Representing War: Form and Ideology in First World War Narratives analyzes five novels about World War I to show how their formal properties derive from conservative ideological assumptions that contradict the authors’ overtly radical critique of the war and of the cultural values that sustained it. Drawing on a wide variety of poststructural and narratological theorists, Cobley focuses on issues of representation and structure in texts that range from documentary realism to modernist experimentation: Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero, Ralph H. Mottram’s The Spanish Farm Trilogy, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, John Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers, and David Jones’s In Parenthesis.
Despite their generic differences, Cobley argues, each of these works uses specific narrative techniques to impose meaning and coherence on representations of the war-time experience, even when portraying the experience itself as meaningless and incoherent. Cobley claims that the desire for aesthetic significance and closure that motivates this imposition is in fact an extension of the Enlightenment faith in progress, individual liberty, self-reflection, and rational order, and she says that the unquestioning belief in those values was what inspired “the bourgeois-capitalist establishment, whose imperialist ambitions had fueled [End Page 833] the First World War.” Consequently, Cobley insists that any author who uses such techniques inevitably becomes “complicit” with that establishment, however unwitting that complicity may be. In an epilogue, she extends this claim further to include two texts about the Vietnam war (Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato) that are openly skeptical about the sense-making power of literary technique. For Cobley, no degree of skepticism or cynical self-consciousness can match the recuperative power of narrative form, so like their predecessors even these contemporary authors “cannot help but consent to ideological structures they may well wish to repudiate.” Rather than offering extended readings of individual texts, Representing War focuses on three theoretical issues that Cobley illustrates with brief examples from the novels. After a general introduction that surveys much of the literature about the war, Cobley devotes her second chapter to the tension between the referential claims of literary texts, which would describe or classify experience in conventional categories, and the “lexical demands” of the language, which threaten to destabilize those categories and the referential function itself. Next, Chapter 3 analyzes the paradox inherent in the effort to represent the experience of war as chaotic and overwhelming through the eyes of a narrator whose authority derives from his rational and disinterested perspective. Chapters 4–6 explore the extent to which conventional plots and other literary devices such as mythical parallels and intertextual allusions can betray a desire for order that is explicitly denied by the representational content of the text, and this point is then extended to the postmodern narratives of Herr and O’Brien in the epilogue.
With the partial exception of Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), most works about the literature of World War I have tended to focus more exclusively on thematic or biographical issues than on the questions of narrative technique and symbolic functions that preoccupied High Modernist aesthetics. Cobley’s combination of close formal analysis and ideological critique thus restores texts about the war to the aesthetic debate in which they participated at the time but which has often disappeared in earlier studies, and she is especially persuasive when exposing the ideological implications of the complex technical devices hidden beneath the most apparently transparent or objective accounts of the war.
Given the importance and originality of Cobley’s readings, it is unfortunate [End Page 834] that she spends almost as much of her time on a far less successful effort to articulate a syncretic theoretical perspective in support of her observations. Typically, she links terms from different and even contradictory methodologies with no clear explanation of how the theoretical approaches might work together, as when she claims her “deconstructive emphasis on form” is “underpinned by a...