Symbolism in The Novel A Farewell To Arms

Also Read


      Symbolism is a literary device wherein a system of symbols is used as a representation or expression of something underlying that which is being used as a symbol. Hemingway had a theory that prose fiction is like an iceberg of which only one-eight is visible above the surface of the water. Therefore, it is peculiar to his style that he makes the reader aware of the existence of something by a method of commutation. Hemingway’s works, therefore, abound in symbols and in images that were symbols of an inner world. In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway has portrayed certain things as major symbols, for example the mountains, the plains, the seasons and the rain. A detailed study follows.

Home and Away from Home

      In A Farewell to Arms, the surface activity or the symbolic action is organized connotatively around two poles. images are built in around two opposite concepts that of home and the other of a place away from home. Each of these concepts is the result of a kind of poetic intuition and are strongly charged with emotional values. The concept of home is brought out in relation to the mountains, with dry and cold weather, with peace and quiet, with love, dignity, health, happiness and the good life and with worship at least the consciousness of God. The concept of being away from home is brought out in association with low-lying plains, with rain and fog, with obscenity, indignity, disease, suffering, despair, nervousness, war and death and with irreligion.

The Whorehouse and the Mountain of Abruzzi

      The mountain symbol is introduced in the very first chapter but it is not developed. It is developed from chapter two onwards when Frederic Henry is asked by the priest to visit his native place in Abruzzi. The priest then describes the place as one where it is cold and dry as opposed to the war front which is cold and wet. It is clear and the hunting is good. The people are also very warm and hospitable. However, the captain interrupts the priest to ask everyone to go to the brothel. And Henry himself goes to whorehouses all over Italy but never goes to Abruzzi. This is during his furlough. Henry visits all the right places where he indulges in casual sex. He has been almost everywhere on the Italian pensile except Abruzzi. The image of the mountain gets a further emphasis from a contrast to the plain. Henry says he had wanted to go to Abruzzi but.’ I had gone to no place where the roads were frozen and hard as iron, where it was clear cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery and the peasants took off their hats and called you Lord and there was good hunting. I had gone to no such place but to the smoke of cafes and nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that was all there wars.”

Mountain, Plain Symbol Continued

      Hemingway consolidates the image of the mountain as a symbol throughout book one. As Henry travels with his ambulance unit to the war front from Gorizza, Henry looks across the river and the plain to the Julian and Carnic Alps. As he does so he muses: 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. Then I saw a third range of mountains....” The mountain here is a symbol of peace and quiet. A place where the grim war, the horror of death and despair had not reached. Then when Henry lowers his eyes from the far off ranges, he sees the plain and the river, the war making equipment, and “the broken houses of the little town”. This clearly shows an association with the “clear and dry” mountains of Abruzzi and these mountains. The mountain image has clearly developed associations with the priest and his homeland with its clear dry cold and snow, with the polite hospitable people and its natural beauty and atmosphere of peace and prosperity and opposed to all these ideal and to be desired things in the crudeness of the plains: the priest baiting officers and their obscenities, the cheap cafes and drunkenness, the brothels and casual sex, war, destruction, death etc. etc.

Abruzzi: On Idyll

      When Henry gets wounded due to the trench mortar shell exploding over his dugout, he is hospitalized. Henry gets a visit from the priest. As they converse, Abruzzi, the priest’s native place begins to have a religious aura. The priest tells Henry that in his country, it was understood and accepted that a man may love God unlike here at the front where he was subject to much obscene teasing. To love God and to serve God “is not a dirty joke”. Thus, Hemingway by repeating the priest’s first account of the highland country, the effect is emphasized and this in turn allows Henry to develop in his mind’s eye an idyllic picture of Abruzzi. By the end of Book one, a complex connection is developed between the idea of Home and the mountains or high ground, cold, love, love of God and dry weather. This has been accomplished largely through the agency of the priest. However, the author has achieved this through suggestion, implication and quiet repetition and not by blatant exposure. Hemingway has thus quietly prepared the reader for what is to follow.

Catherine as Symbol of Home

      Into the center of this Home image, it is now necessary to draw in Catherine Barkley. In the initial stages, Catherine is shown as an emotionally unstable woman due to her fiance’s early death in the war. She therefore easily comes under Henry’s spell. Though this affair begins as “rotten game” because she knew Henry was not really in love with her but was merely looking for pleasure, it takes a turn towards a more serious deep and profound love in the hospital in Milan conveniently far away from the atmosphere of war. The casual affair becomes honorable and dignified through a marriage of the mind and body. Catherine has the unique characteristic of being able to convert any room into a ‘home’. Henry talks of this capacity several times in the novel. This characteristic propels Catherine into a realm of association with the ideas of home, love and happiness. She hasn’t as yet reached the center of the mountain image here. But she does so when after Henry’s flight from the Italian Military Police, they move to Switzerland. This symbolizes an escape from the horrors of the lowland to the peace in the mountains. Catherine goes first and Henry follows. Soon they are settled into an idyllic and extremely pleasant life in the mountain above Montreux. For the first time in the novel, winter is a pleasant time free from the earlier association with death and disease. However, Catherine and Henry move down to Laussane, after the March rains and they need to be near a hospital for the impending birth of their child. Driven from the mountain a close approximation to Abruzzi the priest's native town, Catherine dies in childbirth.

Symbolism and the Structure of the Novel

      The whole structure of the novel is developed around the various contrasting situations mentioned so far. Gorizia is the first image of a place away from the Home image, this is succeeded by the Home that Catherine and Henry make in the hospital room in Milan. The same pattern of moving from a place away from Home to Home is again repeated in the sequences from the Retreat to the flight to Stressa and then Home in the mountains of Switzerland. This Home finally ends as Henry leaves the mountain to come down to Laussane and Catherine’s eventual death in childbirth.

Rain as a Disaster Symbol

      Rain is a symbol of disaster throughout the novel. The idea of the season or climate is related to the natural and mythological structure of the symbol. In the very first chapter, the pattern is established. The summer is followed by autumn and a bleakness appears over the landscape, this is followed by winter and the rain which has begun in the fall, becomes “the permanent rain” bring diseases and death in its wake. This is a pattern that continues. The rains begin in October at the end of summer as Henry is about to return to the front after his convalescence and love affair with Catherine during the summer in Milan. Then the rain continues intermittently throughout the retreat and as Henry flees to Stresa and a reunion with Catherine, the rain falls steadily in the background. It is only after their reunion, the very next morning that the rain stops and the sun shines in through that window enabling Henry to catch glimpses of the ‘mountain’ beyond. Eventually, the love shall move towards these mountains.

Mountain as Idyll

      The rain and its grim nature follows the lovers everywhere. It is as though every bad event in the novel takes place with the rain as a background. It is only during their mountain retreat that the rain is conspicuous by its absence. Hemingway’s use of the climate to mark and emphasis their struggles is wonderful. The rain sweeps over the lovers during the night-long struggle to escape to Switzerland. Henry had been watching the continuous rain then as they are woken up with news of Henry’s possible arrest the rain is beating down on them. They walk out of the hotel saying they are going for a stroke and to watch the storm. And throughout the night as Henry rows across the lake, the rain doesn’t stop falling. However, in the mountains, they are out of the low-lying plains, out of danger and so out of the rain. They are out of the war and are now safely ensconced in the mountains, the rides are "iron-hard with the frost” and the deep snow isolates them and gives them a feeling of domestic safety and tranquility. A sense of being invulnerable also envelopes them. Their idyll continues through the winter until the rains come in March. And with the coming of the rain the lovers come down from the mountains which is followed by Catherine’s death.

Rain: A Source of Fear

      The rain is very obviously a symbol of disaster. There are several references to it that serve as premonitions of doom in much the same way as in Romeo and Juliet wherein premonitions of doom are evident from the very beginning. Examples of this is A Farewell to Arms occurs when Catherine says “I am afraid of the rain” in the Milan hospital during the summer. She is afraid because sometimes she sees herself dead in the rain and sometimes she sees Henry's death in it: In the end this premonition is proved true, They say goodbye to one another as Henry is about to return to the front in the rain. Catherine goes away in a cab with the rain beating down and Henry walks back to the train in the rain. Later, the novel ends with Catherine’s death. Henry is seen moving up and down in the consistent rain as Catherine undergoes prolonged labor pains. It is raining when Henry feels that she is going to die and it is when she does die. Ultimately in a repeat scenario, Henry walks away in the rain towards his hotel saying goodbye to a lifeless Catherine.

Rinaldi: A Man without Resources

      Rinaldi is a man of sensuous pleasure, he doesn’t believe in God. He is contrasted with the priest. This contrast provides further reinforcement to the central symbolic structure of the novel. The contrast is feW more strongly after Henry’s return from Milan and both Rinaldi and the priest are very depressed by the war and its continuing gloom. Henry’s return to Gorizia itself is a depressing event. The depression is compounded due to the fact that the atmosphere has suddenly changed from the homely, peaceful one in the hospital room in Milan to the war front where everybody seems to have complains against the war. Everybody’s morals is down as the Italians have suffered loses during the summer. The state of affairs is such that when Henry enquires of the major if the situation was really bad, his reply is “It is so bad and worse”. Things are even worse with Rinaldi. Professionally, he has gained a lot of experience due to the large number of operations that he has had to perform on wounded soldiers. He has changed from the earlier easy going Rinaldi. He is now depressed from overworked and he is also sick with worry because he thinks that he was contracted syphilis. He is almost a broken man though he puts up a facade of mirth and merriment. He has no resources. It is as though Hemingway has put forth how a man of Rinaldi’s nature given to drink and carnal pleasure and an unbeliever shall come to naught.

The Priest: A Man of Strength

      In contrast to Rinaldi, is the priest. In the midst of all the turmoil and despair where everybody is depressed things seem to be much the same with him. Henry says, “He was the same as ever” and he was “small and brown and compact looking”. In fact, the priest seems to have improved. He appears less sensitive to all the teasing and baiting indulged in by the officers at his expense. He is much more sure of himself though in a modest way. Henry observes that ‘the baiting did not touch him now” as he watched his reactions to Rinaldi’s outrageous statements against him.

      The priest also seems to have somehow managed to draw a faint hope from the vast despair developing the men at the front. He feels that, the officers and the men are becoming more gentle as they came to better realize the reality of war. And according to him when this happens the fighting cannot continue for long. Henry argues with him saying that the man has not become gentle they have simply become more subdued due to the feeling of defeat. He tells the priest it is in defeat that we become Christians. The priest doesn’t agree. He has belief in God. This gives him strength.

Symbols of Love

      The priest and Rinaldi are also symbols of sacred and profane love in the novel. This is also another aspect of the contrast between the two. Catherine and Henry are introduced to one another through Rinaldi. The affair begins as a sort of game. Rinaldi is quite jocular about it and thinks of it as mere infatuation and just a case of war-time seduction, a casual affair which is a result of the boredom and loneliness created by war. Therefore, the early stages of the affair where neither are committed is attributed to Rinaldi. On the other hand the background symbols of love and true love and high ground suggest that the lover s idyllic life in Switzerland is carried on under the spiritual auspices, of the priest. However, neither Rinaldi nor the priest appear in the later part of the novel. They are mere remembrances that Henry indulges in from time to time.


      A Farewell to Arms is a naturalistic novel, telling the truth about the effects of war in human life. But one should not read it as so, one should grasp the underlying symbolism that controls the novel, the symbolism of the deep central antithesis between the image of life and home as manifested through the mountains and the image of war and death as manifested through the plains. Over and above this, Hemingway has also used rain as a symbol of disaster, consistently. In the beginning, rain brings the death of seven thousand men in the army. Catherine is scared of the rain because sometimes she sees herself and sometimes Henry dead in the rain. They bid goodbye in the rain, this is followed by the retreat also covered in rain, to Henry’s flight and thin eventual escape to Switzerland and ultimately Catherine’s death are all marked by the presence of rain as a background. The significance of rain as a symbol of disaster is beyond doubt and is of great importance in the novel.

Previous Post Next Post