Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

No matter how fully Manning may depict character in the case of Bourne or others, he stresses the ultimately unknowable element in each personality. In this connection the word “mystery” occurs often, and at the end the survivors of the raid in which Bourne is killed sit silently, “each man keeping his own secret.”

Another recurrent theme is that of the will, individual and collective. One elaboration on the former occurs in the first chapter: “The function of our moral nature consists solely in the assertion of one’s own individual will against anything which may be opposed to it.” It is through exercising one’s moral conscience that one asserts one’s individual freedom.

Bourne meditates in chapter 9 on the collective will, in connection with the stoicism and capacity for endurance of the French peasants, that people understand “that war is one of the blind forces of nature, which can neither be foreseen nor controlled.” Still, taken collectively, “the violence and passions of man become. . . an impersonal and incalculable force, a blind and irrational movement of the collective will, which one cannot control, which one cannot understand, which one can only endure....”

Another device which adds a dimension to the novel’s realistic reporting of the brutality and stupidity of war is Manning’s use of epigraphs. His title uses the bawdy witticism exchanged between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “On fortune’s cap we are not the very button.... Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favours? . . . Faith, her privates we.” In addition, each of the eighteen chapters has an epigraph from works by William Shakespeare; many of these from Henry IV, Parts I and II, and Henry V, thereby invoking the struggles and fears of British soldiers in a glorified past.