A Farewell to Arms, the conclusion
The Tenente’s choices during the retreat narrow frighteningly fast, although for a long time he refuses to accept that he has no choices left. He looks at a bridge, thinking strategically, and then realizes “it was none of my business; all I had to do was to 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.”
He loses all his men. One gets killed, another lets himself be taken prisoner because he’s so afraid of being killed, and he is separated from the last one at a bridge where officers are being cut out and shot for having “abandoned” their troops. When he escapes and swims away downriver, he says “anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation. Although that ceased when the carabiniere put his hands on my collar.” He is no longer part of the war; his responsibilities have been taken away, one by one.
The only thing he has left is his dream of Catherine; they could still “feel alone when we were together, alone against the others.” They turn to each other as people often do, seeking solace in sex, the hope of creating a new life amid the pursuing threat of death. Their attempt to escape, however, goes much the same way as the retreat. It’s exciting, and the Tenente is heroic and brave, making friends wherever he goes and rowing them across the lake to Switzerland. But the farther he takes them, the less they have. As he says, “my life used to be full of everything….Now if you aren’t with me I haven’t a thing in the world.”
So when Catherine and the child die, as is more than amply foreshadowed, the former Tenente hasn’t a thing left, not even anything to believe in. He will not “grow careful” as the old Count Greffi says. He will not have close friends, but the kind that enjoy doing specific things with him and making jokes about how close they are because of circumstances like how “I nearly sent him some pipe-tobacco once.” He has some financial support from his family, but no real closeness because “we quarrelled so much it wore itself out.”
Catherine’s death, he thinks, is “the price you paid for sleeping together. This was the end of the trap. This was what people got for loving each other.” The only thing he can count on, in the end, is the eventuality of death: “That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. Or they killed you gratuitously like Aymo. Or gave you the syphilis like Rinaldi. But they killed you in the end. You could count on that. Stay around and they would kill you.”
Being a hero depends on having choices. Staying around after there are no more choices is merely surviving. When the former Tenente, the bereaved Mr. Henry, asks “Is there anything I can do to-night?” and the doctor answers “no,” that is the end of his story. All that he has done–his escape from being wounded, from being shot with the other Italian officers, from Italy itself–has come to an end. Everything Catherine has done has come to an end–caring for the endless supply of wounded soldiers, remaining loyal to her ideals and her friend Helen, and insisting to the very last moment of her life that she is “not a bit afraid.”
The novel describes what war feels like by relentlessly focusing on what is missing. The losses pile up, until all a reader feels is loss; that’s all there is.