- “Adversary Proceedings”: Recent Books on War and Modernism
Recently, three studies of British writers of the two world wars have appeared. Taken together, these studies present various attempts to move away from the analysis of binary structures that has dominated the criticism of war literature. Not surprisingly, considering the recent surge in studies of gender and warfare over the last ten years, two of these books, by Gill Plain and Karen Schneider, focus on women writers’ revisions of the traditional male war narrative. Both of these works overlap and diverge in interesting and inevitable ways, yet both come to distinctly different conclusions about the role of women writing on the Second World War. The third, by Allyson Booth, attempts [End Page 813] to circumvent the gender debate by focusing on the similarities between combatant and civilian writers—groups that each contain both male and female writers. Booth also expands our understanding of the impact of the Great War on twentieth-century art by comparing the reactions of literary and architectural modernists to the war. These three works provide interesting insight into the potential future directions for the study of war literature.
In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell claims that what he calls variously the “adversary proceedings” or “gross dichotomizing” (75) so evident in modern thought is traceable to the Great War and the “binary deadlock” of trench warfare (77). This “versus habit” (79) manifested itself in the lives and writings of British soldiers not only as England vs. Germany, but also as soldiers vs. officers, front vs. home, past vs. present, and so on. Fussell’s study examines the influences of the Great War on modern thought, and these binarisms were so pervasive, he argues, that this oppositional view became the dominant mode of thought and of organizing the war experience at the time: “Simple antithesis everywhere” (82).
Obviously, war is based on conflict, and Fussell makes the claim that war emphasizes, extends, and proliferates the idea of conflict in modern culture. It makes sense, then, that gross dichotomizing has been the dominant mode of examining the literature of not only the Great War, but also of modern war in general. Literary critics since Fussell have looked at war literature in terms of the oppositional forces inherent in the works. In the second volume of No Man’s Land—a title used to describe the history of women writers, but obviously intrinsically tied to the Great War—Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar extend Fussell’s argument to include the battle between the genders as yet another binary of the Great War. 1 Beginning with examples from D. H. Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen, among others, and extending to the representation of women in war propaganda, Gilbert and Gubar argue that the increase in women’s status in Britain during the war, due to the absence of men from positions of domestic and economic control, resulted in animosity from the men fighting at the front: “as young men became increasingly alienated from their prewar selves, increasingly immured in the muck and blood of no man’s land, increasingly abandoned by the civilization of which they had ostensibly been heirs, women seemed to become, as if by some [End Page 814] uncanny swing of history’s pendulum, even more powerful” (262–63). According to Gilbert and Gubar, women took on new jobs and new responsibilities previously not experienced by women, and men began to resent the advantages and apparent pleasure that women were taking as a result of the men’s sacrifices. This division resulted in fundamental differences between men’s and women’s experiences of the war: “not only did the apocalyptic events of this war have very different meanings for men and women, such events were...