People often find meaning in their lives by devoting themselves to a certain passion or conviction. In Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, individuals struggle to find meaning and order in an otherwise chaotic and war-torn world. For example, Frederic Henry, who has little sense of direction or purpose from his demoralization from war, seems to find solace in love, which serves as the conviction Frederic needs to obtain peace and stability. Although his attempts to find order fail and lead to great suffering for him, Frederic ends up maturing greatly, with a better understanding of life.
Hemingway uses Frederic’s conflict between his duty as a soldier and his love for Catherine to demonstrate that maturity and true solace come from following a conviction and gracefully accepting the hardships that may follow. Frederic begins the war as a naive and detached young man seeking for a purpose in life to guide him through life’s troubles. He lacks the conviction needed for him to direct his decisions and live a meaningful life; he thus tries to find structure by enrolling in the war.
However, since he is an American with little connection to Italy, Frederic does not have a viable reason to feel committed to the Italian army, evident when he says: “Well, I knew I would not be killed. Not in this war. It did not have anything to do with me” (37). Even the promise of honor and the duties of patriotism mean little to Henry. Frederic voices his opinion of the irrationality of the war rhetoric by saying: “I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it” (185).
As he talks with Frederic about the void in their lives of religion, Count Greffi states: “you are in love. Do not forget that is a religious feeling” (237). True to the Count’s remark, both Frederic and Catherine treat their love with a religious devotion. As a result, Frederic develops a sense of meaning and purpose by isolating himself with Catherine, away from the chaotic and corrupt world around them. He finally finds peace when he separates himself from his chaotic surroundings to follow his desire: “I was going to forget the war.
I had made a separate peace” (243). His newfound sense of purpose is strong enough that Frederic can bring himself to ignore the potential risks of abandoning his military obligation in favor of following his passion. Frederic suffers through great heartbreak by following his desires rather than his moral duty, but through these experiences, he obtains wisdom and an acceptance of life’s tragedies. After Catherine’s tragic death, he acknowledges that “I haven’t any life at all anymore” (300).
Fredric realizes too late that Catherine was mistakenly the only source of order and strength in his life and is truly devastated as a result. But, as he says when talking to the priest about peasants fighting in the Italian army: “They were beaten to start with. They were beaten when they took them from their farms and put them in the army. That is why the peasant has wisdom, because he is defeated from the start. Put him in power and see how wise he is” (179). Frederic himself believes that enduring hardships leads to a greater wisdom and understanding of the world.
As if predicting the tragic end of his relationship, Frederic says: “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places” (249). Frederic, through his own suffering, is forced to understand that peace and stability must come from within himself, not from external means such as people or institutions, for the world is cruel and unpredictable.
Because of the suffering that ensued from following his conviction, Frederic is able to obtain a wisdom that would be unattainable had he not done so. The love Frederic feels for Catherine outweighs the moral obligation he feels to the Italian army and gives him something to live for. Though he initially suffers from his growing pains, at the end of the story, he is noticeably more mature and accepting of his hardships. Ultimately, Frederic’s love and his military obligation, two of his many solaces to the chaos during the war, serve merely as stepping stones in his search for true meaning in life.