Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to Arms

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A Farewell to Arms Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 64-page guide for “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 41 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Lost Generation Versus the Code Hero and The Horrors of Trench Warfare.

Plot Summary

A Farewell to Arms, written by Ernest Hemingway and published in 1929, is the story of Frederic Henry, an officer with the Italian army in World War I, and his relationship with Catherine Barkley, a British nurse. Some have noted the similarities between the main character and Hemingway, who also served in the Italian army as an ambulance driver in 1918, and his nurse, Agnes Von Kurowsky, who cared for Hemingway after he was wounded. 

The book opens in the summer of 1915. The Italians have just entered the war, and Frederic Henry, an American who had been living in Rome and studying architecture, has joined the Italian army, serving as a lieutenant in the Second Army. He is in charge of the ambulance drivers at the Northern Italian front. The early chapters do not provide specific details about battles or names. Hemingway’s terse, minimalist style of writing is meant to convey much deeper emotion below the surface. Although much is left unsaid, what is said is that the war is not going well for the Italians in 1915. Both war and disease have decimated the army.

The following year, the Italians have more victories; they have taken territory from the Austrian-Hungarian army, including the town of Gorizia, where Frederick is stationed. Hemingway gradually introduces voices and dialogues of the officers, who make crude sexual jokes in order to mock the priest. Frederic goes on leave, spending much of that time in a drunken haze. When he returns, he spends time with a British nurse, Catherine Barkley. He is wounded during an offensive and is taken to a hospital. At the hospital, he is visited by his friend, Lieutenant Rinaldi, and the priest before being transferred to a hospital in Milan. 

In Book 2, Milan, Frederic and Catherine are reunited, and very quickly their relationship develops. She not only nurtures him back to health, but she also sleeps with him most nights. By the end of the summer, she reveals that she is pregnant and soon after, Frederic learns that he must head back to the front. Catherine assures Frederic that she can take care of everything during her pregnancy. Frederic gets on the train, and quickly must readjust to life back with the other soldiers. 

In Book 3, it’s late October 1917, and the mood at the Italian front is despondent, as the losses the men have suffered weighs them down. Frederic is told to bring four ambulance cars north to Caporetto.

The next day, they are attacked at Caporetto and must retreat. Frederic is in charge of bringing three ambulances with hospital supplies and three drivers—Aymo, Bonello, and Piani—to Pordenone, a town on the Tagliamento River. During the massive retreat, they are stuck in the stalled column and try to take a shortcut, but they end up stuck in the mud. The sergeants whom had joined them refuse to help and Frederic shoots them, wounding one, who Bonello then kills. Frederic and the rest eventually rejoin the chaotic retreat, which is now made of both soldiers and civilians fleeing for their lives. At the Tagliamento river, Frederic sees that officers are being shot for having abandoned their troops. Frederic realizes he too is in danger of being killed, so he dives into the river. Once he emerges from the river, he sheds his identity as a soldier and tries to resume life as a civilian. 

He heads to Milan in Book 4, seeking out Catherine, but finds out she is on leave in Stresa. When he finds her there, she is overjoyed to see him. But the threat of danger always hovers and soon they must leave once news arrives that Frederic’s arrest is imminent. They escape by boat and row all night until they reach neutral Switzerland. Once in Switzerland, they are happy to have escaped Italy. They must check in with the Swiss officials, who believe (or pretend to believe) their story that they are tourists seeking winter sport. Switzerland is a different world from Italy.

In Book 5, it’s winter, and Frederic and Catherine cocoon themselves in a home in the snow-capped mountains. They take long walks and enjoy their seclusion. Once Catherine nears the end of her pregnancy, they realize they must move to town to be closer to the hospital. When Catherine goes into labor, things go badly. The baby dies with the cord wrapped around its neck. Catherine begins hemorrhaging and dies soon after. Frederic leaves the hospital, alone.

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