Study Guide

Gone to Soldiers

by Marge Piercy

Gone to Soldiers Summary

Overview (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Gone to Soldiers offers an answer to the question that Albert Einstein asked in a July 30, 1932, letter to Sigmund Freud regarding the topic “Why war?” As the lives of ten major characters are played out against the backdrop of World War II, “man’s inhumanity to man” is revealed in the horrors of prejudice against Jews and women. War, whether against an oppressive society or within oneself, is fought and won only against overwhelming odds.

Dedicated to Marge Piercy’s grandmother, Hannah, Gone to Soldiers memorializes her as a storyteller who has a “gift for making the past walk through the present.” The importance of memory in preserving the lessons of the past makes Jacqueline Lévy-Monot’s mission a religious one as she affirms her identity as a women and as a Jew.

Jacqueline, whose stories are told in the form of a diary, is not the only character in the novel who is a teller of tales. Louise Kahan, the war correspondent, and Abra, in a series of interviews, mark their own quests for identity in the stories they tell. Recounting the experience of her bleak childhood, Louise recalls being raped and having an abortion at the age of fifteen. Later, mired in dull wifehood, she finds it hard to juggle the demands of her daughter and philandering husband. When Louise divorces Oscar and strives to live as a single mother in a war-torn society, she learns that women in that society have no military status, no privileges, no protection, and no insurance. It is only at the end of the novel that Louise learns that the lessons of the past enable her to reunite with Oscar and be healed. In one of the book’s more important passages, Louise comes to several realizations:Miracles came seldom and rebirth more rarely yet and for countless and uncountable and never to be counted women like herself, her age, her body type, death had come from a machine gun, from blows of the butt end of a rifle, from poison gas, from poison injections, from starvation and typhus and neglect, from all the nasty ways to die warped minds in a violent and relentless system could devise. They had died of a lack of common respect and common love. They cried out to her, take him back and go live in peace as husband and wife and as Jews. Go make a home again and give thanks. Life is the first gift, love is the second, and understanding the third.

Abra, on the other hand, has to give up the role of mistress and separate from Oscar in order to find herself and to learn that a relationship of equals brings fulfillment rather than subservient dependency. This is a hard lesson to learn—for men as well as for women. After the United States has dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Abra’s beloved Daniel tells her, “I feel as if I looked out through a vast eye and saw the future of the world in a plain of ashes, of sand turned to glass, flesh vaporized, time itself burned up.” When asked what can be done, Daniel replies, “First, put our opinions in the report if we can.” Gone to Soldiers is the report and the answer to the question “Why war?” as each character reveals her or his own experiences of intolerance, misunderstanding, failures of communication, powerlessness, subjugation, and abuse.

In an interview published in the anthology Ways of Knowing (edited by Sue Walker and Eugenie Hamner, 1991), Piercy stated that, among all her works up to that time, Gone to Soldiers was the novel that caused her the most problems as she was writing it. Because the book uses ten viewpoints and moves regularly from one to another, Piercy noted, she views it as a cantata. Each character has her or his own social world, history, milieu, loved ones, and problems, and as Piercy moves in the work from the world of one character to another, the reader is also moved forcefully. The novel is separated into segments as first one and then another character appears, disappears, and comes back again in various sections. The disjointed result is part of the author’s technique. Piercy rejects the Aristotelian notion of plot as progressive movement from beginning to middle to end; instead, she selects a decentering format that weaves multiple threads of human existence into a unified whole. Men as well as women redefine their attitudes and adjust their ways of functioning in order to heal the abuses of the...

(The entire section is 1780 words.)