A Farewell to Arms Summary
A Farewell to Arms is neatly divided into five books like a five act drama. Book one sets the scene, introduces the characters and gives an idea of what is to happen.
It is the summer of 1916 and the scene is the Italian front, war is going on and the mood is gloomy. The narrator tells us how the permanent rain came in the winter and brought cholera and killed seven thousand men in the Army. Fighting is suspended. The narrator is to go on leave. The priest wants him to go to Abruzzi a place of peace and calm. But Henry returns having visited all the big cities, indulging in wine and women, when he returns he is sorry that he didn’t go to Abruzzi.
When he returns to the front he meets Catherine Barkley an English nurse through his roommate Rinaldi. A kind of romance develops between the two. Casual on Henry’s part and serious on Catherine’s who is a bit crazy due to her fiance’s death. Henry is casual in his attitude to both the war and to love. He however begins to feel lonely at not being able to see Catherine and performs his duties conscientiously. Henry is wounded severely in his legs as he was sitting in a dug out with his drivers during the offensive. He comes face to face with the horror of war. He is transferred to the field hospital. Rinaldi comes to meet him and talks of casual sex and the priest also comes but he gives the definition of ideal love. Then Henry is to be transferred to the American Hospital in Milan.
Henry’s wound serves as a means to open his eyes about the war. Especially more so when he is told that he will get an award for bravery. It also serves as an excuse to take the lovers away from the scene of war to another where the love theme can be developed.
Henry is now at the American Hospital in Milan. And Catherine too is transferred there. On seeing her, Henry realizes that he had truly fallen in love. Earlier, love had been just a game like bridge played for status. But now he is very much in love. As he recuperates from his wounds their love affair blooms. They lead a nice life during that summer. But Henry has to return to the front. Catherine also tells him that she was pregnant. She had tried everything but nothing worked and she was pregnant. Henry offers to marry but she refuses. The lovers part in the rain and the book ends on this gloomy note.
In Book III we are back at the war front. Things have changed for the worst. Most men are depressed. Rinaldi, the major, the priest all express their feeling of despair. The unspoken wish is for the war to end.
The written Book in then devoted to the Caporetto retreat which happens soon after Henry returns. The Italian offensive has been a failure and their army has been routed by the Austro-German forces. An order to retreat is given. There is also some patriotic talk and Henry expresses that for him words like ‘sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain’ were rather embarassing. He says, ‘He heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through and had read them…..the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards of Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except bury it…..Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the name of rivers, the number of regiments and the dates”.
It is the retreat that opens Henry’s eyes in the reality of war. As it becomes chaotic and confused from the ordered style that it had started out as. He sees the disorder and disarray the whole country and the army is thrown into. Henry is forced to abandon his cars, shoot at the sergeants, and run for his life. In the process Bonello leaves to give himself up and Ayno is killed by the Italian rear guard. Henry observes the Battle police summarily executing officers suspected of deserting their post. He himself is under threat of being executed. In a split second decision, he jumps into the Tagliamento river and escapes. Officially he has deserted the army. He gets into a freight train and having bid farewell to the war thus, makes his way towards love and Catherine.
This book opens with Henry coming to Milan in search of Catherine. He is out of uniform and he does not want to talk about the war with anyone. He finds that she and Ferguson has left for Stressa. He takes the help of Simmons, a student of music to dress in civilian clothes and takes the train to Stressa.
In Stressa the lovers are united. A very pregnant Catherine is ecstatic to see him whereas Ferguson is unhappy that Henry might leave her or that they might never get married etc. However, both Henry and Catherine assure her of their love and wish to stay together. This section also serves as a brief interlude of love. The lovers have a lovely time together. Sometimes, Henry is consumed by guilty thoughts about the war. He still has no inclination to talk about the war but at times he thought about Rinaldi and the priest and others and he feels like an errant school boy wondering of what may be happening at the certain have he had played truant. The lovers are forced to flee thick idyll when the barman at the hotel they are in wakes them up during the night with the information that they were going to arrest Henry in the morning as ‘they’ know Henry to be an officer and now he was out of uniform. He offers them his boat so that they can row across the lake and escape to Switzerland. Henry and Catherine take up this offer. They simply walk out of the hotel and go to the lake. There the barman gives them some sandwiches and brandy and instructions as to how to reach Switzerland. The rest of the chapter is about how Henry rows throughout the night and finally arrive around down. They get into Switzerland without much trouble and also get permission to stay without any hardship
The last book of the novel contains the final catastrophe. The lull before the storm can be found in the blissful interlude enjoyed by the lovers in the mountains of Switzerland. They are completely isolated from the world and absolutely happy within themselves. The weather is cold and dry, everything is beautiful. However, the lovers are again forced to come down from their mountain retreat and down to Lausame to be near a hospital as Catherine’s delivery times are closing in. Henry has a subconscious feeling that time was pressing on. He feels time’s winged chariot hurrying near.
Catherine goes into labour soon. But it turns out to be a long protracted labour which proves immensely difficult and painful for Catherine. After being in labour for a whole day the doctors decide that a Caesarean operation is necessary. However, it proves useless because the baby is stillborn though it was a big, healthy looking boy and Catherine herself succumbs due to one internal hemorrhage after another. She had wanted so much for things to be okay and she had fought as much as she could but she dies. All this while Henry numb, had been wandering up and down and thinking. He thinks about the baby wishing it had been baptized even though he wasn’t religious. For the time he prays to God, he prays that if God spared her, he would do anything, Henry undergoes a lot of turmoil in his mind. At one point he feels that Catherine was dying as a result of all the happy nights they spent in Milan and says that dead was the end of the biological trap. Then he rants that the only thing that ever happened was that one died. He is not proud of his son because he nearly killed his mother but he feels sorry that he choked to death. When he learns that Catherine is dead he drives all the nurses away from her. But it was like saying goodbye La statue. He then walks out and walks back to his hotel in the rain.
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