While there are plenty of novels written about wars, sometimes the absence, aftermath, or anticipation of a war can define a literary work just as much. No one need doubt how World War I affected Frederic Henry in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. In fact, no one who’s read any Hemingway can doubt how WWI affected Hemingway itself. The war and its aftermath define his fiction. Conversely, Anyone who reads about Virginia Woolf’s London can’t help but think of the bombings her beloved city will suffer not long after novels like Mrs. Dalloway and Between the Acts takes place.
Clarissa Dalloway’s sunny London, filled with flowers, parties to plan, and memories of past loves, seems about as far away from the horror and destruction of WWII as any setting could be possibly be. While it’s true that the horrors of World War I did affect Mrs. Dalloway’s dear friend Septimus Smith to the point of causing his suicide, the suicide (and thus, the war) is just one event in a day that’s otherwise defined by running errands in the sunshine. It’s an unavoidable unpleasantness, unbearable for some, but an afterthought for others.
Similarly the East and West Eggs of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby don’t seem to have much to do with the Great War that has recently concluded. Gatsby’s life is, on the surface at least, all about parties, swimming pools, and “beautiful shirts.” As the story progresses, the reader does learn about the real tragedy of Gatsby’s life, but even that isn’t World War I; it’s his unrequited love for the spoiled, shallow Daisy Buchanan. Life in the 1920s may have been difficult for a lot of Americans, but not the ones in this novel. Their troubles are all of their own making: affairs, dishonesty, driving the wrong cars.
In many ways, Gatsby’s post-War lifestyle is a lot more shocking than Septimus Smith’s. Who could bear normal life after experiencing battle? How does one go from the front lines back to a comfortable city or suburban life? While the act of suicide is always shocking, isn’t it equally shocking to have experienced the horror of war and be able to come home, throw parties for people you don’t know and spend your time pining over the same drippy girl for years on end? Despite his apparent ability to cope with the aftermath of war, Gatsby also meets a tragic end.
Stronger even than Septimus Smith’s inability to live his normal life after experiencing something incredibly intense is Kurz’s apparent inability to even survive it. Though Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is not actually a war story, it feels like one. The men in this story are far from home and doing things they probably never imagined they would. Kurz takes ill, presumably with some dangerous African disease, but when he utters his famous final words -“The horror! The horror!” – Marlow (the story’s narrator) believes he’s actually referring to the terrible things that he has done in the name of ivory.