A Farewell to Arms Summary

A Farewell to Arms is a 1929 novel by Ernest Hemingway about an American man named Frederic Henry who drives an ambulance in Italy during World War I and falls in love with a British nurse named Catherine. 

  • After Frederic is wounded on the battlefield, Catherine helps him recover.
  • When Catherine becomes pregnant with Frederic’s child, he is sent back to the front. There the Italian army begins to retreat, and Frederic deserts to find Catherine.
  • They flee to Switzerland, where Catherine goes into labor. The baby arrives stillborn, and Catherine dies from a hemorrhage.

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1222

Hemingway once referred to A Farewell to Arms as his version of Romeo and Juliet. Like Shakespeare’s play, the novel is a tale of tragic romance between an American Lieutenant, Frederic Henry, and a British army nurse, Catherine Barkley, that unfolds along the Italian front during World War I. Although The Sun Also Rises is comprised of three “books” of unequal length, the division serves very little dramatic purpose. By contrast, Hemingway’s second masterpiece is divided into five books that are analogous to the five acts of Shakespearean tragedy.

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A Farewell to Arms is told in retrospect by its main male character, Second Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American attached to an Italian ambulance unit stationed in the town of Gorizia near the battlefront with the Austrians. Frederic is a “normally” dissolute soldier; off duty, he drinks in the local taverns and frequents the town's brothels with his friend Lieutenant Rinaldi, a good-looking Italian surgeon, both of whom are chastised by a Catholic priest. When Henry returns to the front from one of these binges, he is told by Rinaldi that a unit of British nurses has been stationed at a field hospital nearby and that one of them, Catherine Barkley, has captured his fancy.

Rinaldi introduces Frederic to Catherine. She finds it odd that he is an American who is effectively in the Italian army. He learns that Catherine’s fiancée has already been killed in the war. At this stage in their relationship, while he certainly finds Catherine to be attractive, Frederic is engaged in a casual romantic game: when he tries to kiss her for the first time and she slaps him, this is merely an expected countermove in his mind. Taking the wounded from the frontlines to the rear, Frederic sees Catherine on occasion. She gives him a St. Anthony’s medal. Frederic is badly wounded in his legs during an Austrian artillery attack and sent to a field hospital where he is visited by Rinaldi and the Priest.

In Book Two, Frederic is transferred to a hospital in Milan where he is visited by Catherine, and she manages to have herself reassigned there to be by his side. Frederic is first told that he will have to wait six months before an operation can be performed on his legs, but when he asks for a second opinion, he is immediately scheduled for surgery. In the wake of his brush with death, Frederic realizes that he is seriously in love with Catherine. During and after his operation, they spend nights together in the hospital and take romantic trips to the countryside during the day. As the summer turns to autumn, Frederic prepares to return to ambulance duty on the front. Before he goes, Catherine tells him that she is pregnant with their child. He proposes to marry her at once; she requests that they wait, but the bond between them is now secure.

Book Three begins back at the war front, where Frederic finds that the morale of the Italian troops has plummeted. The Germans have reinforced the Austrians, and the combined enemy has compelled the Italians to undertake the infamous retreat from Caporetto (an actual historical event). With three Italian assistants—Bonello, Aymo, and Piani—Frederic drives an ambulance filled with medical supplies for delivery to a medical post at Udine, but it is stuck on a road clogged with civilians and military columns. Two detached Italian sergeants join Frederic’s makeshift unit and the American lieutenant decides that they will try to reach Udine by taking a series of back roads. When the ambulance becomes stuck in mud on this route, Frederic asks the sergeants to help dislodge the vehicle, but they refuse and try to run away. One of them escapes; Frederic shoots and wounds the other. The Italian medic Bonello then kills the would-be deserter with a bullet to the back of the head. As they approach Udine, Aymo is killed by a sniper bullet. Frederic and the two remaining medics then find that the Germans have blocked off one of the bridges across the Tagliamento River. They take cover in a barn, and Bonello announces that he will turn himself into the Germans as a prisoner of war.

Frederic and Piani now make their way to another crossing point further down the Tagliamento River. They see that the retreat column has degenerated into a frantic mob, with soldiers throwing their weapons away and officers ripping the insignia of the rank from their uniforms. They see that the military police have stationed themselves at the bridge to arrest and summarily execute deserters. Frederic is arrested by these carabinieri and they tie him to a tree. But he frees himself, dives into the river, and uses a log as a raft to make his way to the other shore. This “baptism” in the river is Frederic’s “farewell to arms” ritual. After he hops a freight train, Frederic explicitly recognizes that while others may be moved to risk their lives for the sake of patriotic ideals, the war “was not my show anymore.” His destination now is back to Milan, Catherine, and their unborn child.

Reaching Milan at the start of Book Four, Frederic learns that Catherine has been reassigned to a medical facility at Stresa. He borrows some civilian clothes from an American friend and takes a train to Stresa. He reunites with Catherine and they enjoy a respite from the turmoil by spending their nights at a hotel where Frederic plays billiards with the admirably wise Count Greffi. One night while a rainstorm rages outside, the hotel bartender warns Frederic that Italian authorities are about to arrest him as a deserter. The bartender offers to lend Frederic and Catherine a rowboat to make their way to safety in neutral Switzerland. They row all night, with Catherine taking a turn at the oars when Frederic’s hands become too sore. They reach the Swiss shore, but are immediately detained by the police. Frederic says that he and Catherine are just tourists. Once he produces passports and cash, the two are released.

In Book Five, Frederic and Catherine take up quarters at a small Alpine inn near Montreux. They spend idyllic days together talking about their future plans to live as a family once their child is born. Frederic again suggests that they marry immediately, but Catherine again wants to wait. Her hesitancy may have something to do with her concerns about having the baby; a local doctor says that because of her narrow hips, she may have problems giving birth.

As the time for the birth approaches, the lovers move to Lausanne, where they are closer to a fully equipped hospital. Catherine does suffer a very difficult labor. She is given an anaesthetic; but when the baby is delivered, it is still born. A nurse at the hospital orders the distraught Frederic to get something to eat. When he returns, Frederic is told that Catherine has suffered a severe hemorrhage. With Frederic by her side, Catherine says her final goodbye, slips into coma and dies. The story ends with a helpless Frederic walking toward a hotel in night rain and thinking that this is the awful price that he and Catherine had to pay for the “good nights” which they had shared.

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