Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In telling of three soldiers serving in the US Army in World War I, John Dos Passos has written a novel that is not, strictly speaking, anti-war. It occupies a spot in the pantheon of fictional treatments—notably A Farewell to Arms—that present the complexities of the "Great War" primarily in personal terms.

Dos Passos created three man from different backgrounds with different postwar goals: Fuselli, Chrisfield, and Andrews. Each of them occupies a central role in a separate part of the novel, but also appears in the other parts, serving to unify the disparate themes. Andrews gains prominence toward the end, serving to demonstrate the ethical dilemmas that individuals face depending on the relative strength of their convictions.

None of the men is a hero in a conventional military sense. Fuselli subordinates his sense of duty to his ambition becoming a corporal but deliberately ignores other men's transgressions to do so. Chrisfield, a hothead, loses his perspective and attacks his own comrades, then deserts.

Andrews, a Harvard men and musician, gives the reader the most opportunity to assign blame or develop sympathy. His romantic attachment to a French woman seems entangled with his moral objections to the war: is he principled or a coward? He too deserts, first trying in vain to reunite with his lover, who spurns him. Trying to hide out and compose music, he is ultimately captured.

Whether or not any of their experiences is typical, in intertwining multiple perspectives and stepping back from glorifying war, Dos Passos creates a memorable tableau of one particular horrific period.

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