Study Guide

A Soldier of the Great War

by Mark Helprin

A Soldier of the Great War Themes

Themes and Meanings (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

“ I was born to be a soldier,’ Allesandro said, but love pulled me back.’” For Allesandro, love and beauty are the essences of life, and one of the most obvious themes in Helprin’s novel is its contrast of the beauty of art and nature and the love of family and friends with the evil, madness, and anarchy of war. Yet these polarities are also inseparable. Love comes with carnage and death: Ariane and Allesandro find each other in the darkness of a military hospital, and as he is about to be executed as a deserter, Guariglia’s last words are “God keep my children.” Allesandro’s interpretation of Giorgione’s La Tempesta conjoins the soldier, storm, woman, and child as a unity. On the night before he is to be executed, Allesandro, looking out his prison window, is overcome with the starlight, and his heart rises in response. After he leaves Nicolo, Allesandro’s last sight is of a flight of swallows, “the unification of risk and hope,” slaughtered in mid-flight by a hunter.

Love and beauty are not merely transcendent, they are redemptive. In prison in Vienna at the war’s end, Allesandro is confronted by several socialists and anarchists who ask him if he believes in God. He replies that he does, since both nature and art affirm God’s reality, but he denies that God’s existence can be proved by reason; thus, he explains, he never followed the formalities of organized religion. He expects no afterlife, but he says that...

(The entire section is 536 words.)