Themes and Meanings
Still significant in the consciousness of the wounded men is the war, which represents both a challenge and a threat. Because of the war, the three young Italians with medals know that they are brave. In addition to representing a test, the war also heightens the soldiers’ awareness of death. The story opens with the line: “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.” The tall, pale Italian who has three medals is described as having “lived a very long time with death.” As a result, their experiences in the war have left them all “detached.”
The nature of courage is one of the central themes of “In Another Country.” The American officer is afraid of dying and lies awake wondering how he will behave when he goes back to the front. His fear is contrasted with the bravery of the three young Italians who earned their medals: “The three with the medals were like hunting-hawks; and I was not a hawk.” The bravery of the three “hunting-hawks,” however, is also contrasted with the courage of the major, who is not a hunting-hawk. The American does not understand the major, but he does recognize that he “had been a great fencer” and that he does not “believe in bravery.” The major’s self-discipline and courage prompt him to befriend the young American. He insists that the American learn to speak Italian grammatically. The major’s concern about speaking Italian grammatically illustrates the importance he gives to “form,” to living in terms of a strict code of behavior.
The major’s courage does not spring from the heedless self-confidence that often passes for bravery; he is willing to continue to try in spite of the likelihood of failure or defeat. Even though the major comes regularly to work with the therapy machines, he tells the doctor that he has no confidence in them.
The major’s courage in the face of his wife’s death equals his courage in accepting his disability. The death of his wife is particularly tragic as she was very young and as the major had postponed their marriage until after he had been permanently disabled from his war wounds. The major’s courage in coping with his young wife’s death is contrasted with the bravery of the three “hunting-hawks” in facing danger. In addition, the major’s compassion (for the American) sets him apart from the others.
Although war offers the challenge of living with death, those who do battle are not the only ones vulnerable to it: The death of the major’s young wife from pneumonia underlines the fact of human mortality. The major’s courage thus becomes a model of the heroism required to live.
The source for the title “In Another Country” is Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589), in which Friar Barnardine says to Barabas: “Thou hast committed—”; the sentence is finished ironically by Barabas, who says, “Fornication—but that was in another country/ And besides, the wench is dead.”
The title thus suggests the detachment that the young men feel after living with death during the war. The conclusion of Barabas’s speech, “the wench is dead,” brutally reinforces the tragedy of the death of the major’s young wife. The irony of her death suggests the difficulty of living with courage.