The Wars – Idealism and Truth

PROMPT: A symbol is an object, action, or event that represents something or that creates a range of associations beyond itself. In literary works, a symbol can express an idea, clarify meaning, or enlarge literal meaning. Select a novel or play and, focusing one one symbol, write an essay analyzing how that symbol functions in the work and what it reveals about the characters or themes of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot. (2009)


In times of war, an individual’s pursuit of their ideals is often in conflict with the discovery of truth; idealism is the pursuit of an individual’s unrealistic conceptions, and the uncovering of truth instigates one’s ideals to change. In literary works, symbolism is the use of an object, action, or event to represent a much deeper and significant meaning than what the object is in its literal sense. In any case, symbols are used to clarify the pathway of a character’s development, and in Timothy Findley’s novel, The Wars, photographs of Rowena are used as a symbol to represent Robert Ross’s journey of idealism and truth.  As an individual who holds great value in the idea of innocence, his ideals are defined as his will to protect the upholding of life in regards to innocence, and truth is clarified as the reality of war; in other words, the brutality and lack of humanity in those times. Through this novel, the author explores the pathways between the interlocking themes of idealism and truth; how the discovery of truth ultimately changes an individual’s ideals from an ignorance of reality, to the destruction of those ideals, and the renewal of one’s ideals. This is demonstrated through Robert’s exposure to the reality of war, which alters his naive ideals, paving the way to a newfound perspective on ideals and truth.


Before an individual is exposed to the harsh truths of reality, one is often filled with ignorant and naive ideals because of the lack of experience one has in life. An idealistic belief that one can control all external forces, and an overly optimistic view on life can also be attributed to an individual’s naivety. This is demonstrated through Robert’s assertion that he is Rowena’s protector, and therefore, a protector of innocence. In the photograph the archivist shows, Robert watches a parade dedicated to soldiers with Rowena. “He watches with a dubious expression; half admiring—half reluctant to admire… He doubts the validity in all this martialling of men but the doubt is inarticulate… He reaches for the wicker back of a wheelchair.” (11)  This photograph symbolizes the lack of truth Robert perceives; his doubts about the soldiers are overridden by his romanticized ideals of the heroism of war. He identifies the soldiers as the protectors of something great – although unclear – and this correlates to his will to act as Rowena’s guardian. However, when he fails to uphold his promises, and Rowena, a symbol of innocence, dies, he blames himself, and this represents his initial exposure to the truths of his own helplessness. Rowena’s death symbolizes the end of Robert’s naive ideals; the ideals in which he is able to protect Rowena from all external occurrences. The fact that Rowena is born a hydrocephalic also indicates Robert’s lack of control over his circumstances, and therefore, the fragility of his ideals. In turn, Robert’s failure to protect Rowena induces him to enlist into the war in order to escape the pain that the recognition of truth brought.


When an individual is forced to be in an environment where only the cruelty of war is present, one’s ideals struggle to remain unblemished; the truth is plain to see and the lack of humanity is explored throughout the events of the novel. Robert struggles with the balance between his ideals and his responsibility as a solider; his innocence is slowly degrading into a corrupt will to survive. In the climax of the novel, Robert is sexually assaulted by his fellow soldiers, and he loses his sense of privacy and dignity. This action caused by the harshness of war brings the destruction of his innocence and ideals. Robert, having experienced the impracticality of his ideals, “… burned it [Rowena’s photo] in the middle of the floor. This was not an act of anger—but an act of charity.” (179-180) By using the imagery of burning the photo, it invokes a sense of letting go; Robert finally releases the guilt he feels over Rowena’s death, and destroys the sense of idealistic innocence the picture is associated with. By using the word “charity,” Robert recognizes that the world of war is full of chaos and corruption, and is therefore glad that Rowena did not live to see the truths he experienced. This action symbolizes the destruction of his initially pure ideals of heroism in war and Findley demonstrates how an individual’s discovery of truth can cause the degradation of one’s ideals, and the actions that are induced by the destruction of said ideals. Although Robert loses his innocence, he gains an understanding of the value of innocence, and the pathway to a newfound ideal constrained by truth.


After being revealed to the truth, individuals are not able to revert to their initial sense of pure ideals. It is essential that individuals find a balance between ideals and truth else they will experience a forever ongoing conflict withing themselves. This affirmation of ideals and truth is evident in the final photograph presented by the archivist; “Robert and Rowena with Meg: Rowena seated astride the pony—Robert holding her in place. On the back is written: ‘Look! You can see our breath!’ And you can.” (200) This photograph signifies Robert’s renewal of ideals – “You can see our breath!” is a symbol of life – breath is an indication that one is alive, and also represents Robert’s refusal to die. It is in this photograph at the end of the novel that Findley suggests a full circle; although Robert may never return to his initial state of innocence, his ideals are strengthened because of the reality he has experienced. This photograph’s meaning can also be linked to Robert’s response to what Marian Turner perceived as a merciful act; he refuses euthanasia and this illustrates his affirmation of life, and thus, his ideals. Robert’s choice to endure through life’s suffering and pain reinforces the idea that he never loses the value of his innocence, but rather maintains it. His ideals are intertwined with his ideas of innocence and through this photograph, one is able to recognize that Robert’s ideals are grounded in truth. Robert recognizes that death and loss of innocence is a truth, but his sanctity for life is upheld at the end of his story, hence, he is able to find a balance between his ideals and the truth.


Robert’s journey in Timothy Findley’s The Wars demonstrates how the cruelty of war impacts an individual’s perceptions of idealism and truth. Victims to the experiences of war have their ideals altered with each piece of truth they discover. Overall, the novel uses photographs to symbolize Robert’s struggle with his ideals and truth. Pursuing ideals is not incompatible with truth; rather it can invoke the growth of an individual’s perspectives on life, and allow their ideals to prevail in coexistence with truth.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email

5 thoughts on “The Wars – Idealism and Truth

  1. Dearest Kelley,

    I love that you chose a prompt so broad in relation to The Wars, and made it so specific and concise. Your writing exemplified all your main ideas perfectly and I thought it was really clever of you to define symbol and idealism. I thought you created a wonderful contrast between the fragility of photos but also the everlasting nature of photographs. This can be attributed to how Robert believed his innocence and innocence represented by Rowena would last forever, when in reality; it was easily demolished.

    My only improvement that I would suggest is to elaborate a bit more on the human condition in terms of ideals v.s. reality. Try to incorporate other ways his attitudes towards reality motivates his ideals and how that correlates to photographs on a literal and figurative level.

    Amazing work, darling.

    Love you lots,


  2. Dearest Kelley,
    Wonderful work! I really enjoyed reading your essay; it was insightful but concise – your diction was very intentional and, as a result, very impactful. I loved that you started Robert’s character arch by stating, “an overly optimistic view on life can also be attributed to an individual’s naivety” as it aided in the progression you developed very well. His experiences stole his naivety from him and, consequently, his optimism. Brilliant! Also, I loved the tidbit you had about the breath being “an indication that one is alive, and also represents Robert’s refusal to die”: to be alive is not simply a state of being but, in Robert’s case, a battle in itself. I found this was something I hadn’t really considered in the wars but when you stated this it brought to mind how badly Robert wanted to die at the beginning of the book but couldn’t. Even though he couldn’t kill himself, he wasn’t living until he refused death rather than accepting the inability to die. Finally, I appreciated that your essay concluded in the same manner as the book did – with hope.

    Regarding improvements, I would suggest the addition of more matter in the last body paragraph.

    Great work, Kelley!


    1. Dearest Ibukun and Liz,

      As I have wrote this essay at a very late hour because of my procrastination, you guys flatter me with your comments. I really appreciate the sincerity of your advice and will take them to heart. Thanks so much for taking your time to read my last-minute scrambled essay!

      Many hugs,

  3. My dearest Kelley,

    I am so grateful that I can rob your brain of all it holds. You have an underrated brilliance, one that we definitely need more of. Personally, I fear critical essays, so I need fantastic examples like this one. You used a “tried and true” essay topic (idealism vs. reality) and delivered a fantastic piece. I loved the choice of photographs as the focused symbol, as you used their nostalgic nature to show how Rowena’s innocence affect the story even after her death. Finally, the way you discussed Robert’s eventually corruption was unique, and gave me insights on my next few essays.

    To improve, I would say to focus more on the meaning behind the use of photographs. Try to get to the reason why Findley chose them as a symbol. An idea, a photo both makes the subject of it immortal, but also vulnerable to easy methods of destruction. (Robert’s burning of Rowena’s photo).

    Otherwise a stellar piece! Looking forward to hearing more from you in the future.



    1. Dearest Claire,

      Thank you so much for taking your time to read my procrastination essay. I really appreciate all the advice you’ve given me, and I really like your idea of how photos makes the subject immortal, but also vulnerable to destruction. I will try to incorporate your advice in my future pieces.

      Thanks again,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *