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[As space is limited here and there have been two identical questions, the character description with some analysis will be addressed here; and, since there are more than one summary here on Enotes they should well serve the purpose of a "detailed summary. "See links below.]
One of Ernest Hemingway's most controversial novels because of its unapologetic depiction of the realities of war, salted with appropriately earthy language, A Farewell to Arms is not only a graphic depiction of inglorious battle, but is also a tragic love story. The two main characters, of course, are Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley, and their love story directs the novel, narrated by Henry himself in retrospective.
- Frederic Henry
Henry is an idealistic young man who has forestalled his studies to become an architect in order to be an ambulance driver, as Hemingway himself did, in the Italian army. Therefore, he seems idealistic at first; certainly, when he risks his life to save others, this seems true. But, Henry's attitudes change as he begins to understand the senselessness of war.
In the beginning, Henry is respectful to all; when, for instance, the other men tease the priest about women and his pacifism, Henry is kind to him. After having met Catherine Barkley with his roommate Dr. Rinaldi, who tries to impress her with much lire, Henry returns in Chapter VI and converses with her. They establish a charade of loving one another--"a rotten game"--perhaps as an escape from the horrors of war since Catherine's fiance has been killed. Nevertheless, as Henry departs, he feels "lonely and hollow."
Having declared to his audience,
I knew I would not be killed. Not in this war. It did not have anything to do with me.
Henry demonstrates his indifference as, despite his being the man's superior, he assists a soldier who has tossed away his truss for a hernia in the hope of evading further service. In contrast to his stoicism about war as he risks his life to retrieve cheese for his pasta and speaks dispassionately about things; in fact, he is even unemotional about his being wounded seriously, discouraging Rinaldi from his talk of war medals. But, when Catherine visits him, Henry declares passionately,
When I saw her I was in love with her. Everything turned over inside of me.
However, this is but physical passion, at first although eventually it becomes a reality as they grow to truly love each other. Still, they create fantasies and illusions in order to deal with the harshness of life and the war. Later, in Chapter XVI, the line between illusion and reality begins to blur as Frederic and Catherine's love becomes more genuine. At this point, too, Henry reveals a vulnerability previously not apparent in the stoic and masculine character.
...when I begin to talk I say the things I have found out in my mind without thinking
is Henry's statement of how he, too, learns of his own feelings. And, yet he and Catherine fantasize in their lovemaking in their efforts to escape the brutality of war and bid a "farewell to arms." For, the virile Henry escapes under the canopy of Catherine's hair and he shares fantasies with her about skiing in Switzerland after they attempt their escape. With Catherine, Henry reveals a depth of character and a gentleness not seen earlier,
That my lover Catherine. That my sweet love Catherine down might rain. Blow her again to me....
At the same time, Henry's disillusionment with the war begins as he returns to battle. In the tragic retreat of Caporetto in which thousands of Italians were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, Henry's vehicle becomes mired in the mud. When one of the engineering sergeants refuses to help, Henry fires his pistol and Bonello finishes him off with two more shots. Although he hates authoritarian tactics, Henry shoots the disobedient shoulder, asserting his authority. Ironically, the only man he kills is Italian, not the enemy. In the next chapter (XXX), the narrative reaches its climax as Henry's complete disillusionment becomes salient. On a bridge during the retreat, Henry's accented Italian leads the guards to assume that he is a Nazi infiltrator. With sardonic irony, Hemingway writes,
The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it.
Henry makes his escape. Now he becomes a markedly different person. In Chapter XXXI, having turned his back on the war, Henry begins his plans for Catherine and himself. In civilian clothes on a train, Henry decides that he is "finished" with the war, having made his own "separate peace." Reunited with Catherine, they stay at a hotel and plan to travel to Switzerland where they can escape war. With each other, there is a depth to their love that seems to heal their wounds. But, foreshadowing the tragedy to come are these lines,
If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them.
Later, too, Frederic Henry still is ridden with guilt over his desertion, and because of this guilt, his dependency upon Catherine waxes. When a barman offers the use of his boat, Catherine and Frederic make their way to Switzerland. While still deeply in love with Catherine, Frederic begins to think about his friends, Rinaldi and the priest, and to miss them. When Catherine goes into labor; unfortunately, even though the doctor performs a Caesarean, the baby is stillborn. Worse yet, Catherine dies, telling Henry "It's a dirty trick."
Now, bereft of all that matters to him, Henry walks through the rain, which has been symbolic throughout the narrative of disillusionment and despair. Nonetheless, Henry bears the cruelty of life with grace, the typical code hero of Hemingway.
- Catherine Barkley
Catherine is perceived by some readers and critics as a passive, non-dynamic character, but others contend that she has undergone her change before the narrative begins. But, others contend that Catherine has undergone change prior to the beginning of the narrative. Certainly, she has changed her Victorian attitude of having waited "eight years" for her fiance who died in Somme. With Frederic Henry she decides for carpe diem and delights in mere fantasy--,"But it isn't nice to feel like one (a whore)" at first. But, this pretending to love does become real for her and Frederic, and she moves from "whore" to mistress, to wife to mother. In addition, her premonitions are not the vacuous thoughts of a person who can be manipulated.
- Lt. Rinaldi
This character personifies the man created by Hemingway: virile, hard-drinking, insouciant in his masculinity. He lives boldly, but suffers the consequences of syphilis. There is, yet, something tragic about him as he does not find a meaningful relationship.
- Dr. Valentini
In addition to Rinaldi, Valentini contributes to the celebration of the male bonding in drinking and womanizing. He is even reckless on the operating table.
- the Priest
This nameless priest contributes to the tone of a confessional in which Frederic's narrative is made. He represents a solid value in a valueless world and is always patient and kind. The priest encourages Henry to marry and have a meaningful life.
- Count Greffi
Some critics view the Count as an anachronism like the priest's beloved Abruzzi. When he visits Henry, they speak of prayer, metaphysics, and the pure and religious nature of love for a woman, a love that can substitute for religious faith, perhaps.
- The Captain
In the beginning of the novel, he eats with the priest and teases him about women. He is a type character, representative of many soldiers.
He is a fellow ambulance driver with Henry, who is later killed.
- Helen Ferguson
A Scot friend of Catherine, who is protective of her when she meets Henry.
- Miss Walker
She is the admitting nurse in Milan when Frederic is transferred after his accident
- Miss Gage
Also in Milan, a volunteer who may be in love with Frederic
- Miss Van Campen
An older woman who does not like Frederic, will not allow him wine, and has his leave revoked
- Cromwell Rodger
A soldier also wounded; he is in Milan with Frederic
- Ralph Simmons
A singer in Milan who loans Frederic clothes before his traveling to Stresa.
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