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The narrator, Lieutenant Henry, describes the small Italian village in which he lives. It is a summer during World War I, and troops often march along the road toward the nearby battlefront. Officers speed by in “small gray motor cars.” If one of these cars travels especially fast, Henry speculates, it is probably carrying the king, who makes trips out to assess the battle almost every day. At the start of the winter, a cholera epidemic sweeps through the army and kills seven thousand soldiers.
Lieutenant Henry’s unit moves to the town of Gorizia, further from the fighting, which continues in the mountains beyond. Life in Gorizia is relatively enjoyable: the buildings are not badly damaged, and there are nice cafés and two brothels—one for officers, one for enlisted men. One winter day, Henry sits in the mess hall with a group of fellow officers, who declare that the war is over for the year because of the snow. Spurred by their contempt for religion, the men taunt the military priest, baiting him with crude innuendos about his sexuality. A captain jokingly chides the priest for never cavorting with women, and the good-natured priest blushes. Though he is not religious, Henry treats the priest kindly. The officers then argue over where Henry should take his leave. The priest suggests that he visit the Abruzzi region, where the priest’s family resides, but the officers have other ideas. They encourage him to visit Palermo, Capri, Rome, Naples, or Sicily. Soon the conversation turns to opera singers, and the officers retire to the whorehouse.
When he returns from his leave, Henry discusses his trip with his roommate, the lieutenant and surgeon Rinaldi. Henry claims to have traveled throughout Italy, and Rinaldi, who is obsessed with “beautiful girls,” tells him that travel is no longer necessary to find such women. He reports that beautiful English women have been sent to the front and that he has fallen in love with a nurse named Catherine Barkley. Henry loans him fifty lire (the plural of “lira,” the Italian unit of currency) so that Rinaldi can give the woman the impression of being a wealthy man. At dinner that night, the priest is hurt that Henry failed to visit Abruzzi. Henry, feeling guilty, drunkenly explains that he wanted to make the visit but circumstances prevented him from doing so. By the end of the meal, the officers resume picking on the priest.
The next morning, a battery of guns wakes Henry. He goes to the garage, where the mechanics are working on a number of ambulances. He chats briefly with the men and then returns to his room, where Rinaldi convinces him to tag along on a visit to Miss Barkley. At the British Hospital, Rinaldi spends his time talking with Helen Ferguson, another nurse, while Henry becomes acquainted with Catherine. Henry is immediately struck by her beauty, especially her long blonde hair. She carries a stick that resembles a “toy riding-crop”; when Henry asks what it is, she confides that it belonged to her fiancé, who was killed in the Battle of the Somme. When she, in turn, asks if he has ever loved, Henry says no. On the way home, Rinaldi observes that Catherine prefers Henry to him.
The next day, Henry calls on Catherine again. The head nurse expresses surprise that an American would want to join the Italian army. She tells him that Miss Barkley is on duty and unavailable to visitors until her shift ends at seven o’clock that evening. Henry drives back along the trenches, investigating the road that, when completed, will allow for an offensive attack. After dinner, Henry returns to see Catherine. He finds her in the garden with Helen Ferguson; Helen soon excuses herself. After chatting about Catherine’s job, Henry and Catherine agree to “drop the war” as a subject of conversation. Henry tries to put his arm around her. She resists but, in the end, lets him. When he moves to kiss her, however, she slaps him. Their little drama, Henry notes with amusement, has gotten them away from talk of the war. Catherine lets Henry kiss her and begins to cry, saying, “We’re going to have a strange life.” Henry returns home, where Rinaldi teases him about his romantic glow.
Many critics maintain that Ernest Hemingway did more to change the tenor of twentieth-century American fiction than any other writer. He favored a boldly declarative, pared-down prose style, which readers of the 1920s and 1930s considered a wildly experimental departure from the baroque, Victorian-influenced style that was then the standard for high literature. The short first chapter, in which Frederic Henry describes his situation on the war front, is one of the most famous descriptive passages in American literature. Hemingway sketches the description with a detached, almost journalistic prose style that is nevertheless emotionally poignant: “The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves. . . .” With relatively few but remarkably precise details, Hemingway captures life on the battlefront of a small Italian town during World War I.