The Ghost Road
War and Verisimilitude in Timothy Findley’s The Wars and Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road
With the imminent threat of global war looming over Europe, fear and hostility came to cast a shadow over the continent. A war that would almost decimate a generation of young men, became the reality for writers, poets, scholars, and artists who left an impression that would never be forgotten. World War I proved to be a dark and tumultuous period in European history that would later be the inspiration for contemporary authors, whose writing explored the Great War’s influences and effect on the period. Through some of the iconic fictional literary works based on the war, a broader understanding of the hardships and brutality involved are established using elements of verisimilitude. Verisimilitude can be defined as “the semblance of reality in dramatic or nondramatic fiction”. The technique attempts to present a realistic view of an event and evoke its believability for readers. Verisimilitude originated from Aristotle’s mimesis theory that applied to artists attempting to depict reality in their work. The word itself originates from the seventeenth century, and the technique became popular in novels during the 20th century. In a piece of historical fiction, its purpose can be to promote historicity, and create a more powerful emotional attachment between the reader and the text. Verisimilitude offers a platform for describing brutality in a realistic light. Two novels that depend significantly on the creation of verisimilitude are Timothy Findley’s The Wars and Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road. Both incorporate verisimilitude as a tool to engage and maintain a balance of realism within the fictional work.
In The Wars the protagonist, a Canadian soldier named Robert Ross, struggles with internal conflicts of longing and regret, while simultaneously fighting the real war in Europe. Findley tells much of the story through the eyes of a reporter who tries to discover the truth about Robert Ross using first hand accounts from relatives and friends who knew Robert. The novel’s complex narrative creates a nonlinear plot that revolves around both the reporter and Robert Ross. The reporter’s method of telling the story produces an element of believability as it provides more than one point of view to Robert’s life. Findley integrates elements of verisimilitude to create a piece of historical fiction while still presenting the underlying actual brutality on the battlefield. Similarly, The Ghost Road, achieves verisimilitude by following the story of Billy Prior and William Rivers, British citizens who play different roles in the war effort. Prior is a soldier from a small town in Scotland who experiences the war first hand, similar to Robert Ross. Prior’s experience in the trenches as an officer returning for his second tour in France gives him an advantage but does not save him from the horrors that the war brings to all. William Rivers, a psychiatrist working at a hospital ward in England, presents a nonlinear storyline shifting between the hospital and memories of his time with a headhunting tribe in the Pacific. This allows Barker to tell two stories from the same character’s point of view, both inside and outside the war. Barker does this in an attempt to express the true futility of the war, telling the story of what becomes a ‘lost generation’ for Western Europe. In order to exhibit the importance of this common theme, verisimilitude instigates a serious tone. Rivers’ job at the hospital maintains a believable and often grim tone, while his life with the headhunters incorporates elements of spirituality that The Wars does not address. The successful use of verisimilitude can contribute to a novel’s coherence and promote its believability. Whether it be Barker’s use of horrific, detailed imagery or Findley’s explicit allusions and historical accuracy, both novels achieve verisimilitude. It is the specific techniques that each author uses that distinguish the two war novels and their realistic perspectives.
The Wars is riddled with detailed, vivid animal imagery that is often accompanied by brutality. Findley evokes realism in these scenes through pity for the slaughter of innocent animals. During Robert’s time on the S.S. Massanabie, an injured horse is described with its “broken leg stretched out behind it, so badly smashed that it showed the bone…” while “it whined and tried to rise again but its efforts were completely useless”. With the bone showing and the whining of the horse, a mixture of visual and auditory imagery creates brutality paired with the realistic elements of the horse’s suffering, evoking sympathy for the horse. The images guide the verisimilitude as they enhance the relatable agony and also make coping with the war more difficult. The horses become symbolic of the innocence and bravery of men on the frontline, being slaughtered needlessly and brutally in battle. The pain associated with witnessing animals suffer is presented in the character Rodwell, a soldier fighting alongside Robert in the trenches. Rodwell arrives at his new post to find soldiers “slaughtering rats and mice” and is forced to “watch the killing of a cat” (Findley 150). This sadistic behaviour becomes a coping mechanism that distracts the men from the horrific trench conditions and brutal human events they witness. However, the continual needless slaughter causes Rodwell to commit suicide, distinguishing him as the only soldier who tries to stop this barbarism. Despite committing suicide, a trait normally associated with poor mental health, he is ironically presented as the most sane soldier in this situation. This highlights the extent to which the war destroys a soldier’s mental health, which the characters express through committing heinous, barbaric atrocities. To maintain relatability, Findley includes two different methods of coping with brutal elements of war through the use of animal imagery. The soldiers come from a variety of age groups and social backgrounds making it only natural for each man to have different methods of coping with brutality, making Findley’s depiction more verisimilitudinous. During the barn fire scene, Mickle says “a prayer for Robert Ross…for a quick death” and as Robert narrowly escapes, he utters “‘[t]he dog’” repeatedly before passing out (Findley 212). Despite the improbable event of fifty horses being caught in a barn fire, Robert and Mickle continue to express common human values. They do not however, become barbaric savages as they represent a higher order of men with compassion and understanding of war. Compassion is the prominent human characteristic that is often lost or forgotten in times of war, but that Robert and Mickle do express in this scene. Robert’s concern for the dog and Mickle’s concern for Robert, both create verisimilitude by expressing humane values in spite of brutal situations. They demonstrate a type of courage, that Findley does not often include in The Wars, but by doing so, Findley gives Ross and Mickle more altruistic qualities, allowing for a more sympathetic protagonist. Nature continues to play an important role in creating realism by adding common connections to a world filled with absurd and horrific realities.
Detailed description of setting, in particular the inclement weather conditions, becomes another method that Findley uses to create verisimilitude. He introduces a tumultuous setting in Belgium, where the weather conditions make coping with the war even more arduous. On the voyage to Europe, “[t]he storm that raged was real and it wreaked havoc in every quarter of the ship…jugs of milk and water crashed and spun across the decks” (Findley 57). Here, the description of the ship’s voyage across the stormy Atlantic not only triggers the common knowledge of the Atlantic’s climate, creating a sense of believability, but also creating pathetic fallacy and foreshadowing the imminent dangers of the war. This can also be seen as a metaphor for men entering battle and possibly dying. Away from the front, Mrs. Ross attempts to cope with her son’s involvement in the war by “…seek[ing] out storms” and taking “pleasure in the rain and snow” (Findley 151). To parallel the brutal conditions she imagines her son enduring, she unnecessarily exposes herself to harsh weather. It is natural for a mother to grieve about her son’s absence; Findley uses her self exposure to harsh weather as another form of foreshadowing as well as to continue verisimilitude. Alongside weather, realistic descriptions of physical setting such as using historically accurate cities and regions, help create relatability and believability. Upon Robert’s arrival in France, Findley provides a description of Ypres and Flanders, stating that “[t]o its rear-which is to say South West-is the only physical landmark worth mentioning: Kemmel Hill” (Findley 75). Kemmel Hill is in fact to the southwest of Ypres and was a key strategic point to control during the war. Findley’s use of specific, authentic landmarks of the region enable him to sustain the geographical and historical realism. This becomes useful later when Findley introduces the brutal war sequences, as they are made more believable by the realistic setting, and sustain the element of historicity.
The horrific depictions of violence through visual imagery, are perhaps the most effective technique for displaying war’s brutality, especially when paired with verisimilitude. As the shattering artillery barrage rains down upon the men in their trenches, “…the earth swayed. Forward. Back. Forward. Half-back…filled with smoke and things began to fall. Helmets, books, canned goods…the pounding of guns was less a noise than a brutal sensation of being repeatedly hit” (Findley 121-122). This description employs three different forms of sensory imagery including visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, all of which personify the artillery barrage as a sort of impending external force attacking the men. This highlights elements of the brutal conditions soldiers are forced to live and relive, in an attempt to connect the barrage to a relatable experience. At the hands of the flamethrower, “[t]he ground was on fire [and] [t]roops were obliterated and others brought forward…but no one had believed it” (Findley 147). Despite the novel’s publication long after flamethrowers were first used, Findley describes them as a new and unbelievable invention befitting the reaction soldiers first experiencing this form of weaponry would react. Historical accuracy allows Findley to present the brutal imagery of destruction, without evoking much shock or doubt, and thus conveying verisimilitude. One of the most horrific instances in the novel occurs when Robert Ross is sexually assaulted by his own fellow soldiers. Robert finds himself defenseless in a dark room as four men pulled “at his lips until he thought his jaw was going to snap…he lost sense of gravity…someone struck him in the face…[a]ll he could feel was the shape of the man who entered him and the terrible strength of the force with which it was done” (Findley 193). This bold, quick action, evokes discomfort through shocking imagery that presents the brutality soldiers face in war. The visual senses are impaired in this scene, and it is told only through kinesthetic imagery, which provides more disturbing descriptions of the reality of the situation. The depictions of desperation and horror Ross experiences, is in a moment of total confusion and chaos, making this the most brutal point of the novel.
Findley’s method of suspending the reader’s disbelief is reliant on historicity and gruesome, detailed images, similar to Pat Barker’s in The Ghost Road. However, Barker has a more scientific approach to her use of imagery. This begins through a description of the wounded soldier, Hallet, in the hospital with his “exposed eye [that] was sunk deep in his skull…[t]he hernia cerebri pulsat[ing], looking like some strange submarine form of life, the mouth of a sea anemone perhaps” making it clear he is in very critical condition. Barker intertwines medical terms with the use of simile, to create a clearer image of a hospital scene. A realistic hospital ward would encompass the gory brutality of how these men were affected when they came back, and it was made evident through the horrified reactions of the loved ones who visited. In the midst of the cumbersome war sequences, Billy Prior veers from any sort of morality, and uses a local French boy, damaged by the war, to relieve his sexual tension. Prior recounts in his journal: “I pulled down his trousers and drawers and started nosing and tonguing around…A smell of chrysanths left too long in water, then a deeper friendlier smell…” (Barker 248). This scene differs from the previous hospital scene as it is a first person account from Prior’s journal and stimulates the olfactory senses with everyday flowers to draw attention away from the heinous actions. In a way, Prior takes a break from the war, but still shows signs that he was affected by the gore and tragedy that the war has already brought upon him. After the counter attack on the front line Prior writes: “[b]rain exposed, a lot of blood, a lot of stuff not blood down the side of his neck. One eye gone…I was thinking, What’s the use? He’s going to die anyway” (Barker 196). Although it may sound pessimistic, Prior bluntly recounts the story in his journal as he honestly feels it will end in Hallet’s death. Prior’s matter-of-fact tone suggests that there is no way back for Hallet from the brutality he has suffered.
Much of the novel is set in William Rivers’ hospital where he is a therapist working with soldiers who have returned from horrifying experiences on the front. In the hospital, Rivers believes that “…the rules of medicine are one thing, the rules of ritual drama are quite another” but then the diagnoses of the “quite unusually virulent” Spanish Influenza is given to a patient (Barker 53). When Barker explores the ‘magical’ or ‘witchcraft’ element of Rivers’ medical techniques, she also incorporates real medical cases to maintain a sense of balance. This brief inclusion of factual evidence is enough to counterbalance the magical realm and maintain the notion that Rivers is a real doctor who can actually help the brutalized patients. A conversation in the hospital wing between Rivers and Wansbeck commences with Rivers asking, “‘[a]nd the dream?’ ‘It isn’t a dream.’ ‘The apparition, then.’ ‘Oh, we still see quite a bit of each other.’ ‘Do you ever miss a night?’ A faint smile” (Barker 224). The conversation’s divergence into the supernatural realm that leaves behind notions of believability, is attributed to Wansbeck’s psychological state after the war. Barker maintains an element of verisimilitude in the way Rivers is somewhat skeptical about the apparition and also how Wansbeck does not indicate that this is an abnormality and continues to speak casually. These two elements combine to illustrate how soldiers can cope with the horrors and brutality they experience with mechanisms their own minds create. A verisimilitudinous story is usually not controlled by figurative language, but rather by a collection of detailed and specific images. Besides the aforementioned brutal images, common depictions of the everyday life in the hospital or on the battlefield help to create and sustain a realistic setting. One Sunday morning, the soldiers have a bit of free time and Barker lays out the scene with the “[s]mell of bacon frying, sound of pots and pans clattering about…a shaft of sunlight on the ground and the straw looks like gold” and later describes it as “[t]he ghost of Sunday morning at home” (Barker 177). A contrast from the scenes of gore and blood, this scene emulates the typical experiences of civilians. This juxtaposition expresses that warfare is often deceptive, and that war is presented as a lie to the public, one of Barker’s anti-war stances. It lays out the guilt that the soldiers feel, then uses contrast to show the sacrifices that the soldiers are ill equipped to make. However, Barker does not completely put them back into the comfort of home as she connects this scene as a ‘ghost’ of Sunday morning at home. This presents the idea that only the rough remnants of what the soldiers once had are safe when on the battlefield. The opposite connection occurs earlier in the novel in England, as “Rivers turned to watch the sun swelling and reddening as it sank, a brutal, bloody disc, scored by steeples and factory chimneys…” (Barker 116). This time, a peaceful setting is described with images that evoke sorrow and fear, maintaining a realistic scene while also creating pathetic fallacy with the war across the English channel. By connecting both settings, Barker depicts an understanding between those at war and those at home. This depiction is crucial in evoking compassion for the young men giving their lives to a futile cause they never really understand. When creating an illusion of reality, the use of descriptive setting allows for relatability between civilians at home, and those fighting in the war.
Narrative style becomes one of the main distinguishing features between the two novels. Barker incorporates an unconventional writing style in which two protagonists’ stories alternate between chapters. Prior’s story is told in part in first person as if he is writing a journal, as well as conventional third person omniscient point of view. Rivers’ tells two stories simultaneously, one about his current job in the hospital and one about his past experience with headhunters, but both are told in third person. Prior’s first hand account reads like a war journal and tells the brutal events from the direct point of view of the character. This is the most direct development of verisimilitude as it allows the reader to experience hardships and horror through the eyes of the soldier. The closer and more in depth narrative style allows for more relatability to the fictional character and ultimately produces verisimilitude. Findley uses a postmodern style of writing in which readers interpret the story as they please. A typical element of postmodernism is self-reflexivity in which the reader can connect various perspectives into one story which is seen in the various witnesses the reporter asks about Robert Ross.Aside from narrative style, both authors also employ different techniques of depicting verisimilitude. In The Wars significant animal and natural images contribute to the verisimilitude displayed whereas, The Ghost Road remains mostly focused on the human aspect of the war. Of course, The Wars frequently develops aspects of human emotion and psychology; however, it also includes vivid animal images that distinguish it from The Ghost Road. Much of Findley’s use of verisimilitude is dependent on an understanding of some of these animals and background knowledge of the geography and historical context of World War I. This is seen for example, with the names of provinces, the climate, the animals’ reactions, and the technology of the time. These universal connections to the reader evoke emotion and address psychological phenomenon that occurs among soldiers in a group setting. In contrast, Barker occasionally focuses on spirituality, a feature that is not included in The Wars. However, instead of detracting from the believability of the novel, Barker’s inclusion of supernatural elements connect to the reader on levels beyond the emotional and physical. In The Ghost Road, a significant portion of the novel is spent developing the characters of the head-hunter island from Rivers’ point of view, and creating a sympathetic connection with them. Paired with the fact that the narrator tells the story with a focus on Rivers who is a doctor and uses scientific terms, the connection allows for the spiritual encounters to be taken with less judgement and disbelief. When preparing for the funeral of a respected tribe member, Ngea, the islanders place “a diadem of shells round [his] cranium and other shells in the sockets of [his] eyes” and began to make prayers for Ngea to be propitious in war and beyond (Barker 206). This scene makes allusion to the war that islanders believe men fight in the afterlife. Wishing Ngea propitiousness illustrates war as an event in which individuals must survive on their own, allowing for connections to be made with Prior’s fight in Europe. These connections contribute to the idea that war has universal themes of futility that Barker actively criticises by maintaining verisimilitude through even the supernatural sequences.
Since both authors were born after World War I, they required extensive research and understanding of the elements that bound war stories together, such as futility, brutality, and chaos, as well as the actual history. They each had the task of maintaining historical and scientific accuracy in order to produce believable war stories. Notably, in The Ghost Road, when Prior is asked whether urine drenched socks can really protect from gas attacks he says “no…but it didn’t half take your mind off it” (Barker 181). This is a contradiction to The Wars, when the men are faced with a gas attack and “[t]he ammonia in their urine…turn the chlorine into harmless crystals that could not be breathed” (Findley 141). Though both novels make reference to the same action, one could question which author more accurately presents these scientific details. In theory, Robert Ross was correct, that ammonia in urine should react with the chlorine gas and crystallize it, and historically the Canadian army was able to survive many gas attacks prior to having gas masks. However, according to Bert Newman of the Royal Medical Corps, after gas attacks in which soldiers used urine as protection, “you could see all these poor chaps laying on the Menin Road, gasping for breath”. Historical accuracy is necessary in creating verisimilitude, and whether or not each work is accurate, both novels describe urine used to combat chlorine gas attacks. Maintaining historicity in the minor details is crucial for the fluidity of a novel as it allows the authors to present their ideas seriously without inaccuracies drawing attention away from the story. This also continues to exhibit the theme of brutality, as covering one’s face in urine is a task so demoralizing to the human spirit, however it stays true to realistic and historical values.
The result of both authors’ works is a way of criticising war and its ability to desensitize men to violence and brutality. Verisimilitude contributes to the depiction of these two anti-war novels by suggesting that violence on the battlefield is carried off the battlefield due to the soldiers’ desensitized state of mind. Sam Jordison from ‘The Guardian” describes Pat Barker’s depictions of the war as “vivid and pack[ing] an emotional punch”. She encompasses war through two identifiable and relatable characters, taking the World War I scenes to a more universal level. The central issues that she confronts, leave a lasting impression and instigate the notion that despite being in World War I, the extent of the brutality is present in any battlefield. Meanwhile, Findley’s style of incorporating verisimilitude includes memorable animal imagery and historically accurate locations and battles such as Ypres. These depictions of historical battlegrounds, bring life to specific instances beyond just statistics of lives lost. However, Findley still suggests universality as he encompasses some of the significant psychological factors that are deeply affected by all forms of war. Despite contrasting methods of displaying verisimilitude, both novels attempt to highlight the absurdities of war and the ways it affects the minds of soldiers. These young men, desensitized to images of violence, act in ways that evoke utter discomfort for the reader. Their actions touch upon the fear of what men are capable of becoming when stripped down to their darkest, most primitive instincts. Both authors use verisimilitude to establish the idea that war brings out the worst in men, and often replace the characteristics of courage, bravery, and compassion with barbaric displays of brutality and a competition for survival. Men such as Robert Ross and Billy Prior lose sight of the cause they are fighting for and instead fight for their own survival. This twisted group mentality leads to instances of rape or animal torture that despite being completely barbaric, still allows a degree of moral ambiguity due to the verisimilitude used. This connection to the real world that is created by verisimilitude, evokes pity for the characters despite their ruthless actions, as they have witnessed horrors that have changed the way they think and behave. By presenting numerous barbarities, the two authors depict war as an atrocity on a universal level. Using verisimilitude, each author creates a novel that criticises the fabric of warfare by highlighting the brutality of war.