The Thin Red Line

by James Jones

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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813

The Thin Red Line by James Jones is a World War II story that follows the soldiers of the C-for-Charlie company as they battle the Japanese on the island of Guadalcanal. What is interesting is that there is not a single point of view in the story, but rather the novel switches focus between characters, and so the entire group is the protagonist. Therefore, we the readers get a glimpse into the soldiers' psyches as they engage in battle.

The title is not explained until the epigraph:

There’s only a thin red line between the sane and the mad.

This old Midwestern saying, while not mentioned until the epigraph, explains the madness that haunts soldiers in war time. Throughout the novel, the members of C-for-Charlie company walk this line.

C-for-Charlie company is unified in the following quote:

C-for-Charlie scrubbed the sweat from its dripping eyebrows, picked its wet shirts loose from its armpits, cursed quietly, looked at its watches, and waited impatiently.

As the soldiers arrive on Guadalcanal, Jones introduces C-for-Charlie as a unified group, before exploring the differences in characters. After establishing in the above quote that they are all impatient and all sweaty, Jones introduces individuals:

Mazzi hugged himself tighter and worked his eyebrows up and down convulsively, a gesture of nervous release which gave his face an expression of pugnacious indignation. . . .

Young Sergeant McCron, the notorious motherhen, went along personally checking each item of equipment of each man in his squad of nearly all draftees as if his sanity, and his life, depended on it. . . .

Doll had always remained pretty much in the background; but lately, in the past six months, something had been slowly happening to him, and he had been changing and coming forward more. It did not make him more likeable.

Now, after his subdued remark about the planes, he put back on his lip-lifting supercilious smile. Very consciously he lifted an eyebrow. "Well, I reckon if I'm goin'a get me that pistol, I better get with it," he smiled at them.

The above quotes are all from the same section of the novel, and show how the different characters spend the time while waiting for their company's turn to go ashore. They try to deal with their anxiousness in different ways, whether by busying themselves with checking equipment, putting on a face, or simply holding themselves tightly.

Many of the memorable quotes of the novel examine existence, as the soldiers face the prospect of death.

When compared to the fact that he might very well be dead by this time tomorrow, whether he was courageous or not today was pointless, empty. When compared to the fact that he might be dead tomorrow, everything was pointless. Life was pointless. Whether he looked at a tree or not was pointless. It just didn't make any difference. It was pointless to the tree, it was pointless to every man in his outfit, pointless to everybody in the whole world. Who cared? It was not pointless only to him; and when he was dead, when he ceased to exist, it would be pointless to him too. More important: Not only would it be pointless, it would have been pointless, all along.

This was an obscure and rather difficult point to grasp. Understanding of it kept slipping in and out on the edges of his mind. It flickered, changing its time sense and tenses. At those moments when he understood it, it left him with a very hollow feeling.

This shows the emptiness the soldiers are feeling. The combat conditions makes them nervous, angry, and sad, but also leave a feeling of emptiness and pointlessness.

Fife . . . simply walked off by himself, into the jungle to look at all the things which would continue to exist after he had ceased to. There were a lot of them. Fife looked at them all. They remained singularly unchanged by his scrutiny.

Again, when faced with the thought of dying, the soldiers question their existence and the meaning of their lives. They know how life will go on without them once they are dead, because they have continued to go on following the deaths of other soldiers.

He could not believe that any of them might actually hit somebody. If one did, what a nowhere way to go: killed by accident; slain not as an individual but by sheer statistical probability, by the calculated chance of searching fire, even as he himself might be at any moment.

Part of what makes the casualties of war so horrific is the fact that the deaths are not individual. The above quote reflects how one's death becomes a statistic, hence calling it a "nowhere way to go."

From waiting on the ship as they arrive at the island, to being in the heat of the battle, these quotes show how the war is affecting the soldiers' psyches.

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