Each of us is knowable, in part, through our individual interactions with others. If someone were interested in characterizing us in a more complete way, he might gather all of those interactions to provide a comprehensive view of what we do and how we think. More importantly, these interactions with others would offer insight into our motivations and passions. This is what Terry Findley does in his 1977 novel The Wars.
Robert Ross is a tragic hero, and Findley chooses to reveal Robert’s tragic journey through the relationships and interactions with other people in his life. Many of them are connected to the war, as most of the story is set during one year of Robert’s life as a soldier in World War I, roughly 1915 to 1916. At the least, all of them are impacted by the war in some way.
In one sense, documenting these incidents and revelations is quite tricky, because they are often recounted and recorded in unconventional ways, such as in letters, diary entries, or interviews. In another sense, though, they are easy to document: every time Robert has an interaction with someone, we (readers) learn something more about him. Everything counts because everything reveals.
For example, we know that Robert feels an affinity with Rodwell because of Rodwell’s love and care for animals. Whatever happens to Rodwell will necessarily have an impact on Robert and how he reacts to things from then on.
Rodwell wandered into No Man's Land and put a bullet through his ears. On Sunday, Robert sat on his bed in the old hotel at Bailleul and read what Rodwell had written.
To my daughter, Laurine;
Love your mother.
Make your prayers against despair.
I am alive in everything I touch. Touch these pages and you have me in your fingertips. We survive in one another. Everything lives forever. Believe it. Nothing dies.
I am your father always.
What Rodwell says, even after he is gone, becomes part of who Robert is and how he reacts to things.
Another example of this kind of impact is demonstrated through the incident with the German soldier in the crater. Robert and some of his men are lying in the freezing water at the bottom of a crater for hours, pretending they are dead. Robert assumes no one is still watching them, but he is wrong. A German soldier is there and signals to Robert that his men will be allowed to leave; unfortunately, Robert overreacts to a harmless gesture and kills the man. The unarmed soldier had a rifle nearby, but he had been reaching for binoculars to identify a bird. From this point on, Robert remembers this incident with horror every time he hears a chirping bird.
Even the things Robert does on his own are usually connected to someone else and create some new information to add to Findley’s characterization of Robert and his tragic life. When things get very bad, Robert tries to protect his beloved sister from the ugliness of this world.
Robert sat on the mutilated mattress and opened his kit bag. Everything was there--including the picture of Rowena. Robert burned it in the middle of the floor. This was not an act of anger--but an act of charity.
Each of the interactions Robert has reveals more information about him; each bit of information the narrator gathers explains why Robert commits such a crazy act as freeing the horses from the train. If the theme of the novel is the inhumanity of man, every interaction will also either demonstrate this theme or offer a kind of hope or relief from that inhumanity.