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‘So Proud of our Dead Soldiers’: of Ghosts and men in Jacob’s Room (1922) and Atonement (2001)

‘So proud of our dead soldiers’: des fantômes et des hommes dans Jacob’s Room (1922) et Atonement (2001)
Luísa Maria Rodrigues Flora


Virginia Woolf à composé le personnage de Jacob Flanders de divers points de vue et sa perspective ironique vis-à-vis de la présence “absente” de ce jeune homme banal, inconséquent et narcissique affiche son refus permanent de contribuer à la construction fallacieuse du mythe du héros. Même si elle regrette le sacrifice de tous ceux qui ont été tués pendant la première guerre mondiale, elle refuse d’en faire l’éloge et ne se prête jamais à construire, à partir des débris de ces jeunes gens, des personnages de héros.
Dans le roman publié par Ian McEwan en 2001, Briony Tallis crée le personnage d’un jeune homme innocent et naïf. Soldat pendant la seconde guerre mondiale, le personnage est conçu comme un homme généreux, dévoué aux autres, un héros malgré lui, pour devenir l’instrument de la tentative d’expiation de la romancière. Sa valeur est celle d’un produit de l’imagination, sa présence fictionnelle est une absence.
Si la guerre comme histoire semble être bien exister au-delà du pouvoir de l’écrivain comme du lecteur ordinaire, la fiction peut aborder la guerre comme expérience émotionnelle. Le dialogue entre Woolf et McEwan que propose cet essai dénonce les mythes militaires de l’héroïsme comme patriarcaux et fatalement anachroniques et démonte les conventions narratives qui les accompagnent même si elles semblent garder une certaine séduction. Afin que jamais ces guerres ne soient oubliées.

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  • 1 A former version of this essay was presented in Évora during the XXVIII Meeting of the Portuguese A (...)

The Hero
‘Jack fell as he’d have wished’, the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.
Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
[. . .]
He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair. (Sassoon 29)1

1In ‘Mr Sassoon’s Poems’, a review Vi rginia Woolf published in The Times Literary Supplement on May 31st 1917, the writer welcomes the promise of her contemporary. Citing the lines quoted above, Woolf values ‘these [. . .] matter-of-fact statements’, ‘the most sordid and horrible experiences in the world [. . .] put in because at a certain moment of emotion the poet happened to be struck by them and is not afraid to call them by their right names’ (Woolf 1917, 119–20). Sassoon’s power to shock his readers, rousing in them ‘the uneasy desire to leave [their] place in the audience’ while the war was going on and they were ‘sitting [. . .] watching it’ (Woolf 1917, 120), conveyed an element of authenticity Woolf appreciated. Later she objects to a book of Maurice Hewlett’s poems, because it lacks ‘perhaps [. . .] coarseness. [. . .] something vehement, full-throated, carrying down in its rush sticks and stones and fragments of human nature pell-mell’ (Woolf 1918b, 293).

2No matter how highly she regarded the forceful strength of Sassoon’s poems, Woolf was not adopting either his authenticity or any form of vehement coarseness in her fictional work. The preference for ‘a studied impersonality’ (Levenback 45) she favoured expressed a discipline for literary control as well as a need to deny her own feelings. Her deliberate objectivity was also the result of a crucial political apprenticeship in how to deal with the experience of war in civilian life.

  • 2 Ian Jack summarizes, ‘The British were to capture German positions on higher ground by the simple e (...)
  • 3 For a debatable but well-argued analysis see Levenback and some of the texts she considers: ‘Heard (...)

3Virginia Woolf was far from exceptional in having to come to terms with a new reality—’[. . .] the sheer scope of the British enterprise extended the horrors of war from the fringe affair of professional or mercenary armies to a conscripted populace’ (Sherry 2003, 16).2 However, Woolf’s sceptical approach to the civilian’s naive illusion of immunity was not ordinary. Learning to read between the lines of state propaganda and newspaper reports, she first set out to expose such delusion in reviews, essays and short fictions, particularly between August 1916 and 19,18.3 Revisiting Sassoon’s war poems, Woolf observed on July 11th 1918: 3[I]t is difficult to judge him dispassionately as a poet, because it is impossible to overlook the fact that he writes as a soldier. We know no other writer who has shown us as effectually as Mr Sassoon the terrible pictures which lie behind the colourless phrases of the newspapers’ (Woolf 1918a, 269). The (un)reality of a new experience of which, unlike Sassoon, she had no firsthand knowledge supported Woolf in her effort to cultivate a detached attitude towards the subject of war when she first approached it in a novel.

4‘Coarseness [. . .] something vehement, full-throated’ is precisely what the reader will find in Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel, Atonement. The writer does nothing to shun ‘the terrible pictures which lie behind’ any war reports when he dedicates nearly one fifth of the whole text, most of Part Two, to the bloodshed of the 1940 British withdrawal from Dunkirk and gives most of Part Three to the London hospital experience. In an interview on September 21st 2001, McEwan declares: ‘as we reached the end of the twentieth century our generation, fiftyish, looked back. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and with it came a momentary optimism about a new world order, which rapidly foundered as of last week [11th September], so it seemed natural always to return, to focus one’s attention on this defining time’ (Noakes 21).

5McEwan’s literary career as one of the most respected fictionists in his age group has proceeded along a distinctive path. Although sharing with other present- day authors a preference for ‘innovative forms of plot-oriented storytelling’ that combine ‘a pronounced interest in contemporary (British) culture and (recent) history with a concern for social and ethical questions’ (Schemberg 25), the writer has constantly been aware both of the anthropological need for narrative structures and of the frailty of any patterns of meaning we humans create to assuage such need. Relating his fictional practice to the diverse legacies of the English novel, with its persistent quest for suitable forms, McEwan has favoured a use of the empiricist conventions of realism that is determinedly alert to the arbitrary contingent nature of human experience. For him, ‘patterns of meaning are not inherent in the world but narratively created and recreated’ (Schemberg 31). Such vigilance perhaps accounts for the (by now expected) presence in his work of nightmarish, bizarre, alienated or violent characters and situations.

6Listen to McEwan, answering Jonathan Noakes’s comment that he has included ‘some highly graphic scenes of violence’ in Atonement:

  • 4 ‘[T]he whole of the British army was at Dunkirk. My father was a motorbike dispatch rider. He was i (...)

If violence is simply there to excite, then it’s merely pornographic. [. . .] treating it seriously—[. . .] doing it without sentimentality—you’re always going to bring to it a certain quality of investigation, [. . .], you’re writing about violence. You’re showing something that’s certainly common in human nature.
[. . .] if you’re writing about the retreat to Dunkirk, [. . .], you can’t avoid the fact that tens of thousands of people died in that retreat, and yet we have a rather fond memory of it in the national narrative, and you want to play off something of the sentimentality of the ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk against the reality for ordinary soldiers as they made their way towards the beaches.4 (Noakes 22)

7Imagining a war he had not actually lived through either as a civilian or as a combatant, a war which occurred before he was born, McEwan in a way reverses and somehow revisits Woolf’s experience of distance from another decisive twentieth century historical event. The question of cognitive access to war and the awareness that war experience defies language’s powers of representation have been central to his research for the novel. The son of a professional soldier, the war haunted ‘[his] family life [. . .]’ [as] a constant presence, and geopolitically it remained a presence’ (Noakes 21–2), McEwan used many photographs from the Bosnian conflict to reclaim the authenticity of the ordinary person’s war experience. Paying tribute to his father who, with his army companions, had suffered the retreat from Dunkirk, the novelist also drew on the Archives of the Imperial War Museum: ‘Like my character Briony, I spent some time in the Imperial War Museum [. . .]. You can get very rapid access to boxes of letters, memoirs, reminiscences—all contemporary documents. And what I was able to do was to draw on a certain kind of emotional truth. I thought if I could get the human bit right first, as well as a certain number of particular details, the rest would follow. It was a very emotional immersion’ (Wiegand 2).

8However dissimilar the two novels may be, McEwan was as much interested as Woolf in exposing some war myths and, as in her case, the choice between a detached and an emotional attitude was/is an aesthetic, a personal, and a political decision: ‘I talked of sentimentality. [. . .] the recurring element of popular culture’s treatment of violence. There are no consequences. [. . .] when people accuse me of being too graphic in my depictions of violence, my response is, ‘Well, either you do violence, or you sentimentalise it.’ If you’re going to have it, you’ve got to show it in all its horror’ (Noakes 22).

9The horror of war and the collective trauma it inflicts demand a deliberate dismembering of literary conventions and historical myths, a tearing apart of bodies, of memories and of texts.

10What I begin to show in this essay is a dialogue between two very different novels. They both expose male, military, heroic myths as fatally anachronistic and they both deliberately subvert readerly expectations. I will briefly suggest how, by exploding some narrative conventions that escorted those fallacies, as is the case of Virginia Woolf, and by imploding long-established narrative structures while somehow reinstating them, i.e. by parodying them with not a small degree of deference, as Ian McEwan certainly does, Jacob’s Room and Atonement turn out to be two of the most stimulating novels written in England.

11Woolf’s lucid awareness of the fallacies of war myth making unquestionably assisted her in the subtle uses of indirection and irony put into practice in Jacob’s Room (1922). In the novel, this approach is achieved through a range of different techniques that mould the text both as an exposure of the war’s deceptive façade and as a literary object challenging genre expectations.

  • 5 See also, very near the end of the text, Woolf 1922, 167–8.

12One of those techniques is the scarcity of references to WWI. The allusions are few and far between. Understated, as in some fragments of dialogue casually overheard: ‘Where are the men?’ said old General Gibbons, looking round the drawing room, [. . .] ‘Where are the guns?’ [. . .] They were talking about Germany at the Durrants, [. . .]’ (Woolf 1922, 152)5, shockingly discreet as on page 93 when the narrator remarks, ‘And now Jimmy feeds crows in Flanders and Helen visits hospitals’ or limited to the very last pages as when Bonamy, in Jacob’s room, muses: ‘All his letters strewn about for anyone to read. What did he expect? Did he think he would come back?’ (Woolf 1922, 172). So conspicuous an omission only emphasizes the full impact of paragraphs as the following, where the narrator’s condemnation of the whole blunder epitomized by the war is undeniable: ‘[. . .] and then the sixteen gentlemen [. . .] decreed that the course of history should shape itself this way or that way, being manfully determined, as their faces showed, to impose some coherency upon Rajahs and Kaisers and the muttering in bazaars, the secret gatherings, plainly visible in Whitehall, [. . .] to control the course of events. [. . .] some were troubled with dyspepsia; one had at that very moment cracked the glass of his spectacles; another spoke in Glasgow tomorrow; altogether they looked too red, fat, pale or lean, to be dealing [. . .] with the course of history’ (Woolf 1922, 168–9).

  • 6 See Morgenstern 354.

13However, other and more significant omissions distinguish the whole text of Jacob’s Room. The most innovative techniques developed by Woolf in her first modern novel are visible in the very surface of the text and readable in its evident refusal to create characters with previously established tools. By the recurrent usage of gaps and spaces on the page to (re)present a succession of scenes rather than a more conventional narrative sequence, Woolf signals her deliberate distance from time-honoured methods. Her intentional defiance of formerly expected ways of building narrative is further emphasized by the process she selects to (re)construct Jacob.6 Observed from a wide diversity of angles and positions, Jacob Flanders comes into view as the result of a collage of perspectives none of which will be able to fully recover him. ‘In Jacob’s Room, characters come to life not so much in a straightforward process of characterization as in a systematic removal that reveals an ‘absence’, an opacity at the heart of carefully constructed scenes’ (Schroeder 143). The narrator resorts to her own voice, to Jacob’s, as well as to an apparently random collection of opinions by different individuals whose relationship to Jacob varies from the most intimate (Bonamy, Jacob’s mother) to the occasional acquaintance. The immature somewhat shallow Jacob, who reflects ‘I’m twenty two. It’s nearly the end of October. Life is thoroughly pleasant, although unfortunately there are a great number of fools about. One must apply oneself to something or other—God knows what. Everything is really very jolly—except getting up in the morning and wearing a tail coat’ (Woolf 1922, 69), will eventually be killed in the war. The war had turned the banal conventional young Jacob into an absence to be mourned by those who cared for him, but they seemed to know him as badly as the narrator. The young man comes to (fictional) life as the product of a medley of voices just as heroes had recently been (deceptively) assembled as a result of the blown bits of dead soldiers. And Woolf’s deliberate refusal to sentimentalise the loss of lives is illustrated in the following lines: ‘The battleships ray out over the North Sea [. . .]. At a given signal all the guns are trained on a target which [. . .] flames into splinters. With equal nonchalance a dozen young men in the prime of life descend with composed faces into the depths of the sea; [. . .]. Like blocks of tin soldiers the army covers the cornfield, moves up the hillside, stops, reels slightly this way and that, and falls flat, save that, through field-glasses, it can bee seen that one or two pieces still agitate up and down like fragments of broken matchstick’ (Woolf 1922, 151–2).

14As Leonard Woolf had approvingly commented on 26th July 1922 on first reading the proofs, ‘the people [i.e. the characters] are ghosts [. . .] puppets, moved hither and thither by fate’ (DII 186).

  • 7 Among other techniques, Marcus underlines the narrator’s ongoing process of getting to show Jacob, (...)

15Through field-glasses, from the distance of the General Staff’s headquarters, the horrors of war and the human losses it entails are conveniently remote. Such undeclared distance on the part of the gentlemen in charge is replicated in the detached attitude of a narrator who is both unable and unwilling to depict the war experience. The vulnerability of the human body is only obliquely alluded to. The novel resists conventional means of representation. Woolf’s indirect way of presenting the main character by self-consciously avoiding the public discourse of war, ‘reporting’ on an absence that is not only unknown but probably unknowable, is obviously part of her by now much discussed and extensively studied confrontation with former realistic conventions: ‘[A] subversion of the received definitions of ‘character’ as psychological type [. . .] runs throughout Jacob’s Room and is largely responsible for its experimentalism and its complexity’ (Marcus 18).7

16In her 1922 novel Woolf’s calculated strategy to contribute to the disintegration of a worn-out fictional model and of a stable conception of character met with the (un)reality of an experience of which she had no firsthand knowledge. Discreet and unemotional as Woolf aimed at being in her first novel dealing with the war, the indirectness of the narrator’s inability to (re)create her hero as a character is also Woolf’s way of restoring him to life. But, as Ian Jack recalls ‘[. . .] the Somme [. . .] laid the foundations for a new and realistic appreciation of war—the constant cruelty and frequent stupidity of it—that has coloured attitudes ever since’ (Jack 13).

  • 8 See also Zwerdling’s perceptive comment ‘Unlike the classic Bildungsroman, Jacob’s Room lacks teleo (...)
  • 9 The passage recalls Rose Macaulay’s ‘[. . .] legs and arms and bits of men flying in the air [. . . (...)

17It is such awareness of the outrageous quality of the war experience that dominates the second and third parts of Atonement, ‘carrying down in its rush sticks and stones and fragments of human nature pell-mell’. Jacob’s Room had opened with ‘the template of a Bildungsroman’ (Bishop xxvii),8 and deliberately disrupted the form to explore new techniques and problematize war and heroism, McEwan’s text deceptively embarks the reader in a narrative atmosphere whose first half could fit in a 1930s novel. ‘Eschewing the technique he often favours of starting [. . .] with a shock (the abducting of a child, a fall from a helium balloon), McEwan here opts for a slow, suffocating build-up of tension’ (Kemp 46). When Part Two begins, the reader is thrown into the hallucinatory chaos of the agonizing 1940 British Expeditionary Force’s escape from Dunkirk: ‘This was their path, their shortcut. He folded the map away, and as he straightened from picking up the coat, he saw it. [. . .] It was a leg in a tree. A mature plane tree, only just in leaf. The leg was twenty feet up, wedged in the first forking of the trunk, bare, severed cleanly above the knee. From where they stood there was no sign of blood or torn flesh. It was a perfect leg, pale, smooth, small enough to be a child’s’ (McEwan 192).9

  • 10 In Part Two the reader has to deal with ‘la mise en scène directe de la guerre, de la souffrance de (...)

18And the unsettling imagery, the explicit attention to detail, the frontal approach to the evidence of war violence are also present during Part Three through Briony’s hospital experience. McEwan replaces ‘[t]he disappearance or transfiguration of the lethally-injured body in [wartime London] representations of the Blitz’ (Rawlinson 109) with strongly physical graphic depictions which become part of Briony’s emotional ordeal and (attempt at) atonement: ‘The side of Luc’s head was missing. The hair was shaved well back from the missing portion of skull. Below the jagged line of bone was a spongy crimson mess of brain, several inches across, reaching from the crown almost to the tip of his ear. She caught the towel before it slipped to the floor, and she held it while she waited for her nausea to pass’ (McEwan 308).10

19The lifelike illusion of a real world out there, the pity of war, the horror distilled by such precise descriptions of brutality and suffering epitomize McEwan’s refusal to sentimentalise and his deliberate usage of violent images to evoke forceful situations.

20To try and interpret through fiction the inexpressibility of the war’s experience, to articulate its viciousness, the novel meticulously graphically (re)presents page after page, mile after mile, the lack of sleep, the pain, the thirst, the nausea of fever and exhaustion. Robbie Turner is an ordinary young man in what should have been extraordinary circumstances, ‘walking cross-country to Dunkirk to avoid the air-raids along the main roads’ (McEwan 200). He has endurance and a reason to stay alive, both undeniable qualities for survival. He also has an infected leaking chest wound.

21The plausible psychological accuracy of the extreme condition Robbie finds himself in, part of a ‘whole army [. . .] fleeing to the coast, armed with cigarettes to keep the hunger away’ (McEwan 200–1), threatens to diminish the reader’s consciousness of how, as the novelist Briony knows and writes in Part Three, if ‘a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended’ (McEwan 304), a character, such as Robbie, may be repaired, recovered, rewritten. This capable, involuntary hero is only a literary construct, no matter how emotionally charged some passages may be: ‘Nearly every man here had a father who remembered northern France, or was buried in it. [. . .] He wanted a father, and for the same reason, he wanted to be a father. It was common enough, to see so much death and want a child. Common, therefore human, and he wanted it all the more. When the wounded were screaming, you dreamed of sharing a little house somewhere, of an ordinary life, a family line, connection. All around him men were walking silently with their thoughts, reforming their lives, making resolutions. If I ever get out of this lot. They could never be counted, the dreamed-up children, mentally conceived on the walk to Dunkirk, and later made flesh’ (McEwan 241–2).

22While it is difficult to take Jacob’s trivial reflections seriously, it is perhaps a little too easy to approach Robbie from a sympathetic perspective. The structure of Atonement ensures that. McEwan’s novelist Briony Tallis unequivocally lures her reader into her male protagonist’s mind, taking full advantage of Robbie’s agony, thus expanding the possibility of a compassionate approach which is the central feature in her process of reparation. Woolf minimized the reader’s access to the hero’s thoughts, denounced the hagiography of war propaganda, and, although a serene elegiac mode was never far away, she favoured a somewhat ironic approach. As Conrad once wrote, ‘Without human propensity to murder and other sorts of unrighteousness there would have been no historical heroism’ (Conrad 149).

23To ask forgiveness through the power of storytelling is Briony’s moral and aesthetic strategy, an act of atonement that is also a final act of self-indulgence (although one that is intelligible only in the very last pages). This accounts for the novel’s structure and its final coda. Several lives were fictionally invented, destroyed and eventually restored by the magic of narrative, a complex pattern of meaning was made whole by the power of story-making. What is shown on the surface during a first reading of the novel belies the knowledge the text demands once the reader reaches the epilogue. After fifty-nine years and seven other versions of her work (cf. McEwan 369–70), Briony has created a fiction to be returned to, compelling the reader to go back and start reading the novel again.

24A soldier in the Second World War, Robbie Turner is cast as a caring man, an involuntary hero, the instrument of the novelist’s effort at atonement. His valour is a literary construct, his absence a fictional presence, just as Jacob was the product of a literary collage of bits of more or less (un)reliable information. Although both are constructs, fictional characters produced by their authors’ imaginations, Robbie turns out to seem more real than Jacob because Briony Tallis, ‘an old woman with white hair’, has intentionally evoked the subjective reality of personal experience.

25Jacob’s Room builds its own metafictional rationale through its blanks and spaces, through its consistent (re)presentation of the unknowability of characters. Emptiness, gaps, and narrative perspectives, not body parts, are scattered throughout the text. Atonement is a tour de force of metafictional consciousness, inventing a real outside world where characters are all the more knowable for being fictitious.

26Woolf was certainly breaking new ground with her first war novel, McEwan offers no experimental new departure in fiction. But in a publishing career which started in 1975, it is the ‘finest novel’ (Kermode 8) and a definite achievement by a writer who is no longer shy of keeping company with some of the best fiction writers in English. That Jacob’s Room turns out to be, in 1922, more technically innovative than Atonement is in 2001, in no way diminishes McEwan‘s ability to involve the reader in the gravitas of war and the suffering of its victims.

  • 11 See my ‘‘Out of all proportion’—The Heat of the Day e a deriva identitária em tempo de guerra’ (Flo (...)

27If the war as history seems beyond the control of the common writer and reader, the war as emotional experience is something fiction can deal with.11

28‘Words have been used too often’, Virginia Woolf wrote in Jacob’s Room (JR 90), yet some words, some works still have this power to challenge and, perhaps, even change us. Lest we forget.

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Compagnon, Antoine, La Seconde main, Paris: Seuil, 1979.

Bishop, Edward, ‘Introduction’ to Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room, Edward Bishop ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 2004, xi-xxxvii.

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Flora, Luísa, ‘A Delicada Resistência de uma Porcelana ou Desta Matéria São Feitos os Romances. Atonement de Ian McEwan’, in Alcinda Pinheiro de Sousa et al., A Palavra e a Imagem, Lisboa: Centro de Estudos Anglísticos da Universidade de Lisboa, Colibri, 2007a, 177- 191.

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Hussey, Mark, ed., Virginia Woolf and War: Fiction, Reality and Myth, Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1991.

Jack, Ian, ‘Introduction,’ ‘War Zones’, Granta 96 (Winter 2006): 11–3.

Kemp, Peter, ‘A masterly achievement’, The Sunday Times (16 Sept. 2001): 46.

Kermode, Frank, ‘Point of View’, London Review of Books (4 Oct. 2001): 8- 9.

Lee, Hermione, ‘If your memories serve you well. . .’, Observer (23 Sept. 2001): 8.

Levenback, Karen L., ‘Virginia Woolf’s ‘War in the Village’ and ‘The War from the Street’: An illusion of Immunity’, in Hussey, Mark, ed., Virginia Woolf and War: Fiction, Reality and Myth, Syracuse. Syracuse UP, 1991, 40–57.

Longenbach, James, ‘The Women and Men of 1914’, in Helen M. Cooper, Adrienne Auslander Munich and Susan Merrill Squier, eds., Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation, Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1989, 97–123.

Macaulay, Rose, Non-Combatants and Others (1916), London: Methuen, 1986.

Marcus, Laura, Virginia Woolf (1997), Tavistock: Northcote House, 2004 (2nd ed).

McEwan, Ian, Atonement, London: Vintage, 2001.

Morgenstern, Barry, ‘The self-conscious narrator in Jacob’s Room’, Modern Fiction Studies, 18. 3 (Autumn 1972): 351–61.

Noakes, Jonathan, ‘Interview with Ian McEwan (Oxford: 21 Sept. 2001)’, in Noakes, Jonathan and Margaret Reynolds, Ian McEwan: The Essential Guide, London: Vintage, 2002, 10–23.

Rawlinson, Mark, British Writing of the Second World War, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

Reynier, Christine, ‘La citation in absentia à l’œuvre dans Atonement de Ian McEwan’, EREA (e-Revue d’Études Anglophones) 2.1 (printrmps. 2004): 61–68.

Sassoon, Siegfried, Collected Poems 1908–1956 (1961), London: Faber, 1984.

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Sherry, Vincent, The Great War and the Language of Modernism, Oxford: OUP, 2003.

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1 A former version of this essay was presented in Évora during the XXVIII Meeting of the Portuguese Association of Anglo-American Studies (20th April 2007). Woolf’s review omits the following lines: He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies That she would nourish all her days, no doubt. For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy, Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

2 Ian Jack summarizes, ‘The British were to capture German positions on higher ground by the simple expedient of walking in rows—row after row of them—towards enemy machine- guns and barbed wire. More than 19,000 died on that first day [July 1, 1916], the greatest loss of life in British military history. The stubborn assault went on day after day, week after week, month after month, until by November the British had advanced six miles along a twenty-mile front. In those four months on the Somme, Britain suffered 420,000 casualties, the French 204,000, the Germans 450,000. The German army retook the same ground little more than a year later in 1918. (Jack 12) And according to Joanna Bourke, ‘In Britain, more than 5 million men—or 22 per cent of the male population were active participants in military services between 1914 and 1918 [. . .] around 7 per cent of all men between 15 and 49 years of age were killed in battle [. . .]’ (Bourke 15).

3 For a debatable but well-argued analysis see Levenback and some of the texts she considers: ‘Heard on the Downs: The Genesis of Myth’ (1916), ‘A Cambridge V.A.D.’ (1917), ‘Mr Sassoon’s Poems’ (1917), ‘Two Soldier-Poets’ (1918), ‘War in the Village’ (1918) and ‘The Mark on the Wall’ (1917), ‘Kew Gardens’ (1919, first references in Woolf’s correspondence go back at least to 1918).

4 ‘[T]he whole of the British army was at Dunkirk. My father was a motorbike dispatch rider. He was injured by shrapnel in the legs and this other man was wounded in the arms. [. . .] I grew up with his Dunkirk stories. I found from contemporary accounts the frustration of ordinary soldiers that they didn’t see enough air cover. [. . .] all of these old colonels and the like have written in saying it was true. Certainly from the soldiers’ point of view, they were sitting ducks’ (Wiegand 2). See also McEwan’s ‘Acknowledgments’ at the end of the book, particularly ‘I am indebted to the staff of the Department of Documents in the Imperial War Museum for allowing me to see unpublished letters, journals and reminiscences of soldiers and nurses serving in 1940’. There were 320,000 casualties during the retreat.

5 See also, very near the end of the text, Woolf 1922, 167–8.

6 See Morgenstern 354.

7 Among other techniques, Marcus underlines the narrator’s ongoing process of getting to show Jacob, ‘veering between a limited and omniscient narrative voice’ (Marcus 32), ‘vacillating [. . .] between internal and external perspectives’ (Marcus 84).

8 See also Zwerdling’s perceptive comment ‘Unlike the classic Bildungsroman, Jacob’s Room lacks teleology. [Jacob] remains an essentially molten personality interrupted by death at the stage of experimenting upon himself, [. . .]’ (Zwerdling 67).

9 The passage recalls Rose Macaulay’s ‘[. . .] legs and arms and bits of men flying in the air [. . .]. What was it John had said on the balcony—something about a leg. . .’ (Macaulay 21).

10 In Part Two the reader has to deal with ‘la mise en scène directe de la guerre, de la souffrance des soldats—en particulier celle de Robbie parti au front pour se soustraire à la prison—, [. . .] des descriptions extrêmement détaillées des atrocités’ (Reynier 64). For Part Three see McEwan 295–295, 301–304 et passim.

11 See my ‘‘Out of all proportion’—The Heat of the Day e a deriva identitária em tempo de guerra’ (Flora 2007b). See also McEwan’s promise: ‘I suppose the emotions perhaps will mean more to me. [. . .] I might push forward in my own little projects to make my novels more character-led’ (Noakes 23).

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Luísa Maria Rodrigues Flora, « ‘So Proud of our Dead Soldiers’: of Ghosts and men in Jacob’s Room (1922) and Atonement (2001) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 34 | 2008, mis en ligne le 28 mai 2019, consulté le 29 novembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Luísa Maria Rodrigues Flora

Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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