The Role of Symbolism in the Novel A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

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The symbolism of rain in A Farewell to Arms plays an important role in Hemingway’s novel. The elements foreshadow events in the story, illustrate character personalities, and serve as the primary symbol for the themes. The weather frequent to this story is especially symbolic, transitioning from warm and dry to cold and wet as the war becomes closer and begins to pose a more imminent danger to Frederic.

One example of the environment serving as a literary device in the story is the scenes leading up to Catherine Barkley going into labor. As Frederic and Catherine approached the shores of Switzerland, “The rain stopped and the wind drove the clouds so that the moon shone through…Then the clouds came over the moon again…but it was much lighter than it had been before and we could see the shore” (p. 271). However, this graceful period is short as Catherine approaches going to into labor quickly.

As the weary yet inevitable event of Catherine and her baby’s death marches on, the weather becomes more dire: “In the night it started raining…turned the snow to slush and made the mountain-side dismal” (p. 306) This change in weather foreshadowed the impending death of Catherine and her child. To Frederic the violence seems to not be a threat and reacts to it as if it is unable to touch him feeding into the irony of the story. All in all, the overall theme of rain throughout A Farewell to Arms serves as an icon for death and the fragile shattering of mortality. Rain similar to the mortality of Frederic falls slowly yet inevitably will always reach the ground and serves as a reminder of the war which he is consumed by.

Questions for Summer Reading

  1. Throughout Chapter 1, we learn that it is a late summer during World War I and takes place in a house encompassed by a small Italian village which is isolated by mountains and a river. We are later greeted by soldiers and marching troops passing the house which sits on a plain field
  2. The mood throughout A Farewell to Arms is very confessional, and honest, Frederic Henry openly admits his ill habits such as drinking, and lying. Frederic’s characteristic to not spare any details is seen in his romance, “I was experiencing the masculine difficulty of making love very long standing up.” (p. 32).
  3. When Henry says that he has never loved anyone to Catherine after she inquires, he means it in the sense that he has never felt closely intimate to anyone and does not truly understand the notion of love.
  4. Frederic Henry is in the ambulance service instead of a combat unit like the soldier from Pittsburgh because this reflects his personal life and experience as he was deferred from the army due to a vision impairment from his boxing. So, upon hearing that the American Field Service was looking for ambulance drivers in the war he quickly signed up.
  5. I believe that Henry Frederic would be uncapable, if not unwilling to kill someone from the information so far. Instead of working in a combat unit he rather prefers being an ambulance driver even if he wasn’t qualified for infantry (p. 130-131). He seems to be a kind and caring person is not able to accurately shoot his pistol favoring his short barrel gun.
  6. In Chapter 14, when Frederic says that he loves Catherine I believe him. While Frederic has the trait of lying, I feel this was a sincere comment and is special since it is the first time he has ever truly felt this way. However, I do believe that he may not yet fully understand what love is. Even so, his love for Catherine is unable to stop his restlessness.
  7. Catherine is afraid of the rain because to her and in the book it means darkness, death, and destruction. Catherine relents her reason why after Frederic questions her, saying: “I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it” (p. 135).
  8. When Catherine says in Chapter 21 that “Life isn’t hard to manage when you’ve got nothing to lose.” she means that she has already lost most everything and has little left to lose or care for. However, this changes when she and Henry commit to each other and take additional responsibilities and has to manage her pregnancy.
  9. When Dr. Rinaldi states that “We never learn.” he means that you have what you are born with or are dealt, and you just have to work with it and play it. That you never get anything new and that everyone starts and begins complete, this ties into the beliefs of Dr. Rinaldi, and Catherine’s highly religious values.
  10. After chapter 27, Henry begins to understand and believe in the confusion and meaninglessness of war. Inspired in part by Gino, he begins to have doubts of the war and not believe it is a cause worth fighting for.
  11. During the Battle of Caporetto in modern Slovenia a retreat becomes necessary for the Italian army. Henry acts courageously and tries to put up a fight but in the mayhem and confusion he is forced to desert his post. This action marks the point he goes on the run and instead of being a predator he becomes prey. Henry appears to feel guilt for deserting the army and killing the sergeant, while I feel it is just to desert if it becomes necessary.
  12. When Frederic says, “I’ve never realized anything before.” I think that he is trying to say that he has been so caught up in life that he had never taken the time to stop and look where he was. I think at this point he realizes how much he truly loves Catherine.
  13. Frederic hints that he has had a rough family life, and that he loved them, but they fought so much the love faded away. Frederic says to Catherine “What do you want to do? Ruin me” (p. 325) in the sense that he already fallen so deeply in love with her, much more so than he wanted to. However, she still wants him to fall even further so, and I believe she does succeed for the time being.
  14. In the end, what happens to Catherine is deeply ironic but very saddening at the same time. It is unfortunate and ironic at the same time because the story leads up to this point where they have the opportunity to create a new life and Frederic has devoted his life to Catherine and their child only to see his true loves pulled away from him. Catherine’s attitude at the end is a combination remorseful, excited, worried, and passionate to Frederic while his attitude is a peak of joy only for it to shatter and send him into a period of heartbreak and emotional devastation.
  15. A Farewell to Arms title has many meaning, some more subtle than others. For one, arms refer to weapons such as those used in the war in which Frederic fought. Secondly, the farewell is a goodbye to the pain which bind him and relives it through preserving and telling the stories.

Background on Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was an American novelist, and editor, most notably known for his literary works including: A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899 in Illinois, United States and unfortunately passed at the age of 61 years in 1961 after living a long and eventful life and having three sons. Before his death, Hemingway received a Nobel Prize for literature in 1954 and was widely recognized for creating a famed style of prose fiction centered around exploration and adventure which often drew from his own life (Young, Philip).

He was the second of six children and lived in a working-class suburb of Chicago. Hemingway’s parents heavily influenced his writing, his father was a strict martinet while his mother was permissive and exposed him to the arts. His father taught him many of the manly disciplines such as building fires, cooking, fishing, and building shelter. The combination of the adventurous activities he took part in with his father, and the art he was taught by his mother culminated in being the focal point of many of his writings (Young, Philip).

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Soon after finishing high school, Hemingway worked for a local newspaper as a reporter and journalist. From this he learned many of the literary techniques which he carried over and implemented into his works. Ironically, Hemingway was a poor speller from the beginning of his career and relied on editors to fix his mistakes. Despite, the great exuberance of seeing his works published Hemingway grew tired of the monotonous and repetitive work and sought a change in pace. He found interest in the American Field Service as an ambulance driver and traveled over sea to Europe for work A(&E Television Network).

While in Milan, Italy, Hemingway traveled to the Austro-Italian border wanting to see more action and encountered a near-death experience when an Austrian explosive blew up in the trenches filling his legs with metal shrapnel. From this many literary critics believe it was this event that caused Hemingway to become obsessed with the inevitable fear of death. Ten years after leaving Italy and returning to the United States he received a letter from an Italian nurse who he had fallen in love with after his accident. The letter proclaimed that she had fallen in love with an Italian general, heartbroken, Hemingway used writing as an escape for his problems. The nurse would become the basis for Catherine Berkeley’s brave personality in A Farewell to Arms (A&E Television Network).

Historical Perspective

World War I’s origin can be primarily traced back to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and lasted four years until 1918. The Central Powers composed of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire fought against the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and the United States. World War I, also known as the First World War and the Great War, saw unprecedented levels of death and carnage in part due to advancements in technology and warfare. More than 16million people, formed of both citizens and soldiers died. (National Archives) At the end of the war the Allied Powers were seen as victors by an overwhelming majority.

Before the war had actually even begun, tensions were high in Europe. Due to a number of alliances between European countries, the death of Franz Ferdinand and the blame placed on other countries caused a rather small event to grow into something much larger. In the war the continued use of trench warfare in the east and west in which soldiers battled from “trenches” dug into the ground and fought using Machine Guns, Heavy Artillery, and Chemical Weapons.” which resulted in mass casualties resulted in little success, gains, or advantage to either side. (George Washington University)

The war’s end in the fall of 1918 brought two new legislative laws, the Armistice Agreement and the Treaty of Versailles which broke Austria-Hungary into five countries and forced Germany to pay large economic reparations while also maintaining a limited military.

After the war Germany only payed a small percentage of the reparations, as it was already stressed financially. The Nazi Party took advantage of this humiliation to take political control in the decades following. Ernest Hemingway was in support of the war and volunteered to serve in Italy and received a Silver Medal of Valor from the Italian government for his bravery. Frederic Henry shared similar views however as the book progresses his doubt of the war grows and he begins to support it less. (Hemingway Resource Center) Since A Farewell to Arms is in part a semi-autobiography it can be assumed to an extent that Hemingway possibly shared this same view after his war experience. Hemingway’s ability to merge and weave history and storytelling is what makes him the renowned author he is “no other American writer is associated so closely with writing about war and Hemingway used hist first-hand experiences as a backdrop for his works.” (The Telegraph)

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