The Man He Killed

by Thomas Hardy

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Analysis of motivation and theme in Thomas Hardy's "The Man He Killed"

Summary:

In "The Man He Killed," Thomas Hardy explores themes of the senselessness of war and the shared humanity between enemies. The narrator reflects on how, under different circumstances, he and his enemy could have been friends. His motivation for killing is questioned, revealing the irrationality and tragedy of war, emphasizing that soldiers often fight without personal animosity.

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What is the speaker's motivation in Thomas Hardy's "The Man He Killed"?

The speaker in "The Man He Killed" is someone who has listened to the soldier tell his story, rather than the soldier himself.  Thus, the "He" in the title.  The speaker is telling the story (in poetic form) that he heard the soldier tell, probably in a bar (implied by the reference to drinking).  The speaker hears the story in the same setting the soldier uses for comparison in his story. 

The speaker's tone is ironic, and his purpose is to expose the irony and senselessness inherent in warfare.  The soldiers doing the actual killing do not kill for grandiose idealistic reasons.  They enlist because they need jobs, and they kill because that's what they are ordered to do.  Thus, the soldier kills a man he might lend money to or have a drink with if he met under different circumstances.  War dehumanizes people.  Other men become objects to kill, not people to socialize with.   

The speaker uses irony to expose the irony and senselessness of war.  Hardy's world is a modern world that makes little sense.

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What is the speaker's motivation in Thomas Hardy's "The Man He Killed"?

The speaker is a soldier. He has been in battle, and, "Ranged as infantry," has shot down another man and killed him. In this poem, the speaker is musing on what has just happened. He reflects that he has shot the other man dead Because he was my foe," but he is not quite comfortable with that reason, and attempts to justify it to himself a little better, saying, "Just so - my foe, of course he was; that's clear enough."

The speaker's motivation is to justify to himself the fact that he has killed a man. He is trying to make sense of it all; to make sense of the fact that, since he and this man had been labeled the enemy and the two had been lined up against each other as foot soldiers, it makes sense that they should shoot at each other, and that one or both of them should die. The logic of this situation does not sit well with the speaker, however, because somewhere deep inside he realizes that the man he killed, like him, had been an ordinary man who had probably enlisted in the military just because he "Was out of work...no other reason why." The speaker knows that if the two men, he and the man he killed, had met in different circumstances, for example "by some ancient inn," they might have been friends and shared a drink together, but because they met in war, they could not but shoot at each other to kill. The speaker is trying to undertand the absurd folly of war; how "quaint and curious war is," that it would dictate whether he would amiably have a drink with another man upon meeting him, or just shoot him down.

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What is the main theme of Thomas Hardy's poem "The Man He Killed"?

The theme of "The Man He Killed" is the way in which the natural, decent impulses of human brotherhood are distorted by war. The speaker begins by reflecting that he and the man he killed might easily have met at an inn and got on very well over a few drinks (a "nipperkin" is a small cup for beer or wine). However, they were on opposing sides in a battle, so the speaker killed the man, towards whom he felt no ill will.

Henry David Thoreau makes a similar point to Hardy's when he describes an army marching off to battle and says that every single man in the army, including those commanding it, would not fight if he followed his own conscience. Hardy appeals less to conscience than the impulse to be friendly to one's fellow human beings, to get on well with them, and to understand that life is a hard struggle for everyone.

He imagines that the dead man was out of work and had sold his possessions. This is why he was forced to fight. The natural impulse of the speaker towards a fellow being who is down on his luck is to buy him a drink or to help him out with a loan or gift of money. In war, however, they are forced to shoot at each other and are deprived of the opportunity to be generous and humane.

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