Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1780
Gone to Soldiers offers an answer to the question that Albert Einstein asked in a July 30, 1932, letter to Sigmund Freud regarding the topic “Why war?” As the lives of ten major characters are played out against the backdrop of World War II, “man’s inhumanity to man” is revealed in the horrors of prejudice against Jews and women. War, whether against an oppressive society or within oneself, is fought and won only against overwhelming odds.
Dedicated to Marge Piercy’s grandmother, Hannah, Gone to Soldiers memorializes her as a storyteller who has a “gift for making the past walk through the present.” The importance of memory in preserving the lessons of the past makes Jacqueline Lévy-Monot’s mission a religious one as she affirms her identity as a women and as a Jew.
Jacqueline, whose stories are told in the form of a diary, is not the only character in the novel who is a teller of tales. Louise Kahan, the war correspondent, and Abra, in a series of interviews, mark their own quests for identity in the stories they tell. Recounting the experience of her bleak childhood, Louise recalls being raped and having an abortion at the age of fifteen. Later, mired in dull wifehood, she finds it hard to juggle the demands of her daughter and philandering husband. When Louise divorces Oscar and strives to live as a single mother in a war-torn society, she learns that women in that society have no military status, no privileges, no protection, and no insurance. It is only at the end of the novel that Louise learns that the lessons of the past enable her to reunite with Oscar and be healed. In one of the book’s more important passages, Louise comes to several realizations:Miracles came seldom and rebirth more rarely yet and for countless and uncountable and never to be counted women like herself, her age, her body type, death had come from a machine gun, from blows of the butt end of a rifle, from poison gas, from poison injections, from starvation and typhus and neglect, from all the nasty ways to die warped minds in a violent and relentless system could devise. They had died of a lack of common respect and common love. They cried out to her, take him back and go live in peace as husband and wife and as Jews. Go make a home again and give thanks. Life is the first gift, love is the second, and understanding the third.
Abra, on the other hand, has to give up the role of mistress and separate from Oscar in order to find herself and to learn that a relationship of equals brings fulfillment rather than subservient dependency. This is a hard lesson to learn—for men as well as for women. After the United States has dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Abra’s beloved Daniel tells her, “I feel as if I looked out through a vast eye and saw the future of the world in a plain of ashes, of sand turned to glass, flesh vaporized, time itself burned up.” When asked what can be done, Daniel replies, “First, put our opinions in the report if we can.” Gone to Soldiers is the report and the answer to the question “Why war?” as each character reveals her or his own experiences of intolerance, misunderstanding, failures of communication, powerlessness, subjugation, and abuse.
In an interview published in the anthology Ways of Knowing (edited by Sue Walker and Eugenie Hamner, 1991), Piercy stated that, among all her works up to that time, Gone to Soldiers was the novel that caused her the most problems as she was writing it. Because the book uses ten viewpoints and moves regularly from one to another, Piercy noted, she views it as a cantata. Each character has her or his own social world, history, milieu, loved ones, and problems, and as Piercy moves in the work from the world of one character to another, the reader is also moved forcefully. The novel is separated into segments as first one and then another character appears, disappears, and comes back again in various sections. The disjointed result is part of the author’s technique. Piercy rejects the Aristotelian notion of plot as progressive movement from beginning to middle to end; instead, she selects a decentering format that weaves multiple threads of human existence into a unified whole. Men as well as women redefine their attitudes and adjust their ways of functioning in order to heal the abuses of the past. The novel is not intended to invoke comfort or ease; it is designed to disrupt the reader’s inner and outer worlds as the characters challenge and fight over ideals and value systems.
As a major feminist writer, Piercy often espouses the causes of women; she is also perhaps the leading female Jewish novelist in the United States. The great-granddaughter of a rabbi, Piercy recounts in Gone to Soldiers the horrors of anti-Semitism, so that, in Daniel’s words, “No one will ever again call us dirty Jews. No one will make laws against us, ever again.” The wars that take place in the novel extend beyond World War II; they are fought on American as well as foreign soil and concern the misuse of women, by society in general and by men in particular. Louise undergoes an abortion that almost kills her. Naomi is raped by Leib, her friend Trudi’s husband—a soldier who was shipped home because he lost a foot in the war—and finds herself pregnant. Bernice is told by her father that grown women do not run around in airports and that “real” women should not want to fly planes. “Real” women get married and exist to please their men; they do not pursue higher degrees. They want to bring babies into the world. Jacqueline comments that “a family is an accidental construct, a group of people brought together by chance and forced to cohabit in insufficient space.” Even being Jewish is a matter of accident. “I was born Jewish,” Jacqueline says, “but what does that mean?” She is unable to communicate with her Polish refugee aunt, uncle, and cousins—even about things as simple as tables and chairs, let alone her aspirations, feelings, and dreams.
The novel notes both the treatment of women in a prison camp—where they are forced to march and are clubbed to death if they stumble from exhaustion, where they are fed only soup every other day and take on the appearance of genderless, starved specters rather than human beings—and the routine subjugation of women in a society that lacks tolerance of lesbians, blacks, and Jews, and where women are deprived of employment and pay equal to those available to men. This insidious misuse of females results in women at war with themselves as they struggle to find their identity and sense of self-worth, not only in war-torn France or bombed London but also in Detroit and Alabama and throughout the United States, where prejudices make people victims and deny them their human rights.
Einstein’s question “Why war?” has a multitude of answers that are as complex as the lives of Louise, Daniel, Jacqueline, Abra, Naomi, Bernice, Jeff, Ruthie, Duvey, Murray, and the other characters in Gone to Soldiers. These characters’ experiences, both separate and intertwined, touch on the issues of women’s rights, the psychology of mother-daughter and father-daughter relationships, and the need to claim one’s past on individual, local, and global scales. Through an anatomy of war, Piercy shows that what Einstein called humanity’s “lust for hatred and destruction” can be overcome only when men and women learn to heal, to have relationships of equals instead of victimizing one another, whether on the level of nation, country, religion, class, or law. Through storytelling, perhaps, this lesson may be learned. As Naomi goes off to bear Leib’s daughter, joy is brought back into the world, along with hope. Misfortune can be instructive, even though the end of one set of troubles is but the beginning of another.
Piercy examines the situations of women in relation to marriage, education, work, and wealth, especially in terms of gender divisions of labor in employment, authority, leadership, and ethnic issues of race and religion. At the beginning of Gone to Soldiers, Louise begins the chronicle of issues that oppress women, and Jacqueline laments the fact that people bring babies into the world so casually that often a birth is celebrated when it should be mourned.
Throughout her fiction, Piercy raises the question of what it is to be a “real” woman. In Gone to Soldiers, as in Piercy’s earlier work Small Changes (1973), men insist that a real woman directs her energy to, and derives her identity from, a relationship with a man. A real woman should not want to pursue higher education; a real woman should not want to fly airplanes. Rather, a woman’s duty is to stay at home and care for her family members. The repression and abuse of women in Gone to Soldiers exist in many places, not only in the concentration camp. Women suffer within the family, in the workplace, and in interpersonal relationships. Women in the military can be dishonorably discharged for being lesbians, and Bernice finds herself forced to adopt a masculine identity in order to find a job in which she can support herself and live with her beloved, Flo.
Piercy shows that a “real” woman is one who can take control of her life and wrest it from any man who believes he needs to subjugate her for his own selfish desires. Being real means being able to form a relationship with whomever one loves without fear of losing a job or being court-martialed. It means that a woman can feel secure within herself and be assured of her own individual worth without having to do things she dislikes in order to keep a man. Real women can earn higher degrees and pay equal to that earned by men; they can obtain positions of influence regardless of race and religion.
Piercy’s feminist stance extends into a mission to affirm her Jewish heritage. Gone to Soldiers engages the place of memory in keeping the past alive as a deterrent to future abuse. As Jacqueline promises, “I will live and tell the world about this. I will live and make them pay.” Piercy’s concerns enjoin social, ethical, and political wrongs in regard to the treatment of women and envision a society characterized by wholeness, without barriers created by sex, race, religion, age, or class.