Probably Hemingway's best-known novel, it serves as a quintessential example of his style of writing and the themes for which he is most well-known. As per usual, I won't belabor or summarize the plot scene by scene, but, as an overview, this admirable novel is set in mid-stream of the Great War, which indisputably marked a change in human history. It tells the story of Lieutenant Frederic Henry (known as "Tenente," an Italian term for "Lieutenant"), an American ambulance drive serving in the Italian army who falls in love with an American nurse, Catherine, when he is wounded in a mortar attack. Although the two don't seem to hit it off at first (Henry is portrayed as just trying to "get in her pants," actually, so he doesn't have to go down to the local brothel to the girls there, with whom he is bored), Henry admits later that he unwittingly falls in love with her. Their tenuous affair meets with some unexpected consequences for both, and, in keeping with the overall theme of the novel, some things not even love can conquer.
Hemingway is definitely one of those love-him-or-hate-him authors (and there's plenty to dislike: the curt, mundane dialogue; the sexist, one-dimensional portrayal of his female characters, which borders on unrealistic, and, sometimes, ridiculous; the monotonous tone of his prose, which is stripped of almost any description aside from a procession of events; the conversations between soldiers, and even in this case, the love interest, which are strained and lacking in any substance), but this book is endearing, somehow. It was certainly influential, kicking off a post-war literary and artistic movement that shocked (and changed) the world, giving birth to what later generations would rightly describe as the Lost Generation.
As with so many other novels about war that I've read, the central theme seems to be: futility. As Herman Van Rompuy, a former Belgian prime minister stated during a ceremony for the 100th anniversary of the end of the war, its legacy for future generations is "about how it could start, about the mindless march to the abyss, the sleepwalking to destructionâ above all, about the millions who were killed on all sides, on all fronts." By presenting the events in a colorless, exsanguinated manner devoid of life or emotion, Hemingway describes war as it really is: boring, monotonous, endless, pointless. This style of writing represents an almost-total departure from, and, one could convincingly argue, an outright-rejection of, the florid, overwrought prose of the previous century (this book was first published in 1929). Where Victorian literature seems most concerned with style, Hemingway is concerned with substance, but couched in nuance. Almost in "machine-gun" style, he presents his story as a stream of events, albeit rather colorless ones, like the cold, bloodless, desolate landscape devoid of life at the Front.
The novel could be described as semi-autobiographical in some respects, as much of the content likely mirrors Hemingway's own experiences during the war. His novels are written from the perspective of those "on the ground," and in this case, in the trenches, and in the hospitals: the realistic portrayal of the scenes, like the drunken soldiers in the trenches, to the villagers just trying to survive, to the almost absurd, buffoon-like commanders whose incompetence only contributes to their men's misery, Hemingway tells it like it is, and pulls no punches. There's no glory here, nor victory, either: this wasn't a war which could be won, just survived.
Like so many gung-ho young men who courted the sense of adventure and glory they believed awaited them, he, and by extension, his character Henry, had no inkling of the horrors they would encounter in the first conflagration of the twentieth century, when industrialization changed the nature of conflict forever, and inflicted casualties unseen in human histories, on both combatants and civilian populations. The millions of men mired in the mud in trenches all over Europe carried these experiences for the rest of their lives, in some cases, short and tragic ones, as the wounds inflicted by new and ever-more destructive technologies took their toll. Alcohol is omnipresent, serving as the salve to men's souls, which, in the end, only exacerbates the problems.
If you're expecting an action novel, however, you'll be disappointed. In some respects, it's a complex novel, despite its rather taciturn nature. At its core, it's a love story between the two characters, an aspect of the book which has sparked heated controversy and debate for decades, but it's also much more. The precursor to what I would describe as the "protest" novels of later decades, Hemingway portrays war much differently than nineteenth-century authors, who still adhered to the "drum-and-bugle" style novel that may have described atrocities, but rarely offered an insightful critique of war itself. As it had been for much of human history, war was simply a given.
In the century that followed, however, it became much more evident that in an Industrial Age, war was simply intolerable, for the destruction it wrought, which would reach its zenith with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. For this reason, I would consider it one of the most profound "war novels" of all time: although certainly not fully-fledged, it influenced generations of authors (tragically) to come, who looked to their predecessors for examples on how to articulate their experiences and to share the un-relatable with their readers.