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THE PLOT - SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
Frederic Henry is a young American studying in Italy when World War I breaks out. He volunteers as an army ambulance driver. He is commissioned sotto-tenente (2nd lieutenant), and sent to the northern mountains where Italy is fighting Austria.
In the fall of 1916 the snows come early and the Italians put off any more attacks until next year. Henry is given leave. The chaplain urges him to visit his family who live in the country, but Henry goes instead to Rome and Naples, where he drinks and chases women. He returns from leave dissatisfied and guilty over squandering his time and money.
Henry learns from his roommate, Rinaldi, that British nurses are now stationed in the area hospital and that Rinaldi has his eye on one, an English woman named Catherine Barkley. Rinaldi drags Henry along to visit the nurses. Catherine and Henry are instantly attracted to each other. Rinaldi is mildly put out, but he recovers.
When not driving an ambulance, Henry calls on Catherine. He considers their relationship a wartime flirtation, a little better than making love to one of the girls at the Villa Rossa, the officers' brothel, but hardly anything more permanent. He does, however, admit to himself that he felt "lonely and hollow" one time when he got drunk, and missed seeing her.
Catherine's attitude is more complex. She seems to want affection, but is vulnerable because the previous year an English boy she had been engaged to was "blown all to bits" in France. She encourages Henry, and just before he goes to the front she gives him a St. Anthony medal for protection.
At the front, the Italian offensive begins. Henry and four drivers take shelter in a dugout that comes under Austrian bombardment. A canister shell hits. Henry's legs are severely wounded. He tries to help a stricken driver only to have the man die before the bleeding can be stopped. The other drivers, less severely wounded, carry Henry from the dugout. He's taken to an aid station and then to an army hospital.
Rinaldi and the chaplain visit him. He hears the good news that he'll be moved to an American hospital in Milan and that Catherine has been transferred there.
In Milan Henry convalesces. And when Catherine visits him, he realizes the minute she walks into the room that he loves her. She volunteers for night duty so that they can spend their nights together.
Henry's surgery is a success and before long they can go out to restaurants, take carriage rides, and go to horse races. Henry wants to marry her, but Catherine refuses. "How could we be any more married?" she asks.
His recovery almost complete, Henry plans convalescent leave with Catherine. Then one night Catherine tells him she's pregnant.
The next day he wakes up sick and is diagnosed as having jaundice. His head nurse assumes that he's brought it on himself by drinking too much in order to avoid front-line duty, and she reports him. His leave is denied and he is ordered to report to the front as soon as he is well enough.
Frederic Henry returns to war. By now things are going badly for Italy. German troops have reinforced the Austrians; they defeat the Italians, forcing a full-scale retreat. What begins as an orderly withdrawal soon becomes chaos. Henry drives his ambulance away from the advancing Germans until the road clogs.
Deciding to circle around the stalled column, he cuts out of line and takes a side road. The ambulance gets stuck in mud. He and the other drivers he's been transporting abandon the vehicle and walk to safety. During their flight they barely manage to avoid patrolling Germans. Later, one of Henry's group is killed by an Italian sniper and another runs off to surrender.
Henry and the remaining men rejoin the main column. Finally, at a bridge across the swollen Tagliamento River, the retreat slows. On the other side of the bridge a group of carabinieri (Italian MPs) are arresting higher-ranking officers, giving them summary trials, and shooting them for desertion. Even though he's only a tenente, Henry, because he speaks accented Italian, is seized as a German infiltrator. He breaks free and leaps into the river. Hanging onto a log, he is swept downstream out of firing range. He struggles to shore. He hikes across the Venetian plain and hops a freight to Milan. Back at the hospital he finds out that Catherine is on leave in Stresa, a lakeside town near the Swiss border.
Having decided to desert, Henry borrows civilian clothes and goes to Stresa and meets Catherine. The bartender in their hotel warns him that he's to be arrested and offers a boat so that they can escape across the lake to neutral Switzerland.
Henry rows all night. Eventually, evading Italian patrols, they get to Switzerland. They're arrested but let go when the police find that they have valid passports and plenty of money.
They find rooms at a mountain inn and spend an idyllic time waiting for the birth of Catherine's baby. They hike, read, and talk about what they'll do after the war. When her pregnancy nears its end, they move to Lausanne to be near a hospital.
Catherine has a long and difficult labor. Her doctor resorts to anesthesia. After she suffers for hours, he decides on a cesarean. The baby is delivered dead.
Henry visits Catherine. The nurse tells him, "Mrs. Henry is very ill." Catherine has had "one hemorrhage after another," and there's no hope. He watches her die. He tries to say good-bye to the dead body but realizes it's like talking to a statue. He leaves and walks back to the hotel in the rain.