Master of Arts (MA)
The First World War—or, the Great War, as it is commonly referred to in Britain— was a turning point of the twentieth century. Those who lived through the war saw their world transformed. National borders were redrawn; political ideals were shaken; and future certainties became less certain. The horrors of the fighting left many traumatized, as antiquated battlefield tactics and modern warfare technology clashed with catastrophic results. Traditional notions of heroic, single combat were replaced with an impersonal, mechanized destruction, the result of which was the killing of approximately fifteen million people (Puchner 1682). To many, the changes heralded by the war were unbelievable: literary giant Henry James could not believe that the years of prosperity leading up to the war ended in such a disastrous climax (713). The war’s vastness, brutality, and mechanization also helped destroy many nineteenth century social ideals. Looking back at her war experience, Vera Brittain remarked that the war “will make a big division of ‘before’ and ‘after’ in the history of the world, almost if not quite as big as the ‘B.C.’ and ‘A.D.’ division made by the birth of Christ” (Brittain 317). Noted World War One historian Paul Fussell feels the war left “a deep diving line” across the twentieth century, with the post-war world appearing “recognizably ‘modern,’ its institutions precarious, its faith feeble, its choices risky, its very landscapes perverted into Waste Land” (Introduction vii).
The literary world reflected many of these changes. In fact, a strong argument could be made that the war era fueled the modernist literary movement. Many works of modernism confront the war and its aftereffects: the horrors of war in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), the hypocrisy of nationalism in Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), the social and moral complexities of wartime Britain in Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy (1924-28), the plight of a shell-shocked veteran in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), the alienation of modernity in Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland” (1922), and so on. Many more works draw inspiration from the war and its unsettling nature, and it is clear that the war roused the literary imagination. Study of this literary period underscores how the war helped create a modern and fragmented world. Even though there is much analysis of the modern period, and though much has been gleaned about how the works of modernism reflect a war-changed world, there is one area that merits further investigation: the evolving notion of class in wartime Britain.
Hersey, Seth, "The Classes And The Masses: Exploring Britain’s Evolving Notion Of Class During The Great War" (2017). Graduate Theses. 25.