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.