Idealism versus Pragmatism through Symbolism in the Novel “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway



Most idealists view war as an ideal concept. Idealists support the concept of sacrificing oneself in order that the entire society may benefit. This implies that those who participate in war become glorified and receives dignity and respect. This situation prevailed even at the commencement of the First World War as people sought to do actions that could be termed as morally right.

Dignity and pride are key values that stimulated the need for war at that time. By then, most people did not consider the pragmatic problems that could be caused by the war. Hemingway’s novel may be seen as a reflection of his bitterness regarding idealistic notions of war. Hemingway’s work exhibits war as a negative and cruel thing, contrary to the common stance that war is a decent struggle involving morality and vices.

Particularly, Hemingway makes use of natural symbolism to exhibit his sarcastic stance regarding war. Hemingway narrates the love story as a way of showing the delusions that people relate to war, which negates the setting of the novel. According to Hemingway, it is inadequate to defend the war on the basis of its heroic or ethical function.

Idealism and Pragmatism of War

The main characters in the novel, who are Catherine and Frederic Henry, do not seem to have power over their lives in the course of the war. Catherine and Frederic lack the capacity to get themselves out of the natural situations caused by the war.

When Frederic runs to Switzerland, he acknowledges that no individual can escape with a thing (Hemingway 320). Moreover, Hemingway demonstrates his disapproval of war through Frederic. He likens war to Aymo, something that seeks to kill for no reason (Hemingway 293).

Bloom acknowledges that the idealistic and pragmatic functions of war are incompatible (Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: Bloom’s Modern Critical Views 33). Pragmatically, wars commence with the ultimate goal of winning. Idealistically, the ultimate goal of a war is to fight evil. Hemingway’s work demonstrates his hatred of wars.

For instance, Hemingway openly discloses his hatred of wars in a dialogue between Frederic and Pasini, who is an Italian (Hemingway 50). Also, from this dialogue, Hemingway points out that people should look forward to ending wars irrespective of the motives behind such wars.

In reality, Italians are fighting for land. However, a large proportion of residents experienced the consequences of the war, and they did not like these experiences. Hemingway expresses this fact in his work through several characters, including Catherine, Frederic, and the Italian militia, who are incapable of reversing their fates, despite their little concern regarding the function of the war.

Although, the entire idealistic war assembled in celebration of the impending war the ultimate result is disappointing. After a while, the war turns into a powerless event that goes on to the point of vanity (Bloom Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: Bloom’s Guides 112).

This is when reality shows up, amidst these people, and they find out that war cannot be an idealistic incidence, of disagreeing entities waging for their self-respect and dignity. There is no way that war vanguards can share the same ideals as the government that controls them. Vanguards should view wars in consideration of the risks and dangers involved in such undertakings.

Idealistic Hero against Frederic Henry

From an idealistic perspective, a hero should participate in a war due to his quest to fight for ideals of fairness and impartiality. Nevertheless, Frederic Henry participates in the war for the continued existence, since he is a pragmatic hero.

Frederic does not seek justice or impartiality (Bloom Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations, 21). This is because Frederic knows that no person can save the other in a war. Frederic is unable to safeguard himself from injuries. At the same time, he cannot save Pasiny from injury (Hemingway 55).

It seems that all efforts by Frederic to save people are fruitless. To make matters worse, he is unable to save Catherine, a woman he loves. In the beginning, Frederic seems to be the idealistic hero because he is energetic, confident, elegant, and considerate to his colleagues. Nevertheless, Frederic loses these traits when the realities of war unfold.

He changes from the young, intelligent soldier, to a miserable man, who seeks nothing but to safeguard his life and live with Catherine blissfully. Rather than confronting his enemies, Frederic masquerades himself in civilian outfits. Frederic seems to care little about the ultimate goal of the war as the only seeks for his survival. Different from idealistic heroes, Frederic attempts to run away from the dead (Bloom 49).

He does not see the need for anyone to die in a war. This is because he sees respect and honor as invaluable items compared to the value of human beings. Hence, he does not think that anyone should risk his life in order to meet the objectives of the war. From an idealistic perspective, Frederic is a coward as he tries to stop death. Nevertheless, this seems to be the point that Hemingway wants to emphasize.

According to Hemingway, it is totally impractical to engage in war for the purposes of proving a persons’ might, dignity, or respect. Rather, Hemingway sees war as a devastating experience that injures and weakens the psychological, spiritual, and physical nature of human beings.

Frederic considers wars as experiences that ruin the souls of men through harming them and killing. Wars destroy desirable aspects of human beings, such as fairness and gentleness (Hemingway 249). From these lines, it is evident that Frederic does not exhibit the brave and the courteous nature of an idealistic hero, but the panic and repulsion of a pragmatist.

The reality brought about by Hemingway, is that every man will desire to return peacefully to his way of life instead of dying in war, irrespective of the dignity that idealists associate with achieving the purpose of war.

The Breakdown of the Pragmatic Hero

When Frederic notices the pragmatic aspects of the war, he commences to break down. The truth, in this case, is that despite how much Frederic attempts to escape and survive from the cruelty of the war, the infinite borders of the fortitude of the war, surpasses any power of a hero. This fact comes to him strongly following the death of his baby (Donaldson 72).

Please, please, please, dear God, don’t let her die. Dear God, don’t let her die. Please, please, please don’t let her die. God, please make her not die. I’ll do anything you say if you don’t let her die. You took the baby, but don’t let her die” (Monteiro 42).

These expressions depict Frederic as a man who has lost boldness in life. He seems to be low in spirit, expressing him out in a frantic effort to plead with the divine beings.

The injurious impact of war on the spirit of an individual overcomes Frederic as he will continue to remember the trauma that the war caused him throughout his life.

Pragmatism through Symbolism

Hemingway stresses on the harmful effects of the war, repetitively. He uses symbolism in the entire novel, to predict incidences and direct readers into having a perfect reflection of the depressing condition of war participant (Bloom Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms: Bloom’s Biocritiques 19).

Hemingway uses rain as a symbol that represents destruction, obscurity, and pain, although; rain gets seen as something that promotes existence. Thus, Hemingway uses rain as an irony in order to stress that the idealistic perspectives are just delusions.

In the beginning, Hemingway laments how the rain fell and left thousands of army men dead. Hemingway uses a dry tone in this part and uses rain to demonstrate obscurity that comes with war rather than using direct sentiments. Hemingway also uses rain to symbolize the apprehension of meeting death in war. Catherine suffered grief due to the loss of a partner in war, and this makes her afraid to suffer from bereavement due to war.

Catherine explains that she associates rain with death (Dahiya 45). Whenever it rains, she feels like dying. As such, Catherine refers to both physical and emotional bereavement. This point emphasizes the pragmatist standpoint that the only thing that can come from war is a death threat, as opposed to the idealist view that death in war is admirable.

Rain in the novel is a powerful representation of obstruction of people’s happiness in life. Catherine derives meaning from the rain as they rest in bed while the storms sound from outside. Catherine admits her fear of rain and storms as they can destroy happiness among lovers.

While this fact cannot be confirmed by any scientific proof, Catherine’s fear seems to be a forecast of the future since she and her lover find themselves in the groom eventually. Following the demise of Catherine, rain falls on Henry as he departs from the hospital towards home.

At this point, rain confirms Catherine’s apprehension regarding the relationship between rain and doom. Hence, it is evident that Hemingway uses rain as a symbol of death. Frederic also soothes Catherine in an attempt to ensure that she feels secure, although the rain persists (Hemingway 93).

The raining situation cannot be controlled by any human being. People try to evade the rain, but they cannot as they do not have any control over nature. Hemingway uses this point to stress on the impact of a war on the spirit of a person.

By using the rain, which is a natural aspect to portray obscurity, Hemingway demonstrates the narrow capability of human beings to decide their fates in the course of a war. Trying to survive becomes left as the only solution in the course of the war. This notion opposes the idealistic perspective, which depicts war as something that man has control over.

In conclusion, Hemingway uses symbolism to condemn the idealistic notions of war. He views war as something that obstructs human beings. He uses the rain as a symbol of death and obscurity through which he gives readers an opportunity to reflect on how war can kill human beings, including their souls, hearts, and minds. Hemingway’s work is a bitter disprove to the idealistic perspectives of war, which depicts war as a source of dignity and honor.

Hemingway uses rain and water as symbols throughout the novel. He uses rain in different situations to forecast death. Rain acts as a barrier to Frederic’s and Catherine’s happiness. Besides, rain hinders readers from anticipating a happy ending upon reading the novel.

Rain presents death and groom starting from the muddy ponds that exist at war, to the pouring of the rain, when Frederic goes back to his room. Hemingway uses rain to represent barrenness and death, although rain represents abundant harvest and fruitiness in most works.

Hemingway uses Frederic, who is an ordinary human, to demonstrate the pragmatic circumstances that surround wars rather than creating the story from real-life experiences. Readers of the novel come into contact with Catherine and Frederic, two people who cannot obtain happiness due to the war.

Hemingway decides to end the story in a sad way in order to demonstrate that a sad event cannot lead to a happy ending, as opposed to the idealistic perspective of war. Hemingway uses symbolism in his work in order to stress on pragmatic notions of war.

While it seems sarcastic to perceive rain as a symbol of infertility, Hemingway develops this perception in a brilliant way. The use of rain to symbolize obscurity and sadness in the entire novel demonstrates the continuing pragmatic sadness that war causes among human beings.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold Ed. Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms: Bloom’s Biocritiques, Philadelphia, Chelsea House Publishers, 2001. Print.

This book presents different biographies on works of prominent writers. Every section of this book has critical analysis on key aspects such as symbols and themes of different writers. This book also presents criticisms essays on works by different writers including Hemingway’s work. This book is of value to this study as it analyses the aspects of symbolism, as seen in Hemingway’s work.

—. Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: Bloom’s Guides. Philadelphia, Chelsea House Publishers, 2009. Print.

This book gives a biography of Hemmingway, his early works and experiences during the First World War. The books also summarize the novel and offers critical reviews related to the novel. The book is vital for this study as it offers a background of Hemmingway and issues that surrounds his writings.

—. Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations, Philadelphia, Chelsea House Publishers, 2001. Print.

This book presents different criticism essays on Hemingway’s work. These essays criticize different elements of the novel such as characters, symbolism and other elements in literature. This book is of value to this study as it contains an analysis of symbolism, as seen in Hemingway’s work.

—. Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: Bloom’s Modern Critical Views, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2009. Print.

This book presents a personal biography on Hemingway and his works. The book presents background of Hemingway’s experiences and uses direct quotations from various critics to exhibit the influence of Hemingway’s background on his work. The book is vital for this study as it offers a background of Hemmingway and discusses the element of symbolism as used by Hemingway.

Dahiya, Bhim. Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: A Critical Study, Delhi: Academic Foundation, 1992. Print.

This book provides literary criticism to the work of Hemingway. The book criticizes different elements of the novel such as the plot and use of characters. The book is of value to this study as it offers different perspectives of Hemingway’s work through criticism.

Donaldson, Scott Ed. New Essays on A Farewell to Arms, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Print.

This book is a collection of many essays that explain how Hemingway’s work became influenced by the First World War. The book gives an account of how Hemingway attempted write about the way for a long time. It also explains how the war influenced the behavior patterns of Catherine Berkeley. This book is of value to this study as Catherine is among the characters that bring out the element of symbolism.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms, New York: Scribner Classics, 1997. Print.

This book presents the story of Frederic Henry and Catherine Berkely, who grow to be lovers. Hemingway portrays how Catherine and Henry struggle with love during a period of war. This book forms the basis for analysis in this study.

Monteiro, George. Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, New York: G.K. Hall and Company, 1994. Print.

This book offers a summary of Hemingway’s work as well as criticism of Hemingway’s work against other novels. The book views different aspects that have faced criticism including symbolism, death, and the issue of still birth. This book is of value to this study as it gives different aspects of symbolism and characters, as seen in critics of Hemingway’s work.

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