The novel opens on a cold Sunday morning with the protagonist traveling by boat to shoot ducks along a partially frozen lagoon near Venice. He assists the boatman in poling through the ice and offers to help place decoys, becoming somewhat angry at the surly boatman’s responses. Taking his place in a partially submerged barrel that serves as a blind, Colonel Richard Cantwell skillfully brings down the first two ducks that fly within range.
The narrative returns in a flashback to a physical examination that the colonel took three days earlier, when a skeptical army surgeon allowed him to pass, even though both men knew the colonel to be dying of heart disease. With Jackson, his driver, the colonel sets out from Trieste, recalling along the way sites where he fought and was wounded during World War I. Arriving in Venice, he goes by boat to the Gritti Palace Hotel and, once settled there, dines with his young mistress, Countess Renata. Afterward they make love in a gondola on the way to Renata’s home.
The following morning, the colonel leaves the hotel to walk through the market in the brisk winter air, returning in time for breakfast with his mistress. In his room he begins to tell her how he lost his regiment in the Hurtgen Forest. Although she finds portions of the account confusing, she listens as if knowing that it is important for him to share the experience. Even after the countess has fallen asleep, he continues his discourse—at times through an interior dialogue, at times addressing a portrait that Renata gave him.
They go to a jewelry shop where he buys Renata a moor’s head brooch that she admired; he informs her that the heirloom emeralds that she gave him have been deposited for her in the hotel safe. After martinis at Harry’s Bar, they return to the hotel for lunch, where the colonel and the Gran Maestro make her an honorary member of their humorous Order of Brusadelli. At their parting Renata weeps, although she has told him that she never does, and the colonel sets off for the Barone Alvarito’s estate, where he will hunt the next morning.
The narrative returns abruptly to the Sunday hunt, with the colonel in the blind recalling stories told by other hunters the preceding evening. After modest success, he finds the chances for more kills diminished by unfavorable weather. Returning to his car, he sets out with Jackson back to Trieste but en route is racked by a series of attacks which convince him that he cannot live.
After repeating General Stonewall Jackson’s final words, "No, no, let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees," he moves to the back seat of the Buick and firmly closes the door. Jackson finds him dead shortly thereafter and reads a note that the colonel had written minutes earlier, ordering that the portrait and his shotguns be sent to the hotel for Renata to claim. Continuing the journey, Jackson reflects that this request will be handled through channels.
Except for the chapter narrating the physical examination, the entire plot unfolds within a period of three days. The book opens on the day of the hunt, moves backward to Friday and Saturday, and returns to the final day at the end. In the course of three days, the hero manages to tell his life’s story to those he encounters, its most important stages being the two world wars. The narrow time frame beginning in medias res lays heavy emphasis upon his approaching death. These final three days are narrated almost exclusively from the protagonist’s point of view, although one hears the authorial voice in the introduction and in the conclusion. The plot moves inexorably toward the climactic death of the protagonist.
In presenting the colonel’s interaction with other characters, Hemingway achieves an economy of narrative. Rarely does the novel focus on scenes involving more than two people. At first the colonel is with the boatman on the hunt and later, he is in the car with Jackson. Much of the remaining time he is with Renata—in a hotel or dining room, walking along the street, or riding in a gondola. Other scenes involve the colonel and barmen, waiters, or the Gran Maestro. Often a deep emotional bond exists between the hero and the other character, yet the characters serve primarily as straight men designed to facilitate the colonel’s rambling discourse.