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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARIES AND NOTES
By noontime they have gotten within 10 kilometers of Udine, their destination. Then one of the cars gets stuck in mud.
The sergeants try to run off. Henry orders them to cut some brush to put under the mired wheels, but they refuse. He repeats the order four times, and, when they still pay no attention, he draws his pistol and fires. He misses at first, then drops one of the fleeing men. Bonello, one of his drivers, finishes off the sergeant, shooting him twice in the head.
This is a curious incident that comes close to defying explanation. Why does
Henry shoot the fleeing sergeant? One possible reason is that although
he dislikes fervent militarism, he usually follows regulations. In town
he carried his side arm as ordered, though his friend Rinaldi stuffed
his holster with paper. He made light of his decorations, but he wears
the ribbons all the same. And while at night he suffers nightmares, in
the daytime, before an audience, his bravely casual attitude toward his
wounding is exemplary. That may be the key to this scene: because he has
an audience, Henry must act like an officer. In front of his men, he has
given an order and the order has been ignored. What is he to do? He asserts
his authority, a very human reaction.
Still, the shooting may diminish him as a hero in your eyes. At this point in the novel Henry can't help but participate in the war and its cruel ironies. In the business of saving lives, he shoots a man. In the process of developing a growing distrust for authority, he becomes authoritarian. And though he is fighting the Austrians, the first and only man he kills in the war is Italian.
The scene also shows the political stresses within the Italian army. How happy is Bonello, a socialist, to shoot a figure of authority like a sergeant. All his life he's wanted to kill one.
This chapter is the key to the book. The plot reaches its climax, and Henry's attitude toward the war, which has already undergone gradual change, changes dramatically. The theme of disillusionment comes to the fore.
Trying to rejoin the main body of the retreat, Henry, still taking the responsibility for the few men left in his command, shepherds the three drivers toward Udine. They have some narrow escapes from roving German troops, but, in another example of war's irony, when a driver is killed, it is by Italian snipers who are panicking and firing at anything that moves.
The three survivors hole up in a nearby barn. Bonello runs off to surrender, and there are only two left: Piani, gentler now that he has no audience, and Henry, who in the refuge of the hayloft is trying unsuccessfully to make sense of Aymo's death.
They rejoin the main flow of the retreat. Shouts of defeat and surrender ring out from the fleeing troops. They reach the Tagliamento River, a good place for a stand against the advancing enemy. If they can get across the bridge, they reason, they will be safe, at least temporarily.
It is on the bridge that the climax of the book occurs. Officers and carabinieri (whose brutality was foreshadowed back in Chapter 9) are pulling men out of line and taking them away. They nab a lieutenant colonel and Henry. He tries to resist, and then to talk his way out, but in so doing shows that he speaks accented Italian. That does it, the carabinieri think he's a German infiltrator.
Be sure to pick up the tone of the writing that follows. Henry, for example, drips irony that verges on sarcasm. "The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it." And later, "The questioners had all the efficiency, coldness and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and not being fired on."
And then there's the poor colonel. He's fat and gray-haired, unheroic-looking, but able to meet death with what Hemingway deems the proper composure. The language of the questioners is grandiose and empty: "sacred soil of the fatherland," "fruits of victory." (Remember Henry and the patriot Gino in Chapter 27?) The unfortunate colonel's answer shows great understatement and courage: "If you are going to shoot me, please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid."
They shoot him, and then shoot another officer. Henry is next, but he breaks loose, dives into the river, and escapes. Readers have made a great deal out of this dive. It's a baptism, some say, a ritual entry into a new life. Others view it as a symbolic cleansing of the soil of war. Still others think of it as a convenient, practical, and believable way for a writer to get his hero out of a predicament. It is certainly the last; whatever else you want to read into it depends on how far you want to go into Hemingway's symbolism.
In any case, a climactic change has occurred. Henry, a different person, is now going in a different direction-away from the army, away from the war.
CHAPTERS 31 AND 32
Both chapters deal with Henry alone and his continuing flight. Chapter 31 tells how he gets away: floating down the river, crossing the Venetian plain, hopping a train. Chapter 32 shows what he thinks about while he gets away.
In the latter chapter, you see that his mind is made up-"no more obligation," he thinks. The Italians are not acting rationally and fairly; therefore, he's through. It's not his show anymore. After a fleeting thought or two about Rinaldi and the priest, he turns his mind to Catherine. That's what he's made for, he thinks, to eat and drink and sleep with her.
As Book III ends, a transformed Frederic Henry is planning where he and Catherine can go. There are many places, he concludes, cryptically enough to make you want to read on.