In the sections of the novel in which he describes his experience in the war, Henry portrays himself as a man of duty. He attaches to this understanding of himself no sense of honor, nor does he expect any praise for his service. Even after he has been severely wounded, he discourages Rinaldi from pursuing medals of distinction for him. Time and again, through conversations with men like the priest, Ettore Moretti, and Gino, Henry distances himself from such abstract notions as faith, honor, and patriotism. Concepts such as these mean nothing to him beside such concrete facts of war as the names of the cities in which he has fought and the numbers of decimated streets.
Against this bleak backdrop, Henry’s reaction to Catherine Barkley is rather astonishing. The reader understands why Henry responds to the game that Catherine proposes—why he pledges his love to a woman he barely knows: like Rinaldi, he hopes for a night’s simple pleasures. But an active sex drive does not explain why Henry returns to Catherine—why he continues to swear his love even after Catherine insists that he stop playing. In his fondness for Catherine, Henry reveals a vulnerability usually hidden by his stoicism and masculinity. The quality of the language that Henry uses to describe Catherine’s hair and her presence in bed testifies to the genuine depth of his feelings for her. Furthermore, because he allows Henry to narrate the book, Hemingway is able to suffuse the entire novel with the power and pathos of an elegy: A Farewell to Arms, which Henry narrates after Catherine’s death, confirms his love and his loss.