Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1030
Although two-thirds of Death of a Hero is concerned with the life of George Winterbourne before World War I, the novel presents the prewar era as a prelude to the great catastrophe that followed. Richard Aldington leaves no doubt about the ultimate target of his satire, vociferously denouncing the hypocritical Victorian platitudes that held killing to be chivalrous and erotic love to be shameful: “It was the regime of Cant before the War which made the Cant during the War so damnably possible and easy.” Although Aldington blames the war on the older generation, he finds the younger generation, including the supposedly enlightened intelligentsia, almost equally guilty. Not only was the conduct of the war itself dishonest, he claims, but it was also the expression of a pervasive dishonesty in English society.
Death of a Hero is more than simply a war novel, for it treats the experience of the whole generation of men who fought in the war and makes an urgent appeal for a less repressive society. The events of the book are closely based on Aldington’s personal experiences both as a member of the avant-garde in prewar England and as a runner and officer during the war, yet the novel presents George Winterbourne’s experience as representative. His death is ambiguous: Although his final act is clearly suicidal, the implication is that he has been driven to it by the tragic fate of the young men of his time whom society had denied such basic necessities as love and truth.
George’s death takes place on the same day as that of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), the preeminent poet of “the pity of war,” on November 4, 1918, just one week before the armistice. Owen’s poems, like Death of a Hero, gave expression to the camaraderie between fighting men and the great psychological abyss that the war experience opened between soldiers and civilians.
In his section headings Aldington suggests that his novel is constructed like a symphony, with four movements (a prologue and three parts) in progressively slower tempos: allegretto, vivace, andante cantabile, and adagio. In the prefatory letter to Halcott Glover, however, Aldington also describes it as a jazz novel, constructed on principles such as those he had used for his long poem A Fool i’ the Forest (1924). Although certain musical motifs are brilliantly used in the descriptions of bombardment in part 3, it is difficult to see how the musical analogy functions continuously to give the novel its form, and the tempo indications seem superfluous to the reading experience.
In part 1, it is clear that Aldington wants to make his characters, especially George’s contemptible parents, stand for all of society. To have drawn them three-dimensionally might have detracted from that purpose, but his presenting them as caricatures makes it difficult for the reader to find them interesting or significant, especially as the war episode (which gives point to Aldington’s satire) is yet to come. The reader feels that these “grotesques,” as Aldington describes them, are made of straw—targets too trivial to warrant such lurid invective.
Part 2 further shows how George is betrayed by those who profess to care about him. Although George’s love interests, Elizabeth and Fanny, at first appear to be more sympathetic and human than his parents, they, too, eventually betray George and come to stand in contrast to the comparatively guileless, trusting protagonist. Several of Aldington’s famous literary friends appear in this section as amusing, absurdly self-absorbed, and pretentious characters in George’s London bohemian set—the poet Ezra Pound as the sculptor Upjohn, the novelist D. H. Lawrence as Comrade Bobbe, and the poet T. S. Eliot as Waldo Tubbe.
Only when George enters the army does he find companions whose simple courage is admirable and inspiring. His commanding officer, Evans, is honest and hardworking, yet he would certainly have been an object of scorn had he appeared in parts 1 or 2. Here, however, he is a sympathetic character, suggesting that the war somehow humanizes men and enables them to transcend cant. The war section, which includes vivid descriptions of the horror of the trenches, has generally been considered to be the most effective and praiseworthy of the novel’s three parts. Aldington’s skill as a poet, even as an Imagist poet devoted to precise description and fresh cadences, has been perceived in his magnificent accounts of bombardment and combat.
Aldington was well known in literary circles as a poet, but his first novel made him famous on both sides of the Atlantic, for although it received mixed reviews in the press, it was an immediate best-seller. (An unexpurgated edition was published in France in 1930 though most of the phrases that the original publishers had censored were far from offensive.) Death of a Hero was in the vanguard of a great wave of literature about World War I that began to appear in 1929, after a decade in which there had been little interest in war writing. The work remains one of the more distinguished contributions to this body of work, although it has received only modest critical attention. In retrospect, it is clear that it gave early expression to the major themes of World War I prose and shows unusual insight into such frequently neglected questions as the relationship between the war and changing attitudes toward women and sexuality. Some writers were, however, able to find more satisfactory solutions to the problem of expressing protest against the war than the fierce invective that often interrupts the narrative in Death of a Hero.
Most commentary on Aldington’s work tends to concentrate either on his notorious biographical works or on his role in the Imagist movement. Both the novel’s admirers and its detractors tend to react to the same quality: its relentless ferocity. The narrator at times almost browbeats the reader, and Bernard Bergonzi compares the novel unfavorably with more patient denunciations of the war such as Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That (1929) and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928). For its admirers, however, it is precisely as a novel whose flaws are owing to its overwhelming bitterness that it gives a voice to the “lost generation.”