Finally we learn about the particular nature of the narrator's involvement in the war: He supervises a group of ambulance drivers. At the start of this chapter, he briefly discusses the condition of the cars with his men. Rinaldi convinces the narrator to join him in visiting Miss Barkley. And so at sunset, on the grounds of a German villa converted to a British hospital, the narrator meets two nurses: Miss Barkley and her friend Helen Ferguson. Miss Barkley and the narrator talk of the war and of her fiancé, killed in combat the year before.
Chapter IV is a key chapter both dramatically and thematically. In terms of the novel's action, it is when the protagonist of A Farewell to Arms meets the novel's heroine, setting the story proper in motion. Notice how quickly they become intimate; Catherine Barkley talks of her recent loss of the man to whom she was engaged, and the narrator admits that he has never loved anyone. Hemingway understands how rapidly people grow close during times of extraordinary stress.
Thematically, the narrator is already preparing for — that is, rationalizing — what will be the climactic act of the novel: his desertion from the Italian army. He does so here by telling himself and us that his leave has not affected the smooth and successful operation of his unit: "It evidently made no difference whether I was there to look after things or not" and "The whole thing seemed to run better while I was away." In other words, if the narrator chooses to abandon his commitment to the cause someday, this will have no discernible negative effect on the war. Along these lines, Miss Barkley's observation, "What an odd thing — to be in the Italian army," is significant, the first of many such remarks that will give the narrator a kind of permission, ultimately, to desert. After all, he joined voluntarily, and it is not even his own country he is fighting for.
Notice also how Rinaldi and the narrator pause for not one but two drinks of grappa before going to meet Miss Barkley and Miss Ferguson. One of the themes that runs throughout Hemingway's work, including A Farewell to Arms, is that encounters between the sexes can be just as terrifying (and just as dangerous — this one will result in two deaths) as battlefield combat. Thus it is necessary to fortify oneself for such meetings.
Finally, it is typical of Hemingway not to provide much in the way of physical descriptions of his characters. Miss Barkley, for instance, "was quite tall. She wore what seemed to me to be a nurse's uniform, was blonde and had a tawny skin and gray eyes. I thought she was very beautiful." Hemingway realized that this lack of specifics would accomplish two things: 1) allow his readers to fill in the blanks with their own details, making them active participants in the storytelling experience, and 2) lend a sense of universality to his characters. In a sense, anyone could be the hero or the heroine of A Farewell to Arms.
battery an emplacement for heavy guns, or a fortification equipped with such guns.
Signor Tenente (Italian) Mr. Lieutenant.
on permission on leave.
gasoline park a station for refueling motor vehicles.
infantry that branch of an army consisting of soldiers equipped and trained to fight chiefly on foot.
Hugo's English grammar an English-language textbook.
Grappa an Italian brandy distilled from the lees left after pressing grapes to make wine.
the Somme a river in north France, site of brutal fighting between Allied and German forces during World War I.
sabre a heavy cavalry sword with a slightly curved blade. Swords were rendered largely ineffectual by the development of firearms, thus Catherine's reference is ironic.
abbastanza bene (Italian) rather well.
pas encore (French) not really.