Analysis of "War" by Luigi Pirandello
War is set in a train carriage in Italy during WW1. While their nation is at war with the Central Powers, the passengers are at war with their own feelings.
Summary of War
A husband and wife board a small train carriage at dawn in Italy, joining the five people who have already spent the night in it. The woman is large and in deep mourning. Some of the passengers help her in and make room for her.
The husband inquires if she’s all right, but she doesn’t answer. He explains to the others that their only son is being sent to war in three days and they’re going to see him off.
A passenger says he has two sons and three nephews at the front, prompting the husband to stress that they’re risking their only son. This sets off a passionate discussion about who is sacrificing the most.
The husband says a man who loses one son has another left to comfort him, but the passenger responds that such a man has an obligation to live for his other son, and thus can’t end his misery at his own hand.
Another passenger, an old man, breaks in with a speech. He asserts that their children don’t belong to them. They have interests of their own, including a love for their country, and they gladly fight for it. They don’t want tears because if they die, they die happy. And dying young and happy is all anyone could want as it spares them of the boredom and disillusionment of life. Why, he doesn’t even mourn the death of his own son.
He stops there, his lip trembling, his eyes watery.
The other passengers agree with him. The wife, inconsolable until now, finds strength in his words. She listens closely as the old man gives the details of how his son died heroically for King and Country, without regrets. All the other passengers congratulate the man for his stoicism and bravery.
The wife, as if waking from a dream, says to the man, “Then… is your son really dead?”
The old man looks at her, tries to answer, but can’t. He seems to realize for the first time that his son is gone forever. He weeps uncontrollably.
While the passengers have differing opinions over whose grief is greater, they all have strong patriotic feelings. No one even suggests that their sons shouldn’t have to fight in the war. It’s alright to feel sorrow, but it would be unthinkable to remove the cause.
The old man explains their sorrow by saying that a parent’s love for their children is simply greater than their love for country, as evidenced by any parent’s willingness to take their son’s place at the front. On the other hand, a young person loves their country more than they love their parents.
He asserts that young people naturally put love of country above all else, and are happy to die in battle. He twice points out that he’s speaking of decent boys. Likely, they’ve all heard of young men who tried to shirk their duty, and are disgusted by the thought—too indecent to tender as an alternative.
The old man also speaks of his son as a hero who died for King and Country. Everyone listens raptly and congratulates him.
Theme: Intellectualizing Emotions
The old man avoids dealing with his grief by intellectualizing over the death of his son. He claims that young people wouldn’t want their parents to cry over them “because if they die, they die inflamed and happy.”
Moreover, he says that dying young prevents their children from seeing “the ugly sides of life” (like having to let your child go to their death?), so “Everyone should stop crying; everyone should laugh, as I do…or at least thank God—as I do.” The old man amends his statement that everyone should laugh. That’s too much, even for him. Instead, they should thank God that their children die satisfied and happy.
The old man’s speech is carefully constructed and delivered with some zest. He has obviously spent time rationalizing his son’s death, trying to convince himself of its propriety. He has built an argument centered on duty, sacrifice, and love of King and Country—his son was a hero.
But all his rhetoric is just a wall put up to block his pain. His lip quivers and his eyes water; he already knows he’s lying to himself. Ironically, he’s losing his composure as the wife is finding hers. She gets swept up in his intellectual and noble argument. She comes out of her fog and asks if his son is really dead. The shocking tactlessness of the question destroys his fragile equilibrium, revealing his extreme anguish.
War was written in 1918 and is not widely available in short story collections. It’s a moving glimpse at the effect of war on those left behind, the ordinary folks who make up the bulk of the population.
It can be read here.
Pirandello is probably best known for the 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author, where six unfinished characters show up at the rehearsal of a play.