PROMPT: A recurring theme is the classic war between a passion and responsibility. For instance, a personal cause, a love, a desire for revenge, a determination to redress a wrong, or some other emotion or drive may conflict with moral duty. Choose a literary work in which a character confronts the demands of a private passion that conflicts with his or her responsibilities. In a well-written essay, show clearly the nature of the conflict, its effects upon the character, and its significance to the work. (1980)
In a world of societal expectations and cultural norms, the responsibilities of an individual often come into conflict with their private passions, inducing the age-old war between duty and desire – this forces them to reconcile one with the other, a struggle that can result not just in the deformity of both ideals, but also in the ultimate destruction of the individual’s previously-held identity. In his 1977 novel The Wars, author Timothy Findley describes the inner conflicts raging within nineteen-year old soldier Robert Ross, whose respect for the sanctity of life pits him against the utter brutality demanded of him by the figures of authority in his own life, whether at home or at war. Through his novel, then, Findley explores the idea that the struggle to reconcile both duty and desire eventually lead to the downfall in the purity of those ideals, resulting in an altered worldview where both exist, albeit in a corrupted form where both are compromised to make room for the other. When this distortion is allowed to happen, the individual can lose sight of his initial – and often naïve – values, paving the way for a newfound perspective and identity in which both passion and responsibility reign.
Before an individual is forced to face the harshness of reality, one is often filled with naïve ideals making up a personal cause; when a tragic event occurs, however, they may suddenly find themselves face to face with a responsibility that runs contrary to their desires. Drawing strength from yet unstained beliefs, one initially finds the will to stand up for their cause, a course of action that often leads to conflict and signals the beginning of their cause’s destruction in a failed attempt to assert it in the face of a stronger, unwanted responsibility. Towards the beginning of the novel, in an attempt to stand up for his belief in the sanctity of life, Robert refuses to kill his sister Rowena’s pet rabbits after her death; when another man is called to do the job, Robert tries to prevent him from doing so, with Findley describing it thus: “His mother was adamant. The rabbits had to die – and Robert had to do it…A man called Teddy Budge was telephoned…It took him [Robert] thirty seconds to…realize why Teddy Budge was there. Robert…lunged, butting his head like a battering ram between the giant’s [Teddy’s] shoulder blades” (Findley 25). In refusing to accept his duty to kill his sister’s rabbits, Robert finds himself challenging his mother’s wishes. Desperate to execute the deed, a man called Teddy Budge is summoned, but upon realizing Teddy Budge’s intention to kill the rabbits, Robert uses all his might to attack him in an attempt to prevent what he deemed cruel and unnecessary. Though Robert is beaten up and eventually defeated, his course of action indicates a strong sense of steadfastness to his personal cause, which, in this case, is his upholding of life. Strengthened by his belief in its importance, Robert sacrifices even his well-being for his passion and thus, still finds the ability to prioritize said passion over his responsibility. His untainted ideals about life trump all else, signifying the burning strength of hope that comes with youth, a hope not yet challenged by the painful truth of adulthood. The death of his sister, however, signals the beginning of the end of Robert’s own innocence, as this tragic occurrence forces him to think about reality and the place of his personal beliefs in a harsh, and often unrelenting, world. Though Robert himself does not kill the animals – symbolizing life and innocence – he eventually has no choice but to allow it, thereby triggering the deterioration of his inner desires in favour of an inevitable duty. Thus, when an individual is first faced with a tragic event that calls for an unwanted responsibility, they harbour the ability to find inner strength in their largely unchallenged private passions. This allows them to oppose their duty without hesitation, being still unfamiliar with the necessity to choose between duty and desire. However, once one experiences conflict between their personal cause and an opposing, yet urgent, responsibility, it is often impossible to continue living without having to consider their duties, ultimately resulting in the collapse of a once-strong private belief. Robert Ross, once having faced an affront to his idea of life, finds himself pondering more and more upon his devotion to its sanctity and on whether it can be effectively reconciled in a world stripped of humanity, especially in the face of a raging world war.
When forced to put responsibility before passion, one’s ideals often struggle to remain intact; this expectation to devote oneself wholeheartedly to duty drastically disrupts the balance between said duty and desire, thereby resulting in the often-temporary disappearance of any private passions in a desperate attempt to adhere to expectation. This slowly leads to a corrupted version of the individual’s ideals, one in which the passion is almost completely overshadowed by responsibility. On his way to England on the S.S. Massanabie after enlisting in the Canadian army, Robert is forced to shoot a horse injured in the ship’s hold, as Findley writes: “Robert approached the horse…He fired. A chair fell over in his mind. He closed his eyes and opened them…and fired again…He began to squeeze the trigger and he squeezed it again and again and again” (pg. 65-66). As one of the only officers on board possessing a pistol, Robert finds himself required to kill a horse with a broken leg. While performing his duty, Robert recalls how his sister died – by falling off a chair – as a result of his neglect. Seeing, then, that the horse is not killed by the first bullet, Robert begins to shoot madly, eventually unloading the entire gun upon the dying animal. Now a soldier and bound to the orders of his superiors, Robert has no choice but to do what offends his great respect for life. In shooting the horse once, however, Robert fails to kill it, which forces him to undergo the pain once more as he attempts to shoot the horse again. Desperate to prove his capability as an officer and wanting to disguise his panic under a mask of decisiveness and control, Robert begins to shoot the horse rather overzealously; in a mixture of anger, disgust, and desperation, Robert manages to find the nerve to take another life, at the expense of his private passion. This marks a change in Robert’s character, as he now finds himself helpless in fighting against cruelty towards life. Forced to take responsibility himself, Robert takes leave of his morals in regards to life and disrupts the balance between his duty and his desire. At this point, Robert begins to succumb to the brutality and lack of humanity brought about by the war, thereby losing the innocence and naïvety of his youth. In the same way, individuals who are forced to put responsibility first before passion often give in to the demands of their duty, prompting them to lose sight of their personal cause in favour of effectively completing what is demanded of them. However, this also means that they often lose a part of their identity, as the previously burning passion of their youth is extinguished by the cold, harsh truth of impending adulthood and therefore, of responsibility. While the disappearance of these deeply-held passions are often temporary, they do signal the corruption of the purity in their desires as the demands of duty make their way deeper and deeper into their ideals, until the point where they can no longer be safely ignored. Likewise, Robert does not fully lose sight of his personal cause, but being more and more burdened by the strains of his duty as an officer, he is forced to re-evaluate his perspective on life and this leads to a newly formed identity in which his worldview is a combination of both, a passion forever to be stained by responsibility.
Finding it harder and harder to ignore one’s responsibilities, individuals are often forced to forge a new perspective in which their personal cause must co-exist with their duty – or their version of it – lest their private passions disappear entirely under its unforgiving demands; consequently, their responsibilities and passions merge as one, their initial forms left as nothing more than shadows of their former selves, hints of glories long-forgotten in the wake of a brutal world. Towards the end of the novel, during a German shelling attack, Robert decides to release a group of horses and mules with the help of fellow soldier Devlin, in blatant disobedience of the orders of Captain Leather, their commanding officer. Findley, describing the scene, writes: “They both [Robert and Devlin] stood up and began to release the horses and mules and to drive them into the yards…three shells burst…in the yard…All the horses and mules were either dead or were dying….Robert shot him [Leather] between the eyes…It took him half-an-hour to kill the mules and horses” (Findley 177-178). Robert, now tired of the insanity of war and the brutality of his superiors, directly disobeys his superior by freeing the horses and mules in danger of being killed by the Germans shells. However, the horses and mules are eventually injured when three shells burst in the yard, disorienting Captain Leather as well. In this moment of confusion, Robert takes the opportunity to kill his commanding officer; afterwards, he proceeds to end the suffering of the dying mules and horses, thereafter fleeing the battlefield. This scene signifies a certain maturation in regards to Robert’s perspective on his passion and his duty; no longer the innocent and naïve youth he once was, Robert finds the will to define his own responsibility through the lens of his personal cause. However, worn and eroded by the demands of war, Robert’s former purity in his defense of life suffers a sense of degradation – life is no longer just black and white, and accordingly, neither are his actions. Still committed to life in the midst of death, Robert attempts one last desperate act to affirm his belief in its sanctity. Through freeing the horses, Robert’s sense of duty and passion merge as one, serving as an indication of his growth as an individual, but also of his steadfastness to his morals in light of his experiences. In other words, his responsibility – namely, the saving of the horses for the army’s sake – becomes one with his private passion, that is, his commitment to life. No longer independent from one another, however, Robert’s ideals become distorted and this marks a permanent change in his beliefs; emboldened by a new sense of identity, Robert finds the will not only to shoot Captain Leather – in direct contrast to his upholding of life – but the dying horses as well. However, it is only in this paradox that Robert’s true sense of self is seen. By killing the horses, Robert ensures that the purity of their innocence is not stained by the pain and cruelty of a world gone mad, thereby affirming his undying devotion to life and to humanity. Thus, individuals never truly lose sight of their private desires. Instead, they are only re-evaluated in light of their duty, creating a mélange of passion and responsibility that forms a sense of identity. In this way, the war between duty and desire is reconciled. Any former ideas glorifying either passion or responsibility are shattered by reality, leaving romanticized ideals nothing more than echoes of a past blinded by immaturity. Likewise, Robert leaves his naïve desires and grows to accept his duty, allowing him to form a sense of identity founded on his ideals, but strengthened by reality.
Trapped in the crossfire between passion and responsibility, individuals often face the struggle to reconcile one with the other, resulting not only in the downfall of any romanticized ideals, but also in the development of a different, and often stronger, sense of self. In his powerful novel The Wars, Timothy Findley explores the idea that duty and desire can work together, a feat attained as long as one remains steadfast to one’s morals despite the life-changing, and often traumatic, experiences that one is forced to endure. Through the character of Robert Ross, readers can watch his transition from adolescence to adulthood, witnessing as his wounded innocence paves a way for a broken, yet stronger, perspective on life. Filled with the hopeful fervour of youth, Robert initially finds the strength to combat undesired responsibility, only to be whisked into a war – both within himself and without – that forces the weight of his responsibilities upon him, causing him to disrupt the balance between duty and desire in an attempt to prove his worth. However, through his wounded innocence, he finds a way for a broken, yet stronger, perspective on life, eventually proving that even amidst a world intent on duty, passion can find a way to assert itself in unexpected ways. So, lost in a nightmare world blinded by smoke, deafened by gunfire, and awash in blood – lost loves, shattered dreams, broken hopes – an individual need only listen to the whispers of a responsibility to which all are bound. For every lost soldier groping their way through the darkness of a world gone blind, their sole duty remains thus: to seek deep within themselves the passion of a youth thought long-forgotten, a desire scarred by war but reflecting within it a sense of hope brimming with new life.