Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1461
A Farewell to Arms opens in Italy during the First World War. The novel’s main character, Frederic Henry, is a young American serving as a second lieutenant in the Italian Army. He is attached to a unit in Gorizia, in which he works as an ambulance driver. In addition to Frederic, the reader is introduced to two other characters: first a priest, who Frederic’s friends enjoy baiting and teasing; and second Rinaldi, a good-looking Italian surgeon and a friend of Frederic’s. He shares with Frederic the typical soldier’s lifestyle of heavy drinking and frequent visits to the local brothels. When Frederic returns from a leave, Rinaldi tells him that a group of British nurses have arrived in the area to set up a hospital for the wounded. Rinaldi declares that he is in love with a nurse by the name of Catherine Barkley.
Rinaldi introduces Frederic Henry to Catherine Barkley, who is described as a tall, beautiful woman with long blonde hair. She finds it odd that Frederic is an American in the Italian Army. Frederic learns that Catherine had a fiance who was killed earlier in the war. He is very much attracted to her and would like to become romantically involved with her. Although Catherine responds to his first attempt to kiss her by slapping him, they gradually become more and more interested in each other. When Frederic has to take his ambulance back to the front, Catherine gives him her St. Anthony medal for good luck. Frederic feels indifferent about the war going on around him, feeling that it has little to do with him. One day while eating macaroni with cheese and drinking wine in a dugout, a shell wounds Frederic badly, and he is taken to a field hospital where he is visited by Rinaldi and the priest.
Frederic Henry is transferred to an American hospital in Milan. Frederic manages to find a porter whom he pays to bring him some alcohol. Soon after, Catherine comes to the hospital to visit him and eventually manages to stay and work at the hospital. Three doctors come to examine Frederic, who needs surgery on his knee, and they tell him that he will have to wait six months before he can have the operation. Asking for a second opinion, he is visited by the Italian Dr. Valentini, who tells him he can have the operation the next day. During this period, and after his operation, Frederic and Catherine begin spending nights together while she is on night-duty in the hospital. Gradually Frederic finds himself falling more and more in love with Catherine.
Frederic and Catherine spend the summer together as he recovers in the hospital. Catherine continues to visit him at night during her work shifts. As his leg improves, they are able to go outside of the hospital and visit Milan. Several new characters are introduced, including the American couple, the Meyerses, who are fond of betting on the horse races, and Ettore Moretti, an Italian captain from San Francisco. When Frederic comes down with jaundice, the stern head-nurse, Miss Van Campen, accuses him of having brought his illness on himself by drinking, in order to avoid being sent back to the front. Eventually he must go, however, and Frederic and Catherine spend a final night together in a hotel room before parting. Before Frederic leaves for the front, Catherine announces that she is pregnant.
Frederic Henry returns to the front and reunites with Rinaldi, realizing quickly that the men at the front have lost their spirit and drive in the war. Hemingway describes the massive Italian retreat from the town of Caporetto when the German and Austrian forces began moving against them in October, 1917. Picking up two Italian sergeants, Frederic’s ambulance faces many long delays caught up in the miles of forces and equipment retreating in the rain. Eventually he tries to make some progress by driving off of the road and across the countryside, but his ambulance gets stuck in the mud. When the two sergeants refuse to help him push it out of the mud, instead breaking into a run, Frederic shoots and injures one of them. His fellow driver Bonello finishes killing the man with a bullet to the head. Frederic strikes out on foot with his three companions, Bonello, Aymo, and Piani. Aymo does not make it very far before being shot and killed by an Italian sniper.
After hiding in a barn until they feel it is safe to continue, the three men push on. Bonello decides to turn himself in to the Germans as a prisoner of war to avoid being killed. Soon Piani and Frederic come to a long wooden bridge on the Tagliamento River, where military police, the carabinieri, are seizing their own Italian officers and executing them for calling the retreat. Frederic is detained, but he breaks free and jumps into the river to escape. Frederic floats down the river and eventually jumps a train headed for Milan and Catherine. Sick of the war and finished with fighting for a nation that is not even his own, Frederic is well content to make his “farewell to arms” and to desert his post in the Italian army:
Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation. Although that ceased when the carabiniere put his hands on my collar. I would like to have had the uniform off although I did not care much about outward forms. I had taken off the stars, but that was for convenience. It was no point of honor. I was not against them. I was through. I wished them all the luck. There were the good ones, and the brave ones, and the calm ones and the sensible ones, and they deserved it. But it was not my show any more and I wished this bloody train would get to Mestre and I would eat and stop thinking. I would have to stop. . . .
I was not made to think. I was made to eat. My God, yes. Eat and drink and sleep with Catherine. To-night maybe. No that was impossible. But to-morrow night, and a good meal and sheets and never going away again except together. Probably have to go damned quickly. She would go. I knew she would go. When would we go? That was something to think about. It was getting dark. I lay and thought where we would go. There were many places.
Frederic Henry arrives in Milan and borrows civilian clothes from Ralph Simmons, a friend studying singing in Italy and preforming under the name Enrico DelCredo. Learning that the nurses have been sent to Stresa, he travels there and finds Catherine with her friend Helen Ferguson. Frederic and Catherine spend the night together in a hotel. Frederic plays billiards and converses with Count Greffi, a kind elderly man whom Frederic had met earlier while staying in Stresa. During a rainstorm, the bartender in the hotel warns Frederic that he is in danger of being caught as a deserter by the authorities and suggests that Frederic and Catherine borrow his boat and escape across the lake into Switzerland. Frederic rows all night until his hands are too sore to continue, and then Catherine takes over the rowing. When they arrive in Switzerland, they are arrested, but Frederic explains that they are tourists and that they have come to Switzerland for the winter sports. Because they have a good bit of money and valid passports, the authorities let them go.
Frederic and Catherine travel to Montreux and spend a happy and romantic fall in a small chalet amidst the mountain pines. The couple have many happy days discussing their future life together. Frederic proposes marriage, but Catherine wishes to wait until after their child is born. While in Switzerland, Catherine visits the doctor and learns that she may have some problems during childbirth because her pelvis is very small.
When Catherine is ready to give birth, Frederic takes her to a hospital in Lausanne. Catherine's labor is extremely difficult, and the doctor gives her laughing gas to ease the pain. When it is clear that she is not going to be able to give birth to the child naturally, the doctor tries to deliver it by cesarean section, but the baby is already dead. A nurse sends Frederic out to get something to eat. When he returns, he learns that Catherine has begun to hemorrhage. The doctor is unable to stop the bleeding, and Catherine's condition gradually worsens. Once she and Frederic say goodbye, Catherine slips into unconsciousness and soon dies. Catherine is gone. Frederic walks back to the hotel alone in the rain.
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