Nearly a century after World War I, the hopeful, innocent, sentimental ending of Edith Wharton’s novella The Marne is jarring.
This was a war in which much of a generation of young men on both sides lost their lives in bloody battles across huge stalemated fronts. A war in which attempts at strategy were overwhelmed by the armaments of heightened technical and industrial sophistication, grinding up waves of troops like mechanical threshers.
It was a war that destroyed all military romance and glamor. A war exemplified in such novels as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and R. H. Mottram’s Spanish Farm Trilogy (1924-1926).
Unlike those books, however, Wharton’s The Marne wasn’t published several years after the conflict when the shattering realities of the trenches could be faced in all their existential insanity and inanity.
The home front
So, The Marne, which came out as a book later that year, doesn’t have the post-war, angst-filled perspective of Remarque, Mottram and other writers. Also, it really isn’t a book about the battlefield although its central character Troy Belknap, a 19-year-old ambulance driver, is shot at the second battle of the Marne while helping a wounded soldier.
This is a book about the American home front — about the attitudes of the American rich to the war, attitudes that, in Wharton’s description, are often shallow, self-serving and ignorant.
“It makes us so happy to help,” beaming young women declared with a kind of ghoulish glee, doing up parcels, planning war-tableaux and charity dances, rushing to “propaganda” lectures given by handsome French officers, and keeping up a kind of continuous picnic on the ruins of civilization.
The Marne is told from the point of view of Troy who is 15 when the war begins and longs to do his part. In that quote, though, it’s clear that Wharton is coming out from behind her young character and making clear her own attitude. Troy is very wrought-up by the war, but such a phrase as “a kind of continuous picnic on the ruins of civilization” is much more nuanced and, frankly, more brutal than he would have been able to conjure up.
“The beautiful things”
Troy shares with Wharton a love of France as more than just another country. It is a deep part of his upbringing, as can be seen in the novella’s charming opening sentences:
Ever since the age of six Troy Belknap of New York had embarked for Europe every June on the fastest steamer of one of the most expensive lines.
With his family he had descended at the dock from a large noiseless motor, had kissed his father good-bye, turned back to shake hands with the chauffeur (a particular friend), and trotted up the gang-plank behind his mother’s maid, while one welcoming steward captured Mrs. Belknap’s bag and another led away her miniature French bull-dog — also a particular friend of Troy’s.
At Cherbourg or some other port, the boy and his family would enter another noiseless motor car
…and they were rushing eastward through the orchards of Normandy.
The little boy’s happiness would have been complete if there had been more time to give to the beautiful things that flew past them; thatched villages with square-towered churches in hollows of the deep green country, or grey shining towns above rivers on which cathedrals seemed to be moored like ships; miles and miles of field and hedge and park falling away from high terraced houses, and little embroidered stone manors reflected in reed-grown moats under ancient trees.
“Windows on the universe”
And, over the summers, the boy’s love of France grows even stronger during long conversations with his French tutor Paul Gantier.
“Whatever happens, keep your mind keen and clear; open as many windows on the universe as you can.” To Troy France had been the biggest of those windows.
The young tutor had never declaimed about his country: he had simply told her story, and embodied her ideal in his own impatient questioning and yet ardent spirit…and he had shown Troy how France had always been alive in every fiber, and how her inexhaustible vitality had been perpetually nourished on criticism, analysis and dissatisfaction.
“Self-satisfaction is death,” he had said’ “France is the phoenix-country always rising from the ashes of her recognized mistakes.”
France as a symbol
This is the France that Troy falls in love with. It is the France that Wharton obviously loves — and, as the war goes on, worries over.
Nevertheless, it is something else as well. This is France as a symbol of the intellectually active, morally questioning life — of a life willing to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.
That phrase that “self-satisfaction is death” could be Wharton’s motto and a summing up of all her works.
In contrast to such a vibrant approach to existence, she presents the American upper-class debating the war, with many comments rooted in the satisfaction that no U.S. soldiers were losing their lives on the battlefields:
Troy, listening to the heated talk at his parents’ table, perceived with disgust and wonder that at the bottom of the anti-war sentiment, whatever specious impartiality it put on, there was always the odd belief that life-in-itself — just the raw fact of being alive — was the one thing that mattered and getting killed the one thing to be avoided.
This new standard of human dignity plunged Troy into the lowest depths of pessimism. And it bewildered him as much as it disgusted him, since it did away at a stroke with all that gave any interest in the fact of living. It killed romance, it killed poetry and adventure, it took all the meaning out of history and conduct and civilization. There had never been anything worth while in the world that had not had to be died for, and it was as clear as day that a world which no one would die for could never be a world worth being alive in.
Yes, World War I killed the glamor and romance of military actions. Wharton may have had some sense of this when she was writing The Marne. Still, her point isn’t an endorsement of the clueless braggadocio of young soldiers.
She is writing about moral bravery.
At various time in this novella, Troy is more than a little wooly in his thinking. There is, however, steel in his character as he seeks to find a way to do his part to save France.
And find a way to be fully alive, even at the risk of death.
Patrick T. Reardon