Ironic Narrative in "A Farewell To Arms" by Ernest Hemingway

Categories: A Farewell to Arms

Within the pages of A Farewell to Arms, modernist work of the 1920s, Hemingway often blurs the lines between the romantic narrative pattern and the ironic one. Critics argue over the specifics of each case: Do his heroes change and grow? Do they stagnate? Do they fail? Are they initiated into some greater consciousness of the world around them? Are Hemingway's heroes romantic conquistadors or are they ironic failures? How does an understanding of these heroes' initiations enhance Hemingway's meaning in the novel? These are the sorts of questions that must be considered in any effort to determine the necessity of an ironic reading of this important Hemingway work.

Paradigms Romance and Irony

Although tragedy and comedy have typified many movements and periods of literary history, for the purposes of this essay, it is necessary to focus upon the paradigms of romance and irony. These narrative patterns are not as familiar to many readers. Readers may associate romance with a particular genre of literature, whether gothic or harlequin, or recognize salient ironic details within plots, characters, and/or dialogues, but many fail to realize the archetypal patterns that define the literary paradigms of romance and irony and their relationship to one another.

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Foulke and Smith lay the foundation for this exploration of romantic hero versus ironic anti-hero and romantic quest versus anti-quest, yet this construction can be explored even more fully if one examines the elements of the hero's journey as (de) constructed by Joseph Campbell in Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this work, Campbell draws from the traditions of Freud and Jung to illustrate how the "deeds of myth survive into modern times" (Campbell 4).

Because themes of initiation and the related hero's quest are fundamental to the human condition, tying into universal perceptions of birth, growth, and death, the quest theme itself is always a "shape-shifting yet marvelously consistent story" that fits into the psychologically prescribed "checkpoints" of a narrative pattern such as romance or irony (Campbell 3).

In the realm of romance, young heroes, generally in possession of some power that transcends the ordinary, are called to adventure, initiated into some sort of knowledge or greater understanding of the universe (in other words, he or she receives the booty or treasure, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual), and returns transformed, armed with some sort of greater understanding about the world around him or her significant enough to improve the plight of humankind or at least improve the lot of society (Foulke and Smith 5).

On the contrary, the ironic journey is rooted in, well, irony. Perhaps the ironic hero, plagued by a less than ordinary potency, living in a world of chaos and disorder, ventures upon an aimless journey, and either fails to attain the treasure, or perhaps even more significantly, remains unchanged by his or her quest (Foulke and Smith 5). The narrative modes of romance and irony, then, can best be explored by pitting one against the other. Each pattern illustrates or represents a polarized human experience: romance represents the imagined, idealized world of constancy and order, while the ironic mode represents "the world of frustrated human desires" (Foulke and Smith 8). Because of the universal significance of such patterns, such paradigms are powerful mechanisms for the exploration of the human condition.

From the beginning of the novel, readers immediately sense the ambiguity and uncertainty of hero's role in an unpredictable world. The book opens with an ironic tone depicting a wilting earth in a drenched autumn: "leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare," even the vineyards are described as "thin and bare-branched" (Hemingway 4). And, even more poetically, Hemingway artfully sets up an ironic tone for the novel by cleverly, though morbidly, emphasizing that with "the winter came permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera"; though, "in the end" only seven thousand "died of it in the army" (Hemingway 4). With this opening, a wilting depiction of nature, Hemingway sets his readers up for an ironic interpretation of his novel.

It is within the context of such a pervasive unsettling setting, as typical of the ironic mode, that readers encounter Hemingway's ironic hero: Frederic Henry. Frederic is initially set into a traditional hero's role: he is a soldier. And, not only is Frederic a soldier, but he is an American volunteer for the Italian army. Within the context of the traditional romanticized soldier hero, it could be suggested that such action as volunteering for someone else's war is valiant, brave, and even representative of that larger-than-life archetypal hero depicted in narrative romance. However, Hemingway is certain to emphasize Frederic's naiveté, if not foolishness, from the very beginning of this anti-hero's journey.

Although Frederic technically ranks as an officer, he describes his work to Catherine as "not really [with] the army," but "only the ambulance" (Hemingway 18). As an ambulance driver on the Italian front, Frederic's innocence is encapsulated in his belief that it is impossible for him to be killed at the front; after all, the war "did not have anything to do" with him (Hemingway 37). Frederic's innocence is also depicted and reinforced by his obliviousness to the war; he is able to travel comfortably in convoy if in "the first car" and appreciate the "clear, fast and shallow" river and the mysterious looming mountains (Hemingway 44-5).

Frederic's ability to appreciate the "picturesque" Italian front illustrates his inability to realize the significance of both the "deep pools" of the river "blue like the sky" and the reality of life and death shuttled within his ambulance (Hemingway 47). This naiveté is similarly reflected early in the novel by the fact that Frederic clearly and staunchly believes in the traditional virtues of soldiering: good soldiers are '"brave and have good discipline'" (Hemingway 48). When these naive character traits are coupled with the dominant impression presented by the fading, rainy fall, and cholera-struck winter, the stage is set early on in A Farewell to Arms for another Hemingway triumph of irony.

However, from the beginning of the book, readers are aware that Frederic is becoming increasingly cognizant of the fact that "It evidently made no difference" whether he "was there to look after things or not" (Hemingway 16). When Frederic returns to the front after his leave time, he realizes that all is as he "had left it except that now it was spring" (Hemingway 10); the front had remained static, and neither side had advanced or taken new territory. As typical of the ironic hero, Frederic begins to think that perhaps "the whole thing" runs better without him anyway (Hemingway 16). From Frederic's perspective, not even the wounded in the hospital are "real wounded"; rather, true casualties could only result from the action when the war picks back up again (Hemingway 12).

Frederic's dissatisfaction with the world around him represents his call to adventure. As a foreigner in someone else's war, Frederic Henry is beginning to sense the calculated nature of war as well as his insignificance in this cataclysmic event. For regardless of the supposed honor of military service, Frederic is beginning to question the dignity of his post; he considers his position as an ambulance driver to be "not really the army," the Italian salute, a gesture "not made for export," begins to make him uncomfortable, and even the steel helmets soldiers are required to wear seem "too bloody theatrical" (Hemingway 18, 23, 28-9). And, even life at the front is beginning to grow dull: "The priest was good but dull. The officers were not good but dull. The King was good but dull." Only the wine, "bad," was "not dull" (Hemingway 38-9). Frederic is beginning to question his role, and his significance, within the context of the war, and within the context of his morality.

All around Frederic Henry, soldiers much more connected than he is to the war, such as Italian peasants, workers, and citizens, recognize the horror of the war for what it is: senseless fighting for abstract principles that results in the death of innocent soldiers often blindly fighting for these goals. This reality is exemplified in Frederic's encounter with a soldier suffering from a hernia at the front. The soldier, of course, wants out, but tells Frederic, the ambulance driver, that officers do not find his condition worthy of excusing him from duty. Henry advises the man with the hernia to "fall down by the road and get a bump on" his head so that he can legitimize taking the soldier to the hospital (Hemingway 35).

However, irony permeates this situation. Henry and his compadres encounter the man with the "rupture" once again, only this time his head is bleeding as two men lift him; "They had come back for him after all" (Hemingway 36). This anecdote illustrates the fundamentally ironic nature of war: violence, injury, motivation, unpredictable motives and priorities, the inherent irony in fighting for someone else's cause. Soldiers in war must struggle to choose to fight for arguably noble causes of an abstract nation, ideological principle, or political goal, look out for one another on the front, or simply prioritize their own survival.

Frederic must grapple with why he is risking his life in this war at all. Is there more to fighting in a war than simply existing in a particular place at a particular time? Frederic himself suggests that he merely stumbled into the war: he "was in Italy...and spoke Italian" (Hemingway 22). How moral is it to participate in collective violence without a passionate code of ethics that supports the cause? These are the types of concerns plaguing Hemingway's ironic hero as he is beckoned towards the threshold of adventure.


After analyzing the impotent nature of the major character of A Farwell to Arms, it becomes clear that the novel do indeed illustrate the futile struggle of a "lost generation." Perhaps the most central question that must be explored in the consideration of whether or not this work are examples of the paradigm of narrative irony hinges upon the endings of the works. Does Frederic transform over the course of his literal and symbolic journey? It is clear that he does not.

Frederic has learned that life is only meaningful if one lives it according to his or her own values, but he has also learned the lessons of the great irony: that "the world breaks everyone...It kills the good, and the very gentle, and the very brave impartially" and "The only thing that one can be sure of in this world is that one will be destroyed" (Hemingway 249; Phelan 54). Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms ends in utter irony. When Frederic finally says goodbye to his beloved Catherine, he remarks that it is like "saying good-by to a statue."

The novel ends as Frederic walks "back to the hotel in the rain" (Hemingway 332). Left in a post-World War I experience, Frederic is lost, "bereft, homeless, and a drift" (Donaldson 15); Frederic Henry has learned the ironic lessons of life, and attempted to establish and live by a moral code dictated by his own creation, only to be defeated by the ultimate truth of existence, that is, that stripped of the traditional props of God, country, and tradition, the modern hero must face the "harsh and irremediable realities of existence" (Gurko 65).

Hemingway's skillful use of narrative irony in this text represents the most appropriate use of the modernist writer's palette, for within the "anti-hero" of Frederic Henry readers find universal symbols for the plight of modern man. Because Hemingway stresses this fundamental futility of the human struggle within the confines of life and death, any interpretations that stress the romantic triumphs of this early Hemingway novel, that is, that this hero attain knowledge that can transform his world within his move from innocence to experience, is countered by the undeniable reality portrayed in this novel and that the book "end in overwhelming irony" (Smith 33).

The ironic mode dominates as Frederic, desperate to add meaning to his life through love and experience, emerge as mere humans "clutching at a straw" (Smith 34). As Philip Young so eloquently argues in Hemingway: A Reconsideration, the fundamental reality of both the ironic mode, as well as Hemingway's novel, is that "In the end, man is trapped" (93).

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University, 1968.

Donaldson, Scott. Introduction. New Essays on A Farewell to Arms. Ed. Scott Donaldson. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1990. 1-25.

Foulke, Robert and Paul Smith. An Anatomy of Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

Gurko, Leo. Ernest Hemingway and the Pursuit of Heroism. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribner, 1995

Phelan, James. "Distance, Voice, and Temporal Perspective in Frederic Henry's Narration: Successes, Problems, and Paradox." New Essays on A Farewell to Arms. Ed. Scott Donaldson. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1990. 53-74.

Smith, Paul. "The Trying-out of A Farewell to Arms." New Essays on A Farewell to Arms. Ed. Scott Donaldson. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1990. 27-54.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Ironic Narrative in "A Farewell To Arms" by Ernest Hemingway. (2017, Jan 13). Retrieved from

Ironic Narrative in "A Farewell To Arms" by Ernest Hemingway essay
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