Dulce et Decorum Est Characters
The main characters in “Dulce et Decorum Est” are the soldiers, the soldier who dies, and the speaker.
- The soldiers are described as completely exhausted by the realities of trench warfare in World War I.
- The soldier who dies has not put his gas helmet on in time, and he dies in front of the speaker, “drowning” and “gargling” blood.
- The speaker served in the war and is continually haunted by memories and dreams of the horrors he witnessed.
Last Updated on September 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443
The poem begins with a vivid and disturbing image of men, including the speaker, moving through the trenches:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge . . .
Later, we read that “Men marched asleep” and are “Drunk with fatigue” while gas shells fall all around them. They are so tired that they are hardly paying attention to the potential danger they find themselves in. There is a clear impression that these men are struggling, exhausted, dirty, and cold. The conditions are far from heroic or glamorous, as some have tried to depict war. Owen is interested in showing the grim daily reality for those involved firsthand in war.
The characters are all unnamed and are not described individually, for the most part. Without names or identifying features, these soldiers represent each and every soldier involved in war. The anonymous nature of death in war is thus explored through this depiction of unknown young men fighting for their country.
The Soldier Who Dies
There is, however, one soldier who is singled out for description: the man who doesn’t get his gas helmet on in time. Again, we don’t know his name or anything about him as a character, but he can be considered a main character of the poem. The other soldiers hurry to put on their helmets, but he doesn’t manage. The consequences are horrific, and we read how the narrator sees him “drowning” in the toxic air. After he is “flung” in a wagon, the narrator describes his
white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin . . .
He is “gargling” blood from
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues . . .
The speaker is haunted by what he sees in war, and these memories recur repeatedly in dreams of his gassed comrade:
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
This experience, and no doubt others, have a lasting and disturbing effect on the speaker, who is consequently convinced that war is not something to be glorified or praised.
Beginning in the fourth and final stanza, the speaker addresses the poem to the reader—referred to as “you” and “my friend”—to try to convince his audience of the horrors of war and appeal that they stop glorifying it. As such, the reader becomes a character, to some extent, by being appealed to directly by the speaker—and the reader is implicated in the war that killed the man in the poem as well as many others.