A Farewell to Arms is narrated by an American man driving ambulances for the Red Cross in Italy during World War I. We don’t get his full name until Book Two of the novel. During Book One he’s known as Mr. Henry, or "Tenente" (Lieutenant).
You’ll notice that Mr. Henry narrates his story in the past tense; the story is a memory of the events being described. You might find yourself wondering where he is now, what he’s doing, how old he was during the events he recounts, and how old he is when he recounts them. The novel never reveals this information, nor offers any concrete details which might allow us to figure it out, so we can only imagine and speculate. We don’t even know how many years have passed since the events occurred. (Some critics claim it’s been at least six years – see the "Character Analysis" for Count Greffi.)
The novel doesn’t even give us the years during which it occurs. Only by looking up World War I battles mentioned in the text and carefully examining other given information do we understand that it’s set between 1916 and 1918. So if you’re confused, don’t worry! It’s normal, and we are here to help. Now, on with the summary!
In Book One, Mr. Henry meets Catherine Barkley, an English V.A.D nurse in Gorizia, Italy, where the Red Cross hospital he works for is located. They briefly begin a romantic relationship, but when Mr. Henry is wounded during a battle, he’s sent to a hospital in Milan.
In Book Two, Mr. Henry arrives at the American hospital in Milan, and we soon learn that his first name is Frederic and his last name is Henry. Catherine arrives promptly, and when Frederic sees her, he realizes he loves her. They begin a beautiful love affair over the course of about three months, while Frederic recovers from his injury and drinks lots and lots.
When Catherine tells Frederic she’s three months pregnant, they plan to vacation for six weeks while he completes his convalescent leave. But when Miss Van Campen, the head of the hospital, gets fed up with his drinking and brash tone, she revokes his leave and Frederic is ordered back to Gorizia. On Frederic’s last night in Milan, he and Catherine get a hotel room together, and spend a few hours there, eating, drinking, and talking. Then Frederic catches the midnight train. Catherine and Frederic don’t know if they will ever see each other again.
In Book Three, Frederic goes back to Gorizia and becomes involved in the Italian retreat from Caporetto. The ambulances Frederic and his crew are driving get stuck in the mud, and they eventually have to abandon them. Two soldiers had been riding with Frederic and his crew, and when they refuse to help free the vehicles from the mud, Frederic shoots at them, killing one. According to information we received in Book Two, this is the first time Frederic has killed a man. When it looks like he must either escape or be killed, Frederic flees from the retreat, and deserts his post in the army.
In Book Four, Frederic goes back to Milan to look for Catherine. He learns she is in Stresa (a town in Italy). After borrowing some civilian clothes from a friend, he heads in that direction. Miraculously, he finds Catherine and they are reunited!
Catherine and Frederic spend a few days together happily. Then, in the middle of the night, they learn that Frederic will be arrested for desertion in the morning. They make a bold and daring escape, by rowboat, to nearby Switzerland. They manage to convince the Swiss authorities that they are in Switzerland for the "winter sport," and are allowed to live in Switzerland.
In Book Five, Frederic and Catherine rent a mountainside cottage and enjoy themselves until a month before the baby is due. Then they move to a hotel to be closer to the hospital. Catherine has an awful labor and undergoes a Cesarean operation. The baby is born dead, or dies shortly after its birth. Catherine dies soon after, of multiple hemorrhages. Frederic walks back to the hotel in the rain.