Another masterpiece about love and war written by Hemingway takes place in 1915-1918 on the Italian-Austrian front. An American young man named Frederick Henry is a lieutenant of the Italian sanitary troops. The USA haven't entered the conflict yet, so, unable to participate officially, Frederick went to war as a volunteer. His sanitary unit is located in the small town of Plavna and the enemy forces are ready to attack it. The soldiers cover their fear and anxiety with excessive bravado and alcohol: they spend their days drinking, playing billiards, buying sex in brothels and then mock the priest of the regiment, “confessing” him of all these things and embarrassing him.
Frederick enjoys this dubious pleasures just like everyone else, but the person who will change all his life has already arrived to the English hospital nearby. Her name is Catherine Barkley, she is a nurse, young, kind but strong. She is now in mourning - her fiancé died in France - but Catherine copes exceptionally well, through serving others. The only thing she regrets is that she haven’t married him before he died just to have at least some days of happiness together.
The attack is inevitable. The unit receives an order to prepare the stations for sorting of the wounded and for the first aid. Now only the shallow river separates Plavna from the Austrian army. Frederick in the meanwhile decides to court Catherine - from the one hand she is more beautiful than local prostitutes, from the other hand she isn’t as easy to achieve. Frederick is also attracted by some of her “quirks” (which are clearly looking like symptoms of trauma and abuse, but who cares if the girl is pretty and you may possibly die tomorrow?). Once he tries to kiss her, pushing it too hard and gets slapped. But afterwards Catherine kisses him willingly, quietly asking him to be kind with her, always. Frederick thinks that the girl is slightly mad, but it doesn’t matter for him - she is still prettier than brothel dwellers.
Another day Frederick gets drunk before the date and is late to it. But Catherine doesn’t come at all. But instead of getting angry or just searching for another girl to sleep with, he starts to investigate what happened and learned that Catherine is sick. Suddenly and surprisingly for himself Frederick feels lonely and sad. Catherine means for him much more than he thought.
The next day the reckon brought the bad news. The Austrians are planning to attack a place above the river this night and the ambulances must go there to be ready to pick up the wounded. Frederick passes the hospital while his unit is sent there and he jumps to the window to see Catherine. The girl wishes him luck and gives him her medallion with the image of St. Anthony, as a talisman.
The unit arrives to the place. Frederick is in the one team with two young Italians, who heavily criticize the politics of their government and the war itself. They openly say they would desert if only their family members and relatives weren’t punished or even imprisoned for it. None of them would be here if they weren’t forced to fight and they feel no patriotism at all. They say that there is nothing worse than the endless war, even losing is better. What would happen if Austria won? They would reach Italy, get tired and then return home to their own families, because they wanted to go home just as much. War is needed only to those who can benefit from it.
Finally, the attack begins. The bomb hits a dugout three men hide in. Frederick is wounded, he can barely walk. One of the Italian is much less lucky: his wound seems to be fatal. Frederick with the third man deliver him to the doctors and start working. Hemingway depicts the war from its dirtiest side: moaning and screaming people, severed limbs, fresh corpses and mutilated bodies. The doctors and nurses are gravely tired but continue their work, not having time and will for compassion or pity.
Frederick shall be sent to the central hospital in Milan. Before he is taken away the regimental priest visits him and talks to him, but not about his wound. The priest pities Frederick for his inability to love either living people or God Himself. The priest leaves, saying that he believes that one day Frederick will heal his soul - it is not dead yet, even war couldn’t kill it - and discover love and happiness again. He also adds that the nurse who was so worried about him soon also will be transferred to Milan to work there.
Frederick’s wound is worse than he thought. His knee is injured, so now the young lieutenant has to undergo a complicated operation on his knee. It is unknown if he will be able to walk again without limping. But Frederick is much more concerned about Catherine and their relationship than his own health. When the nurse finally arrives and enters the room he’s in, Frederick discovers something unknown and beautiful inside himself: he understands that he loves her with all his heart and the life without her is dull and shallow.
Catherine cares for him, as a nurse and as a loving woman. When Frederick is able to walk, though on crutches, they go together to walk in the park or to the little cozy restaurant next door to dine together and have a glass of dry white wine - and then return to the hospital as a nurse and patient again. They sit on the balcony in the hospital after Catherine’s working day. Frederick finally sleeps with her - but the feelings he has are completely different than after a loveless sex with random girls. Their nights in his room become really intimate experience of a loving couple.
Frederick considers them husband and wife, counting their married life from the day Catherine arrived to Milan hospital. He is the first who offers to marry officially, but Catherine refuses: she know that after the wedding she will be watched by the personnel and they will soon send her or Frederick away not to “distract” them. Catherine doesn’t worry about the formalities, she is happy just to be with Frederick, but something else disturbs her: a feeling that something awful is going to happen.
Something awful indeed happens. The situation on the front worsens. Both sides are already exhausted and, as Frederick solemnly jokes, the army that will understand it is exhausted the last will win the war. So, despite his injury, Frederick is instructed to return to the unit just after several months of treating. He has his last talk with Catherine, but sees that there is something more than his departure that worries her. Finally he persuades her to say the truth: Catherine is pregnant for three months already.
It seems that nothing changed in the unit. Some of Frederick’s fellow soldiers are dead, some got syphilis, almost everyone is drunk again and they still mock the priest. The Austrian army advances, they fight back. But now Frederick gets sick from loud words such as “glory” or “valor”. They sound like a cruel mockery next to the names of specific villages, rivers, roads and the names of the dead and wounded that appear every day. Sanitary cars now are often stuck in traffic jams - lots of refugees try to escape the battlefield fleeing from Austrians. Their belongings are packed in carts, the children and dogs go near them along the road. They go to nowhere and have nothing to lose except their own lives and miserable possessions.
The roads get worse, the ambulance car Frederick is in, stucks here and there and finally half-drowns in the mud. The crew have to make the rest of the way on foot under the fire. But their troubles don’t end there: they are captured by Italian field gendarmerie and, despite Frederick desperately trying to explain that they are soldiers of Italian army themselves, they are condemned as Austrian spies disguised as Italian medics. Frederick, with his American accent, is the most suspicious. He must be shot and thrown into the river, but the lieutenant manages to escape - he jumps into the river himself and swims under the water for a long time. He barely raises his head to inhale air and dives again. He is lucky - the gendarmerie members decide their prisoner drowned and ceased the chase.
The river gives him not only near-death experience. It washes off his sense of duty, guilt and social pressure. Frederick now knows that he’s done with the war, unfair and cruel. He is created to be happy: not to fight, but to eat, drink, enjoy life and love his Catherine. He won’t leave her anymore. For Frederick it looks like he has just signed a personal truce and for him the war is over. But yet it is hard for him to get rid of his feelings completely. Frederick feels similar to a schoolchild who escaped school but can’t stop wondering what is happening at the lessons now.
Finally, Frederick returns to Catherine. He feels more at home than he was for all his life near his beloved woman. He never had such experience before: he had many girlfriends but remained alone always. Here, the nights with Catherine are as wonderful as are days with her. But the war left a sore wound in his soul: Frederick becomes embittered. He is sure that the world breaks everyone, the only thing that matter is will the broken ones grow stronger or die. Those who resist will be just killed instead of breaking. The kindest, the smartest, the bravest - it doesn’t matter: everyone means everyone. If the person is just ordinary and tries not to stick out of a row as long as possible - they will also be broken or killed, maybe, just a bit later.
Henry knows that if someone sees him on the street without uniform and recognizes him - he will be captured and executed. He and Catherine are extremely cautious, but once the barman in the hotel they live in warns the couple: someone saw them and Frederick is going to be arrested in the morning. The barman risks his own life, finding a boat for the desperate couple and showing them the direction where they should sail to reach the neutral Switzerland.
The plan works perfectly. The couple reaches Switzerland safely and settles down in a small village, renting a wooden house among the pines on the mountainside. Frederick and Catherine spend a wonderful autumn there. The war seems to be very far, but the newspapers still tell them that battles are going on.
Catherine’s pregnancy is coming to term. She is worried - she has narrow pelvis and it can cause complication for both her and the child. Still they spend time together for the very last day, without communication with other people, healing their soul wounds with nature and solitude. But when Catherine goes into labor, Frederick has to take her to the nearest hospital. The doctors have to perform a caesarean section but it’s too late, the exhausted child is born dead and the mother dies from blood loss herself.
Henry is left empty and devastated. His own words echo in his head: the world breaks everyone and those it can’t break it kills. The living beings are just thrown into life, they are told the rules and the first slightest mistake, the first time when they are caught unaware results in death. No one can hide from it.