A Farewell to Arms Summary

Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to Arms

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

A Farewell to Arms Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.

Frederic Henry, called Tenente—lieutenant—by his comrades in arms, is an American enlisted as an officer in the Italian Army driving an ambulance during World War I. At first, Tenente’s army life consists of daytime supervision of an ambulance corps and evenings drinking and womanizing. He is a likeable fellow and fits in well with his fellow officers.

During winter when there is a lull in fighting between the Italians and Austrians, he takes a leave, visiting beautiful locations throughout Italy where he devotes his time to more drinking and womanizing. Upon his return, he is introduced to the beautiful nurse, Catherine Barkley, who has lost her fiancé in the Battle of the Somme. Henry at first views Catherine as another conquest and Catherine views Henry as a substitute for her lost fiancé.

Henry is wounded by mortar fire and taken to a hospital in Milan. As he recuperates, he and Catherine, who has arranged to be transferred to his hospital, fall in love. When recuperated, Henry returns to the front, but Catherine remains behind, now expecting a child.

The war has been ramping up during Tenente’s time away as the Germans have joined the Austrians on the front, bringing more modern weaponry and a more lethal intent. As the German offensive succeeds and the Italians continue to suffer many casualties, the generals order a full retreat. Fleeing villagers, carrying their most valuable possessions, soon join the miles-long column of retreating vehicles and troops. During the hours of stops and starts, Tenente realizes they are sitting ducks for the advancing enemy troops. He orders his ambulance drivers and assorted passengers up a side road where they become stuck in mud. Two sergeants who have hitched rides refuse to cut branches to place under the tires to help free one of the vehicles, and are shot as they attempt to flee. Tenente and the three ambulance drivers under his charge proceed on foot.

Near the end of their long trek south to Udine to rejoin the army, one of the drivers is shot by friendly fire. Another deserts to become a prisoner of war. Finally, the last driver and Tenente are separated when the Italian battle police arrest him without cause. It appears he will be shot, as other officers who were pulled aside have been. He breaks free and jumps into the river, deciding that he no longer wants anything to do with this war, by default becoming a deserter. This is his first farewell to arms.

After traveling on foot, avoiding both German and Italian soldiers, he jumps on a moving train and hides in a gondola under a tarp in a space he shares with a German arms shipment. With help from several people sympathetic to his predicament, he is given civilian clothing and finds his way to Catherine. Being warned that the authorities are looking for him, the couple escapes into Switzerland by rowing a boat across a lake.

During Catherine’s pregnancy, they spend an idyllic time together. This ends when the baby, a boy, is stillborn, and Catherine dies of complications from the birth. As the novel concludes, Henry is left alone, walking back to their hotel room in the rain. This is his second farewell, to the arms of the one he loved.

The theme of the novel is that death always wins, usually choosing unfairly those who are least deserving of death. We may have moments of happiness, where we find surcease from the intense loneliness and meaninglessness of life, but these do not last.

The novel is written entirely in the first person with Tenente (Henry) as the narrator. Hemingway’s style is inimitable—crisp, concise, without embellishment. He writes as if he were filing a news report from the front, letting the dialog and the descriptions of action and setting inform the reader. The reader is left to fill in the emotion.

The writing can appear effortless, almost child-like in the simplicity of its structure, but Hemingway labored to achieve this effect, for instance, writing many alternate endings to this novel before scribing the final lines that we read.

Hemingway’s writing style is intentional, informed, and carefully crafted. He writes:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. –Death in the Afternoon

Indeed, Hemingway wrote from his own experience, having been a volunteer in the Italian army, serving, just as his protagonist does, as an ambulance driver. He, too, was wounded while at war. At various times in his life he served as a reporter, which explains, at least in part, his reportorial style of writing.

When this novel was published in 1929, its ground-breaking prose style changed forever the expectation of how a novel should be written and paved the way for writers such as J.D. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye), who declared himself a Hemingway fan.

The novel has been described as America’s first bestseller, making Ernest Hemingway independently wealthy.