The Wars

The Wars Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Examine the character arcs of Mrs. Ross and Robert Ross. Events in the novel seem to affect both characters simultaneously and in a similar fashion. Why?

    Findley suggests a strong connection between these characters despite how combative their last interaction is. Though they have no direct contact after that moment, what happens to Robert is reflected in events in Mrs. Ross's life. Most dramatically, when Robert is reported as missing in action, Mrs. Ross goes blind. Mrs. Ross's preoccupation with venturing out into storms suggests that her sanity is beginning to crumble. This also foreshadows Robert's "madness".

  2. 2

    Examine Robert Ross's actions at the end of the novel. Has he lost his mind when he frees the horses and kills Captain Leather and Private Cassles, or is he simply doing what he feels is just and rational in the face of an insane situation?

    The style in which Findley presents the events of the novel involves the reader as a direct participant rather than as a passive voyeur. We learn early on through various characters such as Marian Turner and Lady Juliet that Robert has committed some kind of act that many find abominable. But these two characters are forgiving in their opinions of him, leaving room for us as readers to determine for ourselves if we feel Robert has truly lost his mind. Robert reacts directly to the madness of war itself. His goal is to save life, any life, even if it is the life of an animal. Though he takes the life of Captain Leather, he judges that it is Leather who is insane. It can be argued from this viewpoint that Robert, though acting questionably, has acted with an extreme sense of rationality.

  3. 3

    What significance do the animals in the novel have when juxtaposed against the brutality of war? What do they symbolize?

    The animals come to symbolize both innocence and the relationship of human beings to the natural world. Against the larger context of war, these animals become victims of the fighting. As a result the natural world is destroyed as well as the man-made world. Robert sees the animals as innocent bystanders in a campaign of human arrogance and madness. The rabbits that belonged to Rowena, in particular, reflect an innocence and purity that Robert feels has been extinguished by the war.

  4. 4

    Examine the title of the novel. Though the novel takes place during World War I, the word "war" is pluralized for the novel's title. What was Findley referring to?

    The title refers to the literal war of World War I, but also to the inner conflicts of the various families and characters in the story. The Ross and d'Orsey families both endure domestic difficulties. Each of the characters, Robert most of all, wrestles with internal doubts and fears.

  5. 5

    When offered an assisted suicide by Marian Turner, Robert replies, "Not yet." Why is this significant and what is Findley suggesting by having Robert cling to his life?

    Robert treasures life, human and animal alike. He has no desire to end his life because life itself is an expression of hope. Though he has killed men, he has taken no pleasure in it and has largely done it only to preserve other lives. By having Robert refuse suicide, Findley is signaling not only that hope is one of Robert's better attributes, but that it is quite possibly the most important of all human capacities.

  6. 6

    Consider the final photograph of Robert, Rowena, and Meg the pony, with which Findley leaves us. What does he mean when he points out that one can see the characters' breath in the photograph? What does it signify?

    The breath signifies their being alive, though by the end of the novel, neither of them is. Findley leaves us with a hopeful image of Robert instead of a depressing one. That Robert and Rowena are atop Meg, a pony, also reiterates Robert's attachment to animals. It demonstrates that all life, human and animal, is significant. Life exists as an embodiment of hope.

  7. 7

    Why does Robert treasure his privacy so much? What is it about the war that forces him to be exposed?

    We learn that Robert is shy and values his privacy greatly. He is particularly awkward around women. After being thrust into the war he can no longer hide himself or his capacity for sexuality and violence. He does not want to go to the brothel with the other men but feels he must or face scrutiny. Once there he is mortified when he ejaculates before sleeping with Ella. Though she is forgiving, he is overcome with shame. When he sees Captain Taffler with the Swede he is shocked and enticed. This reaction gives way to anger and violence. The world as he knew it, one in which he could hide, no longer exists.

  8. 8

    Examine the notion of private vs. public in the novel. How does a war usher a private matter into the public sphere?

    Findley's novel can be seen as a search by an archivist (the reader) for private moments captured in public documents and photographs. Like the war itself, the novel invites the reader to break down this divide to better understand what happened. War prevents us from isolating ourselves from the outer world. Our privacy becomes very scarce. War forces out our secrets and becomes a means of uncovering who we might really be. For Robert, this is one of his paramount fears upon entering the service. As we read more and more about him, we too violate his privacy.

  9. 9

    Examine the use of the Four Classic Elements in the novel: fire, water, air, and earth. How are these elements represented and what do they signify?

    Fire is very clearly represented in the artillery and the flamethrowers encountered in combat. It can also be seen in Robert's pistol, itself a symbol of power and control. The earth nearly engulfs Robert 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 clear metaphor for death. However, in the last lines of the novel, the visibility of the breath of Robert, Rowena, and the pony Meg in the photograph is a clear sign of life. Water is an element that Robert encounters at various times in the novel: it rains after Rowena's funeral, and Robert encounters much rain and mud 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.

  10. 10

    Compare and contrast the sexual encounters Robert Ross and Lady Juliet witness in the novel. How do they affect each character?

    Both characters immediately regret witnessing the events. Upon watching Eugene Taffler, Robert realizes that even one's deepest secrets can be revealed in the theater of war; in this case, homosexuality. Once such secrets are exposed, they cannot be re-hidden. Juliet experiences very similar feelings upon seeing Robert and Barbara. The intensity and violence of their love-making alters her worldview. Her innocence is lost and she is forced to grow up quickly.

  11. 11

    Examine Findley's use of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person narrative styles in the book. Why does he use these unusual methods to tell the story?

    Findley presents the information that makes up the book as a narrative culled from an archivist's research, photographs, and the accounts of Marian Turner and Lady Juliet d'Orsey. By utilizing multiple points of view, Findley can demonstrate that the war affected everyone around it in different ways, and also that the truth of his main character, Robert Ross, is elusive. We, as the readers, are involved in the process of uncovering who Robert was and judging what he did. Findley does not provide a clear indictment or acquittal of Robert's actions. By using multiple voices in the story, Findley is able to capture the "fog of war" and how war can obscure, confuse, and complicate already complex matters.

    Additionally, the use of multiple voices to tell the story helps Findley avoid some of the more established rhetoric of the genre. It allows the novel to emerge as a unique account of war that captures not just what happened, but how it felt to those involved.