Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “North Light,” Mark Helprin explores the question of why soldiers willingly risk death in battle. War is the subject but not the actual chaos, pain, or even glory of battle. “North Light” concludes as the soldiers are ready to begin to join the battle they have been observing throughout the day. The closest they come to the sound and fury of war is when friendly Israeli planes fly over their ridge, although the older soldiers have their memories, their recollections of earlier conflicts.

The answer, Helprin implies, is not merely love of country. Patriotism and nationalism are not an explanation. The reader is aware that the narrator and his comrades on the ridge are Israelis and the enemy are Syrians, but neither one’s own country nor war against a traditional opponent is sufficient to drive people toward possible death. Countervailing forces of love and responsibility for one’s family would justify not chancing one’s life in combat. Not even loyalty to one’s fellow soldiers suffices as an explanation. The narrator in “North Light” concludes that people willingly enter the valley of death because anger, irrational anger, manifests itself, anger that is not necessarily focused or directed against a specific threat or opponent. When the order is given to descend into the valley, they are in a sustained fury, and those with families will obliterate thoughts of their loved ones until the battle is over.

Those feelings of...

(The entire section is 594 words.)