Sherriff And Faulks Present Attitudes English Literature Essay

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Beg pardon, sir, but oos won? This ingenuous remark by a sergeant informed of the 1918 armistice exemplifies all that Sherriff, in 1928, and Faulks, in 1993, sought to present. Both works are principally set in the years of 'The Great War' and though sixty-five years separates them, the attitudes and values displayed by both authors, at the profoundest level, display a remarkable cohesion.

First performed in 1928, Journey's End is R.C. Sherriff's semi-autobiographical account of his experiences of life in the trenches. Through powerful characterisation, illustrating contrasting images of naïve youth and jaded experience, Sherriff's men face an ultimately tragic 'end' to their misguided 'journey' yet are still capable of tenderness, compassion and, most remarkably of all, humour. Sherriff's attitude is clearly anti-war and this is heightened by the emphasis on change in the values of the central characters; propaganda long since having worn out its welcome for officers like Captain Stanhope, disillusioned by the reality of war devoid of glory. Like Wilfred Owen, he no longer believes the 'old lie' that it is 'sweet and glorious' to die for one's country [2] .

Faulks novel, one of a trilogy, first published in 1993, centres on the human cost of love and war, effectively using time-shifts to show changes in priorities and the categorising of tragedy as it moves from an adulterous love affair to the horrors of trench warfare, graphically described. Like Sherriff, Faulks uses a deeply disillusioned central protagonist, in this case, Stephen Wraysford, to show the changes in attitude and values which war has wrought. When the reader first encounters Wraysford, in France in 1910, he is a rather gauche, naïve young man, in love with the unhappy, abused wife of a factory owner with whom he has a passionate affair. They run away together but the relationship is doomed and Stephen, when next encountered, is deep in the 'hell' which his mistress's husband has wished on him, as a war-battered officer in the battlefields of France, hiding his suffering behind a cynical façade to help him cope with the appalling, futile pain he sees all around him and the fracturing of his romantic ideals, both personally and 'professionally'.

The well-worn notion of the soldiers being 'lions led by donkeys' is also evident in Faulks' novel:

He blamed the NCOs, who blamed the officers; they swore at the staff officers who blamed the Generals. [3] 

No-one is able to shoulder responsibility for the chaos which Faulks evokes since there is no single culpable force. What emerges is a record of humanity wounded and shattered from top to bottom; things would never be the same again:

'What have we done, what have we done? Listen to it, we've

done something terrible, we'll never get back to how it was

before.' [4] 

Weir, Stephen's friend and fellow officer, utters this despairing cry as he and Wraysford recognise the enormity of what they have been unwittingly involved in. Even 'the earth' itself is said to be 'groaning' [5] as the world they knew is literally breaking around them.

This fragmented vision is reflected in the structure of the novel, which juxtaposes love affairs with the landscape of the war and the sub-plot of Stephen's granddaughter, Elizabeth, finding and 'de-coding' his war-journals years later, in her search for a deeper connection with a sense of personal identity via retracing her 'roots'. This constant manipulation of time by the author facilitates a re-evaluation of events with the benefit of hindsight, reflecting changing attitudes and values and giving an immediacy of response that enables Faulks to achieve an equivocally hopeful 'closure' at his novel's 'journey's end' with Elizabeth's son being named after the son of one of the casualties of the war, Jack Firebrace, to fulfil a 'promise made by [her] grandfather' [6] .

Jack plants mines underground and some of the most graphically powerful scenes in the novel come from the fear of being 'trapped' there, which ultimately they are. This ever-present fear of enclosure contrasts with the broad canvass Faulks uses to paint his picture of human sacrifice. By contrast, Sherriff uses a claustrophobic technique throughout, keeping his characters literally 'holed-up' until, ironically, released via the only means possible, death. This enhances the tension felt by the men and highlights the difference between enforced proximity and intimacy, which Faulks achieves by means of his time-shifts and simultaneous placing of different love stories against the omnipresent horrors of war.

Another difference in approach emerges from the timing of the works. Both do share the hatred of the waste of war, its coldness, unnaturalness and cruelty. However, class consciousness is far more evident in Journey's End than in Birdsong. There is a huge jarring in the different accents and voices, the 'common' Trotter dropping aitches and using terms like 'serviette' which a contemporary theatre audience in 1928 would recognise as 'lower-class' terminology. None of the 'heroes' is from anything other than an 'upper-class' background: public school educated, families who know each other, Raleigh's recognition that he has never met a schoolmaster 'outside school' before, all testify to the time the play was written and the fact that officers were drawn from the upper echelons of society; Sherriff is being accurate not disparaging. Especially since the 'finest' character could be said to be Osborne, the gentle, non-judgemental, caring confidante of Stanhope. Significantly, he is reading Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a clear indication of the chaotic parody of life that the men are living. The 'natural', 'genuine' Trotter can't see the sense in this, declaring it a children's book and failing utterly to see the irony. The nonsensical attack, plotted by the weak and purposefully distant general, brings about the sacrifice of the immensely likable, honourable, peace-loving Osborne and this is a damning comment by Sherriff on the subliminal loss of this appalling war: the wiping out of men like Osborne and all they represent. Faulks hardly acknowledges class at all. Indeed, we know very little about Stephen's background, except that it was unhappy. The reader is aware that Jack is from a 'different' class but the language is not so markedly different and, like Osborne, he is a very fine man, wonderful with the men, telling 'jokes in the style of a music-hall comedian' [7] to keep up their spirits. For both writers, perhaps, the notion of what constitutes a 'gentleman' is in essence far closer to Dickens' idea in Great Expectations, where the blacksmith, Joe Gargery, is the noblest man, despite all Pip's efforts to 'climb the ladder'.

However, the notion of social class is important in the context of 'The Great War' as it saw the results of generations of rule by the aristocracy being avenged by its disintegration. The fact that both authors attach a sense of loss to this is interesting testimony to the fact that some of the attitudes and values that belonged to the pre-war era, 'a lost life' [8] , were admirable, at least in part. This is echoed in the character of Stanhope who is the stereotypical 'public-school hero', much admired by the young and innocent Raleigh. In his stage directions, Sherriff points out that Stanhope is, himself, very young and his appearance is due entirely to his experiences. Nowhere is Sherriff more successful in producing the damage wrought by war. Clearly, Raleigh is a younger version of Stanhope and in this way we are able to see both versions of Sherriff's central character. Raleigh has bravery but is not given enough time to develop the leadership skills which Stanhope possesses and to some extent despises. Osborne says of him: 'I love that fellow. I'd go to hell with him' [9] and this is how most of the men feel. Nevertheless, this is a burden rather than an accolade to Stanhope who can only keep going by drinking to oblivion. This causes amusement but Osborne points out astutely:

'When a boy like Stanhope gets a reputation out here for drinking,

he turns into a kind of freak show exhibit […] it rather reminds me

of bear-baiting.' [10] 

The fact that he is referred to as a 'boy' despite his status indicates the affection Osborne has for Stanhope and his recognition that really he is a 'boy' still. This to some degree assuages the guilt Stanhope feels for decisions he has made despite the fact that no-one blames him but himself. He is deeply ashamed of what he has become and the metaphorical 'mirror' of Raleigh reflects how he feels he would be perceived at home. When Sherriff presents the audience with the unedifying figure of Stanhope bullying Raleigh into giving up his letter, fearing it contains criticism of him when it in fact contains only praise, he makes us question this: like Raleigh, those who love him would want to help, not criticise him. He is certainly his own severest critic and it is only when Hibbert needs the support of hearing that Stanhope is as afraid as he is that he 'confesses'; ironically, this enhances the leadership qualities he cannot avoid however hard he tries: 'Shall we see if we can stick it together?' [11] he asks, humbly. He does not feel worthy of being a 'hero' to anyone, brushing aside Raleigh's feelings, reported by Osborne, with 'as long as a hero's a hero' [12] . The thing he fears most is that Raleigh seems to want to emulate him, ironically this is exactly what he wanted, once:

'I rather liked the idea of looking after him. I made him keen

on the right things - and all that.' [13] 

Stanhope's sense of 'looking after' Raleigh and 'the right things' has fundamentally changed and the war is shown as responsible for that. The fact that in neither of the works does the central character lose sight of how far he has strayed from a sense of what is essentially 'right', displays the fundamental inexorability of mankind and its capacity to 'heal' ; there is 'hope' within the despair, though it is often obscured.

One aid to the clarity of vision which is ultimately restorative and used by both authors, is nature. In Birdsong, as in many war poems, the land is shown to be physically wounded by the bloody libation poured into it, unwillingly and undesired. The earth is said to be 'groaning' and 'protesting' [14] in Faulks' novel, and in Sherriff's play, the scent of a May tree may be mistaken for gas, showing that war has blurred the men's perceptions, but still spring remains a sign of hope. Indeed, both authors employ birds as significant symbols in their works, too, Faulks even using it in his title. The land is the only constant against an infrastructure become perpetually unreliable. Stephen's code name for Isabelle, the love of his life, is 'pulse', the sign of a heartbeat and inextricably linked to nature. Similarly, when waiting to attack, Raleigh and Osborne discuss woodland, intrinsic beauty and land overwritten with History's imprint. Nature is 'real' and 'true', an image of perpetual regeneration in a death-filled man-made 'landscape'.

I lived in ghettos and made friends with people that did not serve me well.  I was homeless for some time and really struggled to make any sort of life that felt good or positive or satisfying.  I developed an act that pushed people away from me, becoming loud, brash, insensitive and seemly confident.  But it was a layer and underneath I was cripplingly unconfident with an utter lack of self-worth and negative self-image. I was increasingly using alcohol to mask the horror inside.

I was referred to Book Break at a time when day centres were being rebranded as 'outreach' and 'bridge building services'.  The policy has been to move people out of services for people with mental health issues into the wider community.  I have some misgivings about this course of action however since the referral to Book Break I have not looked back.

Coming to the group for the first time was not easy but when I did my immediate thought was 'this is for me'.  I felt a sense of happy relief that I had done it.  The stories affected me emotionally and they gave me pleasure.  I found that coming to Book Break would set me up for the week.  My mind would previously have been obsessing about something or other whereas now I think about the story we have read and the discussions we have.  It has changed my mental processes and my mental energy and helped me to be less self-absorbed.  It provides a positive and enriching focus to my week.

Both author's also display a similar attitude towards wartime propaganda. Even the naïve Raleigh quickly recognises the erroneous nature of what he has been 'fed', saying the Germans are 'decent […] outside the newspapers' [15] . The men are shown as being remarkably similar - close in humanity as well as proximity. When told of how the Germans had assisted with the rescue of the British wounded and the subsequent blowing-up of each other's trenches, Raleigh at first thinks it 'topping' but then says it is 'rather - silly' [16] , which of course, it is. Sherriff thus very successfully shows how even a comparative newcomer immediately sees the futility of war, where men who would otherwise be friends, kill one another because they are ordered to do so (a theme explored by Thomas Hardy in his poem written around the time of the Boer War, 'The Man He Killed').

Faulks also reflects on how the attitudes of the men have changed since they enlisted:

''But you liked the war when it started, didn't you?'

'It seems impossible to believe now but I suppose I did.'

'It's nothing to be ashamed of, we all had our reasons

for joining up.' [17] 

This conversation between Weir and Wraysford shows just how much the men have altered. Clearly, there is an acknowledgement of the idea that there was a general mood in the country immediately before the war that this was wanted, even needed. Pressure had been building to declare war for some time and animosity towards 'the evil Hun' was exacerbated by the newspaper reports:

'I wish we knew more of what's going on.'

'So do I. Still, my wife reads the papers every morning and writes

and tells me.' [18] 

It was 'honourable' and 'noble', people thought, to fight for one' country, and the wartime propaganda machine maintained this, as Sherriff uses humour to demonstrate in this conversation between Osborne and Trotter, the latter, typically, making a joke of a serious matter. The reality has made what the men once held onto 'impossible to believe' and in Birdsong, Wraysford needs, now, to know why this has happened, only his 'curiosity' keeps him going:

'Now that we have come this far I want to know what it means.' [19] 

This takes on the air of an almost spiritual quest for him:

'Sometimes […] I do believe in a greater pattern. In different levels

of experience; a belief in the possibility of an explanation.' [20] 

The very fact that there might be 'an explanation' has to be enough, there can no longer be a certainty about anything, it seems. Moreover, the combination of 'experience' and 'belief' indicates a fundamental change and a simultaneously positive note in the 'different levels of experience' about which Wraysford speaks. Also, using his time-shift narrative technique, Faulks is able to allow the reader to see, through Wraysford's granddaughter's eyes, the limitations of this:

What she could not do […] was restore Brennan's life or take away the

pity of the past. [21] 

Thus Faulks shows the reader, anachronistically, the resonance of what Wraysford intimated as a 'possibility'. There has come to be a level of 'understanding' but it can never eradicate the pain nor make up for the loss. When Wraysford says:

'We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no

words will reach us.' [22] 

Faulks is acknowledging the limitation of writing to offer a 'true' and 'real' account which will fully 'explain' or assuage the apocalyptic catastrophe of World War I. Only those who were there can know and these only in part; it is simply inexplicable that such suffering and waste should occur:

'There's not a man left who was here when I came. But it's rather

damnable for that boy - of all boys in the world - to have come to me.

I might at least have been spared that.' [23] 

Stanhope's bitter words reflect his terrible pain at the recognition that it cannot, now, ever be repaired but the inexorability of it, represented by Raleigh, is like a slap in the face. In a way, he is seeing himself, all his hopes and dreams, beginning to be destroyed all over again. Like Wraysford, who says, 'We've all gone now. The whole of our little group' [24] .

Finally, both Faulks and Sherriff seek to emphasise the humanity of the men who were sacrificed. Within the despair, there is hope; within the sadness, humour; within the fear, true heroism and comradeship:

Stephen was appalled by the idea of being separated from the men

he had fought with. He despised the war, but could not leave until

he had seen it through until the end. [25] 

Wraysford's feelings are similar to those of Stanhope:

No man of mine's going sick before the attack. They're going to take

an equal chance - together. [26] 

Both men are natural leaders and this is painful for each in their different ways. The underlying truth is that they share a strong sense of unity with their men and a recognition that within the cruelty is a compassion which is not defined by, nor limited to, nationality. Wraysford, in a clear reference by Faulks to Wilfred Owen's poem of 1918, 'Stange Meeting', is finally rescued from the tunnel by a Jewish German soldier (thus exposing the Nazi lie that Jewish soldiers never fought for their country):

For by my glee might many men have laughed,

And of my weeping something has been left,

Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,

The pity of war, the pity war distilled. [27] 

For both authors, the real 'pity of war' is the waste and the fact that for those who were there 'the truth untold' remains, 'No-one in England knows what this is like' [28] . Nevertheless, there was a death other than that of the men, an annihilation forever of 'the old lie' of the glory of war, best summed up in the words of one who had similarly 'changed' his attitudes and values, after experiencing the pain of loss due to the reality of war as opposed to the pre-war and wartime propaganda with which, ironically, he was deeply involved, Rudyard Kipling:

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied. [29] 

Word Count 2864

Plagiarism Count 258


Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong, (Vintage, 1994).

Rudyard Kipling, 'Common Form' (1919), The Definitive Edition of Rudyyard Kipling's Verse, (Hodder & Stoughton, 1986).

Wilfred Owen, Collected Poems, (W W Norton & Co Ltd, 1965).

R.C. Sherriff, Journey's End, (Penguin, 1983).

Jonathan F. Vance, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War, (University of British Columbia Press, 1997).