Ernest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms is an examination of war, loyalty, desertion, love and loss. His novel tells the story of an American, Fredric Henry, serving in the Italian army during World War I. Using a first person narrative we witness the horrors of war, the beauty of love, and the pain of loss. While the novel is fiction there are many similarities to Hemmingway’s life, which he uses as inspiration in his work. These experiences add substance to his tale of love in a time of war. The story is broken into five books, each covering a different aspect of narrative structure.
The first book is an excellent example building the exposition of a story, beginning with Lieutenant Henry describing the village where his unit is stationed. Through Henry’s eyes Hemmingway describes the beauty of the village and the neighboring countryside. He also alludes to the impending conflict that is soon to ravage the land, detailing the men and equipment that come through the streets. Book one also introduces love affair of the two central characters of the story; Fredric Henry, an American serving as a Lieutenant with the Italian Army and Catherine Barkley, an English working in the local hospital.
Their relationship develops quickly but is just as quickly tested when Henry is severely injured in battle. Book Two continues to build on the love affair between Henry and Catherine. After Henry is moved away from the front to an American hospital, where he is soon reunited Catherine and they resume their affair. Henry is faced with the not only major surgery and a long recovery, but also having to hide his relationship with Catherine. Elements of both Henry and Catherine’s personalities are fleshed out in greater detail.
Henry is a fairly aloof man. He does not care much for the war and he is not interested in the merits or the glory of war; however he is a good and dedicated soldier. Catherine is very submissive toward Henry. She often gives control of the relationship to Henry, becoming almost co-dependent. As their time together increases Henry finds himself growing more and more dedicated to his relationship to Catherine. As the fall arrives Henry is faced with two new major complications; he must return to the battle front and Catherine is now pregnant. Henry being a man of honor promises his love to Catherine and that we will not desert her.
Henry moves onto the front where things will go from bad to worse. Henry is moved back to the front and he begins to see how the war has changed not only the countryside but those around him as well. Because Henry is not Italian he does not feel the same sense of loyalty those around him feel and he begins to question his duty to the war efforts. His summer with Catherine has given Henry a new outlook on life and a different cause to commit to. This adds to the rising conflict of the story as now Henry is back in harm’s way and will soon see thing that will change his perception of war and his life and force him to make a choice that will change his life. The main crisis of the story is in Book Three.
Not long after returning to the fight the Italian defenses are broken and the army is ordered to retreat. Henry must take his ambulances and drivers across the Italian country side to the rally point. As they trek through the ravaged landscape Henry begins to see the war as being hopeless and his thoughts move toward being with Catherine once again. During the retreat Henry is forced to kill another soldier for not obey an order. He also sees as one of his men is killed by fellow Italian soldiers. These two events cause Henry to detach completely from his duties as an officer.
The story reaches the climax as Henry is being separated from his men and about to be executed. No longer feeling any commitment to the cause and knowing that he will be shot simply for being an officer Henry decides to flee and start his new life with Catherine. After escaping execution and reuniting with Catherine, Henry realizes that he longer has any associations to the war in Italy and is dedicated only to Catherine. The couple makes their way into Switzerland to begin a life and await the birth of their child.
It is in this time that the story takes a moment for pause, almost as a build up for one final crisis. It is nearly 3:00 AM and Catherine has started going into labor, and this is where the final crisis comes in to play. As Catherine goes through hours of intense labor, Henry can only stand by and watch. He prays to God for her safety. He prays for the safety of the one thing he holds dear. He asks for the protection of the center of his universe, Catherine.
The baby is delivered still born and Catherine dies shortly after. Henry says his final good byes to Catherine but they bring him no peace. He sees no purpose in their deaths, simply an event he was powerless to stop. He is left with nothing but a walk back to the hotel in the rain, bringing the story to its conclusion. Hemmingway’s tale of war, love and loss carefully uses each book of his story to bring all the narrative elements into play. The first two books build the exposition and set up the rising action. He uses book three to set the final crisis and bring about the climax. Book Four brings the action down to set up for the tragic conclusion in Book Five.