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Lieutenant Frederic Henry, who does not suffer from any grand illusions about honor, glory, patriotism, or courage, deserts the army by leaving his post. He is wounded in the knee, is in love with Catherine Barkley, lives with her, gets her pregnant, but in the end, loses both his son and Catherine.
The war, with its devastating effect on the individual’s life, the tragic disillusionment it fosters, and the despair that is its consequence, is the antagonist in the novel. On a secondary level, biology, that claims Catherine’s life, is the second antagonist.
The climax occurs in Caporetto where a retreat is forced on the Italian army. Henry tries to put up a brave and dogged fight but in the ensuing chaos, he is forced to desert his post. From now on, he becomes the hunted rather the hunter and has to live incognito. The action too undergoes a marked change after the climax. Before the retreat, it seems slow-paced but after it becomes faster and the events unfold so quickly that they leave the reader breathless. Here the setting shifts from Italy to Switzerland.
The conflict ends in a tragedy that is double-edged or twin-peaked. Henry cannot pursue a military career because he has abandoned his post. There are no more choices for him as far as professions go because he had given up architecture to join the army and now he has given up the army too. He intends to lead a life of married bliss with Catherine and his son but both die, leaving him a victim of unalterable circumstances. As Henry says, though he lives on after Catherine’s death, his tragic story has come to an end. This novel is tragic because it shows Catherine biologically double- crossed, Europe war-crossed and life, death-crossed.