“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)
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.