Ernest Hemingway is an author well known for the common themes in his novels. In his style of writing, Hemingway is able to express the themes of the novel through strong character traits and actions. The common themes in Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also and A Farewell to Arms are death and loss. The characters in these novels, and many of Hemingway’s other novels, can relate to these themes.
The novels The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms share many similarities. These of course include the themes of death and loss. The common themes are supported by the war setting in A Farewell to Arms and the post-war setting in The Sun Also Rises. Both novels take place in Europe approximately in the 1920s. Jake Barnes is the main character of The Sun Also Rises and he is struggling through life after having experienced some trauma during the war. Frederic Henry, the protagonist of A Farewell to Arms must make the choice of staying in the army or abandoning his fellow troops to be with his girlfriend. Both novels explore the hardships of love, war, and death.”The wound, the break from society, and the code are subjects of Hemingway’s work” (Young 6). These three events are critical in Hemingway’s novels The Sun Also and A Farewell to Arms.
“The Wound” represents just that, a wound. It can be a physical, mental, or an emotional wound always occurring in the story’s protagonist. This relates to the theme of loss because the character’s wound is always a loss they suffer. The loss can be physical, for example if the character is injured and loses a body part (which is common in the war settings Hemingway typically uses). The loss can also be emotional, for example if the main character loses a loved one and becomes depressed.
In The Sun Also Rises, Jake has been injured in the war and feels like less of a man because he is “physically unable to make love to a woman” (Magnum 4). This injury leaves Jake psychologically and morally lost. In A Farewell to Arms the main character, Frederic Henry, is wounded in his leg while serving in the war as an ambulance driver in Italy. Jake and Frederic’s mental and emotional conditions lead to the next part of the Hemingway code; the break from society.
The break from society is the next key element in Hemingway’s work. This disassociation with society is a result of the main character’s injury or loss. The character will separate himself from society to cope with his loss. Jake’s life has become empty and he fills his time with drinking and dancing. Jake enjoys his life by “learning to get your money’s worth and knowing when you had it.” (Magnum 4) Another break from society is shown in the story “Big Two- Hearted River” by Hemingway. The main character, Nick Adams, has experienced a loss. “Death has occurred; not literal human death, but death of the land” (Magnum 3) which has been destroyed by fire.
The fire has consumed and burned all the vegetation surrounding the home where Nick grew up. Nick suffers from the shock of the devastation to the land. He had recalled so many boyhood memories of hunting and fishing on the land where he grew up. Nick goes back into the wilderness on his own to get away form the pain he has suffered. A break from society is a key aspect in Hemingway’s work that adds to the common themes among his novels.
The wound and the break from society lead up to the last key element, the “Hemingway Code” (Young 8). The code is what Hemingway uses in his novels to show how the character is dealing with the wound and the break from society. For example, in The Sun Also Rises, Jake is dealing with his loss by going out and spending his money on drinks and dancing because this is the only way he can enjoy himself. He cannot fall in love so this is what he does instead to fill the missing gap in his life. He also “gets his money’s worth” by sending pointless short telegrams to his friends, symbolizing his careless nature. A Farewell to Arms contains another example of the code.
Frederic is searching for meaning in life while he is surrounded by death during the war. He chooses not to fill his life with religion or pleasure because these things are meaningless to him. Instead Frederic abandons the Italian Army to be with his girlfriend Catherine, whom he plans to marry. Loving Catherine is the only way Frederic can bring happiness to his life after facing the hardships of war.
The subject’s of Hemingway’s work in A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises are similar, and can relate to the main themes of other works by Hemingway. The themes of death and loss apply to the characters of these novels. Death occurs often during the wars which take place in both novels. Jake was wounded in a war, and Frederic is currently fighting in a war. Both have suffered a psychological loss which leaves them struggling to bring meaning to their lives. In Big Two Hearted River Nick suffers from the loss of the land. Hemingway has created all of these characters to show weaknesses which result from their losses. That is why each character suffers from the loss they experience. “Like Jake, Frederic Henry is wounded in the war and falls in love with a woman.”(Magnum 6). These characters suffer losses from the war and soon suffer losses in love. “We could have had such a damned good time together,” (Hemingway 115) Lady Ashley states after accepting that Jake will never be able to love her. Like Jake, Frederic loses his lover, “The arms to which Frederic must finally say farewell are those of Catherine, who dies in childbirth” ( Magnum 7)
The major differences in the novels The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms do not occur in the themes of the novels but instead the character’s personalities and actions. For example Jake is considered the lost and hopeless character. He spends his time out and about with his friends touring the countryside, drinking, dancing and having a good time. He has lost all his morals and goes about freely without a care in the world. Hemingway had created Frederic as the complete opposite of Jake. He takes a stand for what he believes in and does what he thinks is right. Frederic is faced with, and overcomes, tough decisions during desperate war-filled times. Unlike Jake, he is rational and thinks out his decisions. Although theses characters have opposing personalities they will both encounter the same problem throughout the novels.
Both Jake and Frederic experience hardships and internal conflict in The Sun Also and A Farewell to Arms. Jake is in conflict with himself over the love of a woman named Lady Brett Ashley. This is the woman Jake wants to fall in love with but he knows this will never be possible because of his war wound. Jake gives up his hope of finding love by introducing Lady Brett to one of his friends who she falls in love with and plans to marry. The marriage is broken off when a fight breaks out which is caused by Lady Brett’s desire to be romantic with several other men. “The novel ends right where it began, with Brett and Jake trapped in hopeless love for each other,” (Nagel 108). Frederic’s internal conflict is similar to that of Jake’s.
He is lost and confused over the love for his girlfriend, Catherine and his service in the military. After learning Catherine has become pregnant and his troops abandon him, Frederic makes the decision to desert the army and follow his heart. Frederic suffers from the most pain when Catherine dies giving birth. He realized that the love he shared, to try and bring meaning to his life, causes him even more pain when Catherine dies. The internal conflict of both Jake and Frederic leave them faced with tough decisions which affect the way they live ad love.
Hemingway has used the character relationship of love and a setting with an atmosphere of war to build on his major themes. The characters were wounded in the war and suffer from the loss of loved ones. Death is used figuratively to describe the emotions and morality of Hemingway’s characters. Hemingway’s themes of death and loss are seen through his character portrayal in his novels.
Coleman, Janice. “Ernest Hemingway” The World Book Encyclopedia. Hartford, CT: Paddon Publishing, 1992.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell To Arms. New York, NY: Charles Scribners Sons, 1929.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York, NY: Charles Scribners Sons, 1926.
Magnum, Bryant. “Introduction to the Novels of Ernest Hemingway” Critical Survey Of Long Fiction. Salem Press Inc. 2000.
Nagel, James. “Ernest Hemingway”. Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume 9. New York: Gale Research Company, 1981.
Stanton, William. 20th Century Novelists. Sacramento, CA: Bantum Books, 1984.
Young, Phillip. “Ernest Hemingway” American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. Volume II. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1974