A Farewell to Arms as a Modern Novel

A Farewell to Arms as a Modern Novel

The novel “A Farewell to Arms”, written by Ernest Hemingway, fulfils all the characteristics of a modern novel. It was first published in 1929. It is about an American ambulance driver Frederic Henry who falls in love with a British nurse Catherine Barkley. The story follows the events that happened during World War 1. The protagonist used to serve in the Italian army when he fell in love with Catherine.

One of the key features of the novel is its understated prose style. Most of the novels and short stories of Ernest Hemingway contain this style of writing. The protagonist of the novel himself narrates the story. In other words, he tells about his own experiences. Thus, besides the experimental style of writing, stream of consciousness is also a modern technique that the writer uses in this novel. 

A Farewell to Arms as a Modern Novel

As far as the themes of the novel are concerned, the writer focuses mainly on love, war, loss and the human condition during the period of World War 1. There is always the theme of violence in Hemingway’s fiction. Hence, when he talks about war, he mentions brutal incidents while describing chaos as a central subject. Furthermore, he declares war a senseless violence. 

The writer tells a tale of love but the chemistry between Frederic and Catherine is tragic as they exist in a world torn apart by war that struggles to find happiness.

It is true that “A Farewell to Arms” is not only a masterpiece but also a modern novel. It has also been regarded widely as one of Hemingway’s greatest works. Hence, it is the reason many producers converted the narration into films.

It is necessary to know what is a modern novel and the characteristics that usually are there in them before analysing “A Farewell to Arms” as Hemingway’s masterpiece.

What is a Modern Novel?

The work that represents or is written in the 20th or 21st century may be called modern literature in case it fulfils all or some characteristics of modern fiction. However, this definition of the modern novel is not the final one. The trend started after the Victorian era. The novelist blew a new soul into fiction. It was also the beginning of the modernist movement in literature.

The names of modern novelists and their novels are worth mentioning before knowing more about the characteristics of modern novels. Some prominent novelists and their novels are:

  1. James Joyce’s “Ulysses”
  2. Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway”
  3. Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”
  5. Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”

These are the novels that best fit in the category of modern fiction. However, some novels fulfil partial ingredients and are considered to be put in this category. The novel “A Farewell to Arms” is an example of it. Let’s first know what are the main characteristics of modern novels.

Characteristics of Modern Novel

Numbers of distinctive features are there that must be present in a work of fiction in order to add it to the list of modern literature. Some of the key characteristics of modern novels are:

  1. Psychological Complexity
  2. Use of Stream-of-Consciousness Technique
  3. Themes Related to Subjectivity 
  4. Experimentalism with form, structure and language.
  5. Ambiguity
  6. Realism
  7. Nontraditional Subjects

Psychological Complexity in a Farewell to Arms

In the context of psychological terms, “A Farewell to Arms” is indeed a modern novel. It explores the psychological complexity of its characters. Frederic Henry, the protagonist, has many psychological problems and the writer mentions all of them in detail. 

The writer shows the world inside Frederic’s mind. The novelist talks about the inner thoughts and emotions of the protagonist throughout the novel. He talks about his fears, anxieties and desires. It seems that Frederic is the most complex character ever sketched by Ernest Hemingway. He struggles to find meaning in a meaningless world.

World War 1 had the worst impact on the lives of people. People became hopeless as they had accepted that they could die anytime. The people were torn apart by war. Thus, their lives were meaningless. The author shows the inner psyche of people while telling the story of an ambulance driver. Thus the writer mentions universal problems that people were going through during the period of World War 1. 

The main themes that the novelist illustrates in this regard are alienation, disillusionment and despair. Frederic’s psychological complexity is his attitude towards love and relationships. The novel shows changing feelings of Fredric Henery as his attitude with reference to love changes with experiences. Hence, he feels that human life is fragile and also realises the impermanence of love.

Stream of Consciousness in a Farewell to Arms

It is also one of the important characteristics that modern novelists show events through the technique of stream of consciousness. This technique also supports proving “A Farewell to Arms” as a modern novel. For those who do not know about said technique, it is a literary technique that shows events from the past which a character recalls from his consciousness. 

In simple words, it is a technique through which the writer presents a character’s continuous flow of thoughts and feelings. The writer does not show organized events when he presents them. Randomly a character remembers past days of his life. In “A Farewell to Arms” the protagonist, Frederic Henry, recalls his experiences and narrates them.

In order to exemplify, the incident from Chapter 7 of the novel is worth mentioning. Frederic recovers from his injuries in a hospital in Milan. The author writes the chapter entirely in the style of stream of consciousness. He recalls his past relationships. His experiences in the war and his current state of mind, all are in a stream-of-consciousness narrative. 

To exemplify, Ernest Hemingway writes:

“I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the glorious things had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally, only the names of places had dignity.”

Chapter 7 – A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway 

Themes Related to Subjectivity in A Farewell to Arms

Ernest Hemingway portrays such themes in his novel “A Farewell to Arms” which are related to subjectivity. Indeed the novel has been written from an individual perspective as it explores the experiences of the main characters. Let’s discuss these themes one by one to prove that the novel “A Farewell to Arms” is a modern novel.

It is true that most of the themes that the writer portrays in this novel are realistic. In fact, modern literature deals with realistic themes. The literature is always indigent of imagination yet the themes that the writer portrays in this novel are entirely realistic in nature. The novelist served as a news reporter, hence, the presentation of reality is his greatest skill which he freely uses in this novel.

The writer tries to prove that experiences have a direct connection with the world that lies inside the mind. In other words, the writer proves through sketching realistic themes that each person’s perception of reality is shaped by his background, beliefs and experiences. One of the examples which should be mentioned in this regard is the protagonist of the novel. Most of the time in the novel, Frederic struggles to reconcile his perceptions of the war with the official propaganda and reports that he reads.

Modern novels rarely tell fairy tales. Mostly, the writers mention the past of the characters. In the novel “A Farewell to Arms”, Ernest Hemingway explores the subjectivity of memory and the way that individuals remember and interpret past events. In the case of Frederic, he recalls memories from his consciousness in which he enjoys moments with Catherine. However, at the same time, his past seems dark to the audience when he remembers incidents from his memory. Thus, pain and suffering have coloured his memories.

Apart from that if the modern novelist portrays themes related to love and the relationship between the characters, they mention subjectivity in the relationships. Frederic’s love for Catherine, for instance, is depicted as a deeply personal and individual experience. Undoubtedly, there is universality in these kinds of themes as they are based on human nature but the way the novelist portrays these themes is entirely subjective. 

Thus modern novels deal with realistic themes that focus on the individual life of characters. Mostly, the problems the writer discusses are not social but individual.


Modern writers use new literary techniques according to their subjects. In case they do not find a specific word or literary device to describe an event, they create one from their own knowledge. “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway is often considered an experimental novel as it is not only innovative but also breaks the traditional narrative structures. 

Being a reporter, Ernest Hemingway does not use lengthy sentences when he tells a story to his readers. It is his motive to convey a message in short, simple sentences and minimal use of adjectives and adverbs. It is a style that most writers use to add realism to fiction. Thus, the events that the writer mentions in the novel leave an impact on the minds of readers.

The writer uses ambiguous symbols and gives vivid descriptions of images. It is also one of the key facts of modern novels that the writers do not say anything directly; instead, they use the technique of symbolism. In this way, the writers may portray those themes that they cannot illustrate openly. Ernest Hemingway uses the symbol of rain at Catherine’s labour to indicate an upcoming tragedy. Similarly, the snow in Switzerland indicates the purity and innocence of love between the couple.

Besides the above-mentioned techniques, stream-of-consciousness is also a technique that the writer uses in this novel. It is also characteristic of experimental literature. Thus, these experimental and innovative techniques prove that the novel “A Farewell to Arms” is a modern novel. 

Ambiguity in the Modern Novel “A Farewell to Arms”

Modern novels are not just stories. The writers have many issues to cover. Most of the issues that the writers discuss are psychological problems. However, there is a long list of themes that the writers illustrate. There is no limit in this regard. “A Farewell to Arms” does not only contain ambiguous themes but also unvivid symbols and images. Ernest Hemingway shows one side of the picture but at the same time, he does not hide the other side. This unique technique increases ambiguity in modern novels.

Limitless ambiguity is there in “A Farewell to Arms”. The novel explores the idea that love and sacrifice are intertwined and that true love often requires sacrifice but the writer also mentions that the sacrifices made for love are ultimately futile while proving that love cannot protect against the harsh realities of the world. When a writer mentions both the pros and cons, it does not bring clarity on which side the writer is. Mostly, the writer leaves everything to his readers to differentiate right from wrong.

On one side, the modern novelist of the novel “A Farewell to Arms” depicts the horrors of war and its impact on individuals but the heroism that the writer shows in the novel raises several questions in the minds of the readers. Thus, it does not clarify whether the writer supports heroism or condemns the war.

Religion and gender roles are some common themes that modern novelists portray in their novels. The writers portray morality while depicting symbolic-ambiguous themes with a vivid description of events. Modern novelists also focus on morality. 

Thus, there is always room for individual interpretation in modern novels. Hemingway’s use of understated language and minimalistic style adds ambiguity to the novel and allows readers to draw their conclusions about the meaning of the novel’s symbols, images and themes.

Realism in A Farewell to Arms

Nothing in the novel “A Farewell to Arms” seems sketched from a utopian world. The writer tried his best to remain as real as the can. Ernest Hemingway is often considered a realistic novelist. It does not matter whether he writes a novel or a short story, he sketches realism in it. The novel “A Farewell to Arms” is the best example of realistic literature as the events from the life of Fredric are entirely believable. 

One of the main reasons for being the most realistic writer is that Ernest Hemingway talks about events from his own experiences. He remained an ambulance driver during the period of World War 1 and the protagonist of the novel is also an ambulance driver. Thus the events that the writer mentions in the novel are actually his life experiences.

The writer remembers everything that he had once witnessed during World War 1. For instance, when he vividly portrays the physical environment of Italy, the landscapes, weather and architecture of the towns and cities in which the characters live and work, the readers believe in them while imagining those objects. Thus, it adds realism to the novel “A Farewell to Arms” which is one of the main characteristics of modern novels. 

In addition, the portrayal of the character’s thoughts, emotions, and motivations is also a psychological reality. Besides, their dialogue, internal monologues, and behaviour also feel authentic and believable. When the characters struggle with love, loss and suffering, it seems to the readers as if the writer talks about his own problems. 

Hence, the technique of realism broke the tradition in Hemingway’s era and the writers stopped writing fairy tales. They started writing books with realistic events which immediately grabbed the attention of readers. 

It is pertinent to mention here that the novel “A Farewell to Arms” has ambiguity in it due to which it cannot be called entirely realistic but surely a modern novel as it contains all of its ingredients.

Nontraditional Subjects

Modern novels often explore nontraditional subjects. Some of them include sexuality, race, gender and identity. It was almost impossible for the traditional writers to write on these issues. Writing on these issues was considered taboo in earlier literature. Undeniably, “A Farewell to Arms” discusses all these issues at once hence it should be regarded as a modern novel. 


The upshot of the above discussion is that the novel “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway is certainly a modern novel. The novelist breaks the tradition and engages his readers in a story that represents modern problems and mentions real-life incidents.

The techniques and literary devices that the writer uses to make the novel “A Farewell to Arms” modern are the use of stream-of-consciousness, ambiguity in themes and symbols, realism, demonstration of modern issues and covering of non-traditional issues.