Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Claude, like many idealistic people, searches for his place in life and for something larger than himself to which he can devote his energies. He reflects the unselfish idealism of America’s past as challenged by the mechanization, materialism, and greed of the twentieth century. Though World War I may well have occurred because of greed, Claude sees it only as “the war to end all wars,” a decisive, final struggle against the ideas most repugnant to him.

This is not to imply that he sees the Allies’ methods or even his comrades-in-arms as blameless. Captain (later Colonel) Maxey is incompetent; commanding officers often order their men to take actions that are certain to result in death, and Claude recognizes their culpability. Even so, he sees the cause as essentially noble and morally right. Appropriately, Claude receives his greatest support from the unselfish Mahailey, who has childhood memories of the Civil War and knows war’s horrors at first hand. Prospering in business, as does Bayliss, acquiring land for speculative purposes, as does Nat, or spending irresponsibly on useless luxuries, as does Ralph, are for Claude unsatisfactory substitutes for nobler, harder-won goals.

One of Ours Themes

Identity is the first of several themes to emerge in the complex novel One of Ours. Claude is a young man when the story opens, and he puts a great deal of energy into trying to figure out who he is. Claude and his brothers all attempt to distinguish themselves. They push against one another and push against their parents even as they pull close to them. When he goes to college, Claude tries to make himself something and someone new. He is moderately successful, but as happens often in the novel, he and other men find their true identities in fits and starts. Their deeper selves are exposed through deprivation (they appreciate the Midwest once they are away from it), through the physical rigors of the war, and through trauma. It is only as he is dying that Claude admits, even in part, what David meant to him and his journey of self-discovery.

Communities form and reform in One of Ours. Sometimes this is literal; when the men join the military, they are reshaped into members of a new community, one that continues to affect them through several stages (enlistment, training, illness, battle, etc.). At other times, smaller communities are formed in response to larger political and social concerns, such as when the Nebraska farmers turn against the German neighbors they have known for years. The war shows how quickly and markedly communities can transform in other ways as well. When Claude is in France, he sees communities stitched together from refugees and wounded civilians, and the little town of Beaufort becomes a kind of international utopia, with America soldiers taking the place of missing local men.

Early on, the environment that shapes the characters is the farmland, the sweeping prairies that birthed it, and the weather that pounds them. When Claude is in charge of the farm and snow buries it, suffocating his pigs,...

(The entire section is 508 words.)