The scene of the burning log and ants begins as the log is placed on the fire and the ants "swarm…out and went first toward the centre [sic] where the fire was" (327). This paradoxical action of going toward the fire is symbolic of the way that Frederick and Catherine are drawn to the war. When asked by the head nurse for his motivation for joining the Italian army, Frederick's only reason is that he "was in Italy…[and] spoke Italian" (22). Likewise, Catherine followed her fiancé to the war with the hope that "he might come to the hospital where I was. With a sabre [sic] cut, I suppose, and a bandage around his head. Or shot through the shoulder. Something picturesque" (20). Catherine, Frederick, and the ants share a commonality in similarly questionable motivations for going toward the war, fire, and death.
After the ants go toward the fire, they then "turn… back and ran toward the end" (327). These small ants trapped by the fire and death are similar to the characters of the novel that are caught in their own struggle. Frederick and the Italians' "gigantic…retreat" (218), as well as Catherine's withdrawal to seek a safe place to have her child, are akin to the ants' mass retreat as they are all minor players in a greater battle between life and death.
As soon as there are "enough ants on the end[,] they fell off into the fire" (327). For the first time, surrounded by death, an aura of inevitability enters the story of the ants. It is not a matter of whether the fire will kill the ants; rather, it is a question of when this will happen. This inevitable meeting with death by fire that the ants face is representative of the three types of death in the novel. First, Frederick notes that "some [ants] got out" (327). Implicit in this statement is that other ants did not escape the fire and thus perished. This group is representative of the death of Aymo who dies during the retreat and Catherine who dies during childbirth after leaving the front lines. Like the ants who run from the center only to fall off the log into the fire, these two characters avoid death at the front, but inevitably soon succumb to another type of death. The next group of ants that Frederick recounts are those ants who have fallen into the fire and "got out, their bodies burnt and flattened, and went off not knowing where they were going" (327). This group is symbolic of Frederick himself at the end of the novel after Catherine dies. Frederick's heart has been broken by the death of the first person whom he truly loved. He has been forever changed as evident in his response to Catherine's question that he "won't do our things with another girl, or say the same things" (331). Despite Hemingway's typical laconic diction, which lacks emotional words, Frederick's response to the question with the single word "never" (331) is delivered with an honest and intense tone. This word is said with the same intense gravity that accompanies "nothing" (331) and "no" (331), two often repeated words after Catherine's death at the end of the novel. As seen in his phraseology, like the second group of ants who are "burnt and flattened" (327) by the fire, Frederick's encounter with death has injured him and left him altered forever. Also, like this group of ants who escape the fire and have lost their direction, so too has Frederick lost his direction at the end of the novel. Not only has the one person he ever loved just died, but he is also a deserter from the Italian army and is liable to be arrested if he goes back. His former life has been left in shambles. The third group of ants are those who have survived the fire thus far, but eventually "swarmed on the cool end and finally fell off into the fire" (328). This last group that dies after a prolonged time is symbolic of those characters in the novel, like Rinaldi, who death kills with "no special hurry" (249). Rinaldi has contracted syphilis and death will kill him in a long, dragged-out process. These three types of endings to life that Hemingway portrays serve to emphasize the omnipresence and omnipotent power of death from which there is no escape.
As the ants are falling into the fire, Frederick's first person narration of the scene turns toward his thoughts. He "remember[s] thinking at the time that it was the end of the world and a splendid chance to be a messiah and lift the log off the fire and throw it out where the ants could get off onto the ground" (328). This religious imagery of the apocalypse and a messiah takes on symbolic significance. Frederick is in the position of a God-like figure who in the context of the passage has control over the lives of the ants. However, in a metaphorical sense, Hemingway questions if there is a God that has control over Frederick, Catherine, Rinaldi, and all those in the novel who are surrounded by death. In the story of the ants, Frederick decides "not [to] do anything but throw a tin cup of water on the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whiskey in" (328). The cup of water thrown on the fire, which is similar to rain, a frequent symbol of death in the novel, "only steamed the ants" (328). The word "steamed" takes on a double meaning in the passage. Although the steam physically hurts the ants, the ants are personified and portrayed as angry or "steamed" by the lack of help they receive from their God. In relation to the larger world, this scene is connected to the lack of a succor- providing God in the novel as seen in Frederick's desperate, futile "pray[er] for Catherine" (314) when she is in labor and later as she is dying. Frederick's decision not to save the ants parallels the novel's events and ideas of a finite existence despite faith.
Hemingway uses the symbolic passage of the ants' death to emphasize his theme of the inevitability of endings. This idea of endings is reinforced by the repetition of the word "end" 5 times throughout the scene. Not only is the word used in reference to the end of the log, but the word is connected to the idea of death through its use in the apocalyptic phrase "the end of the world" (328). This repetition of diction and the multitude of ways that characters are affected by death reinforces Hemingway's suggestion through Frederick that "they killed you in the end. You could count on that. Stay around and they would kill you" (327). Hemingway implies that the lives of living things will eventually and inevitably come to a close and also that death is always present in nature, with no escape. In a closely related thematic idea, the end of the passage of the ants reflects Hemingway's atheistic beliefs. In the passage, Hemingway gives Frederick God-like powers over the ants but has him choose not to rescue them from the fire. Frederick instead steams the ants by emptying his cup of water onto the fire in order to drink whiskey. Hemingway mockingly portrays God as an alcoholic who does not care about the lives of the ants any more than he cares about the lives of humans. This depiction by Hemingway purveys his dubious feelings about the existence of a God and furthers his suggestion that with death all around humanity, life is impermanent and nothing, not even a God, can change this basic truth.