Chapter I introduces the general setting of A Farewell to Arms: wartime during the early twentieth century (note the references to "motor trucks" and "motor cars"), in an agricultural region of an as-yet-unnamed country. The narrator, also unidentified so far, tells of fighting in the mountains beyond the plain where the action of the chapter takes place, mentioning that "things went very badly" for his side.
The first chapter is short, but it could hardly be more significant, as it is here that Hemingway sets the tone for the entire novel to follow. This is to be a story of war, but one that tells the harsh truth about war rather than glorifying the topic: War is not picturesque and glamorous but rather dull and dangerous in equal measure.
Thus death and dying take center stage in the opening pages of A Farewell to Arms. Although these pages are set in a plain "rich with crops," rain will serve as a symbol of death in this novel. And so our narrator reports that "in the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain. The vineyards were thin and bare-branched too and all the country wet and brown and dead with autumn." The narrator also tells us that the rain was followed by disease. Thus Hemingway makes an explicit, even causal, connection between rain and death. He then foreshadows the novel's tragic conclusion when the soldiers weighed down by weapons and ammunition are said to march "as though they were six months gone with child."
Notice how the war moves past the narrator while he remains stationary, an observer of marching troops, mules, and trucks transporting weapons and supplies, and finally cars carrying officers as high-ranking as generals — even the King himself. Although we don't yet know the circumstances of the narrator's involvement in the conflict, we can tell that he is less than fully engaged in this war. (Later, we will learn that he is Frederic Henry, an American volunteer in the ambulance corps and a second lieutenant in the Italian army.) He is on its periphery, literally and perhaps philosophically as well.
A fundamental dichotomy of the novel is introduced in Chapter I: the tension between mountains and plains, highlands and lowlands. (Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker was one of the first commentators to stress this pattern in A Farewell to Arms.) In general during this story, activities that are disciplined and pure and therefore admirable tend to occur in the mountains, while the lowlands are the province of the weak, the corrupt.
Chapter I also raises the curtain on the distinctive and influential Hemingway style of writing, often summed up as the use of short, declarative sentences rich with specific, concrete detail. Just as typical of the writer's style, and even more distinctive, are long, compound sentences comprising short clauses in series — in effect, a chain of sentences linked by conjunctions (short, connective words like "and," "or," and "but"). For instance, "The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves."
Finally, we get a sense from this chapter of the narrator's attitude toward the unpleasant and difficult, the painful and even tragic. Regarding the cholera outbreak, he tells us that "in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army." Only seven thousand! Like all of Hemingway's heroes, the narrator of A Farewell to Arms is a stoic, understating rather than exaggerating, and grimly accepting what he cannot change.
camion a motor truck or heavy dray wagon.
the King here, meaning Victor Emmanuel III (d. 1947), King of Italy (1900-46).
Udine a commune (that is, the smallest administrative district of local government) between the Tagliamento and Isonzo Rivers in the Venetia region of northeast Italy.
cholera any of various intestinal diseases; specifically, an acute, severe, infectious disease (Asiatic cholera) common in Asia, caused by bacteria and characterized by profuse diarrhea, intestinal pain, and dehydration.