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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARIES AND NOTES
Hemingway begins his story of war with a seemingly peaceful portrait of an Italian village in the summer and autumn of 1916. His rich visual images evoke a natural world that appears at first glance to be changeless. The narrator is merely an observer of the shifting seasons and the apparently distant war.
NOTE: HEMINGWAY'S TECHNIQUE
Hemingway says a lot by saying little, and his technique is easily
seen in this opening chapter. Although he is writing of war, he doesn't
dwell here on gore or glory; fighting is merely "not successful,"
things are going "very badly." The language is emptied of passion,
as if the narrator had already suffered so much that he had lost the capacity
to feel pain.
Notice, though, how carefully the descriptions are worked out to show the despair below the surface. Though the setting is placid and lovely, each glimpse of nature is interrupted by the war. The dust raised by marching soldiers coats the trees; the mountains above the plain "rich with crops" glow with artillery flashes that look like summer lightning. The war has warped the seasons. The fall comes too early, too harshly: the trees lose their leaves too soon, the country quickly becomes "dead with the autumn." In particular, keep the rain in mind, for you'll see it repeated throughout the book. This is not a fertilizing spring shower, but a cold autumn rain, associated with sickness and death. And note the simile describing the troops loaded with equipment under their rain capes. They "marched as though they were six months gone with child"- not just six months pregnant, but "gone," the seemingly casual word choice is in fact a portent of the deaths of many of these soldiers and of the death in childbirth of Catherine Barkley.
The dominant tone is irony and understatement, and it reaches its peak at the end of the chapter when nature and the war both conspire against man: "At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army." Only. Hemingway's cruelly flattened language paints a picture of genuine horror.
Hemingway's portrait of military triumph is as understated as his portrait of failure: "The next year there were many victories." The war has moved closer, but it still hasn't much affected life in the town, perhaps, the narrator suggests, because the Austrians hope to return to the pleasant spot when the war is over and so don't "bombard it to destroy it but only a little in a military way." Life goes on. The first snowfall of winter signals the end of fighting until spring, when troops can again move through the mountains.
Your first view of the narrator comes when he's inside the brothel (there are two in the town: one for officers, one for enlisted men) looking out at the snowfall. He sees the priest from his company walk past. Another of the officers motions to the priest to come inside; he naturally refuses. Later in the mess the officers gang up on the priest and tease him. They show him no respect, baiting him about his celibacy as well as attacking church policies and theology. Talk turns to the narrator (Frederic Henry) and his approaching leave. Everybody has a suggestion as to where he should go-from tourist sites to unspoiled country to cultural centers to big cities. The scene winds up with the priest suggesting that Henry visit his home region of Abruzzi, where it's cold and clear and dry and where the hunting is good. At the close, the captain and Henry leave to "go to the whorehouse before it shuts."
This chapter reveals Henry's apparently growing acquaintance with the destruction of peacetime values caused by the war. Taken for granted are sanctioned prostitution and the coarse baiting of a priest. Henry stands a little apart from this loss of values, but he's still affected by it. He feels sympathy for the priest but he doesn't call a halt to the officers' baiting, and he leaves for the brothel with the captain.
Pay attention to the description of Abruzzi. It will appear again, expanded.