I leaned forward in the dark to kiss her and there was a sharp stinging flash. She had slapped my face hard. Her hand had hit my nose and eyes, and tears came in my eyes from the reflex. “I’m so sorry,” she said. I felt I had a certain advantage. . . . She was looking at me in the dark. I was angry and yet certain, seeing it all ahead like the moves in a chess game.
The narrator, Frederic Henry, flirts with an English nurse, Catherine Barkley. Frederic has a lot of experience with women, but mostly with prostitutes, so flirting with a respectable “girl” makes for a refreshing change. When she reacts by slapping him, he knows that she will feel bad for overreacting and then he will get his way after all. To Henry, at this point the romance exists as simply a game.
“Thank you very much,” I said. “Good night.” I went out the door and suddenly I felt lonely and empty. I had treated seeing Catherine very lightly, I had gotten somewhat drunk and had nearly forgotten to come but when I could not see her there I was feeling lonely and hollow.
Frederic has been seeing Catherine regularly. During this time, he tells her he loves her even though he is lying, justifying his behavior with the thought that she realizes he’s lying, which is probably true. But as he explains here, when he tries to see her one night and she is unavailable, he suddenly realizes that his connection to her may have deepened. Of course, the fact that he is fairly intoxicated may affect the emotions he is experiencing in the moment.
“I believe we should get the war over,” I said. “It would not finish it if one side stopped fighting. It would only be worse if we stopped fighting . . . Defeat is worse. . . . They come after you. They take your home. They take your sisters. . . . They hang you. They come and make you be a soldier again. Not in the auto-ambulance, in the infantry. . . . I think you do not know anything about being conquered and so you think it is not bad.”
Frederic talks with the ambulance drivers who serve under him. They all believe that nobody with any sense would fight unless forced to and also that “there is no finish to a war.” Frederic, though not exactly pro-war, rests on the anti-defeat side, as he shows in this speech. Although not an Italian, he feels committed to helping Italy win this war. He could have chosen to go home when the fighting started, but he didn’t.
Look, baby, this is your old tooth-brushing glass. I kept it all this time to remind me of you. . . . I kept this to remind me of you trying to brush away the Villa Rossa from your teeth in the morning, swearing and eating aspirin and cursing harlots. Every time I see that glass I think of you trying to clean your conscience with a toothbrush. . . . I know, you are the fine good Anglo-Saxon boy. I know. You are the remorse boy, I know. I will wait til I see the Anglo-Saxon brushing away harlotry with a toothbrush.
Frederic has returned to live with the Italian surgeon, Rinaldi, after being treated at a hospital in Milan. Rinaldi feels happy to have him back but teases him for being uptight. While both Frederic and Rinaldi regularly drink too much and visit prostitutes, only Frederic feels remorse about his behavior. As he makes clear here, Rinaldi finds Frederic’s regret funny but enjoys Frederic’s company nonetheless, probably because, despite the remorse, Frederic continues to carouse.
“They were beaten to start with. They were beaten when they took them from their farms and put them in the army. That is why the peasant has wisdom, because he is defeated from the start. Put him in power and see how wise he is. . . . Now I am depressed myself,” I said. “That’s why I never think about these things. I never think and yet when I begin to talk I say the things I have found out in my mind without thinking.”
Frederic and the priest converse. The priest believes that the fighting will be over soon because the leaders are starting to realize war’s stupidity and horror. Here, Frederic points out that their change in attitude arises from having suffered defeats and that many soldiers for that same reason have always hated the war. Frederic feels more cynical about war now, although he still doesn’t believe in defeat. Frederic realizes that his attitude changed while he wasn’t paying conscious attention.
“The whole bloody thing is crazy. Down below they blow up a little bridge. Here they leave a bridge on the main road. Where is everybody? Don’t they try and stop them at all?” . . . I shut up. It was none of my business; all I had to do was get to Pordenone with three ambulances. I had failed at that. All I had to do now was get to Pordenone. I probably could not even get to Udine. The hell I couldn’t. The thing to do was to be calm and not get shot or captured.
In this scene, as Frederic and his men march in retreat, having lost their ambulances to muddy roads, they realize that the Germans are right behind them. Frederic becomes momentarily possessed with annoyance at the high command of the retreating army, who did not properly defend against the enemy. But then he remembers that his responsibility remains more small-scale. After a moment of self-doubt, his natural confidence returns. Frederic illustrates the time’s standard of manhood.
There were some aviators in the compartment who did not think much of me. They avoided looking at me and were very scornful of a civilian my age. I did not feel insulted. In the old days I would have insulted them and picked a fight.
Having stopped fighting for Italy, Frederic travels by train in borrowed civilian clothes. He feels the disapproval of some soldiers who, he knows, believe a man his age should be fighting. But as he explains here, he successfully ignores them. His ability to pay no mind to a perceived insult and, perhaps more importantly, his recognition of his new attitude show that he has matured. He describes the old days in terms that show he now considers his former behavior silly.
“Don’t talk about the war,” I said. The war was a long way away. Maybe there wasn’t any war. There was no war here. Then I realized it was over for me. But I did not have the feeling that it was really over. I had the feeling of a boy who thinks of what is happening at a certain hour at the schoolhouse from which he has played truant.
After Frederic leaves the Italian army, he recognizes that the war itself still continues, and he still thinks about the fighting. A man of his character needs action and things to do, so he contemplates the war as though he will be returning even though he knows such a return is now impossible. At this point, he does not know what the future holds except for reuniting with Catherine.
Catherine was still in the hairdresser’s shop. The woman was waving her hair. I sat in the little booth and watched. It was exciting to watch and Catherine smiled and talked to me and my voice was a little thick from being excited. . . . “Monsieur was very interested. Were you not, monsieur?” the woman smiled.
Frederic admired Catherine’s hair since they first met. A woman of her time and status would always wear her hair pinned up in public. Seeing a woman’s hair down was reserved for intimate moments and, in Catherine and Frederic’s case, played a part in their lovemaking. So at the hairdresser’s, the one public exception to the hair-up rule, Frederic can’t help but be emotionally transported to the bedroom and get “excited,” meaning turned on.
I sat outside in the hall. Everything was gone inside of me. I did not think. I could not think. I knew she was going to die and I prayed that she would not. Don’t let her die. Oh, God, please don’t let her die. I’ll do anything for you if you won’t let her die. Please, please, please dear God, don’t let her die. . . . You took the baby but don’t let her die. That was all right but don’t let her die. Please, please, dear God, don’t let her die.
While not a religious man, Frederic has admitted in the past that he “is afraid of Him in the night sometimes.” In other words, he mostly chooses not to think of God’s potential wishes, but on some level he believes that God could affect his life. At this moment of crisis, Frederic calls on God, showing that he does in some way believe but does not truly expect a response. The God he believes in does not help but can harm.