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Chapter Five: Conclusion

The battlefields of the twentieth century have provided some of America's best authors with fertile ground in which to sow the seeds of their concern about the plight of the individual overwhelmed by the mass culture of our modern technological society. The novels I have examined were chosen because they all have literary merit and treat men at war as a microcosm of, an allegory for individuals in the world at large rather than concerning themselves with patriotism, the fate of nations, and the shape of history. Most of the authors discussed in this study regard the world as absurd and meaningless, and the individual as isolated, alienated, and impotent. Some, though, perceive a ray of hope for the future of the individual, either through the exercise of a responsible existential freedom or by embracing the traditional value of caring for others or a combination of both. We also have seen that the role of community in identity formation and maintenance has come under scrutiny in these novels, as has the tension that exists between the individual's desire to be autonomous and his or her communal obligations, yearning on the one hand for independence and on the other for true fellowship. Some authors view community as merely the agent of social determinism, while two, Heller and Del Vecchio, posit the possibility of cooperative communities that support individuality.

In World War I novels that use the battlefield experience as a microcosm of modern society, we observe soldiers such as Dos Passos's Andrews and Fuselli, Trumbo's Bonham, and Boyd's Hicks reduced to little more than machine parts by the dehumanizing experience of warfare and by the regimentation of military life in general. In this sense, the novels reflect the plight of individuals in modern mass culture who are pressured to conform and are treated as commodities rather than as unique human beings. Any real sense of community is lacking in the Great War novels while the individual struggles to avoid becoming nothing more than an automaton. Here, the equation of society with the battlefield reveals a stark naturalism and a despair about the possibility of any social or political solutions. The separate peace motif advanced by Dos Passos and Hemingway derives from the desire of individuals to be free and conscious human beings, and some individuals in the novels do manage to achieve a degree of liberty and find a certain existential freedom. When an individual has shown a Sartrean good faith, it has usually been accompanied by concern for others--for example, Frederic Henry's concern for Catherine and Joe Bonham's concern for the "little guy." To me, this suggests that existential authenticity cannot be arrived at without recognizing one's own humanity, one's place in and solidarity with the human family. Still, as I have noted, the gestures toward freedom made by individuals are frequently quixotic--John Andrews is imprisoned and Joe Bonham is ignored, for example. Nonetheless, they are more positive and hopeful models for individuals to emulate than the likes of the frustrated and impotent Hicks and Chrisfield.

The same polarity between individual soldiers who are overwhelmed by circumstance and those who find existential authenticity that we see in the Great War novels is still with us in the World War II novels. The theme of the individual as merely a cog in a machine introduced by Dos Passos and Boyd is unfolded in excruciating detail in the works of Norman Mailer and James Jones. In the naturalistic worlds created by these two authors, only the faintest suggestion of hope for the individual can be detected, and in Jones's The Thin Red Line I find no hope at all since the individual has been reduced to total insignificance. Mailer's Goldstein and Ridges display a heroic care for an "other" in their attempt to evacuate Wilson, but it is difficult to attribute any real existential awareness to them. Still, Mailer seems to be suggesting that a place exists for positive values in a deterministic universe that is otherwise filled with futility and impotence. Jones's Prewitt makes a stand for individual integrity which some find admirable, although Jones probably did not mean for him to be viewed in a positive light. However, his stand nets him a stay in the stockade and eventually death, so his story is difficult to see as offering any hope for the individual. On the other hand, Joseph Heller in Catch-22 gives us Yossarian, a genuine existential hero who accepts the responsibility of his own freedom and demonstrates concern for others too. Heller's novel is in the tradition of the separate peace motif and offers a world as absurd and meaningless as any we have examined. But Yossarian, unlike the soldiers in Mailer's and Jones's work, resists the notion that he is a cog in a machine and takes positive action for freedom. Heller also gives us our first glimpse of what a true community might look like. The three individuals that gather together at the close of the novel form what I would call an embryonic community, not yet a fully developed one, since they lack shared practices and have only just begun to act like a community. Nonetheless, they appear to truly care about one another, are capable of communicating among themselves, and are able to decide upon a mutually beneficial course of action. This contrasts starkly with the divisive and dysfunctional military units that pass as communities in the novels of Mailer and Jones.

Finally, in the Vietnam War novels I have discussed, we once again run across the separate peace motif, images of individuals as automatons, and an absurd and meaningless universe. Stephen Wright's Meditations in Green presents a view of late twentieth-century America as bleak as anything we find in Jones. Most of his characters appear to be hopelessly and futilely trying to escape, condemned to insanity, or living lives in which they are "graphed," "charted," and "data processed." While on the whole not a hopeful novel, Meditations in Green does suggest that the individual can find redemption by becoming more attuned to nature and less destructive of it. On the other hand, I detect cautious optimism in the novels of John Del Vecchio and Tim O'Brien. Del Vecchio portrays the only genuine community we have seen in this study. His Alpha Company is interdependent, has shared practices, and holds discussions prior to decision-making. The characters in The 13th Valley are every bit as socially determined as Mailer's and Jones's soldiers, but Del Vecchio suggests, through the Vietnamese scout Minh, that the individual who has and follows inner principles and realizes his or her interdependence with the universe can gain some degree of self-control. Del Vecchio encourages people to recognize their own individuality first and then recognize their own humanity, their place in and solidarity with the human condition. Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien takes a somewhat different slant on the theme of a separate peace. O'Brien does not denounce the notion of a separate peace, but he does offer the alternative choice of staying and living up to one's obligation to the social contract. Although the world he depicts is absurd and socially determined, O'Brien believes individuals do possess a certain amount of free will and must use it to make responsible choices for themselves. Choices often do incur obligations, though, so there seems to be no way for the individual to sever himself from relations with others, and I do not believe that O'Brien sees that as a bad thing at all. The existential idea of the solitary individual accepting the responsibility of his or her own freedom is conspicuously missing from the Vietnam War novels, replaced by a suggestion that interdependence constitutes a more valid understanding of the human condition.

The novelists I have discussed all seem to believe that our modern technological society tends to diminish and reify individuals, thus alienating them from one another. To combat this tendency many of the authors are searching their materials for any signs that our society might be capable of achieving better communication between individuals, more cooperation, and a recognition of the interdependence that binds humanity together while affirming the value of the individual. If any trend is discernible in the novels in this study, it is toward a recognition that people are not alone in this world, that individuals need to acknowledge that they are social beings and start showing concern for others if any redemption for society and the individual is ever to be found. The consensus of the novels, I believe, is that this can happen only if the individual accepts the responsibility of her or his freedom, in existential terms, or at least recognizes the social contract. In other words, although the novelists often view the world in Hobbesean terms, I believe they would like to see a Sartrean or Lockean response to life from the individual. The exceptions to this appear to be Thomas Boyd and James Jones, whose individuals fade into unredeemed insignificance and meaninglessness. Ultimately, though, a significant amount of hope for the future of the individual can be found in twentieth-century American war novels. Beleaguered individuals are portrayed holding positive values and taking positive action often enough to give the discerning reader something to ponder and perhaps emulate. Amidst the despair, horror, alienation, and dehumanization of the battlefield experience that the war novelists depict, seeds of hope have been sown. Individual readers can now choose to tend and nurture those seeds in their own lives or abandon them to the weeds of conformity and irresponsibility. Regardless, for the authors and for the future of American culture, the sowing is neither a meaningless nor an idle act.

Copyright © Patrick Paul Christle, 2001
All rights reserved

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