Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1373
Good-Bye to All That begins with Robert Graves giving a brief account of his earliest memories, followed by a brief summary of what he is like at the time of writing: "My height is given as six feet two inches, my eyes as gray, and my hair as black.’’ With those staples of ‘‘biographical convention,’’ as he puts it, out of the way, Graves starts into the background of his family on both his mother's and father's sides, which is important information for showing the privileged class from which he came. His mother's German family is credited with being ‘‘a family of Saxon country pastors, not anciently noble'' but educated and thoughtful people. From his father's Irish family, he sees an inherited gift for conversation. His father was an amateur poet but mostly a school-board official, and he was widowed with five daughters when he married Graves' mother. He was their third child together, born in 1895, when his mother was forty and his father forty-nine. Due to this great age difference, his father had little to do with the young Graves' childhood and is hardly mentioned in the book.
Unique memories of his childhood include the time he realized that he and the servants who worked for the family were of different classes; another, his ‘‘horror of Catholicism,’’ which he learned growing up in a strictly Protestant household. In subsequent chapters, he explains that when he was not away at school, he was with his family at their house in Wimbledon or traveling, particularly to visit relatives in Germany.
Graves' childhood was spent moving from one preparatory school to another: his father disapproved of one, he was thrown out of another for using bad language, and he attended another for just one semester, ‘‘for my health.’’ From the earliest schools, he remembers traumatic sexual encounters with girls. The daughter of one headmaster tried, with her friend, to find out about male anatomy by peeking down his shirt front, and, in what he calls ‘‘another frightening experience from this part of my life,'' he once had to go to his sister's school and wait for her, with dozens of girls walking past and staring at him. ‘‘[F]or months and even years afterwards my worst nightmares were of this girls' school,’’ he explains, summarizing his fear as being ‘‘'Very Freudian,' as we say now.’’
The final prep school that he goes to, Charterhouse, is the one at which he spends the most time and the one that he dislikes the most. In his second year, he writes to his parents, listing the improper things that go on so that they will let him leave Charterhouse, but instead they take his letter to the headmaster, making Graves even more of an outcast. Left alone, he begins writing poetry and submits some of his work to the school's literary magazine, which leads to his joining the Poetry Society. There one of the other boys convinces him to try boxing, and he meets the character whom in the book he calls by the pseudonym "Dick." The book strongly hints at Graves' relationships with other boys while growing up. ‘‘In English preparatory and public schools,’’ he explains, ‘‘romance is necessarily homosexual.’’ His relationship with Dick is one of the most important things in his life at Charterhouse.
A few days after Great Britain declares war on Germany in 1914, Graves decides to leave Charterhouse and to enlist in the army. The war was expected to last only a few months, and he is desperate for an excuse to avoid graduating and moving on to college at Oxford. He takes a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a company with a long, revered history going back for several generations of British military service. After passing Officers' Training School, he enters the army as a lieutenant and, at age nineteen, is in charge of old soldiers who have already served in the army and have reenlisted. His first assignment is to a prison camp at Lancaster, where he watches enemy aliens. (The book confirms stories that the army denied about the mistreatment of prisoners.) While guarding them, he learns to be a proper soldier, picking up along the way the correct ways of giving orders and of behaving toward superior officers. In chapter XII of the book, by printing part of a short story that he wrote during the war about the experience, he reconstructs what he felt like when he arrived at the scene of battle in France. It provides a glimpse of one of the most glaring cases of officers being kept warm and dry and unaware of the damp, degrading, demoralizing conditions that the common soldiers face.
Life in the trenches soon becomes more boring than heroic. His descriptions of bloated bodies and men suddenly gunned down by snipers alternate with descriptions of the rations provided by the army and of quirky characters he has met. He describes the summer of 1915 as becoming more regimented, with new, more dangerous weapons and increased discipline. He also describes seeing the ghost of a dead comrade, noting that "Ghosts were numerous in France at the time.’’ In September of that year, he takes part in an attack on the town of Auchy, which turns out to be one of the most senseless defeats in the book; the Germans are well-fortified, and Graves' company loses most of its men. After that action is over, and for the rest of the book, he has trouble with nerves.
In early 1916, Graves goes to England for an operation on his nose: it was broken during his days of boxing at school, leaving him unable to breathe through the army regulation gas mask. While he is away, a bloody battle at the Somme ends up killing sixty percent of the officers in his battalion, as well as tens of thousands of enlisted men. Graves returns to service, to another battalion at the Somme, and is soon seriously injured, getting shrapnel through his lungs and a piece of mortar embedded in his forehead. A well-meaning colonel, having noticed how far gone he is, writes to his parents that he has died in battle, a mistake that he corrects as soon as he is able. His battle career over, he is sent to England for a while to recuperate. He rejoins his battalion as soon as he can but quickly catches bronchitis, and the company doctor declares him too ill to serve in battle. He spends the rest of the war at desk jobs, such as adjudicating on a court marshal review board.
Having married Nancy Nicholson during the war, Graves sets about, after the war's end, to create a family. Because they were both late children in large, spread-out families, the couple decides that their children should come quickly, while they are young. Between 1919 and 1925, Nancy gives birth to four children. Living off Graves' military pension, they do what they can to supplement their income, at one point opening a small store that fails, while Graves, at various times, takes teaching jobs. There is a little money coming in from his poetry but nothing substantial. Writing poetry is, however, the main focus of his life, and he develops his own sensibilities as a writer seriously. He publishes poetry books frequently and tries other styles to make money, but none of them is popular.
In 1925, he accepts a teaching position at the University of Cairo, where he teaches English. The story ends abruptly upon the family's return to England, a stylistic quirk that is accounted for in Graves' cryptic ‘‘Dedicatory Epilogue to Laura Riding,’’ who was his mistress and poetry mentor during the 1920s. He explains that he did not mention her in the book because mentioning her would have made her a flat character and demeaned her actual self but that the last few chapters "have a ghostly look'' because of her absence from them. The epilogue gives a brief sketch of how she came to Islip at the request of Nancy and himself, how she accompanied them and the family to Cairo, and how she attempted suicide at the end of their affair by jumping out of a fourth-story window.