Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete . . . numbers of regiments and the dates.
The next morning, Henry travels to the Bainsizza, a succession of small mountains in which intense fighting has taken place. Henry meets a man named Gino, who tells him about a battery of terrifying guns that the Austrians have. The men discuss the Italian army’s position against Croatian troops; Gino predicts that there will be nowhere for the Italians to go should the Austrians decide to attack. He claims that the summer’s losses were not in vain, and Henry falls silent, thinking how words like “sacred, glorious, and sacrifice” embarrass him. He believes that concrete facts, such as the names of villages and the numbers of streets, have more meaning than such abstractions.
That night, the rain comes down hard and the enemy begins a bombardment. In the morning, the Italians learn that the attacking forces include Germans, and they become very afraid. They have had little contact with the Germans in the war and would prefer to keep it that way. The next night, word arrives that the Italian line has been broken; the forces begin a large-scale retreat. The troops slowly move out. As they come to the town of Gorizia, Henry sees women from the soldiers’ whorehouse being loaded into a truck. Bonello, one of the drivers under Henry’s command, offers to go with the women. At the villa, Henry discovers that Rinaldi has taken off for the hospital; everyone else has evacuated too. Henry, Bonello, and two other drivers, Piani and Aymo, rest and eat before resuming the retreat.
Then the truck stopped. The whole column was stopped. It started again and we went a little farther, then stopped.
The men drive slowly through the town, forming an endless column of retreating soldiers and vehicles. Henry takes a turn sleeping; shortly after he wakes, the column stalls. Henry exits his vehicle to check on his men. He discovers two engineering officers in Bonello’s car and two women with Aymo. The girls seem suspicious of Aymo’s intentions, but he eventually, if crudely, convinces them that he means them no harm. Henry returns to Piani’s car and falls asleep. His dreams are of Catherine, and he speaks aloud to her. That night, columns of peasants join the retreating army. In the early morning, Henry and his men decide to separate from the column and take a small road going north. They stop briefly at an abandoned farmhouse and eat a large breakfast before continuing their journey.
Aymo’s car gets stuck in the soft ground, and the men are forced to cut brush hurriedly to place under the tires for traction. Henry orders the two engineering sergeants riding with Bonello to help. Afraid of being overtaken by the enemy, they refuse and try to leave. Henry draws his gun and shoots one of them; the other escapes. Bonello takes Henry’s pistol and finishes off the wounded soldier. The men use branches, twigs, and even clothing to create traction, but the car sinks further into the mud. They continue in the other vehicles but soon get stuck again. Henry gives some money to the two girls traveling with Aymo and sends them off to a nearby village. The men continue to Udine on foot.
Hemingway’s description of the retreat, which is based on one of the most large-scale retreats of World War I, is one of the most famous descriptive passages in the novel. As the lumbering columns of army vehicles wind through the country night, Hemingway’s prose mimics the dark and streaming motion of the men. When the movement of the columns becomes choppy, so do Hemingway’s sentences: “Then the truck stopped. The whole column was stopped. It started again and went a little farther, then stopped.”
These three chapters are most noteworthy for their powerful, uncompromising, and unromantic evocation of war. As Henry reflects in his conversation with the priest, abstract concepts like courage and honor have no place alongside the concrete reality of war. In describing the retreat, Hemingway strips war of its romantic packaging and provides the reader with only the most solid, evocative, and precise details.
In Book Three (which begins with Chapter XXV), the focus of the novel switches noticeably from love, the major thematic interest of Book Two, to war. Hemingway reports from the battlefront with a neutral, journalistic style that heightens the realism of the narrative and proves surprisingly unsettling. When Henry shoots at the two engineering officers for refusing to help free the car from the mud, Hemingway’s detached prose refrains from passing moral judgment on his action. Rather, the text offers just the facts. This spare, disinterested tone sets Henry’s wanton violence against an amoral landscape; shooting a man out of anger is given the same weight as pushing a car out of the mud. Refusing to give the reader reliable moral ground from which he or she may view and judge the scene, Hemingway challenges the reader to deal with the scene on his or her own terms. Certainly, the support that Henry receives from his fellow soldiers suggests that his actions are not abnormal and that there is a larger, pervasive irrationality at work. Indeed, the lack of a well-defined sense of right and wrong in the narrative perspective mirrors the situation in which Henry finds himself. War has stripped the world of its certainties, leaving men to set their own moral compass. Some, like Gino, fight for their homeland because they believe in ideals such as sacred ground and sacrifice, while others, like Henry, attach no such grandeur or meaning to their behavior on the battlefield.
The murder of the engineering officer is a testament to Hemingway’s brilliant depiction of the confusion and meaninglessness of war. This act seemingly comes out of nowhere. The reader doesn’t expect the normally self-possessed Henry to display such aggression, nor does such behavior seem particularly justified. Bonello’s ruthless, point-blank extermination of the man’s life is equally senseless. That the engineer is guilty of no capital crime and thus merits no punishment so grave as death emphasizes that, oftentimes, one cannot account for men’s behavior in war.
The ending was good, but depressing.
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