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Robert Ross is the protagonist of The Wars by Terry Findley, though his story is told by a first-person narrator who has purposed to piece together (re-create) Robert’s story after the fact. He does this by gathering various documents, photographs, memories, diaries, transcripts, and letters as well as by talking to (interviewing) people who knew Robert at different times in his life.
Most characters are not interviewed [interview: a conversation with or questioning of a person for formal purposes (Collins Dictionary)]. Most characters contribute to the narrator's investigation into Ross's life indirectly through diary entries or letters etc. One character who was directly interviewed is Rodwell.
Rodwell is the only other soldier, besides Ross, who cares for and respects animals; he tends to every injured animal he finds, including rabbits. Of course this trait reminds Robert of his beloved sister, Rowena, who adored her pet rabbits, and it endears Rodwell to Robert.
Each one of these characters adds something new to our (the readers’) understanding of what moves and motivates Robert both in his life as a soldier and in the outrageous—some might say insane-- act we read about in the prologue. Through them we also experience the disintegration others experience as the war rages. They are generally flat characters who serve the story only through their connection to Robert. Some of the major contributors to the narrator’s information-gathering are below.
The aristocratic Lady Barbara d’Orsey has a brief (several months) affair with Robert. Despite her own rather calloused approach to taking and leaving her lovers, Robert learns at least a semblance of normal sexual behavior. Too often in this novel Robert is exposed to perversions or at least atypical forms of physical/sexual love. Later, however, she will flaunt her new lovers in front of the wounded Robert who would rather die than be kept alive.
Juliet d’Orsey is Barbara’s younger sister, and though she is only twelve years old, she falls in love with Robert when he comes to stay at her home, St. Aubyn’s. She is with Robert then, and she is also with him as he dies. In fact, she is the one who writes the inscription for Robert’s tombstone.
Margaret Elizabeth Ross is Robert’s mother. Through her we learn not only about Robert’s early, pre-war life but also about the effects of death and war on someone other than Robert. Margaret is an alcoholic who mistreats her son, yet she deliberately exposes herself to all manner of inclement weather while he is away as a kind of solidarity for what her son is experiencing. She loses both her children, and at the funeral she sits outside on the steps rather than going inside.
Mrs. Ross adjusted her veil but did not put the flask away.... 'Why is this happening to us…? What does it mean--to kill your children? Kill them and then go in there and sing about it! What does that mean?' She wept--but angrily.
In some ways, she speaks for all of us as we follow her son's short life as a soldier.
Eugene Taffler is the epitome of a war hero who impresses his fellow soldiers by teaching them how to break bottles by throwing stones at them. Ross’s admiration and hero worship are extinguished and replaced with violent anger when he sees Taffler having rough sex with another man at a brothel. Later, Taffler loses both his arms in battle and tries unsuccessfully to kill himself.
The author uses each of these characters, and many more, to help reveal information, feelings, and experiences about Robert to his readers. Together they serve to draw a picture of a troubled, guilt-ridden, struggling young man over the course of his life.
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