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Both Sebastian Faulks in his novel ‘Birdsong’ and Wilfred Owen present suffering in soldiers fighting in the First World War in both physical and psychological ways. They present the discomforts that came from everyday living conditions in the trenches, they both present the serious physical injuries produced by the war and the haunting effect this has on them in the short and long term.
Both writers present these things in a vivid and poignant style.
The living conditions in the trenches were extremely poor, wet weather led to men living in deep mud and contracting ‘trench foot’. The soldiers in the trenches would have had to live with constant shellfire; this could result in ‘shell shock’ where the untiring bombardment had worn away their nerves to the point of insanity. We can see an example of this in ‘Birdsong’ when Faulks is talking about “the spasmodic explosion of shells”.
We can see from the use of language here that Faulks relates to the shelling as insanity. As if the “spasmodic explosions” are not only the explosions but also fits of the men themselves.
Owen also talks about the effects of ‘shelling’ in his poetry. We can see an example of this in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ when Owen talks about an attack; stating; “Deaf even to the hoots, of gas-shells dropping softly behind”
Owens’ use of the word ‘deaf’ brings a sense of irony to his writing.
It shows that the incessant shelling has destroyed them emotionally and physically as if there exposure to war has dulled their senses.
Both writers present fatigue in their works. The character Jack Firebrace is marching: “Twice he jerked awake, realizing he had been walking in his sleep”. Wilfred Owen presents a very similar incident in the poem ‘Dulcï¿½ et decorum est’: “Men marched asleep… All went lame, all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf”. It appears that the exhausting life they lead has dulled their usual senses to the extent of seeming intoxication. This is shown again in ‘Birdsong’ with a description of the character ‘Wrayford’:” His movements had a dreamlike quality, as though the air about him were very thick and had to be pushed slowly back”.
Faulks also presents the unclean lifestyle they were living; “He thought of the stench of his clothes and the immovable lice among the seams.” Wilfred Owen also comments on the environment they’re in: “frost will fasten on this mud and us, shrivelling many hands, puckering foreheads crisp” (from the poem ‘Exposure’).
Faulks and Owen present serious physical harm in a particularly graphic way, presumably to inform the reader of the severity of the situation the soldiers were in. They both write about victims of gas attack, they write about their injuries in detail. The effect of the gas seems to be that of burning or quickly dissolving the flesh that comes into contact with it. In’ Dulcï¿½ et decorum est’; “And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, his hanging face like a devils sick of sin… blood came gargling from the froth corrupted lungs.” Whereas Owen uses a simile to describe the extent of injury sustained, Faulks uses a straightforward comparison; he is clinical in his descriptions. Faulks writes about gas victims in a French hospital; “when they unplugged his dressings, fluid leapt from his flesh… His body was decomposing as he lay there, like those who hung on the wire going from red to black before they crumbled into earth leaving septic spores.” They seem to want to sicken the reader into realisation and it’s very effective. Sebastian Faulks produces some of the most disturbing physical situations imaginable; “Brennan anxiously stripping a torso with no head. He clasped it with both hands, dragged legless up from the crater, his fingers vanishing into buttered green flesh. It was his brother”. Faulks often writes about physical injuries sustained with such an obvious style but apart from in ‘Dulcï¿½ et decorum est’ Owen tends not to. This could be because Owen had actually seen such horrific scenes and had become less sensitive to them. The physical destruction may have become less significant and so he did not include it in his poems. Or perhaps he repressed gory memories and subconsciously avoided writing about them.
Owen also writes of long-term injuries being sustained but is generally much less graphic and makes the same point in a subtler way. In the poem ‘Disabled’ Owen describes how a soldier has been so seriously injured that he shall never regain good health: “He’s lost his colour very far from here, poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry”. If Faulks wished to convey the intensity of an injury sustained he’d be more likely to write “he thought of the hole in Douglas’s shoulder where he had pressed his hand through almost to the lung”.
Owen seems to be a more creative and subtle writer whereas Faulks seems more obvious and graphic. This might come about merely because Faulks is writing a novel and Owen poetry. Owen might have to be more creative to convey the same meaning in fewer words. Poetry being a condensed emotional form of language. He uses metaphors and similes to help us understand without explaining every detail. However Faulks does not have to be as creative and isn’t as he wrote a five hundred and three page novel.
To live under the extreme circumstances that the soldiers do both writers explain that the soldiers build up psychological defences. The ability is grown to numb their emotions and adapt so as to be able to cope with seeing the death of men everyday, some of which were friends. Faulks explains how the process might happen using his character Stephen Wrayford as an example “he watched the machine gunners pouring bullets into the lines of advancing Germans as though there was no longer any value accorded to a more human life… He grew used to the sight and smell of torn human flesh”. Owen describes much the same thing himself, though once again without the need of graphic descriptions; “Dullness best solves the tease and doubt of shelling… Their hearts remain small-drawn. Can laugh among the dying concerned. Nor sad, nor proud, nor curious at all… By choice they made themselves immune”. (from the poem ‘Insensibility’). Faulks wrote a prime example of this ‘insensibility’: “A boy lay without legs where the men took their tea from the cooker. They stepped over him”.
If the soldiers do not build up some emotional defence mechanism then Faulks and Owen show that the soldiers cannot handle stress and it leads to emotional breakdowns. Owen tried to describe what this breakdown/madness is in ‘The Chances’; “wounded, killed and pris’ner, all the lot, the bloody lot all rolled in one. Jim’s mad”. I think he means that to be insane is like being wounded and to be a prisoner of your own mind.
They both explain how the haunting scenes send men this way – from Birdsong; “There was an arm with corporals stripes on it near his feet, but most of the men’s bodies had been blown into the moist earth”. Owen also reports of the haunting scenes he’s seen in ‘Dulcï¿½ et decorum est’; “In all my dreams before my helpless sight. He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning”. Also in the ‘Sentry’: “Always they must see these things; Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles”.
Faulks presents one of his characters being haunted. As the character is so tormented his mental state is obviously seriously affected. He spends two years in silence;
“His life became grey and thin, like a light that at any moment be extinguished; it was filled with quietness”. Both writers describe the insanity caused by life at the front line. They describe the disorientated and debilitating symptoms. From the poem ‘Mental Cases’:
“Who are these? Why sit here in twilight? Wherefore rock they… drooping tongues from jaws that slob…these are men who’s minds the dead have ravished”. Faulks also shows the results of these breakdowns in the long term with the character Brennan:
“Brennan began to talk again, looping from one random recollection to another… ‘they put him in the loony bin. They bring me this tea. My brothers good to me though. You should have seen the fireworks’”. This being an example of the insane ramblings produced.
Faulks’ presentation of death is obviously far less sensitive than Owens’s. The deaths presented in ‘Birdsong’ appear quick and meaningless whereas Owen shows the opposite, being far romantic and sentimental. ‘Captain Weir’ is one of the main characters in the novel. We learn of his relationship with his parents, hi sex life, his superstitiousness and his friendship with character ‘Stephen Wrayford’. We become intimately acquainted with him. However, his death is presented suddenly and completely without compassion; “A snipers bullet entered his head above the eye causing trails of his brain to loop out onto the sandbags of the parados behind him”
Owen presents death romantically trying to provoke sympathetic feelings. “Move him into the sun-, gently its touch awoke him once, At home, whispering of fields unsown”(Futility). Owens’ language coveys a sense of emotional turmoil. By his use of words like ‘gentle’ he emphasises his emotional sympathy for this man’s death, making the body have a sense of fragility. Owen refers to “home” to heighten the emotional significance and sadness in order to convey the significance of his death.
In conclusion, it is my opinion that Wilfred Owen and Sebastian Faulks write quite differently about the suffering of soldiers in the First World War. Owen seems to write more poetically and spiritually. This could be because he knew the people who dyed or were mutilated and so was more sensitive around the subject. Also he was writing poetry so he would have had to convey more sentiment or information in a smaller amount of text. Owen could have been more sentimental because of the closed-off position he was in. Whereas Faulks wrote retrospectively, knowing what happened throughout the war. He wrote more objectively and less personally. Faulks could not relate in the same way and so tends to write more obviously and graphically.