The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall

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How does Robert Westall use effective characterization to explore the effects of war on the civilian population?

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bbtrees eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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“Effective characterization” means that the author has created characters who seem like real people rather than stereotypes. Each individual has enough specific features to make them memorable, but their actions are plausible rather than far-fetched. When multiple characters are placed in an extreme situation, such as war, their behavior may change radically, or they may readily adapt to the difficulties they face. The characters’ traits matter in the plot because specific aspects influence the behavior of others, thereby shaping the outcome.

In The Machine Gunners, Chas is the protagonist who links two different sets of characters, his family and his friends. Robert Westall makes Chas credible because the boy displays typical adolescent behaviors, such as dissatisfaction with his parents, but he also engages in distinctive actions to try to cope with the war. In that regard, his relationships with his friends in obtaining the machine gun take on greater significance than those with his parents. For the children, their partial understanding of the wartime situation leads them to make some wrong choices, which give momentum to the plot; those choices, however, are consistent with the personality of each one.

Several of the adults embody the wartime stress as an actual person would likely experience it. Chas’s mother, for example, is concerned with the food rationing and shortages, as were most people, but she is notable for her extreme obsession with the material aspect. Mr. Liddell, the school teacher, embraces his wartime role, perhaps because he felt he had not lived up to his duty before he became a Home Guard. He connects his duty with his treasured uniform.

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janeyb eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Well to answer that question, you have to look at the characters and what the represent. Constant exposure to the atrocities of war forces the main characters in The Machine Gunners to grow up too quickly. Chas McGill, the narrator, attempts to survive in a confusing world by exercising some control over his corner of Garmouth. His inability to remain a passive child in the face of terror results in his transition from a naive collector of war souvenirs to a stoic overseer of an underground fortress.
The young people in this novel learn that love and respect for individuals is more powerful than the hatred of figurative enemies encouraged by wartime propaganda. The war confuses and corrupts the values of these young people, leading them to lie and steal in the belief that their survival depends on these activities. Out of desperation, they decide to take control of their own lives.
By using teenagers to tell the story, Westall effectively shows the effects of war on the whole population, from their parents, to other schoolmates, to teachers and friends.

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