The Wars – Cruelty to Incite Extraordinary Perceptions of the Ordinary

“In literary works, cruelty often functions as a crucial motivation or a major social or political factor. Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which acts of cruelty are important to the theme. Then write a well-developed essay analyzing how cruelty functions in the work as a whole and what the cruelty reveals about the perpetrator and/or victim. (2015)”

“In such dangerous things as war the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst.” (von Clausewitz)

It is through responding to the extremities of circumstances that an individual is defined – within the scope of such circumstances, there is that of extreme cruelty: war. While cruelty, or actions contradicting the preservation of life, appear to be only degrading and callous, in such circumstances that warrant extreme cruelty, it serves to instigate extraordinary perceptions of the ordinary; thus, extraordinary individuals are those who maintain ordinary, humane characteristics during times of war – or extraordinary cruelty. In essence, extraordinary circumstances elicit extraordinary actions, though from ordinary men. This notion is demonstrated throughout Timothy Findley’s The Wars, in which the protagonist, Robert Ross, lives in a time of excessive cruelty – cruelty that breeds in him a desire to preserve life during a time in which a value for life was lost.

Ross’s inclination to preserve life during times of cruelty can be traced throughout The Wars, namely in his relationships and interactions with animals. Initially, this can be seen through the death of Robert’s beloved sister, Rowena, by which he is tasked with the killing of his deceased sister’s rabbits. Rowena was born with a genetic abnormality – hydrocephalus – thus confining her to a wheelchair as a safety precaution. Her death resulted from Robert’s failure to care for her – she fell in her chair one of the few times that Ross was not accompanying her. Ergo, Ross’s devotion to Rowena can be translated to the rabbits – in her death, he is unable to comprehend why the rabbits must be killed. Their life acts as an extension of the life of Rowena, a life of innocence that he was supposed to protect. In spite of Ross’s adamant refusal to murder the animals, expressed in his verbal and physical confrontations with his father and Teddy Budge, the death of the rabbits is imminent. The attempts, though failure, to preserve life and innocence foreshadow only the beginning of such cruelty and merciless apathy towards life, an apathy that Ross will either have to embrace or actively counter.

With the establishment of a first, though forsaken, attempt to assert his value for life, Findley places Ross in one of the most ruthless environments following Rowena’s death – Ross enlists in the army out of grief, and possibly frustration. Admitted to join training in Lethbridge, Ross, ironically,  desires to learn to“kill as an exercise of the will”(27) – in order to survive extraordinarily cruel circumstances, one may adopt a cruel, inhumane mentality, as so many others did during the war. As such, Ross’s first encounter with the cruelty of the war parallels the death of the rabbits. He is promoted to the rank of an officer while on a ship, and as he is responsible for the horses on board and is the only one with a gun, Ross is yet again charged with the killing of an animal – an injured horse. This time, “[h]e fire[d]. A chair fell over in his mind.” (62)

The first impact of cruel circumstances on Ross’s mentality is evident, bringing him back to his initial stance on the killing of the innocent with recollection of his sister (“A chair fell over in his mind”) – the preconception that cruelty must breed cruel actions within Ross is short-lived. Ross’s connections with animals during his details in the war only serve to reinforce his belief in his personal standards, those not of cruelty, but of a saviour – the humane, ordinary, quality of valuing life during the war separates him from those who continued to fight cruelty with a disregard for life. In having experienced both the killing of a helpless animal and understanding the need to preserve life, Ross actively pursues the latter in the rest of the war, as exemplified by his time in France. With increasing tension, and accordingly, extraordinarily cruel circumstances, France, where “trees and fields…once flourished,”(72) became “a shallow sea of stinking grey…And this [was] where [Ross] fought the war.”(72)

Image result for the wars timothy findley animals

Having been in France for just over one month, and in the war for just under one year (April 1915 to February 1916), Ross has experienced the most excessive acts and thoughts of cruelty, of dehumanization. Mirroring the physical desolation of the environment, the war also brought about an extreme deprivation of  life, such that “the word alive was amazing.” (116) It was in these circumstances that Ross continued  his ordinarily humane commitment to life, amongst excessive death, as exemplified through his interactions with animals – this time, a rat: “In another hole there was a rat that was alive but trapped…Robert struck a match and caught the rat by the tail…and set it free… in the moment he was thinking: here someone is still alive.”  (116) Through the act of saving the rat, Findley develops the idea that individuals are not extraordinary, rather it is their response to the circumstances they are in that determines whether or not they are perceived to be extraordinary – Ross is merely a product of the war, his “greatness lies in response to [those] moment[s].” (103 – 104). Because Ross responded to extraordinarily cruel and inhumane circumstances with an ordinary, though at the time lacking, humanity, he was perceived to be extraordinary.

This can be related to Ross’s last obligatory act to sustain life – an attempt at saving horses, interpreted as an act of betrayal. Upon his return to the front, Ross was caught under barrage and denied the request to “make a strategic retreat with [the horses and mules] so they might be saved.” (184) Through definitively stating that he is going to “save these animals” (185), coupled with the foresight of the consequences pursuing denied proposed actions, Ross actively demonstrates his commitment to life in spite of the cruel circumstances he is faced with. While he remained a few days un-captured after rescuing the horses, his punishment was impending. Upon being surrounded in a burning barn, Ross’s last act of independence, before hospitalization and death, is exclaiming “We shall not be taken.” (193) We shall not be taken – no form of life.

With Ross’s life nearing its end, as is the war, the effect of such cruelty on civilization is often measured by the capacity of those involved to prevail. While mankind did survive the war, they did not live with humanity, with an appreciation of life. Findley writes, through the transcript of Lady Juliet d’Orsey’s recollections of her time as a child with Ross,” I doubt we’ll ever be forgiven. All I hope is – they’ll remember we were human beings.” (164) In this sense, it is evident that those who remain ordinarily “human,” such as Ross, during times of  extraordinary cruelty, preserve the sanctity of life in a time so abundant with death, a time in which inhuman actions prevailed. Thus, such justification warrants an ordinary man, in extraordinary circumstances, to become extraordinary themselves.

Within extraordinarily cruel circumstances, such as war, seemingly inhumane and barbaric actions become a part of humanity. As a result, cruelty acts to diminish the concept of human nature and human values, therefore justifying the perceived remarkability of  individuals able to retain the sanctity of life during war – while those who maintain humane tendencies during cruel times maintain the most ordinary of characteristics, they do so in the face of such extraordinarily inhumane times, that they too are deemed extraordinary. Such is the case with Robert Ross of Timothy Findley’s The Wars. Ross is seen as extraordinary simply because he exudes the essentials of humanity, characteristics of any ordinary man, though in extraordinarily harsh circumstances – circumstances  in which the cruelty and brutalization of the human spirit associated with war results in the loss of such base characteristics as, for instance, the value of life – to be ordinarily human in a time of an exceptionally cruel disregard for humanity is to be extraordinary.



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4 thoughts on “The Wars – Cruelty to Incite Extraordinary Perceptions of the Ordinary

  1. Dear Shyla,

    Wow, I am in true awe of your work and the meaningful insight that you dig out in every critical piece that you write. Your vocabulary, sentence variation, and profound development of concepts have depicted your ability to always maintain your standard of excellence, and thus your piece has become an example AP essay that I will continue to reference when I am in need of help or an example for emulation.

    For starters, your use of such precise and purposeful vocabulary overall enhanced the clarity and meaning of your work, as your specific words, particularly used in the “matter” sections and conclusion, facilitated concision by encapsulating a lengthy idea within a well-rounded word. Along with that, your sentence structure variation has provided numerous examples for me to use in my own word, as I often get caught up in wordy complex sentences and thus lose meaning. Especially in your introduction, your way to use colons and dashes allowed you to define theme words and include smooth concept transitions without writing separate sentences just for them. This is exemplified in the line, “While cruelty, or actions contradicting the preservation of life, appear to be only degrading and callous, in such circumstances that warrant extreme cruelty, it serves to instigate extraordinary perceptions of the ordinary; thus, extraordinary individuals are those who maintain ordinary, humane characteristics during times of war – or extraordinary cruelty,” as you glide into your explanation of extraordinary without writing another sentence right after explaining cruelty.

    In terms of content, the way you were able to bring in that “aha” at the end of almost every single paragraph amazed me, as I find this crafting of concept to be quite difficult, as my transitions from my “mean” sections to “matter” tend to be repetitive instead of revealing a greater idea. My favourite line from your essay was, “the effect of such cruelty on civilization is often measured by the capacity of those involved to prevail,” as it brought me to realize how fragile the human character is, as the ability to grip onto sanctity and sanity in conditions of extreme insanity is not the norm, thus the measurement of the number of those that remain intact after such circumstances acts as a scale to determine the severity of an event.

    As for improvement, I honestly do not have much to say to add to your ideas and content of essay due to your exemplary development of ideas that I will reference myself for help in the future. Since I must though critique something to make your beautiful essay even better, I will comment on your structure and spacing.😊 I would suggest combining your third and fourth paragraphs to maintain the flow that you establish with your quote then analysis formatting, as the continuation of the chair evidence would allow you to build upon your existing idea from paragraph three as an extension. Likewise, combining the fifth and sixth paragraphs may also allow you to reinforce your idea of saving animals through the enhancement of structural flow. However, since this is a blog, it might be better to leave spacing for reading purposes, so I guess it is up to you to work with this suggestion for the blog or in general for any traditional paper where you use this essay.

    Overall, I absolutely loved reading your work and will definitely be reading more of your critical writing as exemplars for concise and exceptional writing. From your vocabulary and sentence styles to the actual content, every part of your essay was pretty much flawless and overall worked to craft this beautiful essay of yours – great job, Shyla!

    Preet 😊

  2. Dearest Shyla,

    Wow! I absolutely love this piece! You have the most exquisite style of writing and I am amazed by your mind always! Your attention to detail is beyond brilliant- some of the quotes you added were so specific and brought so much expertise. When you wrote, “..extraordinary perceptions of the ordinary; thus, extraordinary individuals are those who maintain ordinary, humane characteristics during times of war – or extraordinary cruelty.” I realized how we still hold true to this today and how we put those who demonstrate the most human(ordinary) characteristics on a pedestal due to the overwhelming amount of cruelty our generation faces through the media. So, thank you for such a relevant and insightful piece.

    I have nothing in terms of improvement other than a few gumps- I was too immersed in your writing to notice anything.

    The ideas you presented were very well articulated and I’m always so blown away by you, Shyla.



  3. Dear Preet,

    Thank you for reading my blog. Tarannum was right, you do write essays for comments :). I am glad that you enjoyed this blog. As for your suggestions, I will work on formatting in my next piece – I like the idea of combining paragraphs to enforce similar ideas through structural flow.

    Thanks again,


  4. Dear Liza,

    I am glad that you enjoyed this blog. I had not thought of the relevance of the extraordinary versus the ordinary in the media before, so thank you for that present day connection! Likewise, you always blow me away with your ideas.

    Thanks for reading my blog,


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