“A Farewell to Arms” is a novel written by acclaimed American writer Ernest Hemingway and set in Italy during World War I. The novel was originally published in Scribner’s Magazine from the period of May 1929 to October 1929 and was almost immediately published with a print run of 31,000 copies
The book was an immediate success and became one of Hemingway’s most well-known novels as well as making him financially independent.
The novel revolves around Lieutenant Fredric Henry, a young American ambulance driver serving in the Italian army during the first World War. Henry meets a English nurse called Catherine Barkley and decides to seduce her. On the battlefront, Henry gets wounded by shrapnel to the knee and is brought to a hospital in Milan to recover. Unable to accept the time it will take him to recover, he enlists the help of an audacious surgeon named Dr. Valentini who agrees to operate right away. Catherine is transferred to Milan and the two begin to fall in love while she cares for him.
Soon, Henry is fully healed and sent back out to the Italian front with his ambulance. But he arrives during a bombardment when Allied forces are retreating. During the fray of battle, Henry manages to escape by jumping into a river and swimming downriver until he can board a train to Milan.
Henry reunites with a pregnant Catherine and from there the two escape to Switzerland. Henry assumes his obligations to the war are over but soon tragedy rocks the happy couple to their core.
The book is told from a first person perspective, narrated by a man called Lieutenant Fredric Henry. Henry begins by describing the small Italian village in which he lives. It is the late summer and troops from World War I often “went by the house and down the road” and that “the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees”. He tells us that if a car goes by especially fast it was probably carrying the king as he makes trips out to assess the battlefront almost everyday.
A friend of Henry’s, a lieutenant and surgeon named Rinaldi, tells him of a beautiful girl named Catherine Barkley that he has fallen in love with. Henry agrees to loan Rinaldi some money so that Catherine will think he is a wealthy man and his friend convinces him to come with him to meet the woman. When he meets her, Henry is struck by Catherine’s beauty and especially her long blonde hair. They talk as Rinaldi is busy speaking to another nurse and Catherine confides in Henry that she recently lost a fiance’ on the battle front. She asks him if he has ever loved and he says no. On their way home, Rinaldi jokes that Catherine seemed to prefer Henry to him.
The next day, Henry goes to see Catherine again. He finds her in the garden and chats with her, both of them agreeing to not talk about the war. Eventually, Henry attempts to kiss her and Catherine resists and slaps him. Henry points out that this aside has gotten them to stop thinking about the war. After this, Catherine lets Henry kiss her and begins to cry, saying: “We’re going to have a strange life”.
Henry and Catherine begin to see each other regularly although Henry knows that he is not in love with her. He feels that he is involved in a complicated game of seduction. Hearing that he is going to be sent off to face a raid in the town of Pavla, Henry tells Catherine that he is off for ‘a show’ and that she needn’t worry. Catherine gives him a medal depicting St. Anthony to protect him. Pavla undergoes bombing while Henry is there and at one point he experiences a bright flash and heat like a furnace. A trench mortar had exploded in the hall where he was eating dinner. Henry is wounded and thinks himself near death.
While Henry is recuperating in the hospital, Rinaldi visits and tells him that he will be given a medal for his heroism in battle. Insisting that he didn’t do anything heroic, Henry protests but Rinaldi won’t take no for an answer. Rinaldi also tells Henry that America has officially declared war on Germany and President Wilson is soon to follow with a declaration of war on Austria. Soon, Henry is transferred to a hospital in Milan to recover. He is excited by the prospect of seeing Catherine who was recently send to the same hospital to work. When he gets to the hospital Henry meets the ward superintendent Miss Van Campen and the two take an immediate dislike to each other. After she denies him wine with his meals, Henry goes around her and asks for a porter to bring him several bottles of wine and the evening paper.
The next day, Catherine attends Henry for the first time. When she enters the room he realizes that he is in love with her and pulls her into bed with him. The two make love for the first time. Later, Henry’s doctors inform him that he will need to wait six months before the shrapnel in his knee can be safely removed. Henry is upset that it will take so long and seeks another opinion in the form of a brash, cheerful surgeon named Dr. Valentini. The doctor had a drink with Henry and agreed to perform the operation in the morning. After the operation Henry becomes very sick and must communicate with Catherine only through notes passed by another nurse. Groggily, he asks the other nurse, Helen if she will come to his and Catherine’s wedding and she responds sarcastically that she doesn’t believe there will be wedding.
Over the summer, Henry begins to recover enough to learn to start using crutches. He and Catherine spend all of their nights together and begin to discuss marriage. Catherine admits that she is unwilling to get married as she is sure that if she did she would be sent back home. But she does pledge to be faithful to Henry.
By September, Henry’s leg is nearly healed. He receives three weeks of convalescent leave after which he will have to return to the battlefront.
He discovers from a British major also staying in the hospital that the Allied forces have been greatly wounded. The major suggest to Henry that the allies will surely be beaten in another year, but that as long as no one notices all will be fine. Catherine informs Henry that she is pregnant and worries that he feels that she has trapped him. He comforts her by telling her that he loves her and is excited about having a child with her. He tells her that they have to be brave and that “the coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave but one”.
The next morning, Henry feels ill and is diagnosed with jaundice. Miss Van Campen blames his alcoholism for the condition and accuses him of making himself sick on purpose to avoid being sent back to the battle front. She files a report to deny him his convalescent leave. Henry tells Catherine that he is to return to the war sooner than previously thought and she is understandably upset. Before leaving, they walk around the city together, going out to eat and finally finding a nice hotel to spend the night together. Catherine admits that even though it is a nice hotel and she buys an expensive nightgown to wear for the encounter she still feels like a prostitute. Henry asks her how she will manage with the baby and she tells him that she will be fine and that she will have a nice home set up for him when he returns.
Henry is sent back to the town he was injured in, a place called Gorizia. He quickly finds that the summer was a bad one for the war and he was lucky to get injured when he did to avoid death. Henry is reunited with Rinaldi who asks him about Catherine and whether or not they have gotten married yet. He also asks if Catherine is good in bed which offends Henry as he considers such talk disrespectful. Apologizing, Rinaldi suggest they drink a toast to Catherine and go out to have dinner.
The next day Henry travels to a particularly hard hit region of the country called Bainsizza. He meets with a man called Gino who tells him a tale about the terrifying guns that the Austrian’s have. Gino tells Henry that there will be nowhere to go should the Austrian army decide to attack.
That night there is another bombardment. In the morning, Henry’s troop learns that the Germans were the ones that orchestrated the attack and become afraid of what this means for them. This is the first bombing they have had from the Germans. Soon, they are told to retreat. As they leave, Henry discovers that Rinaldi has taken off for the hospital and that the rest of the hospital workers in Bainsizza have already retreated. Henry and three other drivers, Bonello, Piani and Aymo rest and eat before joining the retreat themselves.
The men join a long column of retreating vehicles and make slow progress out of the town. At one point, the traffic stops moving altogether. Henry leaves his vehicle to check on those of his friends. He discovers two engineering officers with Bonello in his car and two young women with Aymo in his car. After convincing the young women that Aymo will indeed get them out of the city and to safety, Henry returns to Piani’s car and falls asleep. He dreams of Catherine and imagines that he is speaking to her.
Early the next morning, after spending all night locked in the retreating column of cars, Henry and his men decide to veer off from the column and take a small road going north, thinking that it will help them get out of the city quicker. Unfortunately, Aymo’s car get’s stuck in the mud and the men are forced to cut brush from the side of the road and place it under the tires in hopes of gaining traction. Henry orders the two engineering students to help but they refuse out of fear of being overtaken by the enemy. When they try to leave, Henry draws his gun and shoots one of them. The other, even more frightened, manages to escape. The men then try to use branches, twigs and clothing to get the car out of the mud and moving again but to no avail. The car remains stuck. Now two people down, they are able to all fit into the remaining two cars and resume their journey. However, they soon become stuck again. Henry gives some money to the two young women and sends them off to a nearby village. He and his men decide to continue on foot.
Soon the men happen upon a German bicycle troop. The troop is heavily armed and the men decide to start onto another road to avoid them. As they start to head down an embankment they are shot at. A bullet hits Aymo and kills him. Henry and his men soon realize that it was the Italian rear guard themselves who accidentally shot and killed Aymo as they have been made jumpy by the presence of German troops in the area. Henry and his men realize that they are in more danger from their own troops than they would be in facing the enemy. They decide to hide until dark in an abandoned farmhouse. Henry camps out in the hayloft while Piani and Bonello go out to search for food. Soon, Piani returns alone reports that Bonello left the farm in the hopes of being captured and taken prisoner so that he could escape certain death.
Piani and Henry spend the day in the barn and set out at nightfall to rejoin their troop. They eventually come across a gathering of soldiers where officers are being separated and questioned about the so called ‘treachery’ that led to the Italian defeat. Henry finds this insulting and insists that the men cannot interrogate officers this way. Considering him belligerent, two soldiers grab him and restrain him. He watches as a lieutenant colonel is led away and shot to death for abandoning his troops. As the men of the battle regiment are focused on the loss of life, Henry uses the opportunity to slip out of their grasp and dive into a river behind them. He begins to swim downstream, hearing shots being fired over his head. Henry lets himself be carried downstream for what seems to him to be a very long time. Eventually, he climbs out, removes the stars that identify him as an officer from his shirt and jumps aboard a military train that evening. In order to avoid being seen and possibly recognized on the train, Henry hides under a canvas tarp in a car stocked with guns.
On the long train ride, Henry thinks about reuniting with Catherine and how without men or an army to return to, he considers the war effectively over for him and his time as a soldier served. He thinks about how it’s “Not my show anymore”. Henry gets off the train in Milan and goes to Catherine’s hospital only to find that she has been reassigned to Stresa. He goes to visit an old friend, Ralph Simmons and asks about the procedures for traveling to Switzerland. Simmons offers what help he can, including some civilian clothes for Henry to wear.
Henry soon goes to Stresa and, after asking around, find Catherine at her hotel with Helen Ferguson. Catherine is overjoyed to see him but Helen is angry and berates Henry for making such a mess of her friends life. Both Catherine and Henry ignore Helen’s moralizing and she begins to cry.
The two lovers spend the night together and the next morning Henry tells Catherine that he will tell her about why he left his post if he ever gets it straight in his head. Catherine is cheerful about seeing him and assures him that he is not a criminal for leaving the war. They both agree that they wish to leave for Switzerland.
The next day they have lunch with Helen and she forgives them and gets ‘quite cheerful’. Henry decides that she was only jealous of their love for each other. That night, Henry discovers that the military police have found him and intend to arrest him in the morning. He and Catherine decide to leave for Switzerland that night in a rowboat. The waters are rough because of a storm, and Henry rows all night until has hands are raw but the couple does make it to Switzerland by morning. They are immediately arrested by Swiss guards and taken to Locarno where they receive provisional visas to remain in the country. Exhausted, they couple go to a hotel and fall asleep right away.
The end of the book takes place over the course of a few months and starts in the fall when Henry and Catherine have moved into a house outside the village of Montreux. They are very happy together and Catherine grows more and more pregnant. They discuss marriage again and Catherine agrees to marry someday but prefers to leave it far in the future and discuss other things instead. Catherine worries about her pregnancy since the doctors have told her that she has a narrow pelvis and her delivery might be difficult.
Soon, Catherine goes into labor and is taken to the hospital nearby. Catherine, feeling she has a long time before the baby comes, encourages Henry to go out somewhere for breakfast. He agrees and when he returns, finds that Catherine has already been taken to the delivery room. Henry visits her in the delivery room and finds her in terrible pain. The doctors tell them that her best option is a Caesarean operation. Catherine agrees to it and the doctors wheel her out to perform it while Henry waits outside. Soon the doctor returns with a baby boy. Henry notes that he doesn’t seem to have any feeling for the child and goes to see Catherine without stopping to look at the boy.
When she asks about their son, Henry tells her that he is fine. The nurse attending Catherine interrupts them to speak to Henry in the hall. She explains to him that their son had been strangled by the umbilical cord in the womb and was stillborn. Henry goes out for dinner and when he returns the nurse tells him that Catherine is hemorrhaging. Scared that she will die, he asks to see her. She speaks to him for a moment, asking him not to tell the things he once said to her to any other girls. Henry agrees and soon Catherine dies. Once she is dead he finds that he cannot say goodbye and walks out of the hospital and into the rain.
Lieutenant Fredric Henry – the main character of the novel and the narrator through which we hear the story. A young American ambulance driver enlisted in the Italian army during World War I, Henry is a quiet man who believes that his work as an officer is his duty and should not be met with medals or praise. Time and again through his conversations with different characters in the war, Henry distances himself from concepts like patriotism, honor and faith and reenforces that he only cares about cold, hard facts like the names of the cities in which he has fought and the number of days till the next attack.
Henry lacks any real passion in his life until he meets Catherine Barkley and begins to fall in love with her before he even realizes it.
Though he does not see it initially, in Catherine he meets not only a lover for a night but a person with whom he can finally share his vulnerabilities and fears. Though Henry has many friends, it’s made clear throughout the novel that Catherine is the only person he truly loves. This is confirmed at the end when he realizes that he does not feel any affection for their child.
Because the novel is narrated as a memoir after the death of Catherine, Henry is able to reveal small things about her that he remembers only now and thus her scenes in the novel read like a very tender and delicate eulogy.
Catherine Barkley – she perhaps is not the strongest female character in the history of literature. She begins the novel as a nurse and eventually falls into a relationship with a man that she doesn’t terribly like at first only to give up her job to have a child with him in a foreign country. Catherine is sweet and uncomplicated in a slightly unbelievable way. She seemingly exists in the novel only to wait for Henry to return from the battle front and interact with her.
Still, Catherine is presented at times as being intelligent and savvy. She does realize in the beginning of her relationship with Henry that he is merely trying to seduce her and draws the line between them several times, telling him when she has had enough of him and wishes him to go home for the night.
She resists the idea of marriage up until the bitter end and although we are not privy to her thoughts as we are Henry’s it is not out of the question to assume that this resistance has something to do with the late fiance’ that she was mourning at the beginning of the book.
Catherine’s death in the end is a symbol of the last of Henry’s reason for living dying and the punishment for his crime of deserting the battlefield.
Rinaldi – a surgeon in the Italian army and the good friend of Henry. Rinaldi is a ladies man who initially goes after Catherine but is not too prideful to step aside when he sees the connection between she and Henry. Rinaldi is a cheerful, joker who likes to attempt to pull Henry out from his doldrums whenever possible. In the end of the book it is revealed that he fled Bainsizza early before the German’s could take the city but Henry does not hold this against him.
Helen Ferguson – a nurse who works at the American hospital with Catherine. She is a good friend to Catherine and clearly worries about the other woman’s safety and reputation. At first, she is friendly toward Henry but changes her tune after Catherine becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Henry and Catherine decide that Helen is jealous of their love and anxious about her own lack of marriage prospects and seem to dismiss her after that.
Miss Van Campen – the super intendant nurse of the American hospital where Catherine works. Miss Van Campen is immediately disliked by Henry, who sees her as strict and cold. Though this is possibly just because she is one of the few women in the book who seems to see through his charms and realize that he is an alcoholic. Miss Van Campen remains on bad terms with Henry throughout his entire stay in the hospital and eventually denies his convalescence leave after she believes him to be faking his illness.