Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515

The dominant theme of “The Little Car” is war. At that time in history, the world was facing a war of such proportions and involvement as never experienced before. With hindsight, one sees that Apollinaire’s predictions about the effects of World War I were correct. The world was embarking upon a new era. World War I not only significantly altered the geography of Europe, but technology made war less personal. Armies could hide in their trenches or fly high in their planes dropping bombs and shooting at nameless, faceless enemies who were hundreds, if not thousands, of feet away.

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The contrast of this little car traveling along the French roads helpless against the overwhelming forces unleashed around it speaks to the powerlessness that many felt once war broke out. War, itself, seems to be a hideous, living force operating independently of the people who first provided the spark to let it live. Though people begin war, it eventually takes on a life of its own. People lose complete control of the entity. Apollinaire offers a vision of a demonic entity summoning his “furious giants” from the other world. All the world is victim to this apocalyptic chaos.

The nature of war reverberates throughout the poem. To many, war signals the approaching of judgment day, the end of the world. Almost every war in history has caused people to question the ability of humankind to sustain itself, to ask whether self-destruction is inevitable. Apollinaire’s poem, however, envisions not destruction, but otherworldly transformation on a universal scale. The poem envisions great and mysterious powers encircling the earth, causing even the dead to tremble “fearfully in their dark dwellings.” It speaks of “skillful new beings” arranging a “new universe” and “giant shepherds” leading “silent flocks.”

“The Little Car” also deals with individual perception and involvement with war. The poem’s tendency to shift between a narrow personal perspective and a broad focus encompassing all of humankind suggests the way an individual reacts to a momentous event. The speaker’s life before the advent of war was centered around trivial details, such as the little car, but now he is thrust into concerns of universal consequence. Thus, at times the speaker mentions the gigantic supernatural forces of war encircling the world, but then mentions matters of more intimate concern, such as the travelers needing to change three tires during their journey.

There are also contrasts between specific immediate time and the timeless nature of war. The poem offers such specific references as “August 31, 1914/ A little before midnight I left Deauville” and “Farriers summoned/ Between midnight and one in the morning.” “Furious giants” who rise “over Europe” or “dead” who “trembled fearfully in their dark dwellings” suggest eternal beings and timelessness itself. This contrasting perspective, however, is inherent in the title. That a poem entitled “The Little Car” actually is about the encroaching horror of war comments on the role trivial elements play in significant events. This irony inherent in the contrasting focus is embodied in the line “the little car had driven us into a New era.”

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