Irony and the Brutality of War in A Farewell to Arms

March 18, 2019 by Essay Writer

In 1929, Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms. During this era, there were many books centered on the Great War. Percy Hutchinson, a contemporary writer for the New York Times, predicted that Hemingway’s book “[…] is to be given classification, [it] belongs to the rapidly crowding shelf of war novels.” While many other authors, however, focused on the bravery and sacrifices of war, Hemingway wrote his novel from a different perspective. Hemingway broke away from the norm and instead used literary forms to shed light on different aspects of war. Hemingway’s use of irony in A Farewell to Arms gives valuable insight into the reality of war, from the perspective of an apathetic soldier. Frederic Henry, the main character in Hemingway’s story, is an enigma. His dialogue and actions are constantly contradicting each other, and he frequently finds himself in surprising situations. For example, Henry seems to give little thought to the Italian army or even the war itself. He carries himself nonchalantly, yet he volunteered to be in his current situation. The audience would expect a volunteer to be zealous and dedicated, but it appears that Henry is only there for the booze and women. This contradiction is even more unusual when one considers his role in the army. Henry was an officer in the ambulance corps. He was responsible for those injured and wounded on the battlefield. More than this obvious role, ambulances played a greater charge in the war. Moss and Wilson clarify: “The immediate and effective evacuation of the wounded not only avoided the permanent loss of many soldiers’ battlefield services, but also helped the morale of those who remained fighting.” More than a medical taxi service, the ambulances served as a beacon of hope and faith for the men on the front lines. Henry obviously had an important part in the war, but still seemed uncaring about the events around him. Henry and Catherine enter into a relationship, and at one point in the novel, Catherine gives Henry a St. Anthony medal to protect him while he is on the battlefield. Not long after, Henry is injured while in the trenches. Regardless of Catherine’s attempts to keep Henry safe, he is nonetheless injured. Even in the midst of this debilitating injury, however, Henry still cannot seem to take the situation seriously. He jokes with his doctors about amputating his leg so that it can be replaced with a hook. Ordinarily, people react to near death experiences with a somber and earnest attitude. Henry’s attitude is the complete opposite of what the audience would expect in this kind of situation. Dodman speculates that there is more to Henry’s manner than indifference. He writes that, “His perceptions of his wounding experience emphasize the passivity and helplessness of his situation.” It is probable that Henry’s attitude was a mental defense mechanism against the horrors of his current environment. His apathy was not just created in order to contrast the seriousness of the world around him. After becoming involved with Catherine, Henry is all too eager to escape the war he volunteered for. This change of heart initially seems extreme – after all, he fought in the war by choice, not because of a draft. As demonstrated, however, Henry had no real, personal stake in the war, regardless of the important role he played. He and Catherine exhibited some semblance of guilt and responsibility, but brushed off their feelings of remorse. They excused their abandonment by rationalizing that it was only the Italian army. Their blasé demeanor, however, does not settle well with the audience, giving the impression that there is more than what meets the eye. In her article, Heather Lansdown speculates, “Henry’s need to escape the cruel reality of the war in A Farewell to Arms also depicts his need to escape the cruel reality of life.” There is truth to this insight. After Henry’s knee was injured, he discovered what it would be like, being with Catherine, without the backdrop of the war. It is entirely plausible that after this small taste of “what if”, Henry looked for any excuse to take him away from the war. By escaping the war, he also escaped the sight of bloodied and injured soldiers. Catherine escaped the memories of her fiancé dying. By understating Henry and Catherine’s reactions to abandoning the war, Hemingway emphasizes the grand impact of their action. Hemingway is known for his distinct style. Cynthia Giles writes, “He always stressed the importance of providing ‘facts’ and allowing the readers to fill in the emotions. By selecting just the right facts and then presenting them with apparent objectivity, Hemingway’s narrators often frame events to create a camera-like effect.” The “Hemingway Effect” in A Farewell to Arms is apparent in some of the ironic situations Henry finds himself in. Early in the story, Henry promises Fergy that he will not get Catherine into trouble. By the end of the novel, however, they abandoned the war, lied to policemen in order to enter Switzerland, had a child out of wedlock, and Catherine died. Henry may have fully intended to keep Catherine out of trouble, but once again, a series of events occurred and Henry contradicted what was expected to happen. Regardless of good intentions, Henry was unable to keep his promise because of the world around them. If not for the war, the couple could have married and lived happily, without having to worry for their lives. Hemingway uses small instances such as this to illustrate the magnitude of the Great War and the power it has over Catherine, Henry, and their lives. The brutality of war is also demonstrated during the time Henry is recovering from his leg surgery. It is at this point in time that Henry and Catherine’s mutual interest blooms into an abounding relationship. As previously stated, the couple got to be together without worrying about the war around them. This is the only time in the novel that Catherine and Henry get to be together, without overwhelming complications. While they are enjoying their bliss, however, the war raged on and grew in intensity. By the time Henry returns to the front, the Italian army is much weaker and the future is murkier. Ramos concludes, “In Book Three, Henry goes back to the front and understands his place in the war. He saw the true vision of the war, and he becomes sick of it and finished with fighting for a nation that is not even his own; Henry is well content to make his ‘farewell to arms’ and to desert his post in the Italian army.” No longer is the Great War just a backdrop to the novel; the war becomes a character and force in itself, opposing Frederic Henry’s resolve to leave. The irony in this section intensifies because Henry comes closest to death after he has decided to leave the war for Catherine and Switzerland. The final source of irony in A Farewell to Arms lies within the birth of Henry and Catherine’s child. The couple, who overcame so much, were finally happy and safe. However, a complicated labor and delivery leaves Henry with a stillborn son and Catherine dead. The day his son was born should have been the happiest day of his life. Instead, it was filled with more pain and anguish than he ever could have imagined. As A.E. Sundstrom so eloquently phrased it, “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.” The ultimately irony of Catherine and Henry’s love is that in the end, it died, just as Catherine did in that hospital bed. Despite everything that the pair went through, it was meaningless in the end. Hemingway never sought to romanticize the Great War or imply that each of his characters would receive a happy ending. By the end of the book, Henry seems to be surrounded by a war that will never leave him. He changed from being a carefree army officer to a broken man. He has no honor because he deserted the army. He no longer has Catherine’s love because she died. The war was the cruelest character in the story; it brought Henry and Catherine together, and yet destroyed them in the end. The ending of the narrative causes the audience to wonder whether or not Henry would have been better off not joining the Italian army in the first place. Whether the pain and suffering of the war had been worth it for a few moments of beautiful bliss and happiness. In this daunting conjecture, however, the reader comes to the realization that this was Ernest Hemingway’s intention from the beginning. Experiences and tragedies are not something that can be run away from. They stay with us, and they leave a lasting mark on us. The ending also has something to say about the specific nature of the Great War. Even those who didn’t care about the war suffered in indescribable ways. The war was far reaching in the emotional and physical damage it caused. While so many of Hemingway’s contemporaries wrote about the glory and honor of the Great War, Hemingway painted the war as it really was – a heart-breaking force that permanently scarred all involved. “A Farewell to Arms.” Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them. Joyce Moss and George Wilson. Vol. 3: Growth of Empires to the Great Depression (1890-1930s). Detroit: Gale, 1997. 112-118. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 14 June 2014.Dodman, Trevor. “‘Going all to pieces’: A Farewell to Arms as trauma narrative.” Twentieth Century Literature 52.3 (2006): 249+.Literature Resource Center. Web. 14 June 2014.Hemingway, Ernest, and Cynthia Giles. “A Farewell to Arms.” The Literature of War. Ed. Thomas Riggs. Vol. 3: Impacts. Detroit: St. James Press, 2012. 134-137. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 14 June 2014.Hutchison, Percy. “Love and War in the Pages of Mr. Hemingway.” Rev. of A Farewell to Arms. The New York Times 29 Sept. 1929: n. pag. Print.Ramos. “Literature.HTML.” Literature.HTML. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 June 2014. .Sundstrom, AE. ” Themes and Symbols.” A Farewell to Arms RSS. The WordPress Experts, 31 May 2008. Web. 13 June 2014.”Warasworld.” Warasworld. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2014. .

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