A Farewell to Arms

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Themes and Colors
War Theme Icon
Love and Loss Theme Icon
Reality vs. Fantasy Theme Icon
Self vs. Duty Theme Icon
Manhood Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Farewell to Arms, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Self vs. Duty Theme Icon

Henry is an ambulance driver and Catherine is a nurse, so each of them has a responsibility to others during wartime. However, as Henry's love for Catherine deepens and Henry begins to see that the war is unjust, he begins to adopt a philosophy of "every man for himself." When the Italian Army fractures during its retreat and the military police Henry because he is an officer, Henry makes a final break from the army and throws off his responsibilities. Following the priest's advice to find something he can commit to, for the second half of the novel Henry's chief and only concern is for Catherine. Even after escaping the war, neither of them wants the responsibility of having a child. By turning away from the world and trying to seek their own happiness, Henry and Catherine find more meaning in their relationship than in any other obligation.

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Self vs. Duty Quotes in A Farewell to Arms

Below you will find the important quotes in A Farewell to Arms related to the theme of Self vs. Duty.
Chapter 27 Quotes
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 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.
Related Characters: Lieutenant Frederic Henry (speaker)
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage takes place after Lieutenant Henry’s winter leave, when he arrives at Bainsizza to receive new orders and converses with Gino. Gino uses the expression “in vain” to describe the Italian army’s efforts during the recent summer: he says they have not been “in vain.” Here, Lieutenant Henry shows one way in which the war has affected how he thinks: words like “sacred,” “glorious,” “sacrifice,” or expressions such as Gino’s “in vain”--phrases often employed to justify the violence of war--mean nothing to him. He alludes to the fact that they are key words in wartime propaganda and communication: they are present on “proclamations,” or war bulletins that are excessively, almost nauseatingly, posted one over the other.

Henry thinks that nothing of his experience of the war can be described by such words; they have no ground in actual life. He has seen nothing sacred nor glorious, and the sacrifices required of him by his duty ultimately have no higher purpose--like a cow butchered simply to have its meat thrown away.

Shortly after this quote, he calls these empty words “abstract”--differing from more concrete words that represent real, tangible things. Henry thinks that only certain numbers, dates, and the names of places have “dignity.” Only these kinds of terms and words can convey a particular meaning, as they do not try to pass off a personal meaning as if it were universal and objective.

The war has complicated Henry’s thought, right down to the very level of how he perceives language: the war has punctured the illusory meaning, the fantasy, of abstract terms. When abstract words are uttered with total confidence, Henry is embarrassed, because such confidence lacks substance and has no ground in any concrete meaning. The war, Henry believes, has shown that these words—these abstract staples of thought which stitch many soldiers’ sense about the war’s purpose together—are hollow and obsolete. 

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Chapter 29 Quotes
"I killed him. I never killed anybody in this war, and all my life I've wanted to kill a sergeant."
Related Characters: Bonello (speaker), The Sergeants
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene occurs after the Italian army has commenced their retreat. Lieutenant Henry and his fellow ambulance drivers--Aymo, Piani, and Bonello--decide to leave the main thoroughfare of the retreat, which is heavily congested and slow-going, in order to arrive at Udine more quickly, where they are to deliver medical equipment. They are accompanied by two sergeant engineers. Not too long after they are off the main road, the ambulances get stuck in mud. Henry asks the sergeants to help with loosening the wheels from the mud, but they refuse, insisting that they need to start walking soon or else it will be too late. They refuse to halt when Henry orders them, and so he shoots at them, hitting one, while the other escapes unscathed. Bonello "finishes" the wounded sergeant off by shooting him in the head.

Though the scene is quite bleak, Bonello's claim to having always wanted to murder a sergeant resonates with a bit of dark humor. Perhaps what's most striking is Henry and Bonello's sense of authority in shooting the sergeants. The sergeants' shirking of their duty--their attempt to start walking away--merits their immediate execution, in Henry and Bonello's eyes. But Bonello takes it to another level: he savagely mutilates the quite possibly already-dead sergeant, showing not only his high sense of duty and conviction but also his thirst for blood which, heretofore, has gone unsatisfied.

Chapter 30 Quotes
The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it.
Related Characters: Lieutenant Frederic Henry (speaker)
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

Lieutenant Henry and Piani have regrouped with the Italian forces; Aymo has been shot and killed by the Italians, and Bonello has decided to surrender. Henry is spotted by a group of "battle police" as he and Bonello reach the end of a bridge over the Tagliamento River. They suspect him to be a German in disguise, and pull him aside to be questioned. The battle police question and kill several officers as Henry awaits questioning.

Henry can sense that these battle police don't possess the backbone or character which men with combat experience do. They mete out a "stern justice" with a sense of absolute conviction and self-righteousness, detached from the gravity of their actions. They unflinchingly send, one by one, innocent officers to be shot--for 'crimes' such as deserting their regiments--without empathizing with or really inquiring about how these officers got into their particular situations.  The battle police are quick to assume that everyone pulled aside is a German; it's as if their position of power and removal from the precariousness of war have totally gone to their heads. 

Chapter 32 Quotes
Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.
Related Characters: Lieutenant Frederic Henry (speaker)
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

Lieutenant Henry has left the river into which he fled to escape the Italian battle police--the group of officers who suspected him of being a German in disguise. Henry has hopped a train heading towards Mestre.

Henry's flight down the river was not only a flight from the police, but a departure from the war as a whole. The river severs his psychological ties with the war and erodes his obligations to it. The river is a conduit back to his own life, his old life unshackled by the demands of the front. There's really no use in feeling anger at this point--what's done is done, and he must become an anonymous fugitive to his past.

I had the paper but I did not read it because I did not want to read about the war. I was going to forget the war. I had made a separate peace.
Related Characters: Lieutenant Frederic Henry (speaker)
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

Lieutenant Henry gets off the train he's hopped when it reaches Milan, and goes to visit his friend Simmons, who gives him civilian clothes to wear. He then buys a train ticket for Stresa. This quote refers to Henry's time on the train.

This passage further evolves the sense of eroded obligation that Henry mentions when he's laying on the bed of the train he's hopped towards Mestre. It's as if Henry wants to forget his duty in order to regain his sense of self--as if duty and selfhood are radically opposed. That Henry wants to make a "separate peace" indicates his desire to build a psychological space for himself that is independent of the realities of war--a space that he has been prevented from having for quite a while. To return to a mental state where all of his thoughts, desires, and concerns no longer revolve around the status of the war--this is an incredible transformation, a regaining of Henry's sense of private ambition and independence. This is Henry's new mission.

The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
Related Characters: Lieutenant Frederic Henry (speaker)
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Lieutenant Henry reveals a core belief he holds about the world: it is violently opposed to human desire. The human mind, the way it wishes for and wills to do things, the way it organizes its experience, is fundamentally in discord with external reality. The world “breaks,” thwarts and mocks human desire; it fractures the fantasies which try to hide from the facts of war and the inevitability of death.

Though Catherine and Henry are building a new life together, they will never be able to outrun these forces of the world which perpetually threaten to defeat enjoyment and life itself.

For Henry, everyone is affected by this discordance with the external world, even the good, the gentle, and the brave—even those who mean well and want to be a positive force in the world. And those who are none of these things—those who see nothing redeeming in the world, in life, those who do not try to cultivate goodness or gentleness in the world, or who cower from it—these people are equally at odds with the world. The world “breaks” good people, but it seems that, for Henry, “bad” people avoid or run from this fact of breakage. They will be killed, in the end, but they will not suffer the particular frustration that good people face in interacting with the world. 

Chapter 40 Quotes
We knew the baby was very close now and it gave us both a feeling as though something were hurrying us and we could not lose any time together.
Related Characters: Lieutenant Frederic Henry (speaker), Catherine Barkley
Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis:

Having escaped to Switzerland, Catherine Barkley and Lieutenant Henry are staying at a hotel in Lausanne.

At the same time that this quote conveys a sense of emerging life and hopeful ambition, it also foreshadows the fatal ending of the novel, which invokes radically opposite qualities. Indeed, Catherine and Henry cannot afford to lose any time together; but this will take on a different meaning in the end. The baby, hurrying the couple to appreciate their last days alone together, is also hurrying them towards their fatal split from one another. This tragic irony gives this quote an ominous sense of double-meaning.