A Farewell to Arms -- In A Nutshell -- A Farewell to Arms was published in 1929 by Ernest Hemingway, a Nobel Prize-winning American author. This novel is semi-autobiographical. Like the protagonist, Hemingway served in the Italian Army as a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I, got wounded, and spent time in an American Army in Milan, where he met a nurse. But unlike Hemingway, the novel's protagonist starts a love affair with the nurse. Similar to characters in A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway was deeply influenced by his experiences at war. In fact, Hemingway is considered to be part of the "The Lost Generation." The phrase was coined by Gertrude Stein to refer to Modernist artists who felt "lost" after witnessing the horrors of World War I.
Hemingway certainly relied on his own experiences in WWI Italy to write this novel, but he did use other sources as well. Though A Farewell to Arms begins in 1916, Hemingway didn’t get to Italy until the summer of 1918. The Italian retreat from Caporetto, described in such detailed in the novel, began in October 1917. So how did Hemingway describe it so well? The novel is meticulously researched. Hemingway was a journalist and worked for the Kansas City Star newspaper when the retreat was on, read details of it, and was extremely concerned over the war in general. (For a discussion of the importance of newspapers to the novel, see "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory.") It’s likely that such concern inspired him to enlist with the Red Cross in the first place.
A Farewell to Arms caused a lot of fuss when its first installment was published by Scribner’s Magazine. The Boston superintendent of police kept Scribner’s off newsstands, though not for long. He claimed it was pornography. (Check out "Sex" for more.) Luckily, the ban only boosted sales and gave the novel free publicity. Nowadays, it’s hardly considered pornographic and is instead known for its sensitive depiction of the war. The novel is even taught at U.S. military academies.
How It All Goes Down -- A Farewell to Arms is narrated by an American man driving ambulances for the Red Cross in Italy during World War I. We don’t get his full name until Book Two of the novel. During Book One he’s known as Mr. Henry, or "Tenente" (Lieutenant).
You’ll notice that Mr. Henry narrates his story in the past tense; the story is a memory of the events being described. You might find yourself wondering where he is now, what he’s doing, how old he was during the events he recounts, and how old he is when he recounts them. The novel never reveals this information, nor offers any concrete details which might allow us to figure it out, so we can only imagine and speculate. We don’t even know how many years have passed since the events occurred. (Some critics claim it’s been at least six years – see the "Character Analysis" for Count Greffi.)
The novel doesn’t even give us the years during which it occurs. Only by looking up World War I battles mentioned in the text and carefully examining other given information do we understand that it’s set between 1916 and 1918. So if you’re confused, don’t worry! It’s normal, and we are here to help. Now, on with the summary!
In Book One, Mr. Henry meets Catherine Barkley, an English V.A.D nurse in Gorizia, Italy, where the Red Cross hospital he works for is located. They briefly begin a romantic relationship, but when Mr. Henry is wounded during a battle, he’s sent to a hospital in Milan.
In Book Two, Mr. Henry arrives at the American hospital in Milan, and we soon learn that his first name is Frederic and his last name is Henry. Catherine arrives promptly, and when Frederic sees her, he realizes he loves her. They begin a beautiful love affair over the course of about three months, while Frederic recovers from his injury and drinks lots and lots.
When Catherine tells Frederic she’s three months pregnant, they plan to vacation for six weeks while he completes his convalescent leave. But when Miss Van Campen, the head of the hospital, gets fed up with his drinking and brash tone, she revokes his leave and Frederic is ordered back to Gorizia. On Frederic’s last night in Milan, he and Catherine get a hotel room together, and spend a few hours there, eating, drinking, and talking. Then Frederic catches the midnight train. Catherine and Frederic don’t know if they will ever see each other again.
In Book Three, Frederic goes back to Gorizia and becomes involved in the Italian retreat from Caporetto. The ambulances Frederic and his crew are driving get stuck in the mud, and they eventually have to abandon them. Two soldiers had been riding with Frederic and his crew, and when they refuse to help free the vehicles from the mud, Frederic shoots at them, killing one. According to information we received in Book Two, this is the first time Frederic has killed a man. When it looks like he must either escape or be killed, Frederic flees from the retreat, and deserts his post in the army.
In Book Four, Frederic goes back to Milan to look for Catherine. He learns she is in Stresa (a town in Italy). After borrowing some civilian clothes from a friend, he heads in that direction. Miraculously, he finds Catherine and they are reunited!
Catherine and Frederic spend a few days together happily. Then, in the middle of the night, they learn that Frederic will be arrested for desertion in the morning. They make a bold and daring escape, by rowboat, to nearby Switzerland. They manage to convince the Swiss authorities that they are in Switzerland for the "winter sport," and are allowed to live in Switzerland.
In Book Five, Frederic and Catherine rent a mountainside cottage and enjoy themselves until a month before the baby is due. Then they move to a hotel to be closer to the hospital. Catherine has an awful labor and undergoes a Cesarean operation. The baby is born dead, or dies shortly after its birth. Catherine dies soon after, of multiple hemorrhages. Frederic walks back to the hotel in the rain.
Closely related to the concept of stoicism is the "CodeHero," a phrase used to describe the main character in many of Hemingway's novels. Some critics regard Santiago as the finest, most developed example of these code heroes.
In this phrase, "code" means a set of rules or guidelines for conduct. In Hemingway's code, the principal ideals are honor, courage, and endurance in a life of stress, misfortune, and pain. Often in Hemingway's stories, the hero's world is violent and disorderly; moreover, the violence and disorder seem to win.
The "code" dictates that the hero act honorably in the midst of what will be a losing battle. In doing so he finds fulfillment: he becomes a man or proves his manhood and his worth. The phrase "grace under pressure" is often used to describe the conduct of the code hero.
Hemingway defined the Code Hero as "a man who lives correctly, following the ideals of honor, courage and endurance in a world that is sometimes chaotic, often stressful, and always painful." He measures himself by how well he handle the difficult situations that life throws at him. In the end the Code Hero will lose because we are all mortal, but the true measure is how a person faces death. He believes in "Nada," a Spanish word meaning nothing. Along with this, there is no after life.
The Code Hero is typically an individualist and free-willed. He never shows emotions; showing emotions and having a commitment to women shows weakness. Qualities such as bravery, adventuresome and travel also define the Code Hero.
Ironically, the code hero can also be afraid of the dark in that it symbolizes the void, the abyss, the nothingness (nada) that comes with death. However, once he faces death bravely and becomes a man he must continue the struggle and constantly prove himself to retain his manhood.
The code hero or heroine (like Catherine Barkley) must perform his or her work well to create a kind of personal meaning amidst the greater meaninglessness. Still, life is filled with misfortunes, and a code hero is known by how he endures those misfortunes. Ultimately, the code hero will lose in his conflict with life because he will die. But all that matters is how one faces death. In fact, one should court death, in the bull ring, on the battlefield, against big fish, because facing death teaches us how to live. Along with this, the code hero must create and follow certain rituals regarding death because those rituals help us. The bullfighter must have grace and must make his kills clean. He must face noble animals. He must put on his suit a certain way. Similarly, a fisherman shouldn't go out too far. He should respect the boundaries the fish have established for fishermen. Religion is helpful only in that it provides us with rituals. But religions are wrong when they promise life after death.
If an individual faces death bravely, then he becomes a man, but he must repeat the process, constantly proving himself, until the ultimate defeat.
The Hemingway man was a man’s man. He was a man involved in a great deal of drinking. He was a man who moved from one love affair to another, who participated in wild game hunting, who enjoyed bullfights, who was involved in all of the so-called manly activities, which the typical American male did not participate in.
Throughout many of Hemingway’s novels the code hero acts in a manner which allowed the critic to formulate a particular code.
He does not talk about what he believes in.
He is man of action rather than a man of theory.
Behind the formulation of this concept of the hero lies the basic disillusionment brought about by the First World War. The sensitive man came to the realization that the old concepts and the old values embedded in Christianity and other ethical systems of the western world had not served to save mankind from the catastrophe inherent in the World War.
A basis for all of the actions of all Hemingway code heroes is the concept of death. The idea of death lies behind all of the character’s actions in Hemingway novels.
“When you are dead you are dead.”
There is nothing more. If man cannot accept a life or reward after death, the emphasis must then be on obtaining or doing or performing something in this particular life. If death ends all activity, if death ends all knowledge and consciousness, man must seek his reward here, now, immediately. Consequently, the Hemingway man exists in a large part for the gratification of his sensual desires, he will devote himself to all types of physical pleasures because these are the reward of this life.
It is the duty of the Hemingway hero to avoid death at almost all cost. Life must continue. Life is valuable and enjoyable. Life is everything. Death is nothing. With this view in mind it might seem strange then to the casual or superficial reader that the Hemingway code hero will often be placed in an encounter with death, or that the Hemingway hero will often choose to confront death. From this we derive the idea of grace (or courage) under pressure. This concept is one according to which the character must act in a way that is acceptable when he is faced with the fact of death. The Hemingway man must have fear of death, but he must not be afraid to die. By fear we mean that he must have the intellectual realization that death is the end of all things and as such must be constantly avoided in one way or another. A man can never act in a cowardly way. He must not show that he is afraid or trembling or frightened in the presence of death. If man wishes to live, he lives most intensely sometimes when he is in the direct presence of death. The man has not yet been tested; we don’t know whether he will withstand the pressures, whether he will prove to be a true Hemingway man. It is only by testing, by coming into confrontation with something that is dangerous that man lives with this intensity. In the presence of death, then, man can discover his own sense of being, his own potentiality.
1. How do you feel when Frederic and Aymo kill the soldier during the retreat? Did he have it coming to him, or was the punishment worse than his crime? Other than the fact that he’s dead, can we distinguish him from the soldier that got away? If so, how? If not, does this impact how we feel about Frederic and Aymo?
2. Would we consider Frederic a more or less reliable narrator if the novel was in the present tense? Or would we feel the same as now? Why?
3. What, if anything, made you laugh when you read it? Which characters have the funniest lines? What role, if any, does humor play in the novel?
4. Remember the two teenage sisters Aymo picks up during the retreat? Why do they stop crying and feel better when Aymo asks them if they are virgins?
5. What would have happened if Rinaldi had kissed Frederic after Frederic was wounded? Why does he stop when he’s about to? Would Frederic have stopped him if he continued? What can you find in the text that supports your point?
6. What might the novel look like from Catherine’s perspective? (Remember, she is dead.) Do we feel like we get a clear picture of her from Frederic? Would she be a more or less reliable narrator than Frederic?
What do we know of Frederic Henry's and Catherine Barkley's lives before the novel begins? As the novel's narrator, why would Frederic choose to tell us so little about their past?
At the beginning of their romance, Frederic treats his relationship with Catherine like a game. When does he fall in love? Why does it happen?
What role does religion play in the novel? How does Frederic's view of the priest compare to the other officers'?
Why is Catherine afraid of the rain? Why does Frederic fear the night? How do both the rain and the night foreshadow the novel's tragic conclusion?
Even before the retreat at Caporetto, Frederic considers that "abstract words such as glory, honor, courage" are "obscene beside the concrete names of villages." What does he mean by this?
Identify a passage that vividly describes World War I. Does the novel make any assertions about war in general, or World War I in particular?
After his desertion, Frederic says that, "anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation." Are his actions justified?
The novel's action begins in the late summer of 1915; it ends in spring 1918. Has Frederic changed during this period of time? Is there any redemption at the end of this tragedy?
Toward the end of the novel, Count Greffi tells Frederic that love is a religious feeling. Does Frederic agree? Why or why not?
How would you describe Hemingway's style of writing and his characters' dialogue?
The words "bravery" and "courage" are echoed through the novel. Who is the novel's hero? Who is the most courageous character?