A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961) A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961) Type of Work: Psychological realism Setting Italy and Switzerland; World War I Principal Characters Fyederic Henry, an American in the Italian army Catiteritte Barkley, a British nurse Rinaldi, an Italian surgeon and Frederic’s friend Miss Ferguson, a British nurse and Catherine’s friend Story Overveiw Lieutenant Frederic Henry, a handsome young American, had returned from leave in southern Italy to the front, where he served in the Italian ambulance corps. The war was still leaning toward victory for the Italians. During dinner, Lieutenant Rinaldi, Frederic’s jovial surgeon friend needled Frederic about his youth and lack of experience with women, then sprang his surprise: A group of British nurses had arrived to set up a hospital unit nearby, and Rinaldi had become friends with a nurse, Catherine Barkley. He begged Frederic to come with him to meet Miss Barkley and help make a “good impression” on her. Frederic was impressed by Catherine so impressed that he, instead of Rinaldi, began romancing the nurse.
Catherine and Frederic bantered back and forth to hide their mutual attraction, and the good-natured Rinaidi then couldn’t help but tease Frederic about his new lady love. Soon afterwards, while Frederic was on ambulance duty in the combat zone, an Austrian mortar shell exploded over his unit and scattered shrapnel through Frederic’s legs, turning them into”hamburger.” He was transported to Milan to heal and rehabilitate his wounded legs ‘ Fortunately, Catherine was also soon transferred to Milan. During the day, Frederic worked diligently on the therapy machines to regain full use of his limbs, but the hot summer niglits were spent by the reunited lovers on Frederic’s hospital bed, with a hidden stash of wine. With Frederic improving in health, they managed to be together constantly – there were carriage rides in the park, horse races, dinners at street-side cafes. By summer’s end Frederic’s legs were completely healed and he was slated for return to his ambulance corps.
But on their last night together, Catherine disclosed her news: she was pregnant. Frederic returned to the front with orders to move hospital equipment south into the Po Valley – a familiar mission. By now, though, the war’s complexion had changed. Italian forces had lost several key battles, and rumors circulated that the Austrians, along with German reinforcements, were about to mount a new attack. All of Frederic’s friends were weary of war. Morale was sinking day by day. Surgeons, including Rinaldi, operated around the clock.
“This war is killing me,” Rinaldi told Frederic. “All summer and fall I’ve operated. I do everybody’s work.” Furthermore, Rinaldi admitted, he suspected that he had contracted syphilis. Rinaldi’s condition confirmed to the despondent Frederic that one way or another this war was making everyone ill. The fierce Austrian assault forced the demoralized Italians to begin their muddy retreat from Caporetto.
Driving three ambulances cross-country to avoid the miles of stalled vehicles and guns lined up on the highways, Frederic and his comrades became lost on the back roads, where their vehicles mired in the thick, wet silt. Forced to travel on foot towards Udine, they ducked Austrian patrols and nervous Italian sentries who shot at anything that moved. After one of their group was killed by a sniper, they hid in barns and fields, part of a frantically retreating mob. Finally, the ragged group made their way to the Italian border. But as they crossed a check point, an Italian military policeman wrenched Frederic out of the line. A firing squad had been set up to execute accused spies and deserting Italian officers, who were cutting their insignias from their sleeves in order to flee.
Spies and deserters were being put to death after the most cursory of trials. On that dark night, Frederic decided that the war was over for him; it was time to say his “farewell to arms.” While the guards were busy dragging another poor victim to face death in front of the firing squad, Frederic scrambled away and plunged into an icy river. As the current swept him along, Frederic’s frozen fingers clutched a timber which he used as a float until he floundered up onto a riverbank several miles downstream. Frederic was now a defector. He stole onto a train bound for Milan, hiding beneath a tarp so the guards would not see him.
He would find Catherine, he decided, and together, they would escape to Switzerland. However, when he arrived in Milan Frederic discovered that Catherine had gone to Strega, a town on the border between Italy and Switzerland. He borrowed some civilian clothing from an American friend in Milan and caught a train to Strega, where he found Catherine on leave. Once he was united with Catherine, Frederic promised that they would never again part; war was a thing of the past for both of them. But the police in Strega had been notified about Frederic and his desertion and were under orders to capture and execute him. At the last minute, a bartender-friend of Frederic’s warned him of his impending arrest, which was planned for the following morning. This friend offered his row boat to aid them in their escape.
All that night Frederic rowed doggedly across Lake Geneva. By morning, his hands were so raw that Catherine convinced him to let her row the rest of the way into neutral Switzerland. Their safety was assured when they were able to convince the Swiss authorities of their newly assumed identities. The couple contentedly settled down for the winter in Montreux, a small town in the Alps. They played chess and cards and took long walks; sometimes Frederic went skiing.
Long into the night they talked of what they would do at the end of the war. A month before the baby was due, Frederic and Catherine moved to Lausanne to be close to the hospital, planning to return to Montreux in the spring. Their anticipation and hope for happiness, however, proved to be futile. The long-awaited birth turned tragic. Catherine suffered in labor for many hours, and finally the doctors had to perform a Caesarean section.
The baby was delivered dead; and a little later, Catherine hemorrhaged and died in Frederic’s arms. Frederic had now lost everything he held dear. All his dreams for the future had disa eared in a matter of hours. For Frederic, stunned by grief, there was no place to go, nothing to do, no one to talk to. He ambled aimlessly from the hospital through the rainy streets of Lausanne, a broken and lonely man.
Commentary Combining a depressing ending and austere realism with an idealistic, descriptive story is one of Hemingway’s particulars of style. A subtle, emotional power permeates the story without the reader really being aware of Hemingway’s hand in it. Gertrude Stein, the author’s mentor, believed A Farewell to Arms was Hemingway’s best novel. Certainly, it catapulted him into literary stardom. Through the character of Frederic, Hemingway eloquently argues against war. Frederic accepts what life hands him without murmuring, but argues the fatalist’s philosophy: whether you were good or bad, ” they killed you in the end.” Moreover, Hemingway shows how World War 1, “the war to end all wars,” transformed many of those who fought in it into a generation of cynics.
Hemingway himself served in the Italian army as an ambulance driver and, like Frederic, was wounded in the legs. Thus, much of A Farewell to Arms’ emotional energy was taken from his own experiences. The author portrays a sophisticated, intimate, caring relationship between Frederic and Catherine; a relationship entered into without the benefit of marriage. In the 1920s this was unheard of. The novel, in many other ways as well, helped break new social and literary frontiers, with its economical style and emotional understatement.
And together with A Sun Also Rises, it established Hemingway as one of America’s preeminent twentieth-century writers.