Analysis Culture

How war affects fiction

War changes every facet of society — WWI shook the foundations of the planet.

War has a tendency to fundamentally change a country, or even the entire world. It shakes the foundation of what a culture thinks about themselves and how they perceive their own lives.

In 2015 and 2016, I read a series of books that were written before, during, and after the first World War. The books had no connection to one another, other than that they were written by western authors on the same timeline. I was struck at how the narratives transformed — it was clear that fictitious novels made some pretty drastic changes during and after WWI.

What I found wasn’t some fall into cynical storytelling; it wasn’t a simple spiral down into disillusionment. There was pessimism and optimism both before and after. However, there was a very distinct departure from a certain way of things. All things that were proper. All things that “separated us from the animals.”

After all, World War One served as a stark reminder that we are separate from the animals. But instead of the highfalutin Gods among beasts, we found once again that we are more than capable of scraping around in the dirt and the mud, shirking our own “humanity” at a moment’s notice. We do things to one another than pale in comparison to anything you’d find in the animal kingdom. We turn a field of grass into a butcher’s shop of human beings.

The books I tackled that were written prior to the war included Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Pandora and Daisy Miller by Henry James, and The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I won’t say that these books weren’t compelling, engaging, and profound — they absolutely were, and many of them did not shy away from the hard realities of the world we live in.

Still, there was this general sense that mankind has departed from our uncivilized ways. The House of Mirth is acutely aware of this, and its themes tend to point toward the deep flaws of the upper echelons of society. Henry James’ novels tend to feel like really entertaining romantic comedies that you might see on the screen today. Mark Twain’s books might take a good look at the perils of a boy’s often difficult adventures, but they are saturated with American philosophy, fun idealism, and boyish charm.

Then the Great War consumes the world.

You do get some great pieces of literature that are overwhelming in their despair and destruction — “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot comes to mind. You have more optimistic poetry as well, especially from men like Rupert Brooke.

But optimistic, pessimistic, or some point in between — they are all firmly rooted in reality. Reading literature on this timeline made me acutely aware of just what a slap in the face (maybe a slap in the soul) the war was for the entire world. You can feel it as you read these books on a timeline.

Fast forward to WWII, and though the casualties of the war were far greater, it was not such a cultural shock to fiction and literature. Reading around WWII and one gets the impression that the collective world rolled up their sleeves for round two — they were under no romantic impressions regarding human nature by that time.

Both during and after WWI, the characters in fiction are operating under the understanding that we’re all just clawing forward in the dark, scraping by day after day in our own ways, trying to make it through. Any ideas that we are some pinnacle of civilization, some master-level of human beings is simply an illusion.

Of these works, I looked at Rupert Brooke’s and T.S. Eliot’s Poetry, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and a bit later in time — the works of Ernest Hemingway, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and Animal Farm by George Orwell.

The effects of these are even apparent in film today. The thirst for “realism” has only grown as film has evolved over the last hundred years.

These post-WWI stories tend to understand that human nature is a war in and of itself, rife with pain, struggle, and suffering. Some take that reality and promote various themes — The Grapes of Wrath, at the end of the day, is about community when neck-deep in hard times. “The Waste Land” arguably has a positive ending (sort of), but it’s more meant to be a source of empathy for those who felt the crushing despair of the war. Like mourning at a funeral.

Again, don’t get me wrong, that may sound pessimistic but that’s not necessarily the case. Later, two actual soldiers from WWI would pen some very optimistic works, despite possibly being the most combat experienced fiction authors in modern history. Their names were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia series and The Lord of the Rings series (as well as their other works) certainly do not paint a picture of shining, wondrous humanity at the top of civilization. They accept our fallen nature and yet still accept some inherent goodness, even among those in the trenches.

WWI_-_Col_Moschin_-_Italian_trenches_on_the_summit_2
Moments like these will make anyone question the essence of human nature. | Wikimedia Commons

Featured image: Books courtesy of Pixabay, Trenches photo from Wikimedia Commons; images altered by the author.

7 comments on “How war affects fiction

  1. Always enjoyed your literature articles over at Sofrep, I’m glad to see them here now!

    • Happy to be writing them! I’ve refined a few ideas over time, and am excited to explore new facets of classic lit.

  2. Carol Lynne Luelo

    I think the post GWOT novels really show the darker side of humanity and the cynicism that is so prevelant now. Not sure how much darker we can get .

    • I would agree with this — we have definitely been delving further and further into realism… often beyond realism into some really dark stuff. Lots of apocalypse settings (including my book haha) and what-not.

      However, literature was pretty dark post-WWI and Great Depression. “The Waste Land” and “The Grapes of Wrath” come to mind, as well as a few others.
      The “happy-go-lucky” period of the 50s in film and TV is a lie, since censorship ran pretty rampant for a couple decades in there, but the book-literature is a better indicator. “1984” was written around that time.

      However, I think we’re already beginning to see an uptick in optimism. The style that seems to be prevailing now runs as such: “Life is incredibly hard, and things can get really bad quick (that’s the dark part). But there’s a little good and if it fights, it will prevail.” See: Game of Thrones, True Detective Season 1, the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, etc. Personally speaking, I hate utter cynicism, but I like this style very much.

      • My Grandparents and Great Aunts and Uncles were the Veterans and the civilians, including the children trying to grow up while the Blitz was going on and they were mostly willing to talk about their experiences (in my Grandpa’s case, I have his letters home and a stack of pictures taken while he served in the Army’s 12th Armored Div freeing the concentration camps). I think the optimism and simplicity of 1950’s TV and Movies was a means of escape but it was also a reminder that good things existed and that we could live in a civilized society again.

  3. Between the works of Nietzsche, Stalin, Darwin, Keynes, et al, and the “war to end all wars”,..WWI, there were real fundamental splits in the acceptable views of economics, religion, politics, science, social justice, etc. In fact, in all the major viewpoints of the pillars of society. These authors changed the worldviews of so many of our major writers of non-fiction and fiction from that period on.

    For some reason I was late to view the world of the British TV series Downton Abbey. Making up for it, I began watching Series One last week and finished Season Six yesterday. It certainly shows the cracking of societal pillars through the view of one nation, one community, and one family and their long-held beliefs.

    We see it reflected in our own culture and its continuing erosion or enlightenment in the following century following WWI, either gradually or more speedily under relentless barrage. What makes the show memorable is the way both sides of that worldview is portrayed through the period of one decade of British life with understanding and even sympathy.

    Thanks again for another timely article, Luke.

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