James Jones Essay - Critical Essays


Critics, especially academics, have increasingly dismissed James Jones as a “war novelist” committed to outdated naturalistic techniques. Though Ihab Hassan provides an extensive and largely favorable discussion of From Here to Eternity in his 1961 examination of post-World War II American fiction, Radical Innocence, two important subsequent studies of the contemporary American novel, Tony Tanner’s City of Words (1971) and Josephine Hendin’s Vulnerable People (1978), ignore Jones completely. This neglect arises, in part, from oversimplified and incorrect perceptions of his work. For example, as the term is most commonly used, Jones is not strictly a war novelist. Of his eight novels, only one, The Thin Red Line, is primarily devoted to a description of military combat, while four have peacetime civilian settings. While it is true that Army life provides the background of his best fiction and World War II its controlling event, his reactions to the Army and the war exhibit the complexity and ambiguity essential to meaningful art.

Especially during the 1950’s, Jones often permitted himself to be depicted as an advocate of masculine toughness in life and literature. A 1957 Life magazine article emphasized the novelist’s devotion to knives and boxing and declared his prominence in the literary cult of violence. Yet a careful reader of Jones’s fiction will discover an artist deeply concerned about humankind’s capacity for self-destruction. In a 1974 interview, Jones discussed his belief that humanity was doomed by two interrelated forces: its own animal nature and the anonymous power of modern technological society. He stressed “the ridiculous misuse of human strength which can include many subjects, not only physical strength, but technology, and all of the things that we live by.”

After defining morality as the refusal to give another pain “even though one suffers himself,” he forecast the inevitable failure of such an idealistic ethical code: “In all of us, there is this animal portionwhich is not at all averse to inflicting cruelty on others. This can be quite enjoyable at times.It’s in myselfit’s in all of us. Modern humans, Jones believed, are caught in both an external and an internal trap. Human strength, which has its source in the “animal nature of man,” has been translated into an awesome technology that ironically threatens the extinction of human individuality, if not the actual obliteration of humankind. In his civilian novels, Jones’s characters habitually seek the few remaining “frontiers” of individualism (for example, skin diving), only to discover the impossibility of escaping their own animal heritage. An element of brutal and destructive competition is thereby introduced into the frontier, which is perverted and ultimately doomed. It is in his Army fiction, however, that Jones most memorably dramatizes the tragic vulnerability of contemporary humans.

In an interview published by The Paris Review in 1967, Jones said, “I’ve come to consider bravery as just about the most pernicious of virtues. Bravery is a horrible thing. The human race has it left over from the animal world and we can’t get rid of it.” His Army fiction underscores the destructiveness of this “most pernicious of virtues.” Strength and bravery are, of course, essential qualities of the traditional hero. In more romantic ages, these two virtues were often perceived as the very foundation of manhood. Today’s all-pervasive technology makes such romantic concepts of heroism archaic and dangerous. The dominant social mechanism of the modern world is bureaucracy, which can hardly permit heroism, since bureaucracy denies individuality. Jones saw modern warfare as the inevitable product of a bureaucratic, highly technological society. In it, death falls from the sky in a totally random and “anonymous” manner. For Jones, a fundamental and dismaying truth was implicit in this impersonal rain of death: In such a technological hell, the traditional Western concepts of the individual and the self no longer hold their old importance. The question he examines throughout his most important fiction is whether they still have any validity at all.

The Army trilogy

The major achievement of Jones’s career is his Army trilogy: From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and Whistle. His novella The Pistol and several of the short stories in his collection The Ice-Cream Headache, and Other Stories also have military settings. The thematic focus in all Jones’s Army fiction is on the evolution of the soldier, a concept that is given a full and convincing nonfictional elaboration in WWII. In Jones’s view, warfare constitutes humankind’s total capitulation to its animal nature. The traditional concepts of the individual and the self must be discarded in combat: The Army trains the soldier to function on a primitive, subhuman level of consciousness. This training is a reversal of evolution; it is a process by which the Army systematically dehumanizes the enlisted soldier. Such dehumanization is necessary for the soldier’s acceptance of his (or her) own anonymity and probable death in combat. In World War II’s anonymous, technological warfare, the enlisted soldier became more clearly expendable and anonymous than he had ever been. Throughout his military fiction, Jones is intent upon describing the manner in which the Army, by using technology and its awareness of the enlisted soldier’s inherent animalism, carried out the dehumanization process.

The three novels that constitute the Army trilogy depict three major stages in the evolution of a soldier. It is important to note here that Jones intended the three novels to be seen as constituting a special kind of trilogy. He wished that each “should stand by itself as a work alone” and “in a way thatJohn Dos Passos’s three novels in his fine USA trilogy do not.” At least in From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, the first two novels in his own trilogy, Jones clearly achieved this ambition.

The Army trilogy’s most innovative feature is the presence of three character types in all three volumes. Of these three character types, two are of overriding importance. First Sergeant Milt Warden of From Here to Eternity is transformed into Sergeant “Mad” Welsh in The Thin Red Line and into Sergeant Mart Winch in Whistle. Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt of From Here to Eternity becomes Private Witt in The Thin Red Line and Private Bobby Prell in Whistle. John W. Aldridge, sometimes a perceptive critic of Jones’s fiction, understands a more important reason than Prewitt’s death in From Here to Eternity for the characters’ different names in each of the novels: Increasingly brutal experiences, he writes, have “transformed [them] into altogether different people.” In other words, as they reach new and more dehumanizing stages in the evolution of a soldier, their inner selves undergo transformation.


(The entire section is 2930 words.)