Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, while coming out of David Rabe’s experiences in the Vietnam War, is not only a war play; it is also about growing up male in contemporary America. Pavlo Hummel offers the admiration of the outsider for those soldiers who can be considered “regular army,” the infantry, and for their civilian counterparts as well. As Rabe explains in an author’s note, “He has romanticized the street-kid tough guy and hopes to find himself in that image.” With matinee-idol soldier images in place of a father, he seeks and finds in the army a similar pattern to fulfill.

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The play is set in the United States Army of the Vietnam War period. Basic training provides the language which defines reality for Hummel, and the world he encounters must be perceived to fit that language. He must also behave in accordance with the male image it defines. Therefore, he is ashamed of the intelligence and compassion which cause him to be assigned as a medic rather than as an infantry soldier; he suppresses the part of himself that would criticize the sexism, the racism, and the dehumanization of the image offered by the army.

The Vietnam War experience, however, resists being defined by language. When Hummel confronts human suffering and death on such a scale, when he himself suffers three physical wounds, the voice he has suppressed begins to be heard. As he fulfills the image his mother gave him of the film hero little Jimmy (“what a tough little mite he was, and how he leaped upon that grenade, did you see”), his awareness of his own impending death releases Ardell from within him to lead Hummel through his own past training. Repeatedly, Ardell pushes Hummel to see himself as separate from the image he has been trained to fulfill. “In there where you live, you that awful hurtin’ black so you can’t see yourself no way,” Ardell tells him after he reveals his father’s desertion. Furthermore, Ardell points out, the training given is not even appropriate for a modern world. As Pavlo is trained to put on his gas mask, for example, Ardell reminds him that in this war he will probably be hit with radiation, not gas, and that the mask will not protect him.

As long as he is alive Hummel clings to his faith in the male image he has been given, but with his death he tries to rid himself of his training. “You gotta get that stuff outa you, man,” Ardell encourages him. “But . . . I . . . I’m dead!” Hummel realizes, and his coffin is carried away to a military march, revealing the pessimistic conclusion of Rabe’s vision. Once again, Pavlovian training has suppressed the individuality and the innocence implied by Hummel’s last name. Only a lonely outsider such as Pavlo Hummel could reveal so completely the masculine image embodied in contemporary American realities; as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Success is counted sweetest/ By those who ne’er succeed.”


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973

Change and Transformation
"I'm different than I was'" Pavlo brags to his half-brother, Mickey, during a visit home following his basic training. "I'm not the same anymore. I was an asshole. I'm not an asshole anymore." This somewhat desperate statement, however, proves to be much more an expression of desire than a statement of fact, as Pavlo demonstrates by lying to Mickey about being respected and liked among his fellow army trainees Pavlo does not succeed in developing meaningful human relationships, nor does he seem capable of learning from his mistakes. He is generally incapable of change, expressing self-awareness only symbolically in his conversations with Ardell after the grenade explodes.

True to the theme of a protracted and bloody military...

(The entire section contains 1476 words.)

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