Symbolism in A Farewell To Arms

Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms has incorporated a number of standard fiction elements including symbolism, characterization and themes in its bid to explain the events of the World War I. Hemingway’s experience as a war veteran helps in conjuring up details that are well captured through symbolism. The novel contains a great deal of symbolism from the start to the end. In his article, Symbolism in a Farewell to Arms, Carson (518) says that Hemingway practiced the “Mallarme’s dictum that ‘to name an object is to do away with three-quarters of the enjoyment.’” Overall, the novel, A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway symbolism is used faithfully to construct a series of meanings the author finds necessary to keep hidden in symbols.

Symbolism in Hemingway’s novel is employed as a suggestive device. As Rao in his review Ernest Hemingway’s a Farewell to Arms says, Hemingway uses symbolism to suggest things other than those mentioned in the novel. The author opts not to mention something he knows but instead to suggest it subtly. Rao compares using symbolism to using a light switch to put on a bulb or employing remote control to put on a TV screen. The contribution of symbolism in the novel is paramount in ensuring harmony within the novel.

Rain is used by Hemingway to represent death. Rain is widely used in the novel as a potent symbol of death. Throughout the plot, there is a feeling that when rain pours, it brings with it scenes of isolation and loss of lives. In the opening of the work, the narrator talks about the massive rain that led to the spread of cholera that claimed 7000 lives in a short period (Hemingway 2). Based on this part, rain is a symbol of death (7). The author also talks about how the rain had left the land. He says that the rain had dropped all the leaves from the chestnut trees leaving the trunks black and the branches bare. He says that the rain had also left the vineyards thin and bare-branched. Rain is shown to leave a trail of death behind it. (7)

As the narration progresses, the impact of rain on the loss of Italian lives is again highlighted. The novel states that during that time the rain compromised the Italian positions and allowed enemy fire to get to them. This led to a retreat that would have been avoided if the rain had not come. Again, here the narrator uses rain to symbolize death as some of the military personnel succumb to injuries borne out of confrontations that were; as a result of severe weather.

Rain appears every time Henry and Catherine are apart and whenever bad things are happening. Catherine lays the symbol bare when she says, “I am afraid of rain because sometimes I see me dead in it” (Hemingway 55). On their trip from the armorer’s when they are about to just about to separate, the fog that has been covering the city turns to rain. When she is leaving, she signals to him to shelter from the rain.

Again the role of rain in death is highlighted during Henry’s escape from Stresa. It rains all night and day as he runs away from imminent death. The dangerous open boat trip across the lake is also in the rain. This means the hazardous nature of the trip as the lake is filling with waves that may capsize the open boat.

In the opening parts of the book, rain is associated with disaster. in the same way, as portrayed in the boat trip only this time the cause is not the tides but the winds. The author claims that in the summer the land was full of crops and harvests were in plenty. The onset of rains led to winds that destroyed the lands and left trees without leaves. The author uses this part of the book to paint a picture of desolation occasioned by the onset of rains. He also uses the same to depict the genesis of death as the population fights to survive the harsh conditions of the rainy season (Hemingway 39).

Rain portrays death in the last chapter of the book. When Henry leaves the delivery room where Catherine is undergoing agonizing pain, he is met with rain although the sun is trying to appear. The appearance of the sun signifies an array of hope that Catherine will be fine. The sun is immediately overcome by the strong rains. This signifies the loss of hope, and true to prediction, Catherine succumbs to 3 her pains. The author uses rain to replace the obvious. Catherine dies and instead of an emotional downpour, the reader is introduced to another heavy downpour.

Rain is also used to symbolize certain emotions. When people die in the novel, we are not told about any people who were sad. Instead, we are only told that the rain fell. Rain here is used to symbolize emotions so that the author does not have to mention them at all. Rain is also used repeatedly to develop a sad atmosphere in various parts of the book. It is therefore conclusive that the author uses rain as a substitute for various emotions.

The author also uses a cup of water to symbolize disaster. The narrator at one point gets tempted to act the Messiah and remove a log from the fire to save ants. Instead, he pours water from a tin cup onto the log so as to empty his cup to use for whisky. The water steams the ants to death. This symbolizes the way war has trapped them. Anyway they go, he feels they are still going to die. Even if they are not killed in the war they are in, something else will happen and they will still die. It is just like Catherine implies when she says that she does not fear death, but only hates it. She knows it is inevitable. The water in this case therefore spells tragedy.

Water is also used to portray a new beginning. When Henry escapes from the ambush, he jumps into the water and goes to Catherine. There, they begin a new life together away from the war. The river therefore carries him to another new and pure life. The hero and the heroine, later, travel on the lake to Switzerland from Italy in rough weather. The lake does not only symbolize a means of transportation but also a beginning of a new adventure.

Catherine’s relationship with Henry is a symbol of hope. Despite the hardship that those at war are undergoing, they know that one day they will need to move on with their lives. Forming new relationships shows that they want to be prepared when that time comes. The relationship is also a symbol of peace amidst war and conflict. When Henry escapes from the ambush, he goes to Catherine to seek some peace. Similarly, Catherine seeks peace by initiating the relationship with Henry after her heartbreak. According to Cain in his article The Death of Love in a Farewell to Arms, it is an open question as to whether or not Henry made the right decision to meet with Catherine. The love relationship that begins between them is a wonderful thing for Henry. However, it is then ruthlessly taken away from him. The result is that Catherine dies and he is ruined (Cain 381). It is the role of the reader to choose which is greater, the momentous relief or the guilt and pain that follows. When Catherine dies, Henry is ruined. This brings about the idea that with the end of the relationship, Henry’s hope is lost.

The death of Catherine also reduces her to a symbol. The infamous “dear John” letter is very common among war heroes. The novel depicts the Dear John letter in a whole new perspective. It shows that regardless of how good a relationship looks during wartime, women are eventually let the soldiers down. Catherine stands for all those women who walk out on their men after the war or during the war. She also stands for the womenfolk and their weaknesses. The fact that she does not make it all the way depicts women as a weak gender. Catherine also stands for the women principle. She does not yield to the the values depicted to men. At one point, she slaps Henry when he tries to kiss her.

According to Surber in her article, Themes in a Farewell to Arms, Hemingway displays the difficulties and horrors those at war undergo. He takes us through the descriptions of death and how it happens. He also shows that regardless of the trying times, new relations are being formed. The formation of new relationships, as mentioned earlier, portrays hope. Those at war are hopeful that one day the war will end and they will continue with their lives. A good example is the relationship between Henry and Catherine. They make plans of how they are going to have a future together and have children. The characters also share their opinions about the war (Surber par. 7-8). The narrator, for example, tells Catherine, “Maybe all our children will have fine temperatures.” (Hemingway 135) This is an indication that they plan to have several children in a marriage setting.

The riding crop has also been used symbolically to represent Catherine’s unwillingness to get over the past. When she meets Henry, she is carrying a riding crop that belongs to her late fiancé. Hemingway uses this to represent Catherine’s past effectively. Through the riding crop, the reader is introduced to Catherine’s deceased fiancé thereby helping the reader to understand Catherine’s pursuit of love. Her fiancé’s untimely and unfair death is used to show Henry’s shared view that the world is a cruel place, a sentiment echoed by Catherine during their conversation. They both believe that the world crushes the people with courage.

Officer’s stars have also been symbolically used to represent competence and sacrifice. Through the stars, one can note the level of competence and the amount of sacrifice that one has had to undertake for the country. It can, therefore, agreeable that the 4 stars have are a representation of the officers’ willingness to die for their course. Indeed, at one point, Henry argues that the opinion of a first Captain is not sufficient to determine if he has an operation or not. He says that if the first captain was good enough, he would be promoted to a major (128).

Hair and beards are also used symbolically in the novel. Henry decides to grow a long beard while Catherine keeps her hair long. These two instances are used to represent the pair insulation to the world. At the beginning of their relationships, Henry likes to loosen Catherine’s hair so that it would resemble a tent. This can be taken to represent protection and shelter. As Catherine lives alone in Switzerland, Henry decides to keep his beard as a sign of protection to her.

Snow and ice have also been used symbolically to represent temporary relief on the pair’s lives. The two natural features have been sued to represent Henry’s relief from impending death and pains of life. Although snow cannot stop the condition of mortality, it can easily prolong it for a particular period. A good example is when the war is halted due to the onset of winter. Therefore, snow has been sued as a medium for temporary peace and relief from the death. When Henry and Catherine escape to the mountains of Switzerland, they find it covered with snow. This offers them protection against imminent danger from wild animals that would have otherwise been prowling the woody parts of the mountain.

There is also the aspect of using clay as symbol for obstruction. This was clearly expressed in the 5 author’s explanation of the events of the battlefields. Mud has been used to represent the many obstacles that service members faced during retreats and offensives. It represents nature’s hostility to the human population. The presence of mud not only restricts the movement of the service members but also is also responsible for the many deaths of the officers.

The time of night is also widely used as a symbol in the novel. Henry is afraid of darkness. This implies that he is afraid of being in the unknown. His fear of darkness is a symbol of fear of sadness and the evil elements that surround him. He is frightened by the sad reality and would prefer living in his simple superficial life. The night has been portrayed as sad. To the main character, the time of night is a sign of disaster and death.

Finally, religious symbolism is similarly employed. The use of rain and other forms of water is a form of baptism for the hero of the novel. According to Rao, the baptism is used to take away the sadness caused by bereavement. The novel also introduces the kind of love portrayed in the bible when the priest says, “Ehen you love, you want to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve”. Rain serves as both a symbol of disaster and as a symbol of rebirth and baptism.

Hemingway uses many literary forms to pass over his messages. To symbolism, he sticks throughout the novel. He also pursues several themes while keeping the two primary themes as war and love. With symbols, he keeps his readers searching for answers. He does not stick to one meaning for each symbol. Symbols have different meanings at different situations. Some of these symbols are conflicting. For example, water serves as both a sign of the beginning of a new pure life and as a sign of death and disaster. While war is supposed to be sign of courage, some parts of his work show fear, an attribute that is opposed by certain critics as improper. However, it is to the joy of the reader that Hemingway departs from the traditional perspectives of literature to provide more original elements for critics and readers alike to devour.

While the author is attempting to pass his message of 11 war and love to his audience, he sees the need to use literary devices to raise more interest in his readers. The use of symbolism is continuous and persistent. He does not tire to introduce new symbols. The symbol of rain as a sign of death has been used throughout the novel. Other symbols include each other’s hair as a sign of protection, officers’ stars as a sign of achievement and competence and snow and ice which are used to depict temporary relief from the looming dangers of being at the forefront. Other symbols that are depicted in the novel are Catherine as the women principle and mountains and snow as a sign of relief from danger.

Work Cited

Cain W. The Death of Love in a Farewell to Arms. Sewanee Review [serial online]. 2013;(3):376. Available from: Project MUSE, Ipswich, MA. Accessed August 20, 2014

Carson, David L. “Symbolism in a farewell to arms.” English Studies 53.6 (1972): 518-522.

Donaldson, Scott, ed. New essays on A farewell to arms. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Fries, Peter H. “Themes, methods of development, and texts ‘k.” On subject and theme: A discourse functional perspective 118 (1995): 317.

Hemingway, Ernest. A farewell to arms: The Hemingway library edition. Simon and Schuster, 2012.

Surber, Katie. “Themes in a farewell to arms.” Education Portal. N.p., 2014. Web. 20 Aug. 2014. Obtained from:

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