“But after the war we’ll be free to do as we please,”
“We’ll never forget [it].”
The very beginning of the novel, on the transport ship out of NYC, Dos Passos introduces a symmetrical repetition on images and words. At first it seems as if he is doing it to capture the rolling, lolling motion of the ship over the waves, but later, when the story is much broader in scope than just a mere ocean, this continual repetition and reworking of the same images captures that sameness of civilization and all its problems and terrors that repeat generation after generation.
At one point Martin looks out over the men and thinks about how all the previous generations of mankind had been struggling for this terrible moment, as if we knew it was going to happen all along. Fate and time play an important role in the story and Dos Passos writes beautifully to connect the themes of timelessness and the passage of time. In one passage as Martin recites Blake’s poem, Ah Sunflower, to see how far he can get before another shell flies overhead, we get the double image of the endless procession of sunflowers tilting with the sun through the day with the image of the men in darkness listening to the shells fly overhead, their full attention, like sunflowers, on the possibility of death coming from above.
He also looks at Europe as now a corrupted, filthy version of its former self – streets filled with whores, stage lights too bright, and unimpressive orchestras – a far cry from that beautiful culture of 1000 years. Dos Passos describes these intemperate desires that prowl around like cats in the night and only the foggy shadow of Notre Dame cathedral looming into view and then disappearing again as if it’s an image of fading morality and fading power, too.
The images of the inhumane are on every page, first with the description of the young man with no nose and mechanical pieces for a jaw. Martin lingers on the sight of the the man with no nose and Dos Passos links this to the rest of the novel by continually describing what things smelled like which marks the worst of the dangers, the poison gas. He also uses the imagery of ripe and overripe fruit and vineyards to subtly remind you of the terrible devastation to a human body hit by a shell.
All this makes for compelling and unforgettable imagery and Dos Passos comes very close to creating a real masterpiece. However, he falls short. He falls short in his main character, Martin who though not surprisingly is idealistic (as many young people) I never could actually believe as a character. Martin never seemed to be truly effected by the war, he doesn’t really seemed changed by anything. The title would suggest that he is ‘Initiated’ at some point, but other than being introduced to the terrible sight of war, I never could really believe a lot of what he had to say or even his own thoughts – they seemed to be too much of a writer trying to “SAY SOMETHING IMPORTANT” but not stay true to a real character.
Hemingway, who, like Martin, drove an ambulance during the war, in his novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’ gives us all we need to know about how the war changed his main character, Jake, with an injury that is only ever implied. Dos Passos never does anything with Martin except move him around and have him look at the war. I felt very disconnected at times to the tragedy going on on every page and really wanted Martin to act.
However, in the end, all we get is a very long sequence where the young men sit around and argue about a socialist revolution after the war. We get a lot of moralizing from Dos Passos (though his characters) about the evils of the rich and the glory of the working class. And while I don’t necessarily disagree with him, it was boring and felt out of place. This was the section of the book where he should actually have given something for Martin to do, not just sit there and listen some more.
Yet as a first novel (novella) there are clear signs of the genius of the writer Dos Passos would soon become. This is a very strong work stylistically and he really put you into the theater of the war, if, unfortunately, not so much emotionally.