The first World War heralded the beginning of the modern, globalizing world. It was a brutal conflict, fought with a deadly combination of old strategies and new technology, that resulted in 37 million casualties, including more than 9 million deaths among the military and nearly 7 million deaths among civilians. The war that tragically did not end all wars has inspired many writers, from that period to the present, to wrestle with the particular horrors of World War I. Many poets, like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, whose "Strange Meeting" narrates the meeting of a soldier in Hell with the man he killed, blasted the glorifying conventions of patriotic war poetry, and they were swiftly followed by a veritable parade of great poets, novelists, and memoirists who, even if they did not become pacifists (though a good number did, including E. M. Forster), examined the terrible costs of modern warfare and criticized the inhumanity and monstrous suffering that occurred during the war. Here are 8 truly great novels set during World War I, all but one written by novelists who witnessed the conflict.
The Deepening Stream/Home Fires in France - Dorothy Canfield
Dorothy Canfield was in France from 1916 onwards, working to provide relief for blinded war veterans and refugee children, and she was the first widely read American author to expose American readers to the horrific realities of World War I, particularly the realities of civilian life. In 1918, Canfield published Home Fires in France, a book of short fiction about French civilians living under German occupation and the constant threat of bombardment. In 1930, she published The Deepening Stream, a bildungsroman that follows Matey from her childhood through her marriage and her life in France during World War I. Canfield based much of her writing on this subject on what she herself witnessed and few writers offer testimony as heartrending.
The Enormous Room - e. e. cummings
cummings served as an ambulance driver in France, but was arrested by French authorities as a subversive, due to pacifist sentiments expressed in letters written by a friend. The four months he spent in a French prison were the inspiration for this witty and deeply disturbing autobiographical novel. Despite the dark subject matter and the extreme moral confusion of prison life, cummings delineates a Bunyanesque spiritual journey, finding what he believed to be salvation in the alienated freedom of imprisonment.
Parade's End - Ford Madox Ford
Ford's masterpiece is actually a set of four novels, usually published in one volume. Some critics believe that Parade's End is the single greatest war novel of all time and it would be difficult to argue against that conclusion. Christopher Tietjens is first and foremost a gentleman; he is also a brilliant statistician and a cuckold who believes that he cannot honorably restrain or divorce his wife. He enlists in the army both out of a sense of duty and out of a desperate desire to escape his miserable marriage. He is also resisting the temptation of an affair with a lovely young suffragette, a love made all the more tempting given his regrettable marriage. A brilliant, kaleidoscopic novel that captures the dying spirit of an ancient British class embroiled in violent conflict and shifting politics.
The African Queen - C. S. Forester
Today, The African Queen is remembered chiefly as the source material for the great Hollywood film of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, but the novel deserves a greater readership. The Belgian Congo has been occupied by German troops, stranding Rose Sayer, a British missionary recently bereaved of her minister brother, along the Ulanga river. Cockney layabout Charlie Allnutt invites her aboard his ramshackle boat, the African Queen, and as they sail down the river, the two strong wills clash and eventually collaborate in a plan to destroy the German gunboat, the Queen Louisa, the chief German naval power in the region. The African Queen is one of the finest adventure novels ever written.
A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway
This novel, like The Enormous Room, is based on the wartime experiences of its author, also an ambulance driver, though Hemingway served in Italy rather than France. Banned in Italy for nearly two decades for its deeply unflattering depiction of the Italian Army, A Farewell to Arms is about American Frederic Henry, who enlists in the Italian Army as an ambulance driver and becomes increasingly disillusioned with the violence of warfare and the seemingly random and rough hand of military discipline, all the more so as the war separates him from his beloved Catherine, a British nurse who cares for him when he's wounded. This novel was Hemingway's first bestseller and the work that sealed his reputation.
Atonement - Ian McEwan
This devastating novel is about Briony, a young girl who, on the eve of World War I, witnesses a sexual encounter between her sister and a childhood friend, Robbie, that disturbs her deeply and leads her to accuse the boy of rape. This false testimony splits the family apart, sending Robbie to prison and later to the hellish French front and driving Briony to attempt to expiate her guilt working as a nurse. McEwan's novel is one of the finest books of the current century, a complex work that explores guilt, sacrifice, love, violence, sexuality, and, as the title indicates, atonement.
Rilla of Ingleside - L. M. Montgomery
This, the final novel in the series begun with Anne of Green Gables, follows Anne's youngest daughter Rilla. As all of the young men leave for the European front, including three of her brothers and her sweetheart, Rilla is barely fifteen and far more interested in parties than in the frightening news from abroad, and though her coming of age is fraught by the devastation of the conflict, she finds hope through volunteering for the Red Cross and caring for a war orphan. Though far more serious in tone than the other books in the series, Rilla of Ingleside is one of Montgomery's finest novels. Significantly, this is the only contemporary Canadian novel about World War I written from a woman's perspective.
Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf
The shadow of World War I falls on every paragraph of this modernist novel, but it comes to the fore during the sections of the novel about Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran suffering from shell shock whose continuous hallucinations of a friend whose death he witnessed make him increasingly desperate and keep him isolated from the prosperity of post-war London.Though at first glance, Septimus seems like a superfluous character, connected to Clarissa Dalloway by only the most tenuous of ties, he is essential to understanding Woolf's many faceted depiction of post-war England, for while the other characters have successfully distanced themselves from the recent horrors that left so many dead, mutilated, or bereaved, Septimus cannot do so. Mrs. Dalloway is one of the best novels of the past century.