, fleeing to Switzerland, the rain accompanies them in their trip. In the end, as Catherine lays suffering from enormous pain during her labour it is raining, it is still raining as a caesarian section reveals that the child had already died in her womb and Catherine herself dies due to one haemorrhage after another. And the last image of the novel is Henry saying goodbye and walking back to his hotel in the rain.

      Rain therefore is used as the symbol of disaster. This is confirmed as early as chapter nineteen where Catherine sobbing, tells Henry that she was afraid of the rain as she saw herself dead in it or sometimes she saw Henry dead in it. The rain therefore creates an atmosphere of gloom and wherever it occurs serves as a warning and a foreboding of doom.

Characters Serving Symbolic Functions

      Hemingway’s symbolism also encompasses characters. Apart from objects, people are also given symbolic purpose. We have already discussed how Catherine herself enters into the centre of the mountain symbol and serves the symbolic significance of representing domesticity and conjugal happiness. Catherine is at the centre of the Home image. Other characters in the novel who serve similar symbolic functions are the priest who symbolises stoic endurance and ideal love that is divine and secular love that is sacred, self-sacrificing and full of servitude. Rinaldi is cast opposite to the priest and he symbolises the man without God as opposed to the priest who serves and loves God and symbolises feeling opposite to that of the priest as far as love is concerned. He stands for casual love that has more to do with lust sex and passion. The contrast between the two characters serves to reinforce the central symbolic structure of the novel. Rinaldi is conscientious about his job and enjoys his professional duties but he i.s a man without resources and is therefore given to heavy drinking and casual sex. The contrast between Rinaldi and the priest highlights the secular and sacred love antithesis. They are two opposing points. Henry's love starts at the Rinaldi and then progresses towards the priest's end as the novel progresses.

Irony : Verbal and Situational

      Hemingway uses two types of irony in his writing. One is verbal irony and the other is the irony of situation. Examples of verbal irony can be seen in the very first chapter. Hemingway writes that with winter came the permanent rain which brought cholera. Then he says. But in the end it was checked and only seven thousand died of it in the army”. The irony in the use of the word “only” is clearly evident. Hemingway makes ironical remarks on bad doctors, professional war heroes etc. When Henry is being examined by the three doctors in the hospital in Milan, he says, that ‘I noticed that doctors who fail in the practice of medicine have a tendency to seek one another’s company and aid in consultation. A doctor who cannot take out your appendix properly will recommend to you a doctor who will be unable to remove your tonsils with success. They were three “such doctors”. Hemingway presents reality ironically in this statement. Henry’s character is shown as following an ironical bent in his speech. His comments as Ettore Moretti, the two students of music, Mr. and Mrs. Meyers etc. etc. are all ironically made. Even his argument with Miss Campen the hospital superintendent is an exercise in irony. Henry falls down sick with jaundice. And Miss Campen accuses him of having brought it upon himself by drinking excessively. Henry counters her by asking “Miss Campen, did you ever know a man who tried to disable himself by kicking himself in the privates ?” Hemingway achieves a brand of realism and humour in his narrative unique to himself in his use of irony.

Other Example of Verbal Irony

      The novel is rich in other examples of verbal irony. For example, when Henry is about to go back to the front, Catherine promises to have a fine home ready for him when he returns. The irony is that the fine home they would build never becomes a reality as she dies. Henry also makes an ironical observation on seeing the battle police executing officers after summary trials. He says of the Italian Military Police. “The questioners had all the efficiency, coldness and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and are not being fired at”. He further comments. The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it. Henry also makes an ironical remark on how the world killed off everyone impartially.

Example of Situational Irony

      As much as verbal irony abounds in the novel so does situational irony. We can take as the first example how Henry, a non-combatant feels that he was in no danger from the war and he who goes to transport the wounded soldiers from the front the first one to be severely wounded. The further irony here is that Henry is wounded while in a dugout eating spaghetti and cheese and that he even gets a medal for bravery due to his being severely wounded though he has hardly done any heroic act. Another situational irony is when Henry instantly takes out his pistol to shoot at the two sergeants later giving permission to Bonello to kill the one he had hit. Later, Henry himself under threat of being executed by the Italian Military Police jumps into the river and swims away. The most significant situational irony in the novel is Catherine’s death. Henry and Catherine fall into real love, though both came into the relationship casually. Then they escape the war and escape the country to establish an idyllic haven in the mountains above Montreux. They plan to go to America, marry and settle into peaceful, loving life. However, Catherine dies. After escaping all kinds of hardships she dies as a result of an in born, natural defect leaving Henry alone in the world. This is the greatest irony of all.


      Symbolism and irony are therefore significant aspect of Hemingway’s style which impart beauty and richness to his art. They are important elements which contribute greatly to his success as a novelist.

University Questions also can be Answered:

Symbolism and Irony are few devices used by Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms. Justify with examples from the text.
Comment on Hemingway’s symbolism and use of Irony.

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