As the novel progresses several innocent figures are consumed by the war. This begins with Rowena's death, a tragic accident due to Robert's shirked responsibility. It is visited again after Robert shoots the horse aboard the ship. He has been forced to commit an act he detests. Findley also comments on the age of the men on board going to war to draw attention to their boyish innocence. They are barely men at all.
Robert isn't the only character whose innocence is lost. Juliet is forced to grow up quickly after seeing Robert and Barbara having sex. This incident also evokes the theme of change that appears in the novel. Rodwell, too, loses his innocence and takes his life as a result. He is driven to suicide after watching his fellow soldiers kill a cat just to taunt him. The destruction of the natural world and animals is also an example of the destruction of innocence.
Violence as Order and Chaos
Violence alternately takes on the role of chaos and order in the novel. The chaos of the war is fairly obvious. Soldiers die and towns and nations are torn apart by the battles. Robert tries at first to suppress his own violent feelings and impulses. He relies on his pistol to give him a sense of protection and uses it to restore order during the gas attack when his men panic. The element of fire, we come to see, can be either a tool or a terrible oppressor. Robert also uses this violence in defiance of the chaos of the war. Juliet witnesses him unloading his pistol on a tree in frustration. He uses violence to exact his own moral justice on Captain Leather and the war itself.
Throughout the novel it is clear that Robert has a connection to the natural world and animals, most notably horses. He shares this with his sister Rowena, Harris, and Rodwell. All these characters foster a deep respect and reverence for the natural world and it is among animals that Robert feels the greatest peace and belonging. He runs with coyotes and horses almost as one of them. There is a freedom and authenticity in the natural world that Robert does not find in human society. The destruction of these animals is what ultimately pushes him to act out violently against the human construct of war.
Isolated from other human beings, Robert finds himself more at home with animals. They do not judge him. He feels no need to impress them or to hide from them. He can simply be himself. When it comes to other human beings, Robert is deeply caring of others, but there is an otherness about him. Rodwell captures this in his sketch of Robert. He is both human and non-human at the same time.
The Four Elements
The four classic elements: fire, water, earth, and air are all represented in the novel and also come to be the inscription on Robert Ross's tombstone. Fire is very clearly represented in the artillery and the flamethrowers encountered in combat. The earth nearly engulfs Robert, literally, when he falls into the mud. The image of the earth moved to create trenches and the dugouts also invokes this element. Air comes to symbolize both life and death at various times. When the chlorine gas is unleashed on Robert and his men, it is a metaphor for death. However, in the last lines of the novel, when the breath of Robert, Rowena, and the pony Meg can be seen in the photograph, it is a clear sign of life. Rain is an element that Robert encounters at various times in the novel: after Rowena's funeral, and in the rain and mud Robert encounters on the battlefield. Here, it is a marker for change and transition. Robert bathes when he has his last conversation with his mother. He also is showered in rain at the train station when he goes to enlist. At each of these points, Robert crosses a rubicon that marks a point of permanent change.
The inevitability of change is an important theme in The Wars. War itself is an agent of change. It violently and aggressively pushes into people's private lives, intermingling the private with public life. Robert sees this change in the physical landscape of his hometown. Gone is the idyllic small town he once knew, replaced by factories working tirelessly for the war effort. Juliet's changing body also represents her loss of innocence and the unmistakable sensation that one cannot go back in time and undo what has been done. Mrs. Ross struggles to come to terms with the world as it changes. She medicates herself with alcohol to help her cope, eventually losing her sight. The element of water is also associated with change. Robert bathes at key points in the story before a change: before departing for training as well as before he is raped.
Sanctity of Life
Robert believes in the sanctity of living beings and it is this loss of life that drives him to break away from the moral system imposed upon him by the war and the society that supports it. Robert believes all life, human and animal, is worth protecting. This is why he cannot condone his mother's decision to kill Rowena's rabbits. It is what brings him closer to Harris and Rodwell. The two soldiers share his respect for life and the natural world. Rodwell speaks to an interconnectedness between living things in his letter to his daughter. This seems to reflect Findley's own feelings about the need to preserve the natural world.
Public vs. Private Wars
The novel concerns itself with a number of different "wars". First, there is the obvious literal war of World War I. However, domestic disputes also factor into the title. Both the Ross and d'Orsey families experience problems at home while the war rages. Still another struggle is the internal one each character faces, most notably Robert.
Findley revisits the topic of private vs. public throughout the novel. Robert envies a soldier he meets and wishes to leave his home due to the private guilt he feels over his sister's death. He then is thrust into a very public war where he is vulnerable and where he finds judgment waiting for him. He struggles to hold on to his privacy as best he can. He is socially awkward, particularly around women. When the other soldiers go to the brothel, he doesn't want to go but feels he must. When he finds himself embarrassed there, he is unable to look past it as a momentary lapse. He is exposed and in that he feels the greatest shame. When he sees Taffler with the Swede he is both shocked and enticed. The war forces things to be exposed and it is a concept Robert is not comfortable with.
Robert's privacy is most violated when he is raped. While it is a physical assault, his spirit suffers the most damage. This private sphere, his body and his mind, are invaded not just by his assailants, but by the war itself. When Robert destroys Rowena's photograph afterward, Findley calls it an act of charity. The charity is toward his sister because Robert no longer finds the world he lives in to be one he recognizes. It has forever changed and with the invasion of his own privacy, so has he.
Additionally, Juliet's admission of seeing Robert and Lady Barbara having sex and Mrs. Ross's admission to Ms. Davenport about her feelings toward the church both invoke deeply held feelings or memories that each character has difficulty expressing.
The Wars Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Wars is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.