The British army is a central feature of the book and the main influence on the lives of its characters. In his early years, Charlie accepts army discipline gratefully as a means of freezing the pain of his emotional deprivation—the deaths of his best friend and his mother, and ostracism by his father. He is a good soldier, and in later life, the army continues to represent everything he holds dear. He is never tired of reliving his own past glories and is able to relive them yet again through his son.
Charlie’s life is deeply rooted in his social class and in the mining village of his birth. His army rank as noncommissioned officer and his civilian work as a postman keep him well within the parameters of his social origins.
The forces that shape William’s development are more complex. As a child, he accepts his father’s guidance. He enjoys serious study, but when he asks why he has to learn French, Charlie’s reply, “So that you can become a gentleman,” surprises and puzzles him. Joining the army and becoming “a gentleman” are not his own aspirations but have been decided for him by his father.
As an officer, he is treated at first with some condescension by his fellow officers, most of whom have middle-or upper-class backgrounds, but he is strong-minded enough to cope with their antagonism. His father has instilled in him the soldier’s habit of not asking questions about motive but concentrating on the practical tasks in hand. He approaches his relationship with Georgina similarly, dealing with her in a tactical way rather than trying to understand her deeper feelings. This attitude is most clearly imaged in a brilliantly described confrontation between them in which they fantasize about a full-scale war, inventing increasingly extravagant maneuvers against each other until, in an assault of mounting sexual...
(The entire section is 763 words.)