Modern Society in The Novel A Farewell To Arms

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Aspects of Modernity

      A Farewell to Arms is a novel of the modern world. Hemingway belonging to the post-war lost generation of modern man concerned with the war, man’s essential loneliness, the problem of existence etc. Moreover, Hemingway’s approach to the novel is basically a modern approach.

War: A Modern Theme

      The individual human being in the modern world is constantly under threat. War is always a looming possibility even today. Hemingway went through both world wars and a host of other wars. Though human beings have been ravaged by war from time immemorial war is very much a modern theme because it was only in the twentieth century that twice the whole world came to clash with one another leading to the ‘fear of a third world war and possible annihilation of the whole world. Therefore, war is a very modern theme. And Hemingway in almost all his novel over and above A Farewell to Arms has dealt with war in various ways. In the novel under consideration, Hemingway deals with the grimness, stupidity, chaos and destructiveness of war. Right from how cholera kills seven thousand soldiers, to the offensive, the Caporetto retreat etc, Hemingway deals with different phases and aspects of a war which in truth is a senseless war. The novel is a series of human defeats within one continuous and terrible sequence: the rains, cholera, death, self-mutilation, death at the hands of the enemy, the retreat and the depression of those involved in the war and finally as the retreat becomes chaotic, the fear, disgust, despair and death that torments the soldiers and finally killing each other i.e. Italian killing Italian.

The Inherent Loneliness of Man

      Apart from the war, another modern element in the novel is Hemingway’s treatment of the isolation of man in the universe. This can be deduced from the protagonist Henry, joining the Italian army though he was American and had no real reason or motive for doing so. It is evident that Henry has rejected society. He is a lonely man even though he seems to have very cordial relation with his friends Rinaldi and the priest. He finds escape from boredom in casual sex and drink. He also appears estranged from his family.

      This loneliness seems to disappear when he comes to love Catherine and life means something when they are together but he seems to turn towards isolation more and more. He deserts the army and the society and can find happiness only in solitude and isolation in the mountain. But he has to come back to society for Catherine’s delivery. And once in the midst of society Catherine dies, leaving him, utterly lonely in the vast universe.

The Concept of Existentialism

      The novel also admits of an existential interpretation of a typically modern philosophy. Existentialism implies the notion of Nothingness. Man seeks to find a rational explanation of things and existentialism finds irrationality in such a concept, in such a world. The idea of atheism is also related to Existentialism. God does not exist, and so man must assume his duties to himself and to others and set himself up in the place of an absent God. That man is petty and miserable because life is meaningless. In discussing A Farewell to Arms from this view, we can take Frederic Henry and how is the beginning life is meaningless for Henry. He neither believes in God or in love or in patriotism or any kind of ideals. When he begins to have some belief and some sense of participation as in the war he is again disillusioned to the extent that he deserts the army. That no longer holds any meaning for him. On the other hand, he grows in love too. From a casual flirtation to serious love when he begins to find meaning in the affair. But Catherine dies even in spite of Henry’s fervent to God to spare her. He dies of a cause (her narrow hips lead to her inability to give birth which is, in turn, leads to internal hemorrhage) that couldn’t have been helped in any way as it was a naturally inbuilt physical defect and again Henry is left with a meaningless life, a petty being of no use. Other characters in the novel such as Rinaldi, Count Greffi, and Catherine also admit of such interpretations. Rinaldi does not believe in anything except his work but due to the war and the overload of work dumped on him due to it. becomes disillusioned and depressed. Count Greffi doesn’t believe in God either and he is rather sad that he had not become devout even in old Age. Even Catherine who loves Henry to the point of devotion does not have any religion.

The Quest for Meaning and Servitude

      The novel is also a quest for some kind of meaning and certainty in a world that seems to offer nothing. This is a moral and philosophical issue that is of strong concern to the modern world. In the beginning, Henry is a sleepless man, a man who believes in “nothing”. Even his relationship with Catherine in the beginning and till much later is a physical appetite. The priest defines true love as “sacrifice and servitude” and established it by a comparison between secular and divine love. The journey from secular to divine love is indicative of the quest that Henry makes for meaning and servitude in life. Even though this quest ends in failure due to Catherine, the embodiment of love and meaning for Henry dying. The world is likened to a log on fire and the human race running from one end to another yet falling into the fire from time to time and as Henry’s action of throwing water on the log results in scorching the ends rather than putting the fire off or giving the ants any comfort. Thus, the unknown machinations put humans in a more dreadful situation. However, the point is that Henry tries and value of this effort, the discipline, code and the stoic endurance constitutes the message of the novel. The world of the novel can be sharply divided into the world of the initiated and the uninitiated. Almost everybody begins at the uninitiated phase but progresses to the initiated mode. This group consists of Henry, Rinaldi, Valentini and Catherine. The priest belongs to the already initiated category and such people as the incompetent doctors, Ettore Morretti etc belong to the uninitiated who remain so. However, the novel is mostly concerned with Henry and his quest and though it ends in failure it is still a moral effect on Henry’s part. Jany Gellens, has expressed the following on Henry. Henry is the hero as Eetherician. A modern man who is finished getting embarassed in churches, exhausted by wine and dialectic, frustrated by the exclusiveness of fishing trips, walks in the Abruzzi, and the literally impracticable disciplines of his abandoned architectural studies. In the ultimate chaos of his time, in a world at war, he is simply not impressed, and refuses to abbreviate his awareness of what it feels like to make love, ride in a freight car, or dive into a river. He will always insist on knowing what the weather is like. It is inevitable that Hemingway will pay equal attention to the sweetness of Henry’s wine, the texture of the sheets under which he escapes to his separate peace. For the big words can no longer account for his experience.


      In this modern world, an individual human being is always afflicted by the problems of death, defeat and frustration. These problems are such that an individual is hardly able to get off them ultimately coming under its strain and making his life unbearably complicated and complex. It is an ultra-modern world today yet science has not been able to solve the mystery of death. Paradoxically religion offers no solution either. Earlier belief in religion was able to uplift a man. Now even religion fails to draw the modern man from the blind alley into which he has cast himself. Frederic Henry, the protagonist A Farewell to Arms is a modern intellectual man face to face with such issues who tries to find solace, after rejecting everything else, only to find that he had been holding quicksilver all the while. Dealing with such issues then makes Hemingway’s novel a very relevant novel at the present time and thus holds a significant place among modern novels.

University Questions also can be Answered:

Bring out how A Farewell to Arms is significant for the modern world.
“A Farewell to Arms holds a mirror to modern society”. Elucidate.

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