Narrative Technique of A Farewell To Arms

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      Hemingway’s narrative technique is a style unique to himself. He forged his own style in the early nineteen twenties and this style has been widely imitated but seldom successfully. It is a style that commands the respect even of Hemingway’s contemporaries.

Structured with Logical Sequence of Events

      Hemingway’s narrative technique has various aspects. Of these, the first to be noted is that he has structured this novel like a drama and the events follows such an ordered and logical sequence that none but Henry James in American literature can equal it. The physical form is closely akin to a five-act drama. The novel is divided into five books and each book is again divided into a series of scenes and each scene being composed of dialogues and descriptions is very similar to stage directions and settings. Book one is the introductory book, with a short expository first chapter followed by chapter that introduces the various characters and also sets the scene by fixing the million and a statement of the problems involved. In Book II, the romance between the hero Henry and the heroine Catherine is developed. Book III contains the story of the Retreat, Henry’s realization of war, his escape and his move towards Catherine. Book IV brings us to the re-union of the lovers and their final escape, rowing across the lake to Switzerland and to the blissful idyll that follows. Then in the last Book, Book V, the hope of sanctuary established through the mountain idyll, comes to a climax through a reversal reminding us of the structures of drama, in Catherine’s death.

Love and War: Developing Side by Side

      The story of the novel is based on two themes the theme of war and the theme of love. These themes are developed simultaneously in a parallel threads and intensified together towards the climax. This is another major aspect of Hemingway technique. The two themes are introduced one by one in close succession and then developed with alternating emphasis, until at the extremity of one the hero escapes society and the heroine the world itself. Some critics are of the opinion that love and war are quite incompatible themes and do not really get together but Hemingway has wastefully fused them, making them course through the novel in a straight and mutually parallel lines and thus creating a love story in the background of war. Both the themes follow six parallel phases in their development. In relation to the war Henry is at first unconcerned and hardly bothered, then he grows into a conscientious and dutiful soldier and get wounded, his recuperation in Milan is another phase from which he comes back to the front and goes on to the retreat wherein he realizes the horror and chaos of war which leads to his deserting the army, thence feeling the war. Similarly, in his love affair with Catherine, he goes from a casual flirtations attitude at the beginning to a stage when he misses her, then to actual love and her pregnancy in Milan, then through her confinement in the Alps and deep love to the last phase, i.e. the trip to the hospital, her prolonged difficult labor and her death and Henry’s last farewell to her. At this juncture, the two themes are almost one. Frederic Henry has bid farewell to both war and love and the point made clear that man’s life is a struggle both social and personal and then it is a struggle in which the world is bound to kill you sooner or later.

External Action

      All of Hemingway’s novels abound in action. A Farewell to Arms, lives up to this expectation in all regards. A vivid and realistic account of the war is given in chapter eight and nine. An offensive is about to be launched. Henry is shown driving up and down from the front. He takes his ambulance in preparation for the offensive which soon begins. Henry and his drivers await the action in one of the dugouts in the dressing station. Then there is a vivid account of the shelling and the shell exploding which kills one of Henry’s drivers and wounds him seriously. There is a chaotic scene with soldiers wounded and dying and the doctors and nurses rushing about. Henry is sent to the field hospital and he experiences death again as the other soldier in the ambulances dies, dripping blood over him. From here Henry is moved to the American hospital in Milan. External action can again be seen in Book III, the whole of which is an account of the events leading to the Caparetto retreat and the chaos and disorder and killing during the retreat. This book is replete with action culminating in Henry’s plunge into the Tagliamento river to escape possible execution at the hands of the Battle police and his escape to Milan. This is followed by the episode wherein Henry and Catherine row across the lake towards Switzerland throughout the night. Then there is the suspenseful account of their arrest and questioning by the Swiss police.

Internal Action

      External action is always an important ingredient for the success and appeal of a novel. However internal action is no less significant as shown by modern novelist and Hemingway portrays the inner state or mental action with incredible fineness. He tells the reader feel and see external action and also draws them into the inner working of the protagonist’s mind. Feeling and thought of the protagonist, here Frederic Henry are made lucid through dialogue and through brief but recurrent passage of psychological analysis. For example, through dialogue we learn that Henry thinks of Catherine as ‘lovely, grand and sweet in bed’, and Catherine thinks of herself as one with Henry and that Henry was her religion, that she doesn’t want him to feel worried about her pregnancy or the fact that Ferguson is upset that Henry has made Catherine pregnant but they haven’t got married nor planned to etc. etc. On the other hand, we have pure psychological analysis in the meditations and ruminations that Henry undergoes from time to time in the novel. This occurs frequently throughout the novel. For instance, the passage where Henry reflects on his failure to have gone to Abruzzi, rather spending his time in the cities and sleepless nights. Other examples are the passage where Henry expresses his disillusionment with such concepts as ‘glory, honor, patriotism, courage and the expression in vain’. A fur-'' ther revelation occurs when Henry ruminates on the freight train on his escape to Milan. He is deserting the army and he thinks of how his ‘anger’ and ‘obligation’ had been washed away by the water of the Tagliamento river and he says “I was not made to think but to eat and drink and sleep with Catherine. This is followed by the passage where he declares of having made a separate peace. The best example of psychological analysis can be seen in the final chapter. Here, as Catherine undergoes immense labor pains and then lays dying, Henry’s state of mind and the various thoughts he has gone through are masterfully depicted. Brilliant passages are the one in which he thinks about how a man got killed for not following the rules: but they killed you in the end. You could count on that ‘also the passage where he ruminates about the incidents of the ants reveals his state of mind beautifully. Hemingway’s capacity and style to maintain a perfect balance between account of external action, dialogue and internal action is one of the more striking features of Hemingway’s narrative technique. The passage of internal action which is restricted to the protagonist give reader a chance to peep into the working of his mind and reveals his comments on the human situation in philosophic terms.

Passages Descriptive in Nature

      Hemingway’s narrative technique also includes descriptive passage which describes the physical environment of the characters. These passages which describe the landscape, the mountains, the scenery and other geographical details serves two purposes in the novel. They fix the background and the milieu of the novel and also add to the realism of the novel.

A Crowd of Realistic Details

      The novel is a realistic novel. Hemingway achieves realism in the novel by introducing ultra small minor details which serve to make the incidents, dialogue and characters utterly conducting. Such details are absent in the traditional novels. A host of minor details crowd the novel which in itself do not in any way contribute to advancing the story or character portrayal. But these minor details produce an effect of realism on the background and action of the novel. For instance, while Henry and his drivers are about to start there is a profusion of details about food and drink: “We ate in the kitchen before we started. Aymo had a basin of spaghetti with onions and tinned meat chopped up in it. We sat around the table and drank two bottles of the wine that had been left in the cellar of the villa”. Then there are such unimportant matters as the following: “In my room at the hospital I undressed, put on pajamas and a dressing gown, pulled down the curtains on the door that opened to the balcony and sitting up in bed read Boston papers from a pile Mrs. Meyers had left for her boys at the hospital”. Another example can be seen in the chapter when after deserting the army, Henry enters Milan and goes to a bar. Hemingway’s description is as follows: “A wine shop was open and I went in for some coffee. It smelled of early morning of swept dust, spoons in coffee glasses and that circles left by the wine glasses.” Thus, the book has miners such passages scattered throughout the book calling attention to things that one would normally not notice thus ending to the realism of the novel and making the novel a triumph of realistic fiction.

Contrasting Characters to Intensify Theme

      Two or more contrasting characters in a novel are introduced to facilitate the readers in understanding the human mind or to show a wide range of human nature and sometimes to intensify the theme. In A Farewell to Arms, there are numerous such character contrast, for example between Rinaldi and the Priest, Catherine and Ferguson, Henry and Count Greffi, Henry and Ettore, Dr. Valentini and the house doctors etc. etc. The contrast between Rinaldi and the Priest brings out contrasting views of love and sex. As Henry lays wounded, in the field hospital, Rinaldi visits him and their conversation reveals that Rinaldi is a man of drinks, girls and casual sex. He believes in having a good time. On the other hand, the Priest who also visits Henry bearing thoughtful gifts talks about God and a kind of love which is based on sacrifice and service. They serve as two points in the growth chart of Henry’s character. Rinaldi’s position is where Henry stands in the beginning. Later he slowly moves towards a love which is of the kind the priest defines. Another character contrast between Henry and Ettore brings out diverse views of war and heroism. Henry refuses to lobby for a medal for bravery as he hadn’t done any heroic act and neither does he talk about it much but Ettore is proud of his medals and stripes and constantly talks about it boring everyone in the process. He is a legitimate hero but a “bore”. Hemingway’s use of character contrast as part of his narrative technique serves to heighten the beauty of the narrative and add to the meaning of the text.


      Hemingway’s use of symbols is another characteristic of his narrative technique that lends to the beauty and greatness of the novel A Farewell To Arms. Hemingway has used natural objects as symbols in the book. For instance, the concept of home and not home are conveyed to us through the symbolism of the mountain and the plains. The mountains are in the mountains of Abruzzi, the mountains that Henry sees in the distance and the mountains of Switzerland. They are depicted as places which are clear, cold and dry where the fighting cannot reach and the people are warm and generous. This image is further associated with the priest, hence God and peace and Catherine, hence love and home. On the other hand the low-lying plain are associated with the obscenities of the priest baiting officers, with the cheap cafes, prostitutes, drunkenness, destruction and the war. The most significant symbol in the novel however is the rain which symbolizes death and disaster. Throughout the novel a kind of disaster is either accompanied or preceded by the rain. Catherine is afraid of it because sometimes she sees herself or else Henry dying in the rain. In the introductory chapter, the rain causes the death of the seven thousand soldiers. Henry bids farewell to Catherine in the rain and comes back to the front, then the retreat, its confusion, chaos and disorder is accompanied by the rain, later Catherine dies in the rain. The seasons and weather is also used symbolically and Hemingway uses appropriate weather to suit the mood of the hovel and uses natural scenery to match the mood of his dramatic setting. Apart from this Henry sometimes puts his characters to symbolic use. For example, Rinaldi stands for casual love or sex, the priest for ideal love, Catherine for home etc. etc. Thus, symbols are an important aspect of Hemingway’s narrative technique.

Other Aspect of His Technique

      Other aspects of Hemingway’s narrative technique includes the use of the first person 'I' and the various autobiographical element in the text and the use of irony and under-statement. There are innumerable autobiographical elements in the novel. For example, Henry being in the ambulance unit, his wound, falling in love with a nurse, Catherine’s cesarean all based on Hemingway’s personal experience. And the use of the first person singular 'I' as the narratorial voice enriches the use of the autobiographical elements and establishes a close link a kind of rapport between the narrator, writer and the reader.

      A subtle irony also runs through the novel. In the very beginning, the statement that the cholera caused by permanent rain was checked and only seven thousand died in the army is an example of verbal irony. The biggest irony in the novel is Catherine’s death. She is not killed by the war or as a consequence of her actions but due to a natural defect the narrowness of her hips which couldn’t in any way have been averted.


      A study of Hemingway’s narrative technique would be incomplete without a study of his prose style. His prose style is marked by under statements. His style is characterized by the economy of words. His prose is bare and unembellished. It is a terse and concrete style. His dialogues are spare, lean, colloquial and un-excessive. And his dialogues are completely without authorial comment and the sentences are short and declamatory. Use of adjectives and adverbs are very rare. Hemingway preferred nouns and the simplest verbs. Thus Hemingway wrote in a style completely devoid of ornamentation or copiousness. His style natural and unforced was a new style which none can imitate.

      These are the aspects which make for the greatness of Hemingway’s narrative technique.

University Questions also can be Answered:

Examine the distinctive features of Hemingway’s narrative technique as you find them in A Farewell to Arms.
It has been considered that the style and technique of A Farewell to Arms is par excellence because of Hemingway’s narrative technique. Discuss.
Discuss the qualities that make Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, successful.

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