War As the Setting in Moon Tiger

Beth Soucar '91 (EL 34, 1991)

He puts out a hand, traces the outline of her face with one finger. Claudia can just see, now, in the dawn glimmer, his eyes, his nose, his lips. 'I like this part of the story best,' she says.

'Me too,' says Tom. 'Oh, me too.'

And oh God, thinks Claudia, may it have a happy ending. Please may it have a happy ending. The Moon Tiger is almost entirely burned away now; its green spiral is mirrored by a grey ash spiral in the saucer. The shutters are striped with light; the world has turned again. (79; last page of Chapter 6)

If it hadn't been for the war, I wonder if Claudia would have learned about Moon Tigers. I am sure they would not have acquired the same significance. World War II may be the setting for Penelope Lively's story, but it is no mere backdrop. War provides the ideological "climate" in which characters define and interpret words, objects, and events; in which they converse and compete; and fundamentally, where they struggle for the power to make sense of their own lives.

Perhaps "climate" doesn't serve my purposes very well. I use it as a catch-all term, but in so doing, I lose any explanatory power it might -- and should-- have. To clear up this problem, I will talk about a number of levels on which one could discuss "war." These levels aren't arranged hierarchically, but rather as the colors along a spectrum, from the more literal ways of talking about war (an account of a battle) to the more theoretical (the "war" we have with another person as we have a conversation). Now take this spectrum, multiply it, and make all your spectrums intersect, twist around and connect at various points. This is how they work together (and it resembles hypertext). But in order to discuss them, one must choose a spectrum, disengage it from the mass, and lay it out flat for observation.

On one band of my spectrum, I see the fighting on the battlefield. In Moon Tiger , Tom's diary gives us an account of front-line experience. On another level, I find the various roles that other people take when war is occurring. Generals take charge, families worry about their sons and daughters, correspondents (like Claudia) zoom in on the scene. The involved peoples adjust their lives to the pro-war ideology. Even conscientous objectors participate in the "climate" by taking the war situation to assert their beliefs, mobilizing according to their viewpoints.
At the other end of the spectrum, I find myself on a more theoretical level, thinking about stories and how they function. I see those narratives that come prefabricated, telling soldiers what they are supposed to do, why they should do it, and how they should think about themselves. And as Tom finds out in his episode with the frightened gunner, there are things that soldiers cannot think. Sticking with the pro-war ideology, given Tom's current situation, means staying alive. (follow to Taking Up an Ideology)

On a level far away from the front line stories, there is Claudia, equally affected by the war "climate." By accepting the ideological positions of the war correspondent and historian, Claudia participates in the (re)creation and perpetuation of certain discourse, or ways of making sense through language. She scorns those who "capitalize" on war, because from one perspective it is disgusting to write about it, take it over, trivialize it, erase parts of it, and then make money at the expense of people who have died. At the same time, she finds history very important. It is vital to her existence. She finds that her writing history (and, presumably, her memoirs) helps her convey something that deserves to be told. The contradictory aspects of writing history cannot be extricated, rearranged, and the contradictions resolved; and I think ultimately that Claudia sees this, but cannot be reconciled to it.

Theorists would probably use "dominant ideology" to stand for the term "climate," as I have been using it. Or else they might break "climate" into one "dominant ideology" (discourses supporting a war) and a group of other minor discourses that struggle against it. I, however, find that speaking of a dominant ideology can mislead one into thinking that there is one unified discourse that controls people's perspectives, so I have chosen to highlight the variety of discourses by using the term "climate." Once the idea of a "climate" is understood, I would then say that it is useful to break it up conceptually into a dominant ideology and a group of other ideologies struggling for change. One might think of Reaganism versus civil rights, as examples of a dominant ideology and one that militates against it.

Perhaps my best analogy is to the Gulf War that recently occurred. What kinds of supportive discourses were working on TV, among friends, and from the White House during the war? Were there any common themes? Might these similar discourses be thought to make up a "dominant ideology"? Is there another way one might talk about these discourses?

Penelope United Kingdom