“A Farewell to Arms”: A Critical Look at the Role of the Geographical Setting in the Novel

Hemingway and His Novel

Hemingway captures the mood of World War I in A Farewell to Arms

Many critics focus on the fact that Hemingway doesn’t offer much exposition in his writing. Instead, he tends to drive the story forward by using dialogue and breaks it by short paragraphs of exposition. The novel “A Farewell to Arms” has been oft critiqued for Hemingway’s lack of depth to his characters and a lack of subplot to his work. However, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the novel. Yes, it is a fairly simple love story between Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley, but there are a few other things at play in the story, including:

  • The tension between the love relationship and love story aspects of the novel and the violent background in which the story occurs.
  • The progressive characterization of Catherine. Yes, her character seems somewhat flat at times, but this novel was published in 1929 — before the women’s movement and the “free love” movement. Her character must have been quite controversial. In fact, the novel was banned in some areas. By refusing to marry the main character, because of her dedication to her role in the war as a nurse, she demonstrates strength in character and independence in feminine spirit.
  • The lack of description of setting and events in various settings was largely based upon an assumption that those reading the novel would remain largely familiar with the events of the war.

The interesting thing about Hemingway is that he’s subtle about everything. Yes, he uses a lot of dialogue, and sometimes his dialogue and characters seem stagnant. He rarely uses dialogue tags, so there are long passages where the characters go back and forth talking to one another, yet the reader knows who is speaking. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on description. Perhaps this is because writers preceding his era were prone to writing lengthy descriptions. Maybe it’s because it was easier for the author to recall conversations than it was to recall war events when he was writing. Mostly, it’s because of the relationship. Relationships don’t happen in long descriptions, they unfold in dialogues. I want to argue, instead, that perhaps it’s because he only wanted to describe the setting if it played an intimate role in the story and alluded to other things the reader needed to be aware of.

Opening the Novel

Even though Hemingway does unfold his novel without a lot of description, he does open the novel with description. Hemingway writes:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves. (2)

There are three things to note about this passage. First, note the simplicity of words. By avoiding lengthy descriptions and unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, Hemingway is able to put, very saliently, in our minds the image he wants us to see.

Second, note the contrast between the description in the first two sentences and the second two sentences. In the first two sentences, Hemingway describes a serene scene. One where it's filled with beauty and life. In the second two sentences, however, the troops, marching because of the war do more than just disturb the dirt road. They also brought about the death of nature in the area because the "…trunks of the trees were too dusty and the leaves fell early that year…" His description isn't just describing the scene, but it's setting the stage for the novel.

That brings me to the third point. Astute readers will note that this opening paragraph is actually an allegory for Hemingway's novel. The novel appears like it will be a love story, but then turns into something more tragic. The love between Frederic and Catherine becomes like the leaves — destroyed by the presence of the war in the background. Rather than describe the war in detail, he treats it the same way he does the troops in the opening paragraph — it's anonymous, made up of different bodies and places strung together, yet powerful enough to lay beauty crossing its path to death.

Geography of the Novel

The novel is set in Europe during World War I — most specifically in the countries of Italy and Switzerland. The interesting thing about Hemingway's writing is that every element in his story is there for a reason — even the weather. Hemingway doesn't waste any detail. But there's more to it than that.

Hemingway's depictions of the war, the geography, and yes, even the weather is extremely accurate. This seems to be important. Recall that the novel is also autobiographical. While he fictionalized the characters, it would appear that he has left the background realistic. This again makes a contrast — between the fantasy life of the characters and the harsh reality of the war in the background. It provides a very nice effect — we are grounded in reality while we follow the lives of the characters, and in the end, when Frederic loses everything, we too feel that emotion of loss and futility. What was it all for? Why do we fight such brutal wars? What is the real cost? Hemingway survived the war — he was an ambulance driver — but many did not. Sure, a nation may have one, but the individuals did not.

By paying attention to the geography in the novel, we can pick up subtleties including foreshadowing of the plot, symbolism for emotions and tie-ins to the theme. I think that's one of my favorite parts of Hemingway's work — it's so understated that if you're not paying attention, you miss the nuances and the brilliance of what he was doing when he was writing.


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