illustrated portrait of American author Jack London with mountains in the background

Jack London

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Student Question

What clues in "War" by Jack London indicate the setting?

Quick answer:

In "War" by Jack London, the author does not indicate which war is being fought or where the story takes place. However, clues indicate that the story may be happening during the Civil War and in hilly farmlands and pastures that have been abandoned because of the fighting.

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In the short story "War" by Jack London, the author does not specify the location of the action or even the historic war in which the action takes place. London creates this vagueness deliberately so that the story takes on the significance of a parable about the evils of war in general. In part 1, the main character, a scout looking for enemy movements, discovers a scout of the enemy but spares his life. In part 2, the man whose life the scout has spared kills him. The point London is making is that war is so horrific that there is no room in it for acts of kindness and mercy.

This story was first published in July, 1911. It involves soldiers riding on horseback and doing battle on farmlands and pasturelands. The enemies are in close proximity to each other. At one point, as the scout is being shot at and riding away, London mentions that the shooters "had emptied their magazines." This may be a reference to the Spencer repeating rifle, which was first introduced during the Civil War. These clues tell us that London may have been using the American Civil War as his model.

The descriptive details indicate an area of rough terrain near a battlefield. In part 1, the scout hears heavy guns "to the west." He traverses an area where he can mainly keep hidden in brush and trees, but sometimes he has to ride over open patches of pasture. He follows a ridge covered with oak trees and then takes a steep trail into a valley. Here he passes a farmhouse, and at the edge of a stream beyond the farmhouse, he spots an enemy soldier "with several weeks' growth of ginger-colored beard." The scout decides to spare his enemy, who later kills him.

Part 2 of the story takes place at a larger farmhouse, with outbuildings, an orchard, and a graveyard. It seems that the enemy soldiers have taken over the farmhouse as a base of operations. It is here where the scout is discovered and shot as he attempts to escape.

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