Frederic Henry, an American lieutenant in the Italian ambulance service, and Catherine Barkley, an English nurse, fall in love while he is in the hospital recuperating from war wounds. The terrible waste of war has made Henry wary and sparing of his feelings, but the tough and bright Catherine appeals to his thoroughly unsentimental side. What he admires is what she does, not what she says; as he puts it, he likes the way she moves.
Behind Henry’s attraction to Catherine is his disgust with words--or with the great abstractions that President Wilson used when he proclaimed that America was fighting to save the world for democracy. For her part, Catherine is drawn to Henry’s steadiness and lack of cant. He does not deal with her deceptively and would not use a word such as love lightly.
The plot follows the development of their love in conversations that are remarkable examples of understatement. The crisp, economical dialogue is a brilliant counterpoint to the profligate expenditure of life in the war scenes--although even in the war episodes the author describes battles and landscapes with extraordinary lucidity and a thrifty use of language.
Without using the “big words,” Hemingway is able to make his characters’ love affair symbolic of an attitude, a philosophy of life. It is a bitter vision of existence; the novel ends with Catherine dying in childbirth and their baby, a son, stillborn. His desperate prayers unanswered, Henry leaves the hospital and walks back to the hotel in the rain.
Beversluis, John. “Dispelling the Romantic Myth: A Study of A Farewell to Arms.” The Hemingway Review 9, no. 1 (Fall, 1989): 18-25. Rejecting the common romantic interpretation, Beversluis asserts that this novel explores the problem of self-knowledge. His reading of the character of Catherine is especially interesting. A special A Farewell to Arms issue of the journal.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Offers a representative selection of the best scholarship available on the novel. Includes Bloom’s introduction, chronology, bibliography, and index.
Donaldson, Scott, ed. New Essays on “A Farewell to Arms.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Appropriate for specialists and nonspecialists. The introduction discusses the novel’s composition, publication, and reception, as well as its major critical readings from publication to 1990.
Lewis, Robert W. “A Farewell to Arms”: The War of the Words. Boston: Twayne, 1992. Comprehensive resource. Concludes that the novel is about language—particularly the language by which truth and falsehood are revealed.
Waldhorn, Arthur. A Readers’ Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972. A concise, well-written vision of Hemingway and his works, appropriate for specialists and nonspecialists.