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A Farewell to Arms
Ernest Hemingway

THE STORY BOOK III

CHAPTER 26

Henry and the priest discuss the war. The priest comments on the changes in attitudes among many officers. After a terrible summer, they are now gentle. Note that this word pretty well describes Henry, too. His gentleness, though it comes in part from his personal brush with death, has undoubtedly been made stronger by his love for Catherine.

The priest, an idealist, hopes that the war will end; Henry, still a realist, notes that the Austrians, having stopped the Italians from gaining ground, do not feel beaten and gentle. They will not stop fighting.

When Henry begins analyzing the war and men's attitudes, he becomes depressed and admits that he tries not to think about these things. But he realizes he can't help but think about them. He's no longer the lad who went to war for a lark. CHAPTER 27

Henry wakes early and leaves for the front to take over his cars. He hears persistent rumors of an Austrian attack as well as equally persistent Italian denials of that possibility. Henry and a driver named Gino discuss strategy and troop dispositions. Henry sounds a foreboding note when he mentions the ease with which the Italians could be routed from their mountain positions. He believes the Italians should let the land work strategically, allowing the enemy to extend itself and then pinching it off. Gino states that it's easy to do that when you're fighting in someone else's country. When you're defending your own soil, it's often thought to be sacred. Gino then squelches talk of defeat, saying, "What has been done this summer cannot have been done in vain."


Then you have a pivotal passage, one frequently quoted by commentators on Hemingway's themes and narrative methods. In it Henry scorns all the high-sounding abstractions- honor, glory, sacrifice, and so on- that leaders, politicians, and patriots use in discussing the war. They're obscene, Henry says, next to the concreteness and dignity of certain placenames and dates. Actually, this also describes the way Hemingway writes, doesn't it? He stacks up simple but concrete details so that in aggregate they acquire more power than the fancy abstractions could ever have.

It starts to storm. Fighting begins; attacks and counterattacks swirl. Word comes of an unsuccessful attack to the south, then of a successful attack near Caporetto, to the north. Germans have broken the Italian lines. A retreat is ordered. At first it is as orderly as an advance. In fact, it parallels the troop movements detailed in the first chapter, the men marching along, wet, tired, and sullen.

The retreat reaches Gorizia, where Henry had been quartered. Everything- the hospital, even the whorehouse- has been evacuated. Henry and his drivers scrounge some food and wine and arrange to grab a few hours' sleep in Henry's old rooms. The men seem glad to be retreating. They banter about the war, the king, and the country, and luxuriate in the officers' beds.

At chapter's end Henry tells them that the retreat will go beyond the Tagliamento River, where the line is supposed to be held.

NOTE: Caporetto was the site of one of the most massive military retreats in modern history. Austrians and Germans launched their offensive on October 24, 1917 quickly shattering Italian defenses, within two weeks they had advanced 70 miles. Forty thousand Italian troops were killed or wounded; another quarter of a million were taken prisoner. Like the Somme, the name was for a time synonymous with disaster. Although Hemingway did not begin his own service in Italy until after the battle, he would have been very familiar with it.  

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