In the novel's final chapter, Frederic Henry takes Catherine Barkley to the hospital, where she experiences a protracted and agonizing childbirth. First the baby dies, having choked on its umbilical cord. Then, as a result of multiple hemorrhages, Catherine dies as well.
Chapter XLI achieves its tragic and powerful effect mainly by following through on the painstaking preparation of all the chapters that have gone before. For instance, the nurse's instructions that Catherine change into a nightgown upon her arrival at the hospital remind us of the nightgown bought for the hotel stay on the couple's last night in Milan, perhaps even hinting that it was on that evening that Catherine conceived the baby she is about to bear. Similarly, card games among the patrons of the café where Henry eats during the baby's ill-fated delivery remind us of his gross misunderstanding at the affair's beginning that it was a game, like chess or bridge.
Notice that Catherine tells the admitting nurse she has no religion. About her caesarian operation, Henry tells us that "It looked like a drawing of the Inquisition." Admitting once again that he himself is an agnostic, Henry briefly regrets that the baby was not baptized, then changes his mind. There is no point in believing in God in a world that senselessly kills Aymo, Rinaldi, the baby — and "Now Catherine would die." It is a world like the burning campfire log that Henry describes, swarming with ants that he cannot save despite the impulse "to be a messiah."
Still, as anyone would, he tries bargaining with God in his desperation at Catherine's impending death. She, on the other hand, retains the courage of her convictions to the end. "Just you," she requests of Henry in response to his offer of a priest's visit. Despite everything, love is her religion until the instant she dies.
The word "brave" and the concept of Catherine's bravery appear throughout the chapter, to horrifying effect, as Henry has already shared with us his viewpoint that the very brave are destined to die. "I'm all going to pieces," Catherine tells Henry, reminding us of the novel's best-known passage (see Chapter XXXIV). Moments later, he tells her to be brave, and she responds "I'm not brave any more, darling, I'm all broken. They've broken me."
At first Catherine responds to the discomfort of childbirth cheerfully ("When the pains were bad she called them good ones"), consistent with her characterization throughout the story and especially during the perilous escape from Italy. When she cannot smile and joke later, the implication is that her pain must be excruciating. Similarly, Henry has borne up under so much wartime suffering, yet he is unable to watch the caesarian operation: proof that it is grisly indeed. "This" — suffering and death — "was what people got for loving each other," he tells us, reiterating the author's love-sex-war-death continuum. Note that the war goes on, oblivious, as evinced by the newspaper Henry reads at the café.
With regard to the symbolically-significant weather, when Henry leaves the hospital for lunch, "The day was cloudy but the sun was trying to come through." During the operation, he looks out the window and sees that it is raining. Just after the nurse has told him that the baby is dead, Henry looks outside again and "could see nothing but the dark and the rain falling across the light from the window." Other symbolism in this chapter includes the overturned garbage can containing nothing but "coffee grounds, dust and some dead flowers." A more bleak vision of life can hardly be imagined.
Finally, following the stylistic example of his teacher Gertrude Stein, Hemingway repeats two phrases like a refrain: Catherine's "Give it to me," regarding the painkilling nitrous oxide, and Henry's interior "She won't/can't die." The dramatic result: tension is augmented to positively harrowing effect. The writer also makes much stylistic use of James Joyce's stream-of-consciousness technique, as long passages quote directly from Henry's jumbled, panicked thoughts and feelings.
Henry's repeated visits to the local café during Catherine's ordeal not only turn up the tension, as we wonder desperately what is evolving back at the hospital. Also, tragically, they serve for Henry as a kind of unconscious rehearsal for his life after Catherine's death to come. (The writer tested this dynamic in an early story, the justly famous "Hills Like White Elephants.") We know as a result that he will be terribly lonely when she is gone.
In fact, Henry's aloneness begins as soon as Catherine dies: The doctor offers help and companionship, and Henry refuses both. This is consistent with Catherine's own refusal of assistance to the very end. Her answer to Henry's question, "Do you want me to get a priest or any one to come and see you?" is "Just you." Ironically, Henry and Catherine's separate peace has been so successful — in its separateness, at least — that they find themselves without a community to provide support and sustenance in this time of ultimate need. In A Farewell to Arms, as well as his other novels and stories, Hemingway chose to emphasize that even when they exist, such communities cannot save us from our own mortality: a bleak vision, indeed.
some cylinders . . . a rubber mask attached to a tube apparatus for delivering nitrous oxide ("laughing gas").
petcock a small faucet or valve.
kirsch a colorless alcoholic drink distilled from the fermented juice of black cherries.
marc the brandy distilled from the refuse of grapes, seeds, other fruits, etc. after pressing; the French counterpart to grappa.
choucroute (French) sauerkraut.
demi demi-blonde beer.
bock a dark beer traditionally drunk in the early spring.
in the mill-race literally, in the channel in which the current of water that drives a mill wheel runs. A colloquialism meaning past the point of no return.
plat du jour (French) special of the day.