Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1174
Graves’s account of his experiences in World War I are horrifyingly memorable. Goodbye to All That is generally recognized as one of the most successful portrayals of the transience of life and the imminence of death to come out of World War I. Many of the battle incidents are overwhelming in their graphic detail, and of all the prose writings on the war, Graves’s work is probably the most accessible to the reader. One feels as if one is actually in the trenches of no-man’s-land. Some critics have even argued that the work is a totally authentic record of the author’s personal experiences and observations. That kind of claim to completely objective reporting cannot be substantiated, however, and Graves himself hinted as much. In his autobiography he reports conversations and comments supposedly made during the clash of battle in a book written more than ten years after the events described. Graves noted elsewhere that war memoirs are not of the same historical completeness and objectivity as some other types of military history, that the author often cannot in the heat of war keep an accurate account of all that befell him. Nevertheless, he still included extensive conversations and dialogues as if he were merely giving the words as originally uttered. Graves’s work was not merely objective history because he lacked the written record of such conversations or because he no longer remembered word-for-word what had been said in the trenches. More significantly, he intentionally changed facts and exaggerated and colored events in order to gain greater dramatic effect. Rather than every word being historically true, it might be more correct to say that Graves achieved a brilliant picture of men at war, a picture which is artistically satisfying and historically accurate in much the same way that Thucydides, by the use of philosophical speeches and dialogues, portrayed the war between Athens and Sparta. Graves was primarily a poet but he was also a successful historical novelist. Educated in the classics, he was perhaps closer to the ancient Greeks in his historical approach than he was to that of his German relative Leopold von Ranke, the so-called father of scientific history.
It has been argued that Graves and his fellow writers of World War I memoirs wrote as much to understand the experience of war personally as to inform their readers of its facts. Survival in the trenches was, to Graves and his contemporaries, simply a matter of luck. There was little which the individual could do to ensure good fortune. Graves discussed “only survivors,” those few in any company or regiment who had lived through the carnage of a particular battle. The casualty rates in the front lines were extremely high, even when formal battle was not taking place; the day-to-day trench existence made for head wounds, while going over the top in an assault exposed one to the possibility of lesser wounds, possibly disabling rather than fatal. A disabling wound would then allow a period of recovery away from the front, perhaps a permanent removal from the theater of war. Graves and some of his literary contemporaries eventually came to the belief, while the war still continued, that to die in the war was a senseless act but to survive was equally senseless, because there was no logical explanation for such fortune.
The literary style or technique to which Graves resorted in his attempt to explain and understand his experiences was what might be called comedic irony. If Goodbye to All That recites the grim story of unfathomable death and injury, it is nevertheless a very humorous book. In an environment where nothing made sense, irony could be a meaningful response, in fact perhaps the most insightful approach not only to war but also to the modern condition. As he later explained, the sections which were most distressing had to be “the jokiest.” The scenes which are most horrifying are filled with the blackest humor. Such an approach could also be a personal defense for emotional survival. Such irony, which apparently many of his original readers did not perceive, was a method of distancing the writer from memories which were extremely painful. Graves suffered for years from neurasthenia, or battle fatigue. Only rarely in Goodbye to All That does he allow strong personal emotions to come through to the reader. One exception was the day the war finally ended, when Graves found himself in northern Wales walking alone, “cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.” Generally, however, he resorted to an ironic posture.
One critic has pointed out that Graves consciously attempted to maintain the so-called stiff upper lip which was appropriate to both an officer and a gentleman. His recital of the history of his regiment, its honors and accomplishments, the formal behavior of officers and men, might have been merely an ironic dismissal of such antiquated formality in a world of anarchist destruction. It seems more likely, however, that although Graves could and did portray on occasion the rigid stupidity of some officers and the deadening hand of certain regimental customs and traditions, in general he took his military responsibilities seriously as a soldier even after he had come to have serious doubts about the war itself. True to his class and background, even Graves the ironic rebel remained something of an English gentleman.
Another commentator has suggested that Graves intentionally wrote Goodbye to All That in the form of a stage comedy with himself playing both an actor and a narrator. Characters are brilliantly brought to life, and to death, but through their comments and their conversations rather than by an internal analysis of their thoughts and feelings. The author remained on the surface of things, as a sardonic observer and participant. As in any effective drama, the characters come alive through their words and their relationships with other individuals. The scenes are generally short and the humor usually black. As has been claimed, in the costume drama which was World War I most of the characters were either knaves or fools, with no-man’s-land the stage and all the soldiers merely players.
Yet Graves’s book did not become a parody of war. It remained grounded in a particular historical setting. Although written hurriedly in only eight weeks, the experiences and feelings had germinated for a decade, not only with Graves himself but with his fellow memoir writers as well as his readers, both those who had had similar experiences in France and Flanders and those who had observed the war as civilians back home in England and elsewhere. The world he described had to be a world which at least closely paralleled the war as actuality. Goodbye to All That is a literary work filled with irony and black humor but it is also a successful work in its portrayal of modern war in the industrial age. If Graves the poet and historical novelist fictionalized, selected, and rearranged, Graves the historian and autobiographer gave his readers historical reality, not merely surrealistic fantasy.
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