A Farewell to Arms
by Ernest Hemingway
Where It All Goes Down
Various locations in Italy and Switzerland; late summer 1916 through spring 1918
We are given specific place names, and specific events, and even days of the week, but we must go outside the text to get the years. Luckily, Ernest Hemingway is accurate, right down to the weather (which is incredibly important to the story), and it doesn’t take too much research to pin things down. When we read that Catherine’s fiancé died the year before, we can look up the Battle of Somme and learn that it must be 1917. When we read about the Italian retreat from Caporetto, we can look it up and confirm that it’s 1917. Still, the hazy temporal setting is disorienting, especially when we read the novel decades after World War I. Italy in World War I is a fractured and broken landscape which mirrors the tragic and breaking lives of the characters. The only safe places are bedrooms, bars, and hospitals, and even the seemingly safest settings in the novel are suffused with fragility. Safe places are also places to break down. Hospitals are also places to die. Bedrooms can be the loneliest places on earth.
The frailty of setting in the novel is magnified when Frederic and Catherine get to Switzerland. They’ve finessed their way in and everything is almost too good to be true. And it is. The rain that’s been haunting them throughout the novel finally catches up to them and everything gets more broken than we imagined. This mirrors the disbelief that many encountered when faced with the reality of World War I, both during and after. Through the novel’s settings Hemingway expresses that sense of disbelief, and the extreme sense of frailty that accompanies it.