Daily Life Despite Wars – in Literature and Popular Media
While the subject of war conjures disconcerting visions of a tumultuous and violent milieu fraught with conflict and loss, a colossal expanse of the social space in wartime is also occupied by the relatively more mundane, quotidian aspects of life on the home front. As the war blazes, even in the clamor of it all, soldiers, civilians, and prisoners go on with their everyday routines. The people experience the world-altering occurrences around them and clutch tenaciously to their prosaic timetables to at least retain a shred of normalcy in the face of the perilous shadows of uncertainty.
Amidst the overwhelming immediacy of wartime and estrangement from familiar socio-political landscapes, the human oddities such as the incessant wait for more information, distracting oneself from the impending destruction by fixating on ordinary chores, the daunting task of obtaining food, seeking shelter, and maintaining a connection with loved ones have been documented extensively through various elements of popular culture.
Everyday Life and War
Henri Lefebvre's Critique of Everyday Life blurs the lines between everyday lives and the warfront: it offers a proposition that states that the relatively normal days are also streaked by obsession and fear, albeit in obscurity. French philosopher Michel Foucault has noted that despite the formal end of warfare, "the continuation of war by other means" occurs, and the prosaic customs take place underneath the facade of peace and thus, the everyday transforms into a stage for rebellions and ceaseless resistance against the established authority; Romantic writers could not easily fathom a spatial dimension that was untainted by the "tax" of warfare, as Austen deemed it.
Similar to other works of
Austen shrouds the agony of war with the tribulations of Anne Elliot's relationship with Captain Frederick Wentworth. The comparatively idyllic ending of the novel cannot overlook the "dread of a future war."
Poems during war – a therapeutic endeavor
William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poetry anthology titled "Lyrical Ballads" sought to recreate the "charm" of the everyday by attempting to celebrate the present as a therapeutic endeavor to divert one's mind away from the horrors of the war. In the poem, "I grieved for Buonaparté," Wordsworth acquires a comfortable distance from warfare as the poet's lingering sympathy for the emperor is soon replaced by his penchant for "books, leisure, perfect freedom," and thus, he ends up etching a somewhat reassuring and blissful picture of the home-front amidst the throes of war. "Long months of peace (if such bold word (peace) accord/With any promise of human life) / Are mine in prospect," Wordsworth writes, almost hesitantly in The Prelude: 1805; his perception of everyday is shaped by begrudgingly accepting the costs associated with war.
In the fourth book of The Task, "A Winter's Evening," William Cowper casually skims through a newspaper brimming with news of the war as he attempts to carve cozy "loopholes of retreat" located at a safe distance from the battleground, which Cowper views as mere theatrical performance. The privileged indifference possessed by Wordsworth, Cowper, and Coleridge could be attributed to the wars that involved Great Britain during their lifetimes that occurred offshore and not in their homeland.
The war kills in many ways
Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms consists of the retrospective experiences of Frederic Henry, a wounded American soldier, and his relationship with an English nurse, Catherine Barkley. Set against the backdrop of World War I, Catherine's death in the concluding parts of the novel is caused by childbirth and not warfare. The following sections of the book go on to chastise those who support war, stating that phrases such as "glory" are hollow and meaningless next to "the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers."
Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room provides a searing commentary on the processes of pedagogy that nudge young countrymen to partake in the war and caution the readers against the passive intake of knowledge while documenting Jacob's journey through university with a foreboding undertone. Jacob dies during the war, and all that remains after him are his things: his room and a pair of old shoes. The subtext hints at the abysmal chasms of socio-economic inequities by introducing a beggar woman who interrupts the flow of the storyline and seems to jolt the conscience of the readers. The novel also comments on otherness, inaccessibility, and alienation in the city. The narrator deliberates upon the newfound modes of public transportation, omnibuses, which granted the outside passengers a chance to observe each other closely; however, only a few of them seemed inclined to do so as every single passenger had something or the other on their mind; Woolf concluded that while this urban phenomenon may catalyze proximity, it does not encourage the formation of connections or familiarity.
Woolf also addresses the complicated linkages between identity, communication, and accessibility in the first section of Jacob's Room, wherein Betty Flanders writes letters, which Woolf has deemed "the unpublished works of women." "How they come at breakfast, and at night, with their yellow stamps and their green stamps, immortalized by the postmark," the narrator remarks; a fleeting moment or a fabricated speck of one's self-representation could become "immortal" through these letters, which can easily be misinterpreted. Throughout the novel, Woolf has indicated that it is nearly impossible to get to know someone wholly, especially in the context of war, wherein the alterity of people becomes even more pronounced, even divisive. Woolf equates the inability to understand the conscious life of the other with the ability to kill. When one fails to grasp the vivid possibilities that the life of the other may carry, the gaping absence of empathy makes it all the more convenient for the person to kill and, from a wider vantage point, enables nations to wage war on each other.
In Woolf's 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway, the war is depicted through its devastating aftermath. The shell-shocked soldier Septimus Smith is unable to move on from the harrowing experiences of the past, which continue to gnaw at him until he commits suicide, and in another heart-wrenching occurrence, Clarissa Dalloway and her guests find out about his untimely death; the consequences of war arrive in fragments and permeate through all the sections of the society in the novel with an all-pervasive, disastrous pace. In postwar London, Mrs. Dalloway has numerous encounters with a homeless woman, reminiscent of the beggar woman from Jacob's Room. Through the poignant narrative, the narrator seems to romanticize the beggar woman's plight, and thus, this proposition seems to neglect her material needs and abject penury; Peter Walsh's act of giving her money is also depicted as inconsequential.
War and Food
Food is an indispensable part of everyday life. During wartime, acquiring eatables becomes all the more crucial as traditional food preparation routines collapse due to the shortages of goods, hiked prices, disruptions in harvests, shipping, food distribution, or restrictions on the mobility of the citizens. While well-managed rationing could ease tensions, food riots were not uncommon in the milieu of the war. In the 1954 American musical film Carmen Jones, the titular character pawns a piece of her jewelry to purchase groceries, a new dress, and shoes; upon returning, her significant other, in utter disbelief, questions how she paid for the items and accused her of cheating.
The continued shortages of food, despite rationing, resulted in widespread protests against governmental failures to manage scarcity as the lower and middle classes endured sustained shortages. In comparison, the more affluent classes ate well, even amidst the worsening food crises, and hence, resentment brewed between different socio-economic sections of the society.
The 1943 American drama, Since You Went Away encapsulates the stark class divisions in the societal structure, sharpened by the war, wherein Emily Hawkins, a socialite, is complaining about the inconveniences caused by the war, and she starts to hoard food while undermining her neighbors' efforts; they had been rationing food. Wartime compels people to craft novel ways of communicating with each other to pass on information, connect with one's family, and maintain a collective sense of belonging despite the overarching presence of conflicts and bloodshed. Went the Day Well, a 1942 British film, documents the attempts of the villagers to reach the outside world after being kept as captives in a church, and the residents try to scrawl a message on an egg which eventually gets crushed.
The "ordinary" war
Shelter from the violence and turmoil is a pivotal element of the non-combatants' lives, and the recurring housing crises often hindered them from having access to a haven. The 1945 romantic-comedy titled Pillow to Post captures the struggles of a tired traveling saleswoman. She is seeking a place to sleep, and out of sheer desperation for a place to reside, she enters a bungalow that has been reserved for married people by deceiving the hosts.
The shift in the focus of the popular culture narratives from the battleground to the terrains of everyday life enables it to capture the civilians' reflections about war and record the survivors' stories, which may have otherwise been overlooked and deemed as "ordinary."
Wartime impels people to adopt new strategies; even in the times of extraordinary skirmishes, the ordinary cyclic regimes, despite being saturated by the gory awareness of bloodshed, continue to occur, almost ritualistically, perhaps in the hopes of beckoning normalcy and, most importantly, peace.
Author: Ria Chakraborty
[Political Science; Lady Shri Ram College for Women; Literary Reviewer]
Illustration: TDLM Design Team
AdminMarch 30, 2022
- Women’s Day-Offs – Stories of Perfect Storm in Teacups September 12, 2022
- Why We Binge Buy Stationeries August 24, 2022
- Dining at the Table – a Family Hangout August 10, 2022
- NFTs influencing Gen z’s idea of art? August 24, 2022
- Chhau – Beauty of Everyday Life in Folk Art Expression August 10, 2022