The themes and symbols are an important part of “A Farwell to Arms” as they are very much intertwined with the plot and the relationships, motives, and desires of the characters. The symbols are particularly important in this novel for foreshadowing while the themes are important as they reflect the ideas and beliefs of Ernest Hemingway.
Catherine’s hair serves as one of the constant symbols throughout the novel of isolation and seclusion. Throughout the novel when Catherine and Henry are together they seems to become oblivious to war and pain of others. Later, while Frederic is fighting at the front, he is much more aware of the fatalities of war and the terror it causes. During the nights Catherine and Henry spent together in the hospital in Milan, Catherine lets down her hair and lets it drape around Frederic’s head to shade it from the outside. This particular habit that she had is a perfect representation of how Catherine’s hair represents their isolation. Later towards the end of the novel, Catherine mentions cutting her hair to Frederic but he protests. Frederic convinces her that he likes her hair long, but in reality it is a sort of security blanket for him that he is not ready to loose. By cutting her hair, Catherine would exposing the couple to the fatalities of war and the Italian authorities who are searching for Frederic. By convincing Catherine to delay cutting her hair, Frederic is postponing discovery just a little while longer.
The rain is another important symbol in the novel. Catherine has a prophetic and learing suspicion about rain. Early in the novel she admits to Frederic that she is afraid of it and swears that it brings misfortune, especially to lovers. After losing her previous fiance, the reader is led to wonder whether her last fiance died in the rain. Yet, the rain is persistent in Catherine’s affair with Frederic as well. During many of the important scenes between Frederic and Catherine it is raining. While Frederic convinces Catherine that she is silly to be so troubled by the rain, Catherine was right to feel the devastation and sorrow that it brings. When Catherine reveals to Frederic that she is afraid of the rain, she also admits to him that she sees herself dying in it. At the end of the novel, Catherine’s prophetic vision comes true when Frederic leaves the hospital after Catherine dies and walks home in the rain. The rain in the novel is a constant foreshadowing of the tragedy that will soon befall the lovers.
Abandonment is one of the largely present themes in the novel. Most of Hemingway’s characters experience or fear abandonment in one form or another. Frederic and Catherine both fear the other abandoning them and rush back to to reunite whenever they are apart. Even for short outings they are pained to be away from and tell the other how desperately that they wish the the other would not leave. Catherine also experiences abandonment by abandoning her morals and spending numerous nights with Frederic although they are not married. Catherine also accepts her pregnancy however shocking it may be to some that she is having a child out of wedlock. Frederic experiences abandon when he deserts the army to return to Catherine and to escape being shot by the German troops. Two of the minor characters, Rinaldi and Helen Ferguson, also experience the fear of abandonment. Rinaldi fears abandonment and being alone and therefore seeks out the company of women whether they be nurses in the army or girls from the local brothel. Helen Ferguson has a low self-confidence and fears Catherine abandoning her while they are on holiday in Stresa. Perhaps all these characters fear being alone, but all experience the same fear of abandonment by their friends and lovers.
Distraction is another primary theme in “A Farewell to Arms”. Throughout the story all of the characters attempt to distract themselves from the reality of war. This relates to Catherine’s hair representing the isolation of Catherine and Frederic in their relationship. All of the characters avoid talking about the front. Characters like Frederic especially avoid questions about the front for fear of cracking from the emotion. Frederic and many of the other men do not want to release their stoic faces to give way to a more emotional side that men sometimes associate with weakness. Catherine and Frederic throw themselves headlong into their romance to distract themselves from the war. They seclude themselves in hotel rooms, in their bedrooms, and finally in the little mountain villages of the Switzerland where they can avoid talking and seeing the reality of war.
The reality of war is a major theme in the novel. The few scenes in the story where Frederic fights at the front are gruesome and do not spare the weak to tranform war into a pretty or heroic subject. Hemingway is very detailed about the fatalities and injuries caused by the war. Throughout the novel the reader comes to see that the majority of the characters do not support the war effort and are doubtful about the success of Italy. Frederic and the priest have a conversation one night after he return to the front from the hospital in Milan and discuss whether it is better to loose or forfeit in the war. By the end of the novel, Frederic is so discouraged by the war that he abandons the effort and runs away to Switzerland with Catherine knowing that he risks being shot for deserting the army. Frederic’s stoic character is obviously troubled by the gruesome war by the fact that he will not discuss what he saw at the front with anyone, even Catherine. These fatalities, wounds, and terrors are a primary focus of “A Farewell to Arms” which exposes the reality of war.
The tragedy of love is the final theme in “A Farewell to Arms”. Through the novel Hemingway questions whether love is truly genuine or if it caused by other loss and tragedy and if it will only lead to the same sorrow. The strength of Frederic and Catherine’s relationship is solidified by their pain and sorrow. Catherine dedicates herself to the relationship to overcome and forget the death of her previous fiance who she lost to the war. Frederic throws himself into their romance to escape the war and to forget about the death and sorrow it is causing. The grief that drives Catherine and Frederic’s affair is related to their want to distract themselves from reality. But while it is grief and tragedy that initiates Catherine and Frederic’s love, it is also grief and tragedy that ends it. At the very end of the novel Frederic returns to his home in a small Swiss village alone. He has lost Catherine and their son in childbirth. While the two survived the war and escaped the country, it was the birth of a child- an occasion that should bring joy- that ended their love. This constant pattern of grief and tragedy births and kills the romance between Frederic and Catherine.