A Farewell to Arms is not a complicated book. Rather, it is a simple story well told, the plot of which could be summarized as follows: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl. Ernest Hemingway conveyed this story chronologically, in a strictly linear fashion, with no flashback scenes whatsoever. In fact, the novel contains very little exposition at all. We never learn exactly where its narrator and protagonist, the American ambulance driver Frederic Henry, came from, or why he enlisted in the Italian army to begin with. (For that matter, we read chapter after chapter before even learning his name.) Nor do we discover much about his lover Catherine Barkley's past, other than the fact that her fiancé was killed in battle, in France.
There are no subplots, and the minor characters in A Farewell to Arms are minor indeed — for the simple fact that they are not needed. The power of this perennially popular book comes from the intensity of Frederic and Catherine's love for one another and from the power of the antagonistic forces that ultimately tear these two apart.
A Farewell to Arms is set against the historical and geographical background of World War I. Thus it contains numerous references to people and places, governments and fronts that Hemingway could safely assume his audience would recognize. In fact, certain basic information isn't alluded to in the book at all, as it was once common knowledge. (The book was published in 1929, only eleven years after the armistice of November 11, 1918, that ended the war.) For a contemporary audience, however, making sense of these references can be difficult. The continuing popularity of A Farewell to Arms attests to the fact that enjoyment of the novel does not depend upon understanding its particular setting. Here, however, are some basics:
World War I, or the Great War as it was then known, began in August 1914 with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand. The war pitted the Central Powers (Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) against the allied forces of Great Britain, France, Russia, and Italy, who were joined in 1917 by the United States. The action of A Farewell to Arms takes place from 1916-18 in four locations, for the most part: 1) the Julian Alps, along what was then the border between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire; 2) the city of Milan, which lies in the plains of northern Italy, far from the front; 3) the Italian resort town of Stresa on Lake Maggiore, which straddles the border between Italy and Switzerland; and 4) various towns and villages of the Swiss Alps.
At the start of the book, the Italian army is busy keeping the Austro-Hungarian forces occupied so that the latter cannot assist the Germans on the war's western and eastern fronts. Later, Russia will withdraw due to the communist Revolution of 1917, and near the book's climax German troops will join the Austro-Hungarian forces, necessitating Italy's humiliating retreat from Caporetto. (This event, which the book's first readers would have recognized, provided the author with the opportunity for some of his most dramatic and effective writing ever.) Keep in mind as you read that Switzerland shares a border with Italy — and that Switzerland was neutral during World War I.
The context of A Farewell to Arms is not simply the First World War, however, but all the wars that preceded it, as well — or rather, the general notion of war as an opportunity for heroism. Hemingway writes here in the tradition of the greatest war stories ever told: Homer's Iliad and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. And certain techniques of Homer and Tolstoy (for instance, juxtaposing what we might call a "wide-screen" view of battle with "close-ups") were put to extremely effective use in A Farewell to Arms, starting in the book's very first chapter.
But like The Red Badge of Courage, the famous novel of the Civil War written by Stephen Crane (one of Hemingway's favorite American authors), A Farewell to Arms also reacts against the Iliad and War and Peace and many lesser stories of battlefield bravery. It tries to tell the often-ugly truth about war — to honestly depict life during wartime rather than glorifying it. Thus this book contains not just deserters (Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley themselves), but illness and injury and incompetent leadership; it contains profanity (or at least implies it) and prostitution at the front. Frederic Henry's injury is incurred not in valorous combat but while he is eating spaghetti. The retreat from Caporetto disintegrates into sheer anarchy.
A Farewell to Arms is probably the best novel written about World War I (with Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front a strong runner-up), and it bears comparison to the best American books about World War II (Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller among them), Korea (James Salter's The Hunters), and Vietnam (The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien).
And yet, A Farewell to Arms is at the same time a tender love story — one of the most tender and affecting ever written. It has been compared to William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and the reference is an apt one. Both stories concern young lovers antagonized by their societies. (In Shakespeare's play, the Montague-Capulet blood feud is the problem; in Hemingway's novel, the Great War is to blame.) Both stories seem to vibrate with a sickening sense of doom that only increases as the stories near their respective conclusions. And both end in heartbreaking tragedy. If not one of the greatest love stories ever told, A Farewell to Arms is certainly among the greatest of the twentieth century.
Actually, it is the very combination of love and war that makes this book so potent and memorable. Regarding the woman he loves, the hero of Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls tells himself "You had better love her very hard, and make up in intensity what the relation will lack in duration and continuity." Frederic Henry of A Farewell to Arms could say the same thing of his affair with Catherine Barkley. Because they meet in a time and place in which every day could be their last together, Frederic and Catherine must wring every drop of intimacy and passion from their relationship. (Notice how soon Catherine begins to speak of love, and how soon — especially considering the conservative mores of the time in which the book is set — they sleep together.) The result is an affair — and a story — almost unbearable in its intensity.
A Farewell to Arms is certainly one of Hemingway's finest novels. In fact, some critics have called it his best. Though not as inventive — as extreme, really — in subject and style as The Sun Also Rises (published three years earlier), this book actually benefits from its comparatively conventional approach to storytelling; it seems more sincere, more heartfelt. (Of course, The Sun Also Rises is about World War I, too. It merely focuses on the war's tragic aftermath.)
And like William Faulkner's Light in August, A Farewell to Arms proves that its author was not merely a Modern master. He could also produce a big book in the grand tradition of the nineteenth century novel. In retrospect, it is no surprise that A Farewell to Arms is the book that made Ernest Hemingway famous. As Robert Penn Warren wrote in his Introduction to a later edition of the novel, "A Farewell to Arms more than justified the early enthusiasm of the connoisseurs of Hemingway and extended this reputation from them to the public at large."
A Farewell to Arms feels less propagandistic than Hemingway's other great war story, For Whom the Bell Tolls — which relies partly on flashback for its effect and also descends at times into the stylistic mannerism that marred the author's later work. A Farewell to Arms is vastly superior to the remaining Hemingway novels (To Have and Have Not and Across the River and Into the Trees, and the posthumously published Islands in the Stream and The Garden of Eden) as well as the novellas The Torrents of Spring and The Old Man and the Sea. In fact, the only other volume in the Hemingway oeuvre that stands up to a comparison with A Farewell to Arms is the writer's debut story collection, In Our Time. That book's postwar tales, "Soldier's Home" and "Big Two-Hearted River," can almost be read as sequels to A Farewell to Arms, or at least to the events that inspired the novel.