English Literature » Notes » Significance of the title of “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms

Significance of the title of “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway

The titles of Ernest Hemingway’s novels are not mere tags because they are chosen with extensive care and deliberation. They really underline and highlight the spirit of the stories related to the novels. True to this very fact, the title of A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway also was chosen by the author after great effort and much thinking. The author have in fact many alternative titles in his mind. Some of these alternatives were: ‘The Grand Tour’, ‘Patriot’s Progress’, ‘Love in War’, ‘Education of the Flesh’ and ‘The Carnal Education’. But none of these could satisfy the fastidious Hemingway, and we are happy for that the title that Hemingway ultimately chose for his novel has virtue besides literal significance and appropriateness.

The title of A Farewell to Arms is really enchanting. It is poetic and embodies the essence and spirit of the action portrayed in the novel. But it should be pointed out that the title is neither invented nor improvised by Hemingway. In fact, he has borrowed it from the Elizabethan poem, composed by George Peele, i.e, ‘the weapons of the war and the arms of the beloved’. The same pun on the word ‘arms’ which the Elizabethan poet had used, does duty here for Hemingway also and precisely for the same reason. Here, in the novel, the hero lieutenant Frederic Henry bids farewell to war by deserting army, as well as his beloved, Catherine Barkley when death snatches her from Henry since she dies in child- birth.

At the very beginning of the novel,we are introduced to an American young man, Henry who has joined for reasons unknown, the Italian army in which he is serving as the commander of the group of army ambulance drivers. In the front he is seriously wounded and while receiving treatment at the hospital he meets a young and beautiful English nurse, Catherine. A love affair grows between them and after the recovery from the wounds and the carnal pleasure of love, Henry returns to the front for action. In this stage Hemingway really uses Henry’s experience to convey the grimness, sorrow,misery, sufferings and horrifying human loss entitled by war. Here, it is abundantly made clear by the author that a large number of people does not want war, which debases everything. The climax of the horror in war is reached in the account of the Caporetto retreat which is the first step of Henry’s decision to leave the war. Henry jumps into the river Tagliamento to save himself if being shot dead by Italian army itself. This act continues Henry’s deliberate ‘farewell’ to arms. He seeks solace, comfort and ‘ a separate peace’ in the arms of his beloved Catherine.

During this period the love between the two becomes much deeper. Henry for whom Catherine was merely a feminine object for the satisfaction of sexual appetite, now cannot help falling in love with her. He is in love passionately and expresses his desire to marry her as soon as he learns about her pregnancy. They spend a few idyllic months happily with each other in the mountain villa of Switzerland. But this period of bliss ends in tragedy with Catherine’s death in child-birth. Thus the farewell to arms of his beloved is thrust upon him by cruel and inexorable fate, and he is left lonely, dejected and disappointed.

The title of the novel allows yet another interpretation in the view of the circumstances detailed in the novel. A more valid interpretation would see the title as completely ironic. Henry tries to escape from the obligation which life imposes. He does not wish to fall in love, yet loves; he tries to escape from war,but feels like a school-boy who is playing traunt. Both Catherine and Henry bid farewell to the life of action and struggle, but ironically their greatest test to save the life of Catherine comes at the very next moment when they seemed to have achieved ‘a separate peace’. Thus what the novel says finally is that one cannot escape the obligations of life, one cannot say ‘farewell to arms’. On the contrary,one can only learn to live with life,to tolerate it as “the initiated”.

The title of A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway thus captures the mood, essence and the spirit of the action of the novel. The novelties choice A Farewell to Arms as the title of the novel suggests a variety of meanings not only on the themes of love but also how these dimensions of life intimately affect and bind the individual. Hence,the title of the novel is significant and appropriate.

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