Book One: Chapter I:
The narrator, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, describes life in an Italian village he lives in during the summer. It is World War I, and troops and cars with officers frequently go by on the road - dusty at first, then wet during autumn - to fight in the nearby mountains. If a car goes very fast, it probably carries the King, who checks daily on the horrible battle situation. When the winter begins, it rains incessantly and brings with it cholera, and 7,000 men in the army die of it.
Hemingway was probably the most influential American prose stylist of the 20th century, and his spare, journalistic method is in top form in this famous chapter. Though the detached narrative at times seems almost mechanical, great feeling emerges through what is unsaid and through specific images, such as the soldiers with guns and ammunition under their capes that make them look "six months gone with child."
That image is particularly well chosen, for even in this opening Henry connects rain with an undesirable type of fertility that actually heralds death and destruction. In addition to pregnancy's equation with weaponry, rain makes the country "wet and brown and dead" and brings on the cholera; the dusty opening, on the other hand, is idyllic in its pastoral splendor. Many writers of Hemingway's Lost Generation, the disillusioned youth who felt The Great War had irrevocably devastated both their bodies and values, saw an emptiness and sterility in their modern culture. Dryness and dust frequently represented this sterility, a system T.S. Eliot sketches out in great detail in his poem "The Wasteland." Though the Lost Generation disdained this sterility, they seemed to take a strange comfort in it. In the famous opening of "The Wasteland," Eliot writes
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
While fertile, wet April is "the cruelest month," cold, sterile "Winter kept us warm." Rain will become a prominent symbol in A Farewell to Arms (as well as being the last word of the novel), and it is important to note its ironic application: it is not an agent of fertility and creation, but rather of sterility and destruction.
Book One: Chapter II:
The next August, Henry's unit moves to a house in the captured town of Gorizia while fighting goes on in the next mountains over. Life is fairly idyllic there over the fall, as it has not been badly bombarded, and there are hospitals, cafés, and two brothels.
One snowy night at dinner, Henry's captain mocks the unit's priest with remarks about his sexual practices, which the priest accepts with good humor. The conversation takes a nastier turn when the other men, who are atheists, insult religion. Henry is friendlier to the priest. They all discuss where Henry should go on leave in Italy, since it is doubtful an offensive will take place in the snow. They go to the brothel.
As is frequently the case with soldiers, the brothel is the main form of entertainment. The act of casual, emotionless sex takes on special meaning when we consider the subtle fear of fertility Henry and the others have, as demonstrated in Chapter I. In war, with violence all around, they do not wish to propagate, but only to divert themselves from the specter of death.
This brand of diversion shows up as the men eat spaghetti "very quickly and seriously." In a chaotic war where the men have little control over anything, at least they have precise control over one area - here, the act of eating. This refinement will recur to demonstrate what is known as the code of the Hemingway hero, specifically the concept of "grace under pressure": the ability to withstand great conflict, especially that of imminent death, and gracefully execute an action.
Book One: Chapter III:
Henry returns from his trip in the spring. He discusses his trip with his surgeon roommate, Lieutenant Rinaldi, who tells him he is in love with and plans to marry an English nurse in town, Catherine Barkley. Henry loans Rinaldi some money so he can impress Catherine.
At dinner, the priest is upset, but ultimately understanding, that Henry did not visit his hometown of Abruzzi. Henry wishes he had gone; instead, he only drank and cavorted about cosmopolitan nightspots. The captain again mocks the priest, but the major tells him to leave him alone and they all leave.
Rinaldi's zeal over wanting to marry Catherine - whom he still refers to as "Miss Barkley," indicating their lack of intimacy - does not merely stem from his raging hormones. Rather, in the face of a brutal war - Rinaldi catalogues all the ailments they have suffered even without real fighting - the characters must find other diversions over which they have some degree of control. Rinaldi (and soon Henry) dives headlong into love - or, rather, lust - as a way to blind himself temporarily to war, much as the characters are spaghetti very intently in Chapter II.
The diversions extend to playing with other people's feelings. The captain here mercilessly mocks the priest again, going from jests about his sexuality to more serious ones about whose side the priest is on.
Book One: Chapter IV:
A battery of guns in the next garden wakes Henry the next morning. An ambulance driver, he discusses the condition of the ambulances with some mechanics. Back in the room, Rinaldi asks Henry to come with him to meet Catherine. They drink first, then meet Catherine in the British hospital's garden. Rinaldi talks to another nurse, Helen Ferguson.
Henry, who is struck by Catherine's beauty and her hair, is unable to explain to her why he has joined the Italian army as an ambulance driver. She carries a leather-bound stick that she says belonged to her fiancé of eight years, who was killed last year in the war. Henry admits he has never loved anyone. They discuss her fiancé and the war more, then Henry and Rinaldi leave. Rinaldi notes that Catherine prefers Henry to him.
Henry is unable to explain why he has joined the Italian army to drive an ambulance. In Chapter III, he explained that the priest "had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget." There seems to be a premium on not knowing things, on remaining ignorant, as if that is some kind of protective armor. Catherine reverses this, wishing she had known that her fiancé was going to die: "'He could have had anything he wanted if I would have known...I know all about it now. But then he wanted to go to war and I didn't know.'"
Henry's character emerges more here. He briefly admits to having never loved anyone, while Catherine seems somewhat numbed by her fiancé's death. That she carries his stick "like a toy riding-crop" suggests she will treat love mostly as a game-like diversion from her pain.
Book One: Chapter V:
Henry drives in Plava and sees a new windy road that, when finished, will allow a new offensive. He drives along a narrower road that is hit by three artillery shells, then goes to see Catherine in Gorizia, but she is on duty and he is told to return at night.
After dinner, Henry visits Catherine in the hospital's garden. Helen leaves them alone. Catherine explains that she is a V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment), which takes less time to become than a nurse does. When Henry tries to link his arm around hers and kiss her, she slaps him. She apologizes, but he understands. After he makes her laugh, she kisses him, but she starts crying and asks if he will be good to her, as they will have a "'strange life.'" He comforts her. Henry later walks her home, then goes home himself. Rinaldi teases him good-naturedly about his "'progress'" with Catherine.
When Henry says they should drop the discussion of the war, Catherine humorously points out about the war, "'It's very hard. There's no place to drop it.'" She is right - in nearly every chapter, the war machine rolls on in the background, as it does here when Henry sees the new road and nearly gets hit by shells on the other road.
While Catherine is literally tight-lipped at first with Henry and defiant against his come-ons, her ostensible grief over her fiancé's death reveals itself when she cries on Henry's shoulder.
Book One: Chapter VI:
After a few days away at the medical aid posts, Henry visits Catherine at the hospital. He feels uncomfortable holding a pistol while waiting for her in the office. They go into the garden. She says he should have sent her a note to tell her he would be away, and she asks him if he loves her. After she says she loves him and makes sure he will not leave her, they kiss. Henry thinks she may be a little crazy, but he does not mind - this is certainly better than going to the brothel with the officers. This is more like a game of bridge, only you say things instead of playing cards; the only difference is he does not know what the stakes are.
Catherine, seeming to be reading Henry's mind, calls what they are doing a "'rotten game,'" and says Henry plays it very well. Henry insists he loves her, but she asks him not to lie. Nevertheless, she says he is a very good boy, and asks him to see her again. She reluctantly kisses him briefly, then has him walk her home. Henry goes home, and Rinaldi expresses relief that he did not get involved with an Englishwoman.
Catherine at first appears naïve and even, as Henry thinks, slightly insane, when she gives in to love with him so quickly. However, she also shows her telepathic and self-protective side, calling their flirtation a "'rotten game'" after Henry thinks nearly the same thing, and insists she is not "'mad'" or "'gone off. It's only a little sometimes.'"
Whatever her sanity, she and Henry hit upon something when they call love a game. It is a distraction from the horrors of war, a way to lose oneself in another person, with unknowable stakes. This last feature of the game of love makes it all the more exciting, and it proves what both Henry and Catherine have previously said about love. They never know about something until after it has happened to them, so they do not know what the stakes are until the game is over.
Henry can never come up with a good reason for joining Italian army. Here, he shows his utter self-consciousness about being in the army. He feels "a vague sort of shame" when he meets English-speaking people while he holds a gun, and he obviously does not feel comfortable in the role of a soldier.