The Man He Killed

by Thomas Hardy

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Illustrate the main theme of the poem "The Man He Killed" by Thomas Hardy.

The theme of "The Man He Killed" by Thomas Hardy is the distortion of good and generous impulses by war. This is illustrated as the speaker describes his natural sympathy for the man he killed, saying that he was probably down on his luck. In normal peacetime circumstances, he would have liked to buy him a drink and be friendly, but in war, he was forced to kill him.

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The theme of "The Man He Killed" is the way in which the natural, decent impulses of human brotherhood are distorted by war. The speaker begins by reflecting that he and the man he killed might easily have met at an inn and got on very well over a few drinks (a "nipperkin" is a small cup for beer or wine). However, they were on opposing sides in a battle, so the speaker killed the man, towards whom he felt no ill will.

Henry David Thoreau makes a similar point to Hardy's when he describes an army marching off to battle and says that every single man in the army, including those commanding it, would not fight if he followed his own conscience. Hardy appeals less to conscience than the impulse to be friendly to one's fellow human beings, to get on well with them, and to understand that life is a hard struggle for everyone.

He imagines that the dead man was out of work and had sold his possessions. This is why he was forced to fight. The natural impulse of the speaker towards a fellow being who is down on his luck is to buy him a drink or to help him out with a loan or gift of money. In war, however, they are forced to shoot at each other and are deprived of the opportunity to be generous and humane.

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