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1-Page Summary of The Great War and Modern Memory
This book by Paul Fussell argues that World War I marked a major cultural shift from the Romanticism of the previous century to something more pessimistic. It was published in 1975 and won the National Book Award for Arts and Letters.
In the first chapter, titled “A Satire of Circumstance,” Fussell notes how irony becomes a main theme in Western culture as the war rages on. He defines irony broadly as something that people didn’t expect to happen. The author quotes Thomas Hardy extensively and calls him the master of irony up until this point in history. Early in the chapter, he characterizes the situation like this:
Casualties were shocking during World War I. Both sides had become entrenched in a stalemate, which caused many casualties and suffering. Sensitive people perceived that the war would last longer than expected, as it was going to be more devastating than anyone imagined.
The next chapter, “The Troglodyte World,” focuses on the trenches that were dug into the ground by both sides during the war. The author discusses how soldiers would spend days at a time in these trenches and how they suffered from exhaustion, hunger, and death. These conditions led to a feeling of hopelessness among many people who fought in this war. It also marks a change from thinking positively about the world before this conflict (as seen with Romanticism). After World War I ended, there was less optimism for future generations because of all of the deaths that occurred during it.
Although the twentieth century was a time of uncertainty and confusion, Fussell points out that there were some tendencies. One tendency is referred to as “gross dichotomizing” which is an “Us Vs Them” mentality. This fracturing of perspectives can be seen in post-modern literature.
The “us vs. them” mentality is a part of the medieval mindset that manifested itself in The Great War. In Chapter Four, titled “Myth, Ritual and Romance,” Fussell states that many things during this war were backwards from an Enlightenment point of view. He writes, “That such a myth-ridden world could take shape in the midst of a war representing a triumph of modern industrialism, materialism and mechanism is an anomaly worth considering.”
Fussell makes the argument that literature is the most important prism through which to view cultural changes in the early twentieth century. He cites two main reasons: one, classical and English literature were considered cornerstones of modern education; and two, literature was more popular than cinema or television at that time.
Fussell recognizes that although literature was the primary form of entertainment in this era, theater is also an important cultural and artistic force. However, he characterizes the relationship between theater and war as being more metaphorical than literary. He compares soldiers to actors who are pushed forward by unseen “writers” and “directors.” In this way, military service can be compared to a morbid version of theater because playing your part perfectly can lead to one’s demise just as effectively as failing to play it.
The next passage is titled “Arcadian Resources.” This essay discusses how nature changes from being a source of the sublime in Romantic literature to something that soldiers face during war and find it harsh. For example, when they are stuck in trenches or freezing to death because of the weather, they don’t see nature as beautiful anymore.
The next chapter will talk about sexuality in the war. It will discuss how sex is rendered as a metaphor for soldiers, who are stuck in a world without women. The final chapter considers how the war deprives storytellers of heroes’ ability to act and change things.