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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

“War” examines a much-avoided truth regarding the historical context of World War I, whose events inspired Luigi Pirandello to pen a story reflecting the realistic struggles of ordinary people impacted by the conflict. To sustain patriotism and remain loyal to wartime efforts, citizens often bury their feelings of loss, which is particularly difficult as parents grieve the loss of their children.

Intellectually, these parents understand that they must support the wartime cause. Doing so furthers the goals of their country as a whole and sustains them and their families; war is compared to bread, a simplistic source of life-giving energy. One father insists that “each of us must eat” this “bread” to “defend” their most foundational beliefs. These words are reminiscent of the words Christ used at the Last Supper, which highlights the incredible sacrifice which is inherent in “lay[ing] down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

Despite their intellectual acceptance of what “must” be sacrificed to support their country, the grief of these parents robs them of the dreams they had for their sons. Interestingly, the mother on the train seems to understand the profound truth of war. As the men debate their degrees of suffering, she “pull[s] up her collar…to her eyes, so as to hide her face,” unable to face their discussion on such intimate feelings of anguish. She is physically superior to her husband, who is described as “thin” and “tiny,” and she makes no excuses for the state of “deep mourning” she experiences.

This mother is not easily swayed by intellectual discourse. As she listens, she is astounded that no one seems to “share her feelings” and that this sacrifice is too great. For months, she has been unable to adequately convey her feelings to her closest friends or even to her husband; she cannot reconcile how she is supposed to willingly send her only son to a war where he will likely die.

These feelings make the mother feel oddly disjointed from her world. As she listens to the father speak bravely of his own son’s death, she seems to be awakened “from a dream” and asks him a simple question: “Is your son really dead?”

Previously stoic and confident, the father is pierced by the mother’s direct question. Burying his son during wartime caused the father to bury his grief so that he could continue to cling to his feelings of patriotism. When he allows himself to step outside the perpetuated mantras of nationalism and sacrifice, “words [fail] him.” 

Staring into the face of this mother whose son now effectively replaces his son on the front lines, he becomes aware of the truth. The war has forever robbed him of the future he had imagined with his son. The sacrifice isn’t temporary and can never be abated. As he considers this, his face reflects the “horrible distort[ion]” of the values he has accepted. The collapse of this worldview leaves him physically depleted as he breaks into “harrowing, heart-rending, uncontrollable sobs.”

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