Plot Construction of The Novel - A Farewell To Arms

Also Read

      The plot in a dramatic or narrative work in the structures of its actions as these are ordered and rendered towards achieving particular and artistic effects. Seen from the point of view of this definition Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is structured like a five-act play and less like an episodic narration as in other works of fiction. The book is divided into five books. Each book consists of a series of scenes and each scene is further broken down into sections which might be seen as stage dialogues and directions. Book I, consisting of chapters one to twelve is the expository part of the novel. The first chapter introduces us to the general war background and the following chapter acquaints us with the main characters and the problems etc. In Book II, consisting of chapters thirteen to twenty-four, the romance between Frederic Henry and Catherine is developed and reaches its climax in chapter three, from chapter twenty- five to thirty-three is a description of the Caporetto retreat and Henry’s Hesertion of the army due to his disgust from the realities of war the utter chaos and confusion. In Book IV, chapters thirty-five to thirty-eight, the lovers meet again and the book basically deals with the couple’s escape to Switzerland leading to Book V and their idyllic retreat to the mountains to the catastrophic ending, Catherine’s death while giving birth to their love child.

The Exposition and Introductory Chapters

      Book one introduces the themes and characters of the novel. Chapter one establishes first of all the dominant mood of the novel through its depiction of the background. A series of symbolic images are brought forth, the plain, the river and the mountains, for future reference. The plains are conquered, won, defeated in the course of the war, the river flows unimpeded so times moves from summer, fall, winter and in the far distance the mountains stand strong, firm, peaceful and unconquered. A picture of gloom dominates and a pregnancy is hinted at, the troops in their bulging raincoats, marching with their cartridges under the capes look like pregnant women and death is inevitable with the permanent rain of winter leaving seven thousand in the army, dead.

      In the following chapters, we are introduced to the main protagonist Lieutenant Frederic Henry an American in the Italian army and Catherine Barkley an English nurse on the Italian front. Their respective relevant information is effectively brought out. Henry goes on leave wherein he indulges in frequent and casual sex and Catherine’s unhappy background the death of her fiance is brought out. The action is then taken forward to its next complication, the development of love between Catherine and Henry and the parallel complication of the intensification of the war and Henry’s wound. The first book therefore, also clearly states the two themes of the novel; love and war.

The Rising Action

      There is a smooth complication of action in the novel. Book I ends with Henry being wounded and being transferred to Milan, a scenario far removed from the war front. This in fact facilitates the rising action or complication of the story i.e., the development and growth of the love story. Book II, deals with this complication. In Book I, Henry’s attitude toward love had been a casual and detached one. For him Catherine had been just a better option from going to the brothels. But in Book II, his physical attraction is shown as developing into a deeper kind of feeling. He moves towards a better and true love. He says “God knows I have not wanted to fall in love with her. I had not wanted to fall in love with anyone but God knows I had and I lay on the bed in the room of the hospital....” Henry and Catherine spend a wonderful summer together as he is convalescences. A high point is reached when Catherine reveals that she is pregnant with Henry’s child and the book ends with Henry going back to the front. Book II, therefore, is a commentary of the love theme.

Further Development and the Climax

      As book II was the description of the action pertaining to the love theme, book III is a description of the war theme. Henry returns to the front leaving Catherine in Milan. As soon as he returns there is a discussion of both love and war. The priest gives an ideal definition of love and he and Rinaldi also express a disgust and depression due to the war. Again, Henry had a detached and aloof attitude to the war in the earlier books. There had been no reason for him to join the war and no reason as such is specified. In this book Henry is also shown as being tired of the war and wishing that it would end. And though he is not a believer, he is shown to be conscientiously performing his duty. But the Italian army faces severe loses on the Coparetto front and is forced to retreat. ’During the retreat Henry witnesses the brutal reality of war. Circumstances compel him to desert the army and escape. He is about to be executed by the Military police as a German in Italian uniform. The book ends with his flight from the Military police on a freight train with his thoughts moving towards Catherine. Book III, therefore, is a development of the war theme, reaching a climax or crisis in the retreat and Henry’s flight. Now, the action has reached a climax in both the themes of the novel, war and love. The novel then goes on to an unraveling or falling action in the following chapter of the next book.

The Falling Action

      The action of the novel has now reached its climax in both the themes. Book VI now deals with the falling conflict or complication. The lovers meet once again. They are re-united in Stresa and there is in this book a continuation of their love. There is not much action in this chapter. The five chapters of this book are mostly spent on the blossoming love between the lovers. Their love has reached a climax and both has in several ways demonstrated that now their love for one another is true and feels for depth. They have left mere sensuality far behind. There, is a move towards an idyll. This is made possible when due to the fear of Henry’s arrest, together they flee to Switzerland.

The Catastrophe or Denouement

      Book five, the last book and act of the novel is a fitting conclusion to the series of actions leading up to the catastrophe. Catherine and Henry who had fled to Switzerland, a neutral country during the first World War. As this book opens, we find them in a idyllic situation. Catherine is now heavily pregnant and they have taken a cottage in the mountains. They are living an idle, beautiful life. However, a catastrophe follows.

      Catherine dies in child birth and their son is also stillborn. Henry is left all alone utterly devastated. This catastrophe is not a direct and logical result of the immoral social situation. Catherine’s narrowness of hips which causes complication during the delivery of the child is just an unfortunate biological accident. Therefore, even if they had married, even if there had been no war, Catherine’s death was inevitable. The novel ends with this tragic accident.

The Unity of Action

      A plot has unity of action and is an artistic whole, if it is a single, complete, and ordered structure of actions, all directed towards the intended effects, in which none of the component parts or incidents is unnecessary. In other words all the parts are so closely connected that the addition or subtraction of any part will disjoint and dislocate the whole. Seen from this point of view, A Farewell to Arms is an organic whole. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. All the elements in the novel have their proper place. Sometimes a minor character may seem irrelevant or his minute observation to details cumbersome but they are significant aspect of the realism of the novel and cannot be called extraneous. Hemingway’s plot development is similar to that of a Shakespearean tragedy.


      In conclusion, it is evident that Hemingway’s plot of A Farewell to Arms, is a plot par excellence. It is an organically well-knit plot well all its parts playing its significant roles and with no extraneous parts or irrelevant sub plots etc. The main theme in the only plot and all the action is concentrated on it and moves towards the culmination of the action with any digressions whatsoever. There are no interpolations, it is one complete plot beautifully constructed. In its structure, it is a masterpiece.

Previous Post Next Post