Nervous men wait hesitantly to hear if their lives are at stake from being drafted. Soldiers both prepared and ill -prepared march attentively towards enemies’ line. Death counts starting from hundred to more than a thousand increase within a second. The sound of a hissing gunshot and blaring bombs destroy the peaceful sound of a once serene area. Chemical gasses and debris fill the lungs of innocent civilians. The ideas of “my country being better than yours” influence the mindsets of both big and small. Loved ones wait nervously not knowing whether or not their men would arrive safely. Throughout history war has been the answer to solve many conflicts, but at what cost has it really made towards its’ people? In books and films, wars would normally be glamourized to encourage more men to enter the cause. However, during the 1850’s a new literary art movement called the realist movement has influenced writing as more authors used more realistic depictions, complex characters, and developed themes to make readers criticize the society they are living in. Kurt Vonnegut and William Dean Howells are profound writers that exhibit these qualities as Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Howells’ Editha went against the stereotype of a normal war story to a work that portray wars with a negative perspective. Therefore, both Vonnegut’s and Howells’ unique approach of using progressive ideas and realistic depictions to explain the huge toll war has placed towards people, both physically and psychologically.
Written during the Spanish American War, Editha tells the story of a young patriotic women named Editha who pressures her fiancé, George, to enter the Spanish American War in order to win her hand in marriage. Like most Americans during this time, Editha was blind about the consequence that comes with war. Even though her husband was hesitant in joining the cause as he saw every war as “peculiarly wanton and needless …[that could’ve] been settled reasonably”(Howell 355) Editha still pressures him to enlist in the war as her views in war is heavily romanticized. Because she wants her fiancé to fight in glorious battles and to return home to her with honor. She is basically using George to fulfill her pride without realizing that her fiancé’s life is at stake. However, Editha’s hope that her husband will return home is crushed when she hears the news that George died in one of the first battles. Having George unexpectedly die reflects on what most families have been through after losing a loved one from the cause of war. Editha was portrayed as being the antagonist as her false hope led to the death of her potential husband. Even though Editha wasn’t being submissive towards her fiancé, the switch of gender roles in this case negatively affected the plot. Selina Jamil, an English Professor at Michigan State university, explains in her work, “Transcending Masculinity and Femininity in Editha” that Editha acted as if she was the male of the household as her “demanding, aggressive, self-assured, assertive, and insistent “nature,” contradicts the mold of “womanhood,” tends to dominate George’s contemplative, “languid”, gentle, and sensitive “nature, “contradicts the mold of “manhood” (Jamil 285). During the 1800’s women were seen as being soft spoken, subservient towards their husband, and not express any thought or opinions towards politics. This is very ironic because Editha was supposed to be obedient towards George, however it was George who was obedient towards her.
Likewise, Kurt Vonnegut also uses progressive ideas and realistic depictions to inform readers of his own experiences during World War II. In this science fiction novel, Billy Pilgrim is a World War II soldier who survived one of the deadliest firebombing that occurred in World War II. In chapter 1 of the story, Vonnegut describes how he completely changed his story from a book that glorifies soldiers and wars to an anti-war story. He changed his mind for his book after he visited his friend’s wife, Mary, who displayed her disgust towards wars when she stated that
“You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs” (Vonnegut 351).
Mary didn’t want Vonnegut to write a stereotypical war story that glorifies the cause of war. In this line she explains that soldiers are like babies because they aren’t mature enough to understand that their lives are at stake once they enter the war. To make his story not a typical war story Vonnegut made Billy time travel to different moments in his life. With Billy being “unstuck in time”, parallels what Vonnegut and what most soldiers have faced as a result of war-which was experiencing PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Vonnegut explains it as being “time traveling” because during this time period there wasn’t a diagnosis for people with this psychological disorder. Amanda Wicks, a doctoral candidate in English at Louisiana State University, explains how the protagonists experience in time traveling reflects him having PTSD as “Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun” (Wicks 337). His traumatic injury has affected his “ability to recall and recount not only the traumatic event but also other memories not associated with the trauma” (Wicks 332). From traveling to a veteran’s hospital to being kidnapped by aliens, his visions reflect dark memories that he has had in the past. Vonnegut discussing PTSD is very advanced for its time because most people didn’t give to any account the long-term psychological affect war has on soldiers. Not only were some soldiers affected physically, they were also affected psychologically as many veterans had to cope with depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, traumatic brain injury, etc. Even though Pilgrim suffered from recollecting memories from his trauma he was able to “escape” it by seeking help. Vonnegut’s purpose in writing Slaughterhouse Five was to show people that there are still ways of living even after dealing with trauma.
Although both Slaughterhouse Five and Editha explains a war that occurred in different time periods, both explain the message that war is not the answer to solve all problems. The messages explained by both authors were very controversial for its time as they went against what most people and the government viewed about the cause of war. For example, Slaughterhouse Five a World War II story was published during the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War many American’s had mixed feelings about the war as the government was retaining important information from the people and the death count of soldiers were much higher than expected. Vonnegut’s purpose in writing about World War II during this time period was to inform the general public not to repeat history. As shown throughout world history, war has never benefitted people as it negatively affected people from both sides. Moreover, both stories express the overall theme of the cruel nature of warfare. In addition, both stories use realistic depictions to portray the villains as those who continue to romanticize violence and killing innocent civilians. As shown in the story Editha when she selfishly forces her fiancé to enter the war without realizing his life is at stake and the numerous people his death would impact. Including George’s mother who attacks Editha for her foolishness.
Overall, war has negatively impacted people throughout history both physically and psychologically. From soldiers coming back from the war with mental disorders to the destructions of families after losing a loved one. Although wars may benefit a country by stimulating its economy, the negative effects of the number of losses, destruction of cities, political tension, etc. tremendously outweighs the positive. As a result, in order to achieve everlasting peace, we must love one another and not take into consideration of killing other people to solve problems.
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