Why this book: I have been hearing about, and seeing this book referred to for years. I have been fascinated by the idea of the Existential Hero in American Literature since taking a course in that subject in college. This book definitely belongs in that genre. I also really liked the movie starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, and Deborah Kerr.
My Impressions: Note – the below comments are excerpted from emails exchanged between a group of us who read this impressive book together in December 14 and January 15. FHtE demands that you commit to it – like a getting into a relationship – and reading it has included all the hard work, frustration, patience, head-scratching, joys, and satisfactions of any intimate relationship. It’s been worth it for me – one of the best and most powerful books I’ve ever read. These are some random points I made to my co-readers, and below, some points they made to me.
- Two very strong personalities struggling to love each other – Karen Holmes and Milt Warden.
- Both of Holmes and Warden struggling with the futile goal of realizing ideal romantic, total surrender love, while also trying to hold on to their personal prerogatives, obligations, identity and goals.
- Hypocrisy in expectations in marriage – more so then than now – my parents’ generation.
- Men with a love-hate competitive relationship with each other
- An underlying theme of despair throughout the book
- Robert E. Lee Prewitt as ‘existential hero’ applying passion and no-compromise integrity in situations that inevitably led to his destruction
- The character Jack Malloy (not in the movie) one of the most interesting characters in the book or in any of the literature I’ve read. Though he makes a relatively brief appearance, I think he is James Jones ‘avatar.’
- The wise and practical survivors – Warden, Stark, Chief Choate, Malloy – willing to compromise and bend to forces more powerful than themselves, but willing to standup against the machine when something truly important was at stake – but always keeping a handle on their personal survival. Prewitt lacked this capability – though he admired it.
- Chief Choate as a wise, but sad figure (Gary sees him as an earlier version of Chief Bromden in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- Cpt Dane Holmes as a pitiful figure – most officers in the book, in fact are pitiful figures
- Lorene – cold and ambitious, but transformed by a disappointing glimpse of real love (with the wrong guy) and then reverting…
- Men as children – and the Army as their parents. Do what you’re told, and we’ll reward you with alcohol and sex, but if you don’t, we’ll put you in the penalty box. The Army seemed to insulate these men from confronting who they really were as adults, with responsibility for their own lives, and allowed them an extended childhood. (This continues to be the case with being in the military, I’ll argue – I’ve lived it!) All were drawn to the idea of the Army almost as parent or surrogate God which assumed, and they willingly gave, responsibility for their lives. Jack Malloy saw that; I’m not sure Prewitt and Warden ever did…. They loved and bought into the security the Army provided
- I think the women – Karen and Lorene recognized their men as the children they were, and they were ready to step in to be surrogate mothers for them, as well as lovers….In fact, I think this is something most (wise) women eventually come to realize and accept….
My friend Janar who read this with me, made the following interesting observations – his views and words, not mine:
- Robert E. Lee Prewitt is a symbol of the Confederate States of America <Bob’s note: Prewitt is the Montgomery Clift character in the movie>
- He dismisses one woman who loves him because he does not want to have “a raft of snot nosed nigger brats”
- Another woman who loves him, sees him as an economic future as a romantic but unrealistic dream, and insists on remembering him in heroic terms, a pilot who died as a war hero trying to get his aircraft off the runway during the Japanese attack
- Like the Confederate States, Robert E. Lee Prewitt reaches his physical high water mark in combat in a knife fight, just as the South reached its high water mark in a bayonet charge at Little Round Top; and like the Confederate States, Robert E. Lee Prewitt dies as a result of an unnecessary and ultimately stupid gunshot, just as the South lost several more thousand as a result of the unnecessary and ultimately stupid attack at Cemetary Ridge.
- Robert E. Lee Prewitt, embodying the military virtues of the South, is a masochistic Christlike figure; Warden by contrast may symbolize the Union; at the time of the novel, 1941, America was still just 75 years removed from the Civil War; today, we are 75 years removed from 1941. (Bob’s note: Gary, one of my other co-readers also noted the Christ-like symbolism in the struggles and suffering of Prewitt)