Shell Shock in “The Secret Battle”

We’re honored to have The Secret Battle editor Austin Riede as a guest author today. Riede is an associate English professor at the University of North Georgia, specializing in British modernism. His areas of expertise includes British Literature, Modernism, World War I Literature, Film, and Science Fiction.

What drew me most to The Secret Battle is its frank and curious exploration of the phenomenon of shell shock, the particular form of war trauma that developed during the first world war. While all wars generate trauma, shell shock has become a historical (if still inexact) term that signifies the individual trauma of soldiers and nurses in the war, as well as the larger cultural trauma of the war.

While The Secret Battle is not the first novel to explore the issue of shell shock, I think it is the first to do so from the point of view of a sympathetic, but somewhat detached, narrator. The unnamed narrator, like Herbert himself, has seen and experienced the war firsthand. The narrator who tells the story of Harry Penrose is clearly interested in his friend, but he is also confused about what has happened to him, and he questions why this happened to Harry and not to him—or to any other soldier who may have found himself in the same position.

Among the myriad characters in British literature suffering shell shock, Harry Penrose’s case is perhaps the most subtle and understated. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Smith suffers rather ostentatiously and schizophrenically. In the novel Return of the Soldier, Rebecca West’s Chris Baldry suffers from easily identifiable (and clearly allegorical) amnesia, like Ford Madox Ford’s Christopher Tietjens from the Parade’s End tetralogy. Later depictions of shell shocked soldiers—the fictional Billy Prior and the fictionalized Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in Pat Barker’s prize-winning Regeneration trilogy—are similarly overtly traumatized. All of these are excellent explorations of what shell shock meant for British literature and culture, and Harry Penrose deserves to take a place among them. His shell shock is less easy to identify. The symptoms are subtle and the situation is non-allegorical. Although Harry Penrose’s story is unique, what is so striking, both to the narrator and to the reader, is how easily it could have happened to anybody. Among the literary depictions of shell shock, Harry Penrose—no artistic or mathematical genius, no paragon of manhood—is the most typical and in many ways, the most tragically and unnecessarily doomed.

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