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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 228-245



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The War of the Roses:
Sexual Politics in Henry Green's Back

Kristine Miller


Henry Green's 1946 novel, Back, tells the story of Charley Summers, a British soldier just repatriated from a German prisoner-of-war camp at the end of the Second World War. The first thing we learn about Charley is that he is missing a leg: "A country bus drew up below the church and a young man got out. This he had to do carefully because he had a peg leg" (3). The novel immediately yokes physical to emotional trauma through the image of the rose: Charley is shot because he fails to detect the German gun hiding "in that rosebush" on a French battlefield (8), and he is crippled emotionally when his lover, whose "name, of all names, was Rose" (4), unexpectedly dies while he is recovering in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Charley's missing leg causes him less pain than the heartache that makes him "literally writhe while he remembered" his affair with Rose (130), yet most of the characters in the novel perceive only his peg leg, which they admire as evidence of his heroism. Initially, Charley follows the lead of these characters: he too adopts a patriotic and patriarchal war rhetoric that valorizes his physical scars as signs of a battle-tested masculinity, even as it ignores the emotional scars that might undermine that masculinity. However, by juxtaposing physical and emotional trauma and questioning dominant political and sexual discourses, Back represents the wounded soldier not as an icon of heroic masculinity, but as a sign of the instability of postwar gender roles. [End Page 228]

This political dimension of Green's writing has received little critical attention. Most critics focus on linguistic and psychological rather than political and historical issues in Green's fiction, and they argue that Back examines Charley's struggle with language in relation to his pain. In the 1960s, scholars such as A. Kingsley Weatherhead and John Russell asserted that Charley ultimately controls language, either by developing his own specific symbols for pain, according to Weatherhead, or by having "wilfully barred" the painful memories of his wartime experience, according to Russell (142). Conversely, in the poststructuralist 1980s, Michael North and Rod Mengham suggested that language inevitably escapes Charley's control: for North, language fragments Charley's conception of identity into a series of subjective memories, while for Mengham, it presents "anything and everything in terms of contradiction and threat" (161-62). 1 Most recently, critics such as David Copeland, Lindsey Stonebridge, and David Deeming have analyzed Charley's struggle not with language as a whole but with more specific aesthetic, psychological, and social discourses, as described by genre theory (Copeland), psychoanalysis (Stonebridge), and Marxist criticism (Deeming).

Despite the increasingly sophisticated use of theory, however, critical claims about the political and historical context of the novel have remained sketchy and imprecise. Even the Marxist Deeming ignores the novel's specific historical moment: he argues that Green's modernist aesthetic responds "to social conditions that existed in British capitalist society anyway and were not absolutely peculiar to the conditions precipitated by the 'war effort' during the years of conflict" (877). By contrast, in this essay I want to demonstrate that Charley does struggle against an absolutely peculiar political discourse: nationalistic wartime rhetoric about soldiers' bodies.

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that the casualties of war become little more than symbols co-opted by the nations for which soldiers fight: "War is relentless in taking for its own interior content the interior content of the wounded and open human body" (81). Nations must substantiate the abstract ideologies that define them through the physical reality of dead bodies:

The dispute that leads to the war involves a process by which each side calls into question the legitimacy and thereby erodes the reality of the other country's issues, beliefs, ideas, self-conception. Dispute leads relentlessly to war not only because war is an...

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