Themes

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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 702

Goodbye to All That is an autobiography written by English poet Robert Graves in 1929. It details his early life and schooling, but focuses primarily on his time fighting with the Royal Welch Fusiliers during the First World War. When Graves left England, he was extremely disillusioned with its morality,...

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Goodbye to All That is an autobiography written by English poet Robert Graves in 1929. It details his early life and schooling, but focuses primarily on his time fighting with the Royal Welch Fusiliers during the First World War. When Graves left England, he was extremely disillusioned with its morality, which he felt to be hypocritical, and religion, which he felt to be a lie. This disillusionment is a major theme of the book, expressed largely through his account, at times both comic and horrifying, of his experience of soldiering in World War One.

We might posit that war is a major theme in this book, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that the theme is the relentlessness and stupidity of war, and how this contributes to the wider theme of disillusionment.

Graves's depictions of the Welshmen who served under him in the trenches are at times fond, and at others almost cruel; this serves to emphasize the sheer humanity and normality of the people being forced into an abnormal situation. War, Graves says, is absurd, and makes ordinary people do ridiculous things for no good reason. Graves himself was reported "died of wounds," although in fact he had merely been shot through the stomach and was expected to die. Instead, Graves endured a very long and painful train ride home to hospital. Graves quotes the report that appeared in the newspaper after the false report of his death to show the sheer hypocrisy of war and the extent to which death has become the new normal: "Mrs Lloyd-George has left London for Criccieth."

Another very ordinary man forced to extraordinary behavior by the stupidity of war was Siegfried Sassoon, Graves's close friend, who before the war had been a very ordinary young man of good upbringing, riding horses in Kent and self-publishing slim volumes of poetry. As war drew on, Graves and Sassoon began to write increasingly critical poetry about the increasingly incompetently managed situation, until Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey and decided to conscientiously object. Graves depicts in his book how he burst into tears in his attempt to persuade the authorities to send Sassoon to a psychiatric institution, rather than court-martial him; at the same time, it is very clear that Graves believed Sassoon to be completely in his right mind, and the war authorities to be insane. The world at war is a world of opposites, where up is down, and Graves's often humorous tone and deliberate use of absurdity underlines this point.

Another major theme in this book is that of homosociality and male bonding. The stories Graves tells of his upbringing make clear to the reader that the expected social conventions of his time are, in Graves's mind, rather absurd. He is disillusioned with the public school system which rips children from their parents at an early age. He presents openly, also, what was usually acknowledged without being discussed at the time: the fact that homosexuality in public schools was completely accepted and normal, but that young men were then expected to revert immediately to heterosexuality upon leaving that environment. Graves describes his own devoted love for a boy named Peter at Charterhouse, and how this confused him. He then moves on to discuss a completely different, less artificial but no less absurd situation which encouraged male bonding: the trench warfare of World War One. Graves's passionate devotion to Sassoon is more genuine, less artificial, and more personally satisfying than his teenage romance with Peter. We can see the parallel between the situations, however: in both cases, it is Graves's close male friendship which allows him to survive what was otherwise a ridiculous and unbearable situation, which society pretends is perfectly normal.

All in all, Goodbye to All That is not a particularly well-structured or cohesive book; it has a jumbled train-of-thought aspect to it—which is to be expected, given that Graves first "wrote" it by dictating the entire thing to himself on a tape recorder, simply jumping from one thing to another. The thread that connects the anecdotes is Graves's own state of mind, and his preoccupation with the hypocrisy in English society he now feels unable to live with.

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