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Imagery and Symbolism in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”

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When reading Ernest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms, I was struck by the vivid images he conveys with his descriptions of nature and the world. Hemmingway’s stark prose lends an air of bleakness to the story that truly puts the horrors and emotional turmoil of war into perspective. Although I was shocked and somewhat disappointed at the ending, I can see where Catherine’s death is necessary to complete the cycle and terminate the wartime romance just as the war must eventually terminate. I will say, however, that the death of Catherine stands right up there with the death of Cordelia in King Lear, as the all time tragic heroine losses; just as disturbing and ultimately just as necessary. In class, we had discussed Hemmingway’s use of the mountains and the plains as metaphors for good and evil, heaven and hell. We also discussed Hemmingway’s use of rain to foreshadow disastrous events. However, until I read Twentieth Century Interpretations of A Farewell To Arms, I never truly appreciated the way Hemmingway used symbolism to establish a viable backdrop for his story. This collection of critical essays really illuminated the relationship that Hemmingway establishes between nature, places and people.

Ray B. West, Jr. states that, “Malcolm Cowley has likened Frederic Henry’s plunge into the river to escape execution as a baptism – a symbol of Frederic’s entering the world of the initiated”. Everyone agrees that Frederic Henry’s leap into the Tagliamento River was a sort of rebirth and can be considered somewhat as a leap of faith. Faith was a quality that, up to that point in the novel, was sorely lacking in Frederick Henry’s repertoire. However, his conversion to this more noble state did not come easily. In fact, it can be said that Frederic Henry was dragged kicking and screaming to this point in his life. For if it had not been for the kangaroo court he was about to face, he would probably not have made that fateful decision. West goes on to say that, “Frederic…ceases to be the curiously passive hero. He cannot escape the war until he escapes from Italy…and to escape is to struggle.” This is a turning point for Henry, not only so far as the war is concerned, but also is his emotional state, because his struggle to escape galvanizes his feelings toward Catherine, and for possibly the first time he begins to care about someone other than himself. But this conversion takes time and as West says, “the final consecration does not come until later when Frederic is confronted by love and death at the same time.” Frederic Henry has begun to learn to feel but it will take some time until he learns to truly love.

Rain was a huge part of the imagery present in A Farewell to Arms and possibly the metaphor with the most concrete meaning. Portrayed as a symbol of death, rain also represents grief, pain, despair and sorrow. Critic Malcolm Cowley says, “the rain becomes a conscious symbol of disaster.” And we are initiated into this belief from the very start. When the novel first begins we read that “At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera.” Hemmingway sets it up in his reader’s minds to expect dire consequences to events depending on the weather. But the rain also is used to convey the emotions of Frederic Henry, a fairly unemotional character. The second part of the quote above, “But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army” is a form of understatement used by Hemmingway to convey the unexpressed stress that Henry is under. When Aymo dies after being shot, Henry states, “He looked very dead. It was raining.” This is the extent of Henry’s emotional content but here again we see rain equated with death. Later in the novel Catherine Barkley says she is afraid of the rain because, “sometimes I see me dead in it.” This is a powerful foreshadowing of later events and reinforces what the characters and we must believe about the rain.

As stated above, I was upset at the death of Catherine Barkley. However in retrospect, her death was necessary to complete the metamorphosis of Frederic Henry from a selfish, unemotional man focused only on animalistic pleasures to a caring individual capable of giving and receiving love. Henry expresses sorrow at the death of his stillborn son saying, “Poor little kid. I wished the hell I’d been choked like that.” Here he is expressing empathy and possibly wishing he could exchange his life for the life of his son. Later when Catherine is hemorrhaging and death is a very real possibility, Henry prays to God for Catherine’s life saying, “Don’t let her die. Dear God, please don’t let her die. I’ll do anything for you if you won’t let her die.”

Possibly for the first time Frederic Henry truly acknowledges the existence of God and shows that he has become a person that can express emotion and a man that desires commitment to a long term relationship. After Catherine dies, Frederic Henry walks back to his hotel in the rain, once again alone and empty. John Killinger notes in his essay The Existential Hero that rain is not only a symbol of death but rebirth. Killinger notes that, “To Hemmingway death means rebirth for the existential hero in its presence, and therefore the rain, as an omen of death, at the same time predicts rebirth.” In this way I can bring myself to accept the sad, tragic ending of A Farewell to Arms, because even in death there is the possibility of life and there is always the glimmer of hope.

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