A farewell to Arms Summary of the Plot

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Kevin Corcoran A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to Arms

a farewell to arms by ernest hemingway online summary study guide
Summary of the Plot
The novel opens with World War I raging all over Europe. A young American student, studying architecture in Italy, offers his services to the Italian army. In Gorizia, he is wounded in the knee and is sent to recuperate in a hospital in Milan. He falls in love with an English nurse, Catherine Barkley, lives with her, and she becomes pregnant. He returns to the front in Gorizia and is caught in the Italian retreat. In order to save his life, he deserts his post and goes away to a hospital in Milan to take Catherine and go some place where they can start life anew. They go to Switzerland but cannot live happily, for a fresh tragedy awaits them. Their eagerly awaited son is stillborn and Catherine who can never have a normal delivery, dies after a Caesarian operation.
Character List

Lieutenant Frederic Henry
The narrator and the protagonist. A former student of architecture who has volunteered to join the Italian army as an ambulance officer, because he could speak Italian. An indifferent soldier, he finds fulfillment in love, following his injury and subsequent desertion of his army post.

Catherine Barkley
An English nurse with whom Henry falls in love. Her bodily structure prevents her having a natural delivery of a child; she dies following a Caesarian operation.


An excellent surgeon in the Italian army. He is witty, garrulous, highly sexual, has a habit of excessive drinking, and is disillusioned by the war. A great friend of Henry’s.

The priest
A real man of God whose faith in Christianity and morals remain unshaken even in the face of the absolute debauchery of the army. He is a friend, philosopher, and guide to Henry. True love for him implies service and sacrifice. He is a butt of vulgar jokes in the officer’s mess. He is the Code Hero in this novel, an embodiment of love, courage, honor and all that is positive in the world, from whom the Hero (Henry) has to acquire learning.

Miss Helen Ferguson
A Scottish Catholic nurse and friend of Catherine’s. She is a moralist and appears ill tempered but cares genuinely and deeply for Catherine. She believes firmly in morals and is to Catherine what Rinaldi is to Henry (a friend, concerned and caring).

Miss Gage
A nurse in the hospital in Milan, a “friend” of Henry’s. Dislikes Catherine but helps Henry a lot.

Miss Walter
Another nurse who admits Henry into the hospital at Milan when he arrives there wounded.

Miss Van Campen
The hospital superintendent. She dislikes Henry and sees to it that his convalescent leave is cancelled because she believes that his jaundice was self-inflicted due to excessive alcoholism.

Dr. Valentini
A competent surgeon of the rank of a major, performs excellent surgery on Henry’s knee and restores its use to him.

Mr. and Mrs. Meyers
Eccentric friends of Henry’s in Milan. They do not trust each other: he with a shady past and she, big-busted and calling every one “dear boy.” Both provide comic relief to an otherwise gloomy story.

Ettore Moretti
A braggadocio, the braggart soldier. A San Franciscan of Italian descent; twenty-three, a true war hero who looks unconvincing because of his habit of boasting too much about his exploits; disliked by Catherine for boring her.

Edgar Saunders
A tenor and student of music; has adopted the name Eduardo Giovanni to impress the Italian audience.

Ralph Simmons
Another music student who sang under the name Enrico del Credo; later helps Henry go to Stresa by lending his civilian clothes and bag.

Court Greffi
The ninety-four year “young” billiards player; is worried that he is not devout even at that age; has excellent taste in literature and advises Henry that love is religion and life, valuable.

The Barman
He has a wicked sense of humor and works at the Grand Hotel in Stresa. Fishing is his hobby; lends his boat to Henry to escape to Switzerland and also brings him the important information that he is about to be arrested by the Italian police.

Mr. and Mrs. Guttingen
The owners of the mountain Villa in Montreux where Henry and Catherine live during the winter months. They take excellent care of Catherine in the advanced stages of her pregnancy.

Bonello, Aymo and Piani
Ambulance drivers. Aymo is killed; Bonello decides to be taken prisoner after the Retreat; and Piani accompanies Henry till the point of the latter’s desertion from the army.

Almost all these characters, with a possible exception of Miss Van Campen, are uniformly good, cheerful, and render valuable help to the lead pair at crucial points in the story.

Summary/Analysis of the Characters

Frederic Henry

In the sections of the novel in which he describes his experience in the war, Henry portrays himself as a man of duty. He attaches to this understanding of himself no sense of honor, nor does he expect any praise for his service. Even after he has been severely wounded, he discourages Rinaldi from pursuing medals of distinction for him. Time and again, through conversations with men like the priest, Ettore Moretti, and Gino, Henry distances himself from such abstract notions as faith, honor, and patriotism. Concepts such as these mean nothing to him beside such concrete facts of war as the names of the cities in which he has fought and the numbers of decimated streets.

Against this bleak backdrop, Henry’s reaction to Catherine Barkley is rather astonishing. The reader understands why Henry responds to the game that Catherine proposes—why he pledges his love to a woman he barely knows: like Rinaldi, he hopes for a night’s simple pleasures. But an active sex drive does not explain why Henry returns to Catherine—why he continues to swear his love even after Catherine insists that he stop playing. In his fondness for Catherine, Henry reveals a vulnerability usually hidden by his stoicism and masculinity. The quality of the language that Henry uses to describe Catherine’s hair and her presence in bed testifies to the genuine depth of his feelings for her. Furthermore, because he allows Henry to narrate the book, Hemingway is able to suffuse the entire novel with the power and pathos of an elegy: A Farewell to Arms, which Henry narrates after Catherine’s death, confirms his love and his loss.

Catherine Barkley

Much has been written regarding Hemingway’s portrayal of female characters. With the advent of feminist criticism, readers have become more vocal about their dissatisfaction with Hemingway’s depictions of women, which, according to critics such as Leslie A. Fiedler, tend to fall into one of two categories: overly dominant shrews, like Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises, and overly submissive confections, like Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway, Fiedler maintains, was at his best dealing with men without women; when he started to involve female characters in his writing, he reverted to uncomplicated stereotypes. A Farewell to Arms certainly supports such a reading: it is easy to see how Catherine’s blissful submission to domesticity, especially at the novel’s end, might rankle contemporary readers for whom lines such as “I’m having a child and that makes me contented not to do anything” suggest a bygone era in which a woman’s work centered around maintaining a home and filling it with children.

Still, even though Catherine’s excessive desire to live a lovely life may, at times, make her more archetypal than real, it is unfair to deny her the nuances of her character. Although Catherine alludes to her initial days with Henry as a period when she was slightly “crazy,” she seems perfectly aware of the fact that she and Henry are, at first, playing an elaborate game of seduction. Rather than being swept off her feet by Henry’s declarations of love, she capably draws the line, telling him when she has had enough for the night or reminding him that their budding love is a lie. In fact, Catherine’s resistance holds out much longer than Henry’s: even after Henry emphatically states that he loves her and that their lives together will be splendid, Catherine exhibits the occasional doubt, telling him that she is sure that dreadful things await them and claiming that she fears having a baby because she has never loved anyone. Privy only to what Catherine says, not to what she thinks, the reader is left to explain these infrequent lapses in her otherwise uncompromised devotion. Her premonition of dreadful things, for instance, may simply be a general alarm about the war-torn world or residual guilt for loving a man other than the fiancé whom she is mourning as the book opens. While the degree to which Catherine is conflicted remains open to debate, her loyalty to Henry does not. She is a loving, dedicated woman whose desire and capacity for a redemptive, otherworldly love makes her the inevitable victim of tragedy.


Rinaldi’s character serves an important function in A Farewell to Arms. He dominates an array of minor male characters who embody the kind of virile, competent, and good-natured masculinity that, for better or worse, so much of Hemingway’s fiction celebrates. Rinaldi is an unbelievable womanizer, professing to be in love with Catherine at the beginning of the novel but claiming soon thereafter to be relieved that he is not, like Henry, saddled with the complicated emotional baggage that the love of a woman entails. Considering Rinaldi’s frequent visits to the local whorehouses, Henry later muses that his friend has most likely succumbed to syphilis. While this registers as an unpleasant end, it is presented with an air of detached likelihood rather than fervent moralizing. It is, in other words, not punishment for a man’s bad behavior but rather the consequence of a man behaving as a man—living large, living boldly, and being true to himself.
General Themes

The main theme of the novel is that war creates or makes a tragedy of everything. Therein, a person has to bid farewell to everything she cherishes in life. It revolves round the yawning, aching loneliness that exists in the midst of war, which ensures that one cannot even find solace in love. She has to pay a very high price for wanting love, let alone achieving it, and most often death forms the most natural and suitable price one could pay. Though one has struggled hard, at the end of the reckoning, she is left with nothing.

The minor theme of the novel is the passage of Henry from a cheap life to a noble one. When he enters the army, he has not many feelings: he is disinterested and disillusioned with the war, eats and drinks heavily, and regularly visits sordid brothels. He progresses from there to a sense of participation in the war and to an elevated, dignified love life. His initiation into the vicissitudes of war, molds him into a well-adjusted individual, who is competent enough to make a “separate peace” with himself. His initiation into the pleasures of dignified love convert him from a drinking, debauched soldier to a loving, caring husband. However, as the novel ends, the initiation, on both levels, becomes inconclusive and inconsequential. For, Henry cannot make use of it in his future.
Important Symbols

While Hemingway avoids the sort of symbol that neatly equates an object with some lofty abstraction, he offers many powerfully evocative descriptions that often resonate with several meanings. Among these are the rain, which scares Catherine and into which Henry walks at the end of the novel; Henry’s description of her hair; the painted horse; and the silhouette cutter Henry meets on the street.

Author Information
Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway was born on 21 July, 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois. His father was a doctor and his mother was an amateur musician. He was not academically successful and graduated from high school in 1917, near the bottom of his class. He sought to enlist in the army but was rejected due to his poor eyesight. He went to work as a cub reporter in Kansas City. He was doing moderately well as a reporter when he heard that Italy was recruiting ambulance drivers to serve on the Italian front and promptly offered his services. He was seriously injured and taken to a hospital where he fell in love with an English nurse, Agnes. He was no longer a young man, with stars in his eyes and romantic views about everything. War, death, disease, suffering, and decay changed his thinking. When he went back to America, his relationship with Agnes came to an end.

Hemingway then went to Paris and was a major figure in a group of writers called the “Lost Generation,” along with Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Ezra Pound. He drew on his bitter experiences and painful memories from World War I and wrote A Farewell to Arms (1929), which was an instant success. Later, Hemingway went to Spain as a newspaper reporter. He was attracted by bull fighting, a major sport in Spain. He covered the Spanish Civil War. Then, he went to live in Cuba. He participated in World War II on submarine patrol duty. He became an expert on German rockets and was among the first batch of troops to storm Normandy Beach in 1944. Later, he went back to Cuba to deep-sea fish and write. In 1953, he received the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. After the Castro Revolution, he left Cuba and returned to America. War left him disillusioned. He was disappointed in love, too; though he married four times in his life, he could not understand the real meaning of life and love. He committed suicide in 1961. His literary masterpieces, apart from his short stories, include The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and Death in the Afternoon.

Key Facts

Full Title: A Farewell to Arms

Genre: War Novel

Setting: Italy and Switzerland during World War I, 1916–1918

Climax: Catherine Barkley dies during childbirth.

Antagonist: The military system, including the enemy troops of Austria and Germany, the chaotically organized Italian army, and the ruthless military police.

Point of View: First-person; (Frederic Henry is the narrator.)

Important Quotes

"All thinking men are atheists."

- Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, Chapter 2

"War is not won by victory."

- Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, Chapter 9

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