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“There was a lot of blood and the bombs were still falling:” Trauma and Genre in British World War II Literature

“There was a lot of blood and the bombs were still falling:” Trauma and Genre in British World War II Literature

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Athena Hughes. Originally submitted for Arts & Celtic Studies: English Literature at University College Dublin, with lecturer John Brannigan in the category of English Literature
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Athena Hughes. Originally submitted for Arts & Celtic Studies: English Literature at University College Dublin, with lecturer John Brannigan in the category of English Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
“There was a lot of blood and the bombs were still falling:” Trauma and Genre in British
World War II LiteratureAbstract:World War II fiction is often overlooked in favor of the more prolific, and often moredisillusioned, literature of World War I. However, the Second World War produced asignificant body of creative and insightful literature that reflects the experiences of soldiers and civilians alike. Many short stories and novels were written during the timewhich brilliantly capture various aspects and themes surrounding civilian and military
life. Traumatic experience and the individual‟s response to it, often through
detachment,terror, and/or a psychosomatic reaction, is a dominant theme in both short stories andnovels of the period. The conventions and frameworks of each genre provide their ownopportunities and challenges regarding this portrayal: the short story compresses the mostcrucial thematic and plot elements for an intense but brief depiction of trauma in its manyforms, while the novel allows for a more detailed examination of life in wartime andlong-term psychological damage. In this essay, I compare generic influence on the
 portrayal of trauma in four works of British World War II literature: H.E. Bates‟ “TheDisinherited,” John Prebble‟s “The Soldier Looks for his Family,” Alexander Baron‟s
From the City, From the Plow
, and Arthur Gwynn-
Browne‟s
F.S.P.
I find that there arecommonalities and differences both across and between forms in terms of language,timeframe, and thematic focus, but all share an insight into the ordeal of war. In just a
few pages Bates conveys decades‟ worth of information, while P
rebble describes eventsover the course of mere hours. Meanwhile, Baron uses the length allowances of the novelto portray the diverse experiences of several individuals, while Gwynn-Browne uses it toexamine the bureaucracy of war from a single perspective. However, the complexities of a specific traumatic event and its long-term effects are able to be presented in bothnovels. The intensity and impact of violence and loss portrayed in all of these works, aswell as the influence of genre on how they depict psychological trauma, signal WorldWar II as a period of literary creativity worthy of greater examination.
 
Lenore Terr defines trauma as occurring
when “a sudden, unexpected,
overwhelming intense emotional blow or a series of blows assaults the person fromoutside. Traumatic events are external, but they quickly become incorporated into the
mind” (Terr 8
qtd in Bloom 2). The traumatic experience is a central element of war
literature, as is the individual‟s reaction to it. British literature of W
orld War II frequentlydeals with the complexities of trauma, both on the home front and on the battlefield. Indepicting and exploring this issue, different genre conventions determine the framework and influence the manner in which the experience is presented. The short story and thenovel provide related but essentially different approaches to the experience of and thereaction to traumatic events, in terms of the level of detail presented before, during, andafter such an event, as well as in terms of the variety of traumatic experiences discussed.According to Rod Mengham, during the war,
“there had been something of ahiatus in the writing and publication of novels….The novel [was] put out of action by
fragmentation, discontinuity in the social life i
t [was] asked to reflect,” while the shortstory enjoyed a “new enthusiasm” in large part because “a certain kind of story predominated… which merely provided a record of events to be used as material for a
reading
later on
” (125
-126)
.
 
The stories “The Soldier Looks for his Family” (JohnPrebble) and “The Disinherited” (H.E. Bates as “Flying Officer X” 1942), by focusing on
specific characters and themes, reflect this interest in taking note of events as they unfoldfor the purpose of later interpretation. However, the stories take place on different frontsof the war and differ in style and emphasis: the former tells a story that spans yearswithin a small time frame, using summary and implication, whereas the latter describes indetail a specific episode. This, in turn, affects the perception of the central emotions in
 
each story. “The Soldier” also incorporates the physical and mental trauma of violence ina way that “The Disinherited” does not. However, both stories are centered on a traumatic
personal l
oss and the individual‟s difficulty in coping. In addition, their short format
necessitates compression and a reduction of the stories to their most crucial elements inorder to convey their essential emotions.Despite its reduced usage during the war, the novel also offers complex andinsightful approaches to trauma.
From the City, From the Plough
(Alexander Baron,1948) and
F.S.P.
(Arthur Gwynn-Browne, 1942) focus on the lives of soldiers before,during, and immediately after two major battles of the War: D-Day and the evacuation of Dunkirk, respectively. These novels present how characters encounter and deal withtrauma in ways comparable to the methods of the short stories, but thanks to their lengthare able to present different types of events as well
as many other aspects of soldiers‟
lives. The fact that only
F.S.P.
was published during the war is notable, considering
Mengham‟s argument. That it is told as a memoir with two years‟ distance from the eventdemonstrates the novel‟s need for time in orde
r to process and retell events in ways thatthe short stories do not.H.E. Bates served during the war in a department whose mission was to observe
and record “not figures, statistics, bulletins, communiqués and so on to the public, but
men, characters, f 
aces” in the RAF (Rawlinson 155). This would influence his writings
under the nom-de-
 plume “Flying Officer X,” whose diction “apes aircrew taciturnity(„without heroics, sentimentality, or fuss‟)” (qtd Cape, 1942 in Rawlinson 155). Thelanguage in “The Disinherited” demonstrates this taciturnity with an eye for humanity
through its simple and brief yet emotional representation of the Czech airman Capek. The

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