The title of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms obviously refers to its American narrator’s departure from serving the Italian military. A more subtle interpretation of the title could be gleaned from Part V of the novel, the second and much more heartfelt farewell, after Mr. Henry’s disillusionment with war. These last chapters reveal Mr. Henry’s helplessness, indeed the helplessness of all fathers, during his wife’s childbirth procedure.
Before the scenes that render Henry helpless during childbirth of Catherine, his common law wife, he experiences the carnage of war. In the midst of bloodshed, though, the narrator never feels helpless. When his comrade Passini is maimed in the same ambush in which he himself suffers an injured knee, Henry perseveres. “It was Passini. His legs were toward me and I saw that they were both smashed above the knee,” Henry writes. “I tried to get closer to Passini to put a tourniquet on his legs. I could pull backward along with my arms and elbows. I sat beside him, undid my tunic and tried to rip the tail of my shirt “(Scribners, p.55). Though he has limited mobility and a shattered knee, Henry feels he has the power to save his friend and comrade.
After a stint in the hospital recovering his knee surgery, Henry is sent back to the battle front. His troop is stopped for questioning by the carabinieri, who are preparing to shoot Henry after having killed two of his comrades. “Two carabinieri took the lieutenant-colonel to the river bank,” Henry narrates. “I did not watch them shoot him but I heard the shots. They were questioning someone else. He cried, and they were questioning another when they shot him” (p.214). After witnessing these murders and facing a similar fate himself, Henry still feels empowered enough to flee the scene. He runs and jumps into the river, after which he gets ashore and says farewell to combat by cutting the cloth stars off his sleeves.
Only when he accompanies Catherine to the maternity hospital does he feel completely powerless. Immediately, the doctor says, “You will go out, Mr. Henry, and I will make an examination” (p.303). Henry describes the aimlessness of expected fathers at that time, who were denied access to the childbirth procedure. “I sat in a chair there and looked at the (waiting) room. I had the paper in my coat and I read it. After a while I stopped reading and watched it get dark outside. I wondered why the doctor did not send for me. I looked at my watch. Maybe it was better I was away” (p.303). Not only is he excluded from the examination, but also from his wife’s delivery. “You can go in the other door and sit up there,” a nurse said. “I went into a room at the far end of the hall and looked at the labels on bottles in a glass case. Then I came out and stood in the empty hall and watched the door of the operating room” (p.307).
Henry the father is not allowed to even share in the bereavement after learning of the death of his newborn son and, later, his wife. “I sat down on the chair in front of a table where there were nurses’ reports hung on clips at the side and looked out of the window,” the father says. “I could see nothing but the dark and the rain falling across the light from the window. So that was it. The baby was dead” (p.310). He feels the same helplessness when Catherine is dying just hours later. “Please go out of the room,” the doctor said. “I waited outside in the hall a long time. The nurse came to the door and came over to me. It seemed she had one hemorrhage after another. She was unconscious all the time, and it did not take her very long to die” (p.314). Feeling entirely helpless, without any arms with which to fight back against those who have restricted him, Henry leaves the hospital and walks back to his hotel in the rain.
Of the two farewells in Hemingway’s novel, the final one leaves the reader more crestfallen. When the narrator, Mr. Henry, walks away from his military obligations, the reader applauds his decision to choose the mother of his baby over involvement in war. The final farewell is to any arms or weapons that he could use for a sense of power against the forces of nature, which left him helpless during the childbirth claiming both his son and his wife.