Book Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

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Ernest Hemingway fought in the ‘war to end all wars’ in 1918. In Italy, he served as an ambulance driver and was wounded twice. These experiences inspired him to write A Farewell to Arms. The description of war Hemingway provides is unforgettable. 

The fear, the comradeship, and the courage of the young American volunteer and the people he meets in Italy are recreated with absolute conviction. A Farewell to Arms is not only a novel about war. Hemingway has also crafted a love story filled with dramatic tension and uncompromising passion.

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book review will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

Without further ado, let’s get started. 

Plot Summary

During World War I, a wounded American volunteer with the Italian army loses his lover, his child, and much of his own identity.

Book 1: Chapters 1–12 

From the beginning of World War I, Frederic Henry, an American volunteer with the Italian army, has been driving ambulances at the battlefront. Tired, bored, and feeling a little overworked, Frederic is introduced to the young, attractive Catherine Barkley, a British nurse’s aid whose fiancé was killed early in the war. 

For Frederic, their relationship begins as a game, like bridge, to be played but not taken seriously. Catherine, however, is one of the “war-wounded”; she has bad “moments” in which she cannot distinguish between Frederic and her dead fiancé, whom she loved very much. Frederic’s friend, the surgeon Rinaldi, jokes with him about the nurse, and Frederic plays the game, not overly concerned about Catherine’s strange moments. 

He prefers romancing Miss Barkley to having sex with the prostitutes the government has provided in the officers’ brothel.

When the 1917 spring attack begins, Frederic’s ambulance group is moved to Plava, a key point on the Isonzo River where the Italians must cross under heavy enemy fire. Before Frederic leaves, Catherine gives him a St. Anthony’s medal for protection; her gesture proves ironically useless since, during the initial night bombardment, an Austrian shell kills one of Frederic’s men and leaves Frederic seriously wounded in his lower right leg. 

The St. Anthony medal is lost, and while Frederic is being driven back to the field hospital, the man above him in the ambulance hemorrhages to death.

At the field hospital, Frederic is visited first by Rinaldi and then by the Priest assigned to their unit. Rinaldi is certain that Frederic has behaved courageously and should be decorated for valor, but Frederic insists he did nothing brave.

Rinaldi jokes with him about Catherine, giving sexual advice that offends Frederic. When the Priest visits, he gives the wounded American spiritual advice on the nature of love, which he defines as sacrifice and service. 

Frederic is not ready for this advice either. The night before he is moved to the American hospital in Milan, Frederic learns that Catherine Barkley is being transferred to the same Milan hospital. Together with Rinaldi and an Italian major, Frederic gets very drunk and stays drunk through much of the painful train ride to Milan.

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Book 2: Chapters 13–24 

As soon as Frederic is bedded down in the newly opened American hospital, Catherine Barkley appears at his side, radiantly beautiful. Now that he is as wounded and vulnerable as Catherine, Frederic falls in love with her despite his decision to avoid such a relationship. 

He has no more control of his emotions than he had control of the shell that wounded him. There, in his hospital bed, the two war victims quickly consummate their desire and pledge their love for each other.

Through the summer and early fall of 1917, Frederic slowly recuperates in Milan while he and Catherine lead a relatively carefree life far from the horrors of war. Once a competent surgeon is found, the shrapnel (shell fragments) is removed from Frederic’s leg and his knee rebuilt. 

All the while, Catherine is at his side as a ministering nurse and secret lover who works the night shift so they can be relatively undisturbed by the hostile head nurse, Miss Van Campen.

Deeply in love with Catherine, Frederic wishes they could marry in order to make their relationship legitimate, but because of war regulations, Catherine would be forced to return to England if she married. 

The war has turned all traditional values inside out. Nevertheless, the lovers think of themselves as husband and wife.

When Frederic recovers sufficiently to get about on crutches, he and Catherine enjoy her free time, eating and drinking in the Milan cafés by day, and making love in the warm nights. When he must be alone in his room, Frederic drinks the forbidden wines and cognacs that he has had smuggled in. 

Sometimes the lovers ride a carriage out to the San Siro race track to spend an afternoon betting on what they learn to be crooked races. Meanwhile, the war proceeds in the distance. The few Italian victories have come at a great cost of life. 

Italian civilians have begun to resent the blood and gore that appear endless. In October, just when Frederic has recovered enough to go on convalescent leave before being sent back to the front, Catherine discovers that she is pregnant. Love, too, has it “wounds.” She will not marry until they are out of the war and the baby is born. 

Frederic feels biologically trapped by her pregnancy but is still in love. Their plans for his leave period are canceled when he develops a case of jaundice, which Miss Van Campen believes he brought willfully upon himself to avoid returning to the war. Outside, the October rains begin to fall.

Before the end of the month Frederic, now well, receives orders to report back to his ambulance unit on the Bainsizza Plateau. He and Catherine have a last meal in a hotel room, where she “feels like a whore.” They part at a train station while the rains pour down.

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Book 3: Chapters 25–32 

At Gorizia, Frederic finds everything changed—the war, his friends, and himself. The war is going badly, and Rinaldi and the Priest feel discouraged. The enlisted men speak privately of rebellion, and there is not enough food. Frederic arrives on the Bainsizza Plateau the day before the Austrian troops break through the Italian lines at Caporetto, forcing the Italians to retreat 60 miles in three days. 

Frederic, caught up in the chaotic retreat, is charged with getting his three ambulances, his drivers, and equipment to the far side of the Tagliamento River. The rains continue to fall throughout the retreat.

En route, Frederic loses his ambulances to the mud, and most of the drivers are killed or desert him. At one point he calmly shoots down a deserting sergeant.

Shortly afterward, while crossing the Tagliamento, Frederic is pulled from the lines as a suspected enemy spy. Faced with immediate execution, Frederic leaps into the river and escapes, washed clean of responsibility. He has made his “separate peace.”

Book 4: Chapters 33–37 

He takes the train to Milan, changes into civilian clothes, and leaves for Stresa, where Catherine, who is too pregnant to remain on duty unnoticed, has gone with her friend Ferguson (also a nurse). 

At the Lake Maggiore hotel where they stay, Frederic plays a game of billiards with Count Greffi, an aged diplomat who gives him further advice on love and death. The young American is beginning to understand about courage, which he lacks, and sacrifice, which Catherine most represents. In the stormy night, he and Catherine are forced to flee up the lake to neutral Switzerland to avoid his being arrested by the police as a deserter.

Book 5: Chapters 38–41 

In a small cabin above Montreux, Frederic and Catherine spend the winter in simple luxury as Catherine’s pregnancy comes to term. Far away, the war goes on and Frederic reads of it in the papers. 

With the first spring rains, the lovers move down into Lausanne, where Catherine is hospitalized when her labor pains begin. While Frederic waits impatiently, Catherine’s labor extends beyond what is bearable. The baby can be born only by a caesarean section. Frederic consents to the operation, which seems at first to have been successful. 

But then Catherine begins to hemorrhage and Frederic learns that the child was born dead, strangled by his umbilical cord. As her lover watches helplessly, Catherine bleeds to death in her hospital bed. Frederic kisses her good-bye and walks back to his hotel alone in the rain.

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Key Characters

Frederic Henry: American architectural student in Rome who volunteers for the Italian Ambulance Service in August 1915. Somewhat passive; things “happen” to him. Not a hero. Not brave or willing to sacrifice his life for another; does not fit the Priest’s definition of love (i.e., sacrifice and service). Lonesome, self-reliant, but unable to prevent tragedy. Love and war leave him vulnerable, with no sustaining values or beliefs. Christianity provides no answers. He would like life to be meaningful, but feels that since the traditional values of the world have led to bloody war, they must be abandoned in favor of new ones. Frederic is the novel’s narrator: he observes surface details, but draws few conclusions. Emotionally detached or silent at crucial moments. The story he tells does not reflect well on him.

Catherine Barkley: British volunteer nurse’s aide; emotionally unsteady at the novel’s beginning, but grows progressively stronger, especially in adverse conditions. Loves Frederic and bears his child out of wedlock. Faces her own death bravely. Sacrifices herself to Frederic’s well-being; he becomes her source of identity; she believes in him with an almost religious devotion.

Rinaldi: Frederic’s friend; Italian surgeon who deals with the flesh as a doctor and a man, thus prefers prostitutes to virgins. Advises Frederic about the physical side of love. Disappears from the novel before it ends.

The Priest: Advises Frederic about the spiritual side of love, sacrifice, and service. Very discouraged by the war. Disappears from the novel after the Caporetto retreat.

Count Greffi: Aged Italian nobleman, diplomat; too old to pray, but knows about love and fear. Friend of Frederic.

Main Themes & Ideas

1. Courage

A traditional value of little worth in modern war. The brave do not last long and courage has nothing to do with the outcome of battles. Machine guns and artillery bombardments have no respect for courage; firing squads do not care if their victims are cowards or brave men. Abstract words such as courage, honor, and glory have become meaningless.

2. War

Badly managed, poorly directed and unconcerned with losses or impossible situations; it has a life of its own beyond anyone’s control. War turns values upside down, making it right to kill and wrong to marry.

War undermines the surgeon’s spirit and the Priest’s faith. Soldiers lose heart as the battles continue. Frederic’s “separate” peace with war (i.e., his declaration that he is no longer involved in war) does not work: war continues to control his thoughts long after his desertion.

3. Love

Humans need love but love makes people more vulnerable (which is bad for people at war). Frederic’s love for Catherine leaves him less self-reliant. His well-being depends on her survival. Rinaldi cynically tells him that love is only a satisfaction of fleshly appetite.

The Priest represents spiritual love and the desire to serve, to sacrifice one’s self for another. Count Greffi says that love is a “religious feeling.” But Catherine’s flesh fails (her body hemorrhages) and her spirit disappears (she dies). The sometimes bitter tone in Frederic’s narration must be interpreted in light of his loss.

4. Home

Safe places are few and impermanent in A Farewell to Arms. Even the homes that Frederic and Catherine make for themselves—the hospital bed in Milan, the mountain cabin in Montreux—are vulnerable.

The war takes Frederic out of his hospital home (he is declared well and has to go back to the front) and the pregnancy disrupts their mountain retreat. Neither Frederic nor Catherine has family to which they wish to return. Both promise to keep their parents out of the relationship. The past and future fade away and lose all importance due to the urgency of making the most of brief moments available to the lovers.

5. Isolation

Frederic begins as a soldier in the Italian Second Army and as a part of the Allied war effort. Being wounded isolates him from the unwounded. Love isolates him from Rinaldi and the other soldiers. Desertion isolates him from the army.

In neutral Switzerland, he makes Catherine his world. The deaths of Catherine and their infant leave him totally alone and isolated from the world. Hemingway’s idea is that humans are alone and need other people, but have only themselves to count on.

6. Loss of identity

Frederic is continually mistaken for someone he is not. Rinaldi concludes that Frederic did something courageous and should be awarded a medal. The barber in Milan thinks Frederic is Austrian. At the bridgehead, Frederic is first mistaken for a deserter (which he is not, at this point), then for an enemy infiltrator. Later, dressed in civilian clothes (when he is a deserter), Frederic feels as uncomfortable as in his deserter’s uniform.

In Switzerland, he and Catherine live under a false identity, pretending first to be cousins, then to be married. When he grows a beard, he looks in the mirror and realizes it is the image of a man he doesn’t recognize. When Catherine dies, Frederic is dressed in a doctor’s smock, another false identity. The reader knows Frederic by negatives—he is known by what he is not.

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1. Mountains

The Italian war is being fought in the mountains. Later, mountains become a safe haven in Switzerland for Frederic and Catherine. Mountains may seem like a sanctuary or safe place, but the Austrians break through at Caporetto, and biological forces (Catherine’s pregnancy and death) break through at Lausanne.

The Priest associates the high, cold, and clear country with a simple life where dignity and love have meaning. Frederic would like to believe in the Priest’s values, especially since mountains “seem” to be a safe place. But they turn out not to be safe.

2. Rain

Symbol of misery, unhappiness, and impending disasters. By association, the reader sees that something bad happens whenever it rains: it rains when Frederic leaves Catherine in Milan; rain falls throughout the Caporetto retreat; Frederic and Catherine’s night escape up Lake Maggiore takes place in a rainstorm that does not stop until they reach safety; the spring rains arrive just as Catherine’s pregnancy comes to term; rain falls throughout her hospital battle; at the end of the novel, Frederic walks out alone into the rain.

Rain is part of Italy’s natural climate; it rains exactly when Hemingway says it rains; the rain is not merely inserted when Hemingway “wants” it to rain. Octobers in northern Italy are rainy, and rains come to Lausanne in March.

3. Fixed horse race

Symbolizes the idea that life has no winners: you can bet on the fixed winner and win nothing on the bet; you can bet on your instincts and also lose.

4. Ants on log

There is an analogy of the relationship between ants and humans, and the relationship of humans with God: the burning log is covered with ants trying to escape, and though Frederic could have removed the log, instead he threw water on it and scalded the ants to death. Humans, like ants, are caught in a trap and are born to die. God could send miraculous help, but does not.


1. Hemingway’s Sparse Prose Style

In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s writing is sparse, minimalistic, and precise. He avoids using excess adjectives and flowery language and instead relies on short, declarative sentences to convey his message. This approach gives the story a sense of urgency and immediacy that enhances the emotional impact of the novel. Hemingway’s writing style is modern and revolutionary, stripping away the excesses and presenting the story in a clear, simple, and declarative manner.

2. A Modern Tragedy

A Farewell to Arms is a modern tragedy that explores the pain, loss, and uncertainty of the human condition. The novel presents the tragic story of Frederic Henry, a young ambulance driver who falls in love with a British nurse, Catherine Barkley, during the First World War.

The novel is a powerful meditation on the folly and waste of war, as well as the human experience of love, loss, and despair. The characters in the novel confront the world of convention and deliberately decide to choose what they feel in their hearts, rather than what is expected of them. The novel’s ending leaves a lasting impression on the reader, as the characters are left to confront the irresolvable.

3. Hemingway’s Personal View of the World

In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway shares his personal view of the world and the inevitability of negative events. He writes, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those it cannot break it will kill. It kills the very good, the very gentle, and the very brave impartially.

If you are none of these things the world will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Hemingway’s worldview is bleak and uncompromising, yet it reflects a deep understanding of human nature and the harsh realities of life.


1. Unrealistic Dialogue

The dialogue in the novel did not feel genuine, perhaps even too realistic. There was so much detail without purpose, like the excessive descriptions of the rain and snow. I found myself wondering about key details such as how Henry got his money, why he was in Italy, why he joined the army, and how he became a lieutenant.

2. Jarring Transition Between Genres

The book cannot decide whether it is a romance or a war novel, and as a result, it doesn’t fully succeed at being either. The first part of the book that depicts the war through Henry’s eyes is successful in conveying the reality of war, but the latter part of the book that focuses on Henry’s romance with Catherine Barkley falls flat. Their dialogue is saccharine, and Barkley’s character lacks depth. The love story feels forced and ends up detracting from the more interesting war aspect of the book.

3. Slow Pacing

The plot meanders along, and the story progresses very slowly. This pacing can make it difficult to maintain interest in the story, especially when combined with the lack of depth in the romance between Henry and Barkley. The book’s slow progression also makes it feel longer than it needs to be.


Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is a remarkable novel that showcases the author’s talent for simple yet effective writing. Hemingway’s journalistic background is evident in his writing, as he uses terse, unadorned language to create a narrative that seems real and authentic.

Despite criticisms of his style as overly simplistic, there is a lot of craft and careful consideration that goes into Hemingway’s writing, as evidenced by the amount of effort he put into removing unnecessary words.

Overall, A Farewell to Arms is a great example of Hemingway’s prowess as a writer, and his contribution to the world of literature is undeniable.

About The Author

Ernest Hemingway was an American writer who lived from 1899 to 1961. He was born in Oak Park, Illinois, and tragically died by suicide.

During World War I, Hemingway served as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy and was wounded in action. He was recognized for his bravery and received a decoration.

Throughout his life, Hemingway lived in several places, including Paris in the 1920s, Key West in the 1930s, and Cuba from 1940 to 1959. In 1937, he traveled to Spain to report on the Spanish Civil War for a newspaper syndicate.

Hemingway married four times and had three sons. He was known for his adventurous lifestyle and did not conform to the stereotype of a traditional writer.

Some of his major works include The Sun Also Rises (1926), To Have and Have Not (1937), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Several works were published posthumously, including A Moveable Feast (1964), Islands in the Stream (1970), The Dangerous Summer (1985), and The Garden of Eden (1986).

In 1954, Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his contributions to the literary world.

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