Resisting the Hero’s Tale: The Trope of the Cowardly Soldier in the Literature of the Great War

Cristina Pividori


Among the experiences of otherness that unsettled the imperial trope of the warrior hero, this paper focuses on the representation of the coward in three autobiographical responses to the Great War. By following the traces of the malingerer, the deserter and the psychologically injured soldier in Herbert’s The Secret Battle (1919), Aldington’s Death of a Hero (1929) and Manning’s Her Privates We (1930), the hero-other distinction induced by Victorian standards will be explored as a popular theme that becomes problematic on the Western front, as the figure of the (heroic) self and of the (antiheroic) other start to move away from the rigidity of the binary system. While Herbert, Aldington and Manning keep a strong component of their own class and patriotic identity both in their novels and in their lives, the Great War experience suggests the possibility of removing the association traditionally maintained between heroism and the Victorian notions of manliness. Such openness not only challenges the norm, but paves the way for the elaboration of a new sense of heroic selfhood. Particular attention is given to the representation of the shell-shocked soldier as a site of struggle and negotiation between the trope of cowardice and its reality.


trope; hero; coward; shell-shock; masculinity

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