A Farewell to Arms

by American novelist Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Key Facts

Composing date: 1926-1928

Published date: 1929

Genre: War novel

Place setting: Italy and Switzerland

Time setting: Middle of First World War,1916-1918.

Point of view: First-person point of view

Character analysis

Hemingway is unique to represent a broad journey of life within very characters. The major characters of the war novel are:

Frederic Henry

He is the protagonist and narrator of the novel. He is an American Lieutenant who works in Italian Army. While working as an ambulance driver in the First World War, he falls in love with a British nurse named Catherine Barkley.

Catherine Barkley

She is a British nurse who falls in love with an injured soldier after the death of her fiancé. She and Henry escape to Switzerland from Italy and spend a nice winter but their happiness does not last long because she dies at childbirth because of bleeding.


He is a Lieutenant in rank and a very friendly Italian surgeon who loves women and drinking. He has a good friendship with Henry in the novel.

Miss Van Campen

She is the head nurse at the American hospital in Milan who dislikes Henry and has him sent back to the front after he contracts jaundice.


Hemingway’s themes initially simply sit at the bottom of the surface and rise to the top through conversation and action. The major themes of the novel are:

Futility of war

The novel “A Farewell to Arms” takes place in Italy during First World War, and the lives of all the characters are marked by the war. Most of the characters of the novel are humanists who agree with Hemingway’s view that war is a senseless waste of life.


Many young men signed up to defend their countries during the destructive First World War and they believed their valor would bring recognition and glory for them. These bright-eyed men faced the horrors of war: senseless violence, horrific living conditions, and terrible loss but soon they realized that they were nameless that is why in the novel, the brave men such as Passini, Rinaldi, Bonello, and even Frederic Henry question why they had joined the battle and what they could possibly contribute.


Life is tough for the soldiers and on the battlefield losses are common, deaths are grisly, and recoveries are painful. The men are given few opportunities to recover from their daily stress. So they use mean pleasures as a means of escaping their realities. Throughout the novel, Henry and other soldiers drink excessively to forget where they are and what they have experienced. They frequently engage in illicit sexuality to forget their realities of life.

Love and loss

Henry is a man who has an aversion to love. Yet in spite of his natural cynicism and disgust about love, he falls in love with Catherine. Contrarywise, Catherine falls in love to just overcome her losses in love. The loss of Catherine’s fiancé on a battlefield in France before the novel begins and the foreshadowing of the loss Henry will have to live with at the novel’s end when Catherine dies in childbirth. In fact, the intensified relationship of Catherine and Henry seems almost dependent on the loss surrounding them.

Search for ideal life

In the novel “A Farewell to Arms”, Hemingway has shown the destructions of the war from the beginning to Henry’s escape from the mouth of death. But After Henry and Catherine escape to Switzerland it has been totally changed because they lead there an ideal life free from the tension and anxiety of war.


Lieutenant Frederic Henry is an American who has joined intentionally the Italian army as an ambulance driver during First World War. Italy and Austria are face to face in the battlefield. The story of the novel begins in the late autumn of 1916 in the Italian-Austrian border town of Gorizia. At the beginning of winter, the rains come and 7,000 Italian soldiers die of the cholera epidemic. The war has been slow down and the Italians are waiting for an offensive attack after the winter. During the break, Henry travels on leave, visiting bustling cities and brothels on the recommendation of his best friend Lieutenant Rinaldi who is a surgeon. When Henry comes back from leave, he notes that nothing has changed in his absence. Henry meets his friend Rinaldi who takes him to meet the British nurse Catherine Barkley. Despite the fact that Catherine is still mourning for her fiancé who had been killed in battle in France, Catherine and Henry connect immediately. To overcome her grief, Catherine plays a love game with Henry in which they kiss each other without any passion and attraction.

The war resumes and, Henry’s legs get damaged in a mission when he tries to save an ambulance driver. Henry is taken to a hospital in Milan. He requests his Finaldi to transfer Catherine in American hospital in Milan. The doctors recommend that he must take bed rest for six months and then a necessary operation on his knee must be completed. Henry feels frustrated for his long-term treatment and he finds a brave surgeon named Dr. Valentini who agrees to operate immediately. Henry feels soothes since he has learned that Catherine has been transferred to Milan to take care of him. Within a few months, his relationship with Catherine gets intensified. Now Catherine’s passion is not fake but rather their love has become powerful and real.

With intensified love and care of Catherine, Henry’s damaged leg has got cured and he is granted three weeks of recovery leave and then he has to join in his service again. He plans a trip with Catherine, who is three months pregnant now. The following day, Henry is diagnosed with jaundice, and the superintendent of the hospital named Miss Van Campen accuses him that he has brought the disease by excessive drinking. That is why after clearing jaundice, Miss Van Campen revokes Henry’s leave. Both Henry and Catherine promises that they will reunite and marry as soon as the war will be ended.

Henry returns to the battlefield and notices that there is a lot of change. Rinaldi has become dark and bitter from charming. Besides, the Italian army is poorly performing in the war. They have suffered great losses and there is no discipline in the regiment. During an offensive strike, the German army easily breaks the Italian border. Chaos spreads as Italian soldiers begin throwing away their guns in the hope of ending the war. During the retreat, Henry’s ambulance gets stuck in the mud, and he shoots an Italian sergeant who disobeys his orders.

As the Italians arrive at the border, battle police take officers out of line for questioning. But instead of questioning, one by one the officers are shot because of treachery for which the Italians have been defeated. Henry flees by jumping into a river and swimming to safety in Milan to find out Catherine. He is informed that Catherine is in Stresa, an Italian town. Wearing borrowed civilian clothing, he gets on a train and reaches the Italian town Stresa, where he reunites with Catherine in the hotel named Isles Borromées.  They hide in a hotel and Henry learns that he is in danger and any time he can be arrested because of his treachery. In the middle of a terrible rainstorm, on a rowing- boat, Catherine and Henry travel to neutral Switzerland from Italy. They reach after a long night of rowing. The couple spends a glorious winter hidden away in the mountains. In the spring, Catherine gives birth to a dead son or stillborn son by cesarean operation. A few hours later, she suffers from huge internal bleeding and dies in Henry’s arms. Then Henry indifferently walks home from the hospital in the rain.

The keywords of the story

  1. Cholera epidemic in winter, postponing the war till summer and Henry’s meeting with Catherine
  2. Resume of the war and Henry’s leg injury
  3. Intensified love between Henry and Catherine in American Hospital in Milan
  4. Defeat of Italy
  5. Escaping to Switzerland

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SR Sarker
SR Sarker
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