Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1182
Coming of Age
The early chapters of Good-Bye to All That are spent establishing the background from which Robert Graves came. His mother's family, the von Rankes, is described as having been pastors, historians, and intellectuals, whereas the Graves side of his forebears, well-established in Great Britain, were important Protestant figures: rectors, deans, and bishops. A child of such an austere background has his position in the world already established, with social and religious standards to be met. Life among members of his family, including both his immediate family and the extended families in Ireland and Germany that he visits, is a matter of quietly finding out what is expected of a Graves. What makes the book interesting in these early chapters is to see how young Robert Graves is able to cope with the expectations that are put upon him.
It is when he goes away to school that Graves starts to come into his own as a person. The first of his boarding schools meets with disapproval from Graves' father. This is one of the only times in the book that the father shows a distinct personality, and his decision, as an "education expert'' (as the book makes sure to point out) seems to establish a strain of individualism in the son. Graves does not adapt to school well, forbidden by a doctor from participating in football and becoming the subject of bullying.
His own individual personality comes together at Charterhouse, the last boarding school he attends. He finds companionship in the school poetry club and self-esteem by becoming an accomplished boxer. He develops a sense of independence from the strict code of the school's caste system when he sees two other boys ignore the rules of appropriate dress without any consequence. When one of the instructors tells him to end his romantic relationship with Dick, he is not intimidated but calmly goes about blackmailing the teacher. In the final years before joining the army, he develops a sense of self-assurance that is independent of history and army rules so that he can report to the regimental tradition of the Royal Welch Fusiliers with a sense of detachment.
There is a sense of impending doom throughout Graves' stay in the army. This seems like an obvious turn of events, given the carnage and doom that surround a battle zone, but the structure of this memoir builds up his sense of fatalism even more than the war setting requires. Before being sent to France to fight in the trenches, while he is still guarding prisoners in England, the specter of his own death is already clearly present. He is well aware of the deaths of others who were in the exact same situation as he. He discusses his contemporaries being sent to France to fill the places of officers who have been killed and foreshadows the battle carnage with anecdotes about schoolmates that end with information about their eventual deaths in the war. He begins his account of being sent to war by saying that he first wrote that account two years after it happened, when he was recovering from being wounded at the Somme. The first dead body that he sees in the war zone is a young man who has committed suicide, a chilling reminder of the psychological pressure that was to weigh on Graves (and a fact mirrored years later when the last body he sees in the war is also that of a suicide).
It is obvious to readers that Graves will, in fact, survive the war, not just because he is the one telling the story but because he is able to capture some of the soldier's sense of battlefield fatalism. One method that he uses is the erratic appearance of death. George Mallory, for instance, comes through the war unscathed only to die five years later on Mount Everest. Nancy's mother hangs on to life in order to see her son, Tony, on leave, and Graves adds in parentheses when the story is all through that Tony died two months later. On the other hand, there are cases like that of Siegfried Sassoon, who takes a bullet through the head with little more effect than if he had broken his leg.
The true fatalism in this story is that Graves will go mad after all that he has seen. The story slips from a sense of old English order to the chaos of war, (concurrent with the deterioration of Graves' mental stability). It seems that eventual madness, or at least a loss of a sense of reality and propriety, is the fate of anyone who does not die in battle. Even from the first, there is no pretense that the person telling this tale has come through the war without mental damage, and the final chapters, containing less and less detail, fall apart as the destruction that war foretold comes to pass.
Almost any story about the British upper class in the early part of the twentieth century is bound to touch upon the discomfort with the class system that was growing at the time, and a war story is even more likely to recognize this problem because the structure of the military throws members of different classes into close proximity with each other. Good-Bye to All That starts by establishing Graves' social standing, and throughout the book, readers can see his faith in the class system slipping. In the second chapter, he broaches the subject of class with an interest that would continue through adulthood: "I have asked many of my acquaintances at what point in their childhood or adulthood they became class-conscious, but have never been given a satisfactory answer.’’ His own story involves the children that he meets while in the hospital with a case of scarlet fever: in the hospital, they all wear standard-issue nightgowns, but outside it is evident from the different styles of clothes who is from which class. "I suddenly recognized with a shudder of gentility that there were two sorts of people—ourselves and the lower classes.’’ This episode presages the experience of war, in which uniformity of dress and behavior is stressed almost fanatically to erase individual identity.
Graves' wartime experience has the effect of teaching him respect for men of the lower classes and a corresponding dislike for those in fortunate positions higher up the social ladder. He is confident of his own ability as an officer and is not intimidated by the fact that he has to give commands to men twice his age, but at the same time he learns to be impressed with the natural intelligence of uneducated, poor men who are in the war simply for the money. He draws an implied comparison between the army regulars who enlist and reenlist and those who join with schemes of working themselves up to high offices. After the war, trying to raise his family on a military pension, he has no qualms whatsoever about opening a store, an activity that another gentleman of his class might have felt beneath him.