‘War is a defeat for humanity’. Pope John Paul II. Do what extent do you feel Barry, Faulks and Owen presents war as dehumanising, and how do they use form, structure and language to present the dehumanisation of men in both life in the trenches and in battle in ‘A long long way’, ‘Birdsong’ and Owen’s poetry ?
‘A Long Long Way’ is a novel written by Irish novelist Sebastian Barry in 2005. Barry is considered to be one of Ireland’s finest writers and this becomes evident when reading due to Barry’s impeccable attention to detail. The extraordinary detail and divulgement of trench life made it hard for me as a reader to discover that Barry himself has not been exposed to any war first hand.
The novel follows the protagonist, Willie Dunne and his life as a soldier in the ‘dying days’. He was born in Dublin in 1896, a place of many political and religious controversies, so it was inevitable that Willie Dunne and the rest of his generation born in the ‘dying days’ would become soldiers.
Willies father, a respected 6ft 6 policeman, was left widowed with four children after his wife died in labour with Willie’s youngest sibling, Dolly. As Willie was his only son, it was natural that Mr Dunne was determined for Willie to succeed in life and make his father proud. However, there was a slight obstacle to Willie’s ‘success’ when following his father’s footsteps as Willie unfortunately did not inherit his father’s tall genes; ‘He was a little baby and would always be a little boy’.
Unable to comply with Police height regulations, Willie, like many, became a soldier. ‘Bloody manhood at last’… Willie finally feels relieved and a sense of acceptance that he has not experienced before, but is oblivious to the hardships to come.
The novel features letters between Willie and his family, and letters to his love Gretta, although she never writes back. In the first letter to his father, Willie says ‘we’re hoping it will all be over by Christmas’.. A fallacy of many soldiers.
In contrast to this fallacy, Barry tells the story of men at war in excruciating detail, which is shown in Barry’s first description of the trench; ‘When they came into their trench he felt small enough. The biggest thing there was the roaring of Death and the smallest thing there was a man’.
‘Yellow’ is repeated throughout the novel to echo the horrific gas attack in Chapter 4. Barry first introduces the word ‘yellow’ as a pleasant adjective; ‘there was a yellow flower everywhere with tiny blooms on it..there were millions of caterpillars, the same yellow as the flowers, it was a yellow world’. This is a sharp contrast to Barry’s description of the gas immediately after.
‘the strange yellow-tinged cloud just appeared from nowhere like a sea fog’
‘he could see figures moving in the yellow smoke’
‘the yellow seemed to boil about and sink into whatever craters it was offered, and then rise again with the march of the main body of smoke’
‘the big snake of turning yellow reached the parapet of the Algerian stretch of the trench’
‘in the sudden yellowy darkness awful sounds sprang up like a harvest of hopeless cries’
‘shoving and gasping away from that long, long monster with yellow skin’
‘smeared across his face was a yellowish grease’
‘the men’s uniform turned a peculiar and undesirable yellow’
There are many other initimate experiences described by Barry, including the mass amount of dead bodies ‘strewn about everywhere’.
‘All he saw was a place that had turned into a mere pit of death’
‘Willies eyes burned with sorrow, as if sorrow itself was a kind of gas’
‘men with half their faces gone and limbs lost’
‘they filled the holes with men and on the Sunday were taken out of the line and dragged themselves back to billets far behind the ugly terrain of death’.
Besides the underlying theme of death, there is also a theme of dehumanisation in the novel. This can be categorised into two terms; animalistic dehumanisation and mechanistic dehumanisation. This novel explores both types.
‘The shit he had shat in his pants was hardening, making Willie Dunne’s backside devilishly itchy’
‘we were like f**king stuck pigs out there from the heat and fevers’
‘A wonderful feeling rose in Willies breast. He suddenly felt fierce and true and young. It was something close to a feeling of love. It was love’
‘It was an astonishing thing that human hands had done’
The animalistic dehumanisation that Barry describes in the novel shows how the men in the trenches were living like animals in very inhumane conditions. However, Barry also discreetly touches upon the wider world outside of trench life. Obviously, Britain had just experienced the industrial revolution where many machinery was replacing working men, the quot ‘it was an astonishing thing that human hands had done’ shows the appreciation for something not produced in industrial circumstances. Also, Willie’s sense of pride and love for ‘his country’ is arguably mechanistic dehumanisation because he is falling in love with the weapons.
The novel is a heroic tragedy following Willie from the cradle to the grave with the first page celebrating his birth and the last page is his burial.
‘Birdsong’ Is a novel of an episodic structure, focusing on three different time periods; before, during, and after the war. Faulks closely follows the life of the protagonist Stephen Wraysford at these different stages in his life and unfolds the gruesomeness, hardship and consequences of the Great War.
Whilst the main plot focuses on the life of Stephen, the sub plot focuses on his Granddaughter, Elizabeth, who is attempting to find out more about her Grandfather’s life as a soldier, and his life experiences prior and post war.
Faulks cleverly uses an episodic structure to present us readers with information prior to the characters knowing. This has a gripping effect on the readers, making us feel more involved and absorbed as the story unfolds, and perhaps even a little impatient with Elizabeth for being oblivious to her Grandfather’s life story.. ‘My God, nobody told me’.
The opening scene is set in France in 1910, where Stephen is a guest staying with a prosperous industrialist Mr.Azaire, his wife Isabelle, and their two children. Faulks opens the novel in an idyllic picturesque location; The Boulevard Du Cange. ‘Chestnut trees, lilac and willows’ sets the scene as luscious and peaceful place to be, a complete contrast to the trench warfare that is about to come. ‘Behind the gardens the river Somme broke up into small canals’ introduces the theme of tunnels and passages, which are echoed in the description of Azaire’s home; ‘unregarded passageways’.. ‘Unexpected spaces and corridors’. Faulks also describes the house as ‘both smaller and larger than it looked’, which is his first use of paradoxical language.
The description of the exterior of the Azaire’s house is very important in understanding the industrial society at this time. ‘Iron railings’, would have been expensive and were a clear indication of the family’s wealth to outsiders, ‘the slate roof plunged in conflicting angles to cover the irregular shape of the house’ is also suggestive of the family’s wealth as their comfortable income would have meant they could extend the house when they desired. The ‘iron railings’ introduce a gothic element to the novel, and is suggestive of Isabelle feeling trapped in her marriage.
When talking to Stephen about the textile industry at dinner, Azaire reveals of his workers complaints; ‘They complain they are losing their jobs to machinery, but if we cannot compete with our competitors in Spain and England, then we have no hope’. This introduces the consequences of machinery and how it is evolving to ‘compete’, this could possibly foreshadow the use of machinery (weapons) used in World War One, and that they are produced by countries to compete in the war because without them they have ‘no hope’ of survival.
In Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Arms and the Boy’, Owen shows how the mechanical advances of the time are overwhelming the human race. The poem is about an inexperienced soldier how grows to adore his weapons.. ‘stroke’ the weapons.. ‘nuzzle in the hearts’.
The language of nature and romance used in the opening scene to describe the setting is also a technique used to describe Stephen and Isabelle’s relationship; ‘without thinking he reached out and grabbed her hand, folding it in both of his own’ presents us with the image of a tulip, as well as a prayer shape. This reminds the reader that like nature, love has to be nourished to stay alive; Stephen is hopeful that his attentiveness towards Madame Azaire will spark the love that he believes she deserves.
Although the language of romance is dominant throughout the novel it soon becomes apparent that the grotesque language used to describe the physical effect of war is more prevalent. The second ‘part’ to the novel is also set in France, but is 6 years later in 1916. Here, we are introduced to trench warfare for the first time. ‘Jack Firebrace lay forty-five feet underground with several hundred tons of France above his face’. Although this is not a gross description, it certainly reveals the lack of emotion that war causes the soldiers to have. The short sentence structure reflects this. This description of the tunnels reduces the men to an animal level, merely ‘sewer rats’, which introduces the theme of dehumanization.
‘His arms grinding in their joints’ is certainly a grotesque image used to describe the brutality of war and physical harm suffered by the soldiers. It is the first of many vivid descriptions by Faulks as well as ‘missing part of his face’… ‘Stephen could see his cheeks through his missing face’… and ‘humps of khaki lay every few yards’. Owen also touches on this theme throughout his poetry; ‘blood clogged their chariot wheels’ in the poem ‘Strange Meetings’, for example, explicitly reveals the savageness of war.
Faulks uses semantic field very effectively in ‘part 4’ of the novel (France 1917). ‘Shellfire’, ‘explosion’ and ‘wave breaking’ really express to the reader how the soldiers would have been drowning in sounds. Also, Faulks very effectively uses the language of butchery in this description. ‘Pink skin’.. ‘small joints’.. ‘meat being dropped’ are all descriptions that add to the rawness of trench warfare. Similarly to a butcher, weapons are used to do the killing, but essentially the killing is done with their bare hands. The description of butchery sounds very inhumane, and it reminds the reader of the intimacy of war. Although there were 1000’s of soldiers, every one was an individual.S to represent the soldier’s legacy.
As well as Stephens life, Faulks introduces the character of Elizabeth in part 3, to represent the soldier’s legacy. At first, the reader can become agitated with Elizabeth’s character due to Faulks effective episodic structure. For example, Elizabeth’s friend says ‘It all seems so boring and depressing, all those guns and battles and things’, for the reader this seems very ignorant and inconsiderate considering we have previously read three chapters about the hardship of war and strain of trench life. Of course, Elizabeth does not know what we know about her Grandfather, this technique is very effective as it makes us question if we as a generation are really aware of soldiers heroicness.
Just caught ‘Flog it!’ on BBC1 to find Paul Martin at Weston Park in Shropshire, a place where Wilfred Owen often spent his time at as a boy. Martin travels the grounds and there is a documentary of Owens influences, experiences, letters to his mother etc. within the programme.
It was a really good watch and I will definitely be referring to this episode again when it is available on iPlayer.
Here’s the link!! I highly reccommend watching it 🙂
In the opening chapter, Faulks describes The Boulevard Du Cange with the use of imagery. ‘On the damp grass were chestnut trees, lilac and willows’. This description of nature adds to the impression of a luscious, calm and peaceful spot. Faulks draws particular attention to the tranquility in this chapter, ‘shade and quietness’.. ‘deep lawns and bursting hedges’.. ‘quiet pools’. This is a sharp contrast of what is to follow in the novel, but at the same time sets the scene for the wonderful love Stephen and Isabelle initially share.
Faulks says the Somme ‘broke up into small canals’, this introduces a theme of tunnels and passages, which is echoed shortly after in the description of Azaires house, ‘no rooms of intimidating grandeur’ and ‘unregarded passageways’. I feel this is perhaps a vague introduction of the trench life that is explored later in the novel. Another description which I feel is similar to the trenches, is when Stephen visits Saint-Leu quarter. ‘There was the racket of co-habitation’, ‘calling out important news to their neighbours’. This reminds me of trench life because of the numerous cohabitants confined in one space, and also soliders calling out important warnings when the opposition is approaching. Faulks also describes the Somme as ‘fertile’, which is suggestive of Isabelle’s pregnancy.
There is also some very language that is suggestive of reproduction and erotica. ‘Plunge’, ‘thrust’, ‘pulse’ thus reminding us of new life, just like the emphasis of nature, which is an ironic contrast to the war that is to arrive, as it destroys life.
There is also elements of the language of war when Azaire meets with other industrialists. Azaire speaks the word ‘retrench’ and discusses ranking his workers, as they would do in the Military. This attitude towards people is similar to Stephen is about to be treated by his Military Generals.
(upto pg. 24)
Spending the penultimate day of the holidays watching a couple of war films. I have watched Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” before, but I have to admit I hid behind a cushion during most of the movie due to the horrific scenes! 😦
This time round, I’ve managed to endure the graphic scenes for educational purposes, I can only describe it as overwhelming.
Definitely worth a watch if you have not yet seen it, the movie is also transferable to Owen’s poetry, as I can now visualise the bravery he describes on a much more haunting scale.
Apologies!! Although I haven’t uploaded anything yet, I have managed to do 3/7 tasks set so far and photographic evidence of my notes will be uploaded tomorrow 🙂 WordPress is not agreeing with my home PC so I have set up a paper file. Fortunately, I have been receiving email alerts and so I have been able to access those blog uploads via the link and still be able to read all of your work from my mobile! I have just discovered the WordPress App so all is good and I will be able to upload the next 4 homework’s on time. Technology = 😦