A Farewell to Arms - Book Summary

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A. Book Data
Title: A Farwell to Arms
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Publisher: Charles Scribner’s Sons; New York
First published in: 1929

B. Summary
‘A Farewell to Arms’ is set in the Julian Alps on the front between the Austro-Hungarian empire and Italy during the First World War. The narrator of the story is Frederick Henry, a second lieutenant in the Italian Army, an American volunteer in the Ambulance Corps. We soon learn that Henry leads a voluptuous life, getting drunk in the evening and visiting brothels. Yet we notice he has more decency than his fellow officers on one point: he does not chaff at the priest in the mess. One day Henry visits the hospital with his friend Rinaldi to meet some nurses. He meets Catherine Barkley, a tall blonde with long hair, who he thinks is very beautiful. They develop an affair. One day Henry and his ambulance crew get shelled while waiting at a field station in a dugout. Some die and Henry gets seriously wounded. He is evacuated with priority to an American hospital in Milan. While he is in the hospital he is visited by Rinaldi and the priest, and learns he is to receive a silver medal for his bravery. This means little to him; his great moment of joy is when he learns that Catherine is to work at his hospital. There they make love for the first time, and after that she visits him in the evenings while on night duty. An excellent surgeon operates his knee and in short time he can walk on crutches, then with a cane. While his articulation recovers, he has a great time in Milan, going to horse races and relaxing in cafés most of the days. He also learns that Catherine has become pregnant. Later bad luck has it that Henry gets jaundice, a liver disease. On top of that, the superintendent, who dislikes Henry, discovers empty bottles of brandy under his bed and accuses him of intentionally making himself get the disease in order to not have to leave to the front. As a result his convalescent leave is cut short and Henry hasn’t fully recovered when he returns to Gorizia. Back at the mess, he notices that the men are worn and tired, and that things are not going well for the Italians. Ambulances are being shelled. One evening a great retreat is ordered. The retreat is soon chaos as the vast army causes traffic jams on the narrow roads. In the morning Henry, expecting Austrian planes to soon come bomb the column, decides to take side roads to his gathering point in Udine. The muddy roads cause one ambulance to get stuck. When two sergeants then make off refusing to help get the ambulance out, Henry shoots one of them. Efforts to free the ambulance prove to no avail, and later the remaining ambulances also get stuck and the four men are forced to retreat by foot. On their way they see German bicycle soldiers and staff cars pass. Aymo, Henry’s friend, is shot on the way by his own countrymen, who are afraid of everything after having heard that Germans in Italian uniforms were infiltrating the army (a myth). As they continue, another man, Bonello, deserts. They come across Italian brigades who have thrown away their rifles and shout “Vive la Pace”. Finally they arrive at a bridge where carabinieri, or battle police, arrest all soldiers and officers who are not with their brigades and summarily execute them. Henry’s accent causes them to believe he is a German infiltrator. In desperation Henry dives into the ice cold river, nearly drowning himself but at least escaping. The next day Henry manages to bypass some station guards and get on a train to Mestre, from where he continues to Stresa. Here he knows people and is helped by an American friend of his, Simmons, and dressed in civilian clothing. To his delight he hears that Catherine is in town and they are soon reunited. The couple has a great time until one evening Henry’s friend the bartender warns him of his imminent arrest that morning. He supplies him with food and a boat and in the middle of the stormy night they are off on the...
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