The Experience of the Great War Stripped Men of Their Masculinity Essay
‘’The experience of the Great War stripped men of their masculinity’’explore the ways in which Barker, Sassoon and Owen portray this in their writing. Sassoon and Owen as poets and Barker as a novelist, explore through their works of literature the changing and challenging notions of masculinity experienced as a result of The Great War. Furthermore, all three writers suggest that the often overlooked reality of the conflict was the creation of a subversion of the stereotypical ‘heroic soldier’.
Replacing this image through their work, with that of the truth, we see an exploration of the emasculated and dehumanised shell that many men truly became as a result of what they experienced in service. This extends throughout their texts, to explore the paradoxical nature of war itself largely causing more harm to its soldiers than it gains in military desires, and a practice that reshaped an entire generation of British men into no more than physical and psychological carcasses of their former selves.
However, each of the writers’ narrative style is dramatically different in order to create evoking literature. In Barker’s case, the novel’s structure creates a relationship between character and reader that allows the stripping of masculinity of The First World War veterans to be explored and a sense of reality to be conveyed to the reader. Barker as a contemporary writer creating literature for a contemporary audience, in contrast to both Sassoon and Owen, is able to encapsulate each poet’s texts within her own to greater its sense of reality.
Never is this more evident than in Barker’s use of Sassoon’s Declaration as the opening to her own narrative. The shockingly honest and realistic nature of Sassoon’s words ‘I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops…which I believe to be evil and unjust’ serves a starting point for the thread of verisimilitude that Barker weaves, highlighting the reality of emasculation and war to a previously unaware 20th and 21st century audience.
The experience both poets had first-hand of war and Barker’s ability to capture this using their interactions in the novel add a dimension of reality to her literature; equally this in turn gives a moving contextual understanding to both Sassoon and Owen’s poetry allowing the reader to truly understand the level of emasculation these men experienced. Arguably all three writers do this by challenging traditional ideologies of what both war and masculinity should be; whilst their methods may differ, all strip away the sentiment of ‘masculinity’ in traditional iterature. Soldiers returning from The Great war, often had their masculinity disabled both mentally and physically, as a direct result of conflict as well as its effect upon them as individuals in society were felt both mentally and physically. Owen explores this concept that flows through all three writers’ work, and highlights the extreme level of loss of masculinity that many suffered.
Owen’s poem, ‘Disabled’, is a representation of this through the assessment of one soldier’s loss of multiple limbs. Owen suggests throughout his stanzas that the man documented sees himself as no more than a skeleton, mentally and physically ‘Legless, sewn short at elbow’, of the boy he once was. He presents the idea that women ‘passed from him to men that were whole’, which evokes the suggestion that he no longer feels male, having lost the sense that he could attract women.
Equally this could be seen to explore the idea that war has physically broken him, using Reminisant imagery as a central feature of the poem, Owen alludes to the notion that ‘After the matches, [he would have been] carried shoulder-high’ creating a sense that he would no longer feel the elevated feeling of victory. In the same way that the conventional heroic soldier never really experiences the stereotypically victorious feeling after winning conflict but instead returns damaged as an individual.
Owen also extends the characterisation of the man he creates in ‘Disabled’ to the picture of many men returning home after the conflict, previously having a life ahead of him but now spending ‘a few sick years in institutes’ deprived of a future in which they can live as the man they were expected to become. Structurally Owen creates a flow in his poem that explores the present to past and back to present.
As a writer, he is able to challenge the notion that what once was, is in most cases, no longer evident and the sense of desolation and despair this evoked. Similarly the expectation of war and its effects on masculinity is drastically different to a wiser contemporary audience than to a more naive and unprepared audience of the early 20th Century. Barker’s narrative appears to reinforce and give greater elaboration and understanding of the complete dehumanisation and removal of the masculine character, in the creation of her character Burns.
Initially a parallel can be drawn between the way Barker introduces us to Burn’s character in the third person ‘a thin, yellow skinned man was on his feet, choking and gagging’, seen from a distance through the eyes of Sassoon, and the distance Owen creates between society and the soldier depicted in Disabled. When used as a narrative device in this way, this distance illustrates how far the soldiers of The Great War became detached and distanced from the original person they saw themselves before they signed up.
Equally, Barker emphasises the interaction between two nurses at Craighlockhart, as well as the character’s physical appearance, to present the emasculation Burns’ character faced. With the VAD’s proposing ‘there is room for two in there’, the reader soon realises that Burns is now only half the man he used to be, made worse by the fact that females were able to be derogatory towards his state, something that in a time of male supremacy would have been potentially psychologically damaging.
Both the scenario explored here by Barker and the closure of Owen’s Disabled with demeaning rhetorical questions ‘And put him into bed? Why don’t they come? ’ demonstrate a crisis in masculinity and helplessness. However it could be suggested that although society overlooks what is hard to face in Disabled, the reader of Regeneration is exposed to worse sense of emasculation with the feeling of inadequacy and distance the patients of Craighlockhart experience only being enhanced by their treatment by women.
Barker equally uses imagery to evoke emotion focusing closely on his post-war appearance, describing his forearms ‘the groove between radius and ulna was even deeper than a week ago’, not only suggesting that Burns is physically becoming weaker, but also mirroring the ever increased detachment from the man he felt he was- turning into the ‘thin yellow skinned man’ The Great war has forced him to become.
Thus we start to realise that this emasculation extends beyond the concept that many men no longer felt physically male in the way they did before the Great War, but largely protracts to the idea they felt they could no longer speak out as a male and their treatment within a society that still strived on pre-war notions of masculine behaviour and attitudes to conflict. Sassoon explores this, giving a voice to the Men documented in Owen’s Disabled, but in a contrasting way to both Barker and Owen’s use of an emotional connection between their literature and the reader.
Sassoon exploits a satirical style in the poem ‘Base details’ a style of writing that can depict to its reader the horror of the masculine experience in war, but that often allows an extended level of vivid exploration due to its humourous elements. Structurally, Sassoon uses 10 short lines in one stanza, which in contrast to the flowing style of Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ can be seen to demonstrate the anger Sassoon and his fellow soldiers felt towards the ignorance of the war generals, depriving them of their right as men, to voice opinions against the commands of war.
Whilst the short, snappy adjectives, such as ‘puffy’ and ‘petulant’ could mirror the quick, un-empathetic decisions of those in charge, often disregarding the soldiers as nothing more than voiceless machines being sped as ‘young heroes to the line of death’. As a reader of Sassoon’s satirical style we are forced to face the stark reality of the emasculating effect of conflict, something that the poet’s bluntness and humour makes more easily understood.
Barker, throughout her novel, equally gives suggestion to the fact many soldiers had an inability to speak out against higher powers in a war that was ‘evil and unjust’ as described in Sassoon’s Declaration. This is seen especially with the exploration of Sassoon as a narrative character, suggesting that Sassoon ‘has seen and endured the suffering of troops’ and as he gives a first-hand perspective on war itself, Barker uses his experience to re-enforce the idea that his poetry gives a voice of the soldier by presenting the irony of the war structure.
Owen works with language and structure, on a comparable level of complexity in his work ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ to produce a similar level of exploration to Sassoon, but exploiting vivid imagery as a means to express the irony presented by war. His early use of the simile ‘Like old beggars under sacks’ creates a high sense of verisimilitude presenting the soldiers as at the most degraded levels of society and truly voiceless; a surprising image contrary to the orthodox view of a man of war, being strong and obviously driven to engage in the male pursuit of fighting.
Furthermore, the later use of the image ‘coughing like hags’ builds on this unorthodox use of language and directly compares the soldiers to women, again with the war not only stripping them of their male essence so largely and physically as explored in his other poem ‘Disabled’ but again mentally, something that Barker gives great emphasis to in another of her characterisations.
The character of Anderson, a fictitious patient of River’s at Craighlockhart, symbolically serves to highlight this in a dream he experiences in which he wore a pair of ‘lady’s corsets’ mirroring how many soldiers saw themselves upon returning home from the front. It was expected within society that war made a man stronger and more masculine in nature, Barker presents the idea that in fact the irony of the experience itself is that it removes the core of ‘man’ from the soldier, leaving him as a shell of what he once was.
Additionally, the nature of the dream and its content establishes the pressures soldiers faced from a patriarchal society on returning home which in turn led to psychological trauma. Barker documents Anderson dreaming of being ‘chased by [his] father-in law’, an illustration of the expectation many men felt from the older generations, expecting them as strong masculine figures to fight for their country, whilst being disregarding and unsympathetic towards the challenges they faced, re-joining society and assuming a traditional role.
The nature of Barker’s narrative, utilising a sense of verisimilitude, which comes from using a real psychiatric hospital as the setting for her novel, perhaps allows exploration on the level of emasculation to be illustrated with a higher level of intensity than that in poetry. On one level it can be seen that Rivers, as the psychiatrist of Craighlockhart and backbone of the storyline can in his methods create a form of paradox. He encourages the men to release emotions and discuss feelings towards conflict, a practice contextually seen as overtly feminine in nature.
Ironically this is in order to regenerate and be fit to return to war. Furthermore the prospect of his methods to reform the mental state of his patients is recognised by himself as ‘going against the tenor of upbringing and ultimately disregard the fact that soldiers “had been trained to identify emotional repression as the essence of manliness”. The way many men felt they had to repress these feelings and should come out of the war unharmed is what is suggested caused their psychological disturbance, something that is presented strongly, again by Barker in Burns.
After some level of treatment by Rivers, he experiences an elaborate hallucination in which he ‘saw the tree he stood under was laden with animals’. The nature of these creatures as rotting corpses and image of ‘a branch of moles in varying stages of decay’ could go as far as to represent the different levels of emasculation and detachment each patient at the hospital felt; with Burns arguably seeing himself as the most decaying mole and the hallucination giving suggestion to his jealousy towards those who emerged from the battle less harmed and easily able to overcome its effects.
The stripping of masculinity from the soldier, can therefore be seen as a common thread that weaves through the work of all three writers. Predominantly the pressures of an older and out of touch generation represented by the parents of these men as well as the wider expectations of a patriarchal society ican perversely been seen as the main source of this emasculation. Whilst this emasculation is achieved using different literary techniques, ultimately each writer strongly alludes to the fact that ‘’The experience of the Great War stripped men of their masculinity’’.