Cruelty, Kindness, and Heroism: Timothy Findley’s The Wars

Prompt: 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)



Cruelty is known to take many forms. Human history is infused with acts that, while not necessarily violent, are nonetheless cruel: whether it be sexual abuse, genocide, torture, negligence, or some other perverse construction of the human mind, we are astute at causing those around us suffering. War times are generally considered to be the quintessence of these various cruelties—the pervasiveness and scale of brutality during such times almost guarantees that the individuals involved will either be perpetrators or victims of unkind acts—but such situations can also provide the correct conditions for unexpected acts of charity, which can be seen as heroic. Thus it may be said that one’s perception of acts of callousness and acts of kindness are fundamentally intertwined. The juxtaposition of acts of cruelty and mercy in Timothy Findley’s The Wars demonstrates how an individual’s response to various cruel acts may alter their worldview; namely, how being a victim of cruelty—as is the case with Robert Ross—can cause an individual to dissociate from their previous notions of kindness and what constitutes as heroic. Essentially, Robert’s exposure to cruelty causes him to alter his notion of generosity to cope with the cruel realities of his life, revealing the way in which his sense of heroism evolves over the course of World War I.


Robert’s view on heroism—before he has experienced the cruelty of war—is first established by his interactions with Rowena; he views himself as her guardian, and by extension, a protector of innocence. Rowena’s death and his failure to be present at the moment of her passing, however, causes Robert to realize his deficiencies as a hero. Allowing her to die when he could have potentially saved her inspires Robert to adopt the idea that he was the source of preventable pain for his sister, and thus Robert’s first experience with guilt—a type of cruelty—is self-inflicted. Robert effectively becomes a victim of a cruelty he imposed on himself for his shortcomings, which is used by Findley to demonstrate how cruelty alters the psyche of its victims. The death of Rowena, who was the source of compassion and purity in Robert’s life, is also the destruction of his original view of generosity, cementing Robert’s view that he deserves to suffer because of his misgivings as a hero. Findley thereby demonstrates how an individual’s experience with cruelty can cause the degradation of their sense of benevolence; because of this experience with cruelty, Robert views any escape from his family and his own guilt as a blessing. This includes the war; rather than carefully considering his motivations to enlist, Robert rationalizes the war as being a sort of kindness in that it allows him to flee his self-induced cruelty and the loss of his previous definition of magnanimity through the medium of heroic war acts. Robert’s new view of what constitutes heroism—changed from being Rowena’s protector to becoming an excellent soldier—can, therefore, be said to be directly connected to the cruelty he is subject to, and his notion of generosity acts as the bridge between these two concepts.


Taffler becomes the new embodiment of heroism for Robert; the latter’s status as a decorated war hero causes Robert to view him as an idol. Simply by filling the role of a mentor in Robert’s life, Taffler becomes a source of kindness because he provides an image that enables Robert’s sense of escapism. Seeing Taffler have sex with the Swede, however, is interpreted by Robert as a betrayal of the masculine ideal he represent—in other words, it is a cruel act. Essentially, Taffler is unwittingly cruel to Robert because he destroys the image Robert revered as benevolent—as a blessing—in a life without mentors. Robert’s violent response to this cruelty—throwing the pitcher—is the manifestation of his inability to accept, for the second time, the destruction of what he believes to be heroic. To reconcile this conflict between his previous beliefs and the reality he is presented with, Robert, rather than choosing to escape as he did before, decides to accept the corruption of heroism with sexuality in order to maintain the sense of generosity created by his view of the war as an escape. Cruelty has made him unable to return to the altruism of Rowena, and so the war is his grace in this aspect; however, to keep this blessing, he is forced to acquiesce to the fall in his sense of what valour is. In other terms, cruelty causes one to cling to that which is kind, even when it may result in the sacrifice of heroic ideals. Thus Robert’s falling ideals demonstrates how an individual’s values can collapse in the face of cruelty, as it reveals the fickleness of certain ideals in individuals; the fallibility of a concept such as role-models indicates that heroism belongs to this category.


Robert’s idea of heroism is altered once again by the German sniper he encounters after the gas attack; he is once again subjected to a cruelty­—the cruelty of uncertainty—when he is not fully sure of what the soldier is doing. Robert fails to realize that the sniper had spared him, a type of kindness on the battlefield, and makes the choice to kill the other man to escape the cruelty of ambiguity; he thus becomes the perpetrator of his own cruelty—this time, directly—by killing the compassion he was presented with. It is only after Robert realizes that the man was watching birds that he begins to respect the restraint shown by the German sniper as being a heroic quality. Cruelty makes Robert realize that heroism can be greater than what is represented by Taffler; the respect for life the German has is what makes this cruelty particularly haunting for Robert—it reveals to him the sacrifice of the idyllic notion of heroism he had held. Being a victim of cruelty essentially weakened his sense of heroism because he viewed the war as a generous escape; this event causes him to realize the fallacy in viewing an otherwise cruel event as being benevolent. His realization causes Robert to adopt a final version of what constitutes as heroic—which is, simply, viewing life as precious. The integration of this concept into his actions allows him to respond to cruelty with inner generosity; rather than searching for kindness in the world, Robert begins to seek internal compassion as an answer to his circumstances. The freedom Robert achieves from the acceptance of this idea is what allows him to act “heroically” by deserting and attempting to save the horses. Therefore, it may be said that Findley illustrated how cruelty shapes an individual’s view on heroism—Robert’s view of cruelty, determined by the various ways in which he suffered, altered his view of generosity. When taken together, these two parts of Robert’s experience created his final sense of heroism.


Robert’s arc in Timothy Findley’s The Wars demonstrates how heroism is impacted by one’s perception of kindness and cruelty; victims of cruelty have their ideals and their sense of compassion altered with each cruel event they experience. Overall, the novel uses these various cruelties to reveal how victim Robert Ross’ view of heroism is altered over time. Exposure to cruelty is not necessarily evil; rather, it can cause the growth of an individual’s sense of generosity and, by extension, their sense of heroism, demonstrating how cruelty causes the improvement of character. Cruelty, ultimately, can challenge one’s ideals and cause their progression.

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