Theme of Fire in The Wars

The following material was contributed by Paul Barnes, Derek Hayes, Lindsey Hume, Courtenay Lewis, and Candace Robicheau.

For another site on this topic.

The theme of fire in the novel The Wars, by Timothy Findley, conveys a feeling of pain and emotional distress. Here are several examples which support this theory (quotations are from the Penguin edition of The Wars [1983]):

1. Page 18..."Robert looked to one side from under the peak of his cap, hoping that no one had seen him flinch from the steam or stepping back from the fire. He was wishing that they would leave. His shoulders hurt. His arm was sore. There were bruises on his back. He ached. He wanted all the others who had got off the train to depart the station before him." This simply conveys the physical and mental pain which Robert experiences.

2. Page 26..."For a moment she stood there, holding her hands in tight against her body as if for some reason Robert might take these possessions away from her. The glass and the cigarette were perhaps some sort of tangible evidence she was alive." Of course, the reference to fire was in the form of the cigarette. This emotional distress shown by Robert's mother is a result of her finding out that Rowena was dead, and that she did not know how to cope effectively with the situation.

3. Page 46..."and he stood and he stared as he passed the fires of his father's factories, every furnace blasting red in the night...What were all these fires - and where did his father and his mother sleep beneath the pall of smoke reflecting orange and yellow flames?" This reflects Robert's distress about the immense destruction that occurred during World War I..

4. Page 65..."The air in front of him was filled with little fires but the horse was not dead." This shows the intense emotional distress that Robert experienced when he had to slaughter the horse but did not want to.

5. Page 66..."Shall I light us a lantern, sir? Said Regis. 'No,' said Robert. 'Not for a moment anyway.'" This exchange over the lantern occurs just after Robert kills the horse, and he does not want to observe the deed that he has just committed.

6) page 108..."At exactly 4 am on the morning of the 28th, the Germans set off a string of land mines ranged along the St. Eloi Salient. One of these blew up the trenches five hundred yards directly in front of the stained glass dugout. The blowing of the mines was a signal for the artillery to start firing and the whole countryside seemed to jump into flames...In it, 30,000 men would die and not an inch of ground would be won." This quotation illustrates the power that the opposition had, and how it would try anything to win the war, even if it meant taking the lives of those they were fighting and those that they were not actually in combat with. It also illustrates the desperation to win the war, even if it meant inch by inch, little by little. This is also illustrated on page 132 - "Fire storms raged along the front. Men were exploded where they stood - blown apart by the combustion." As well, page 173 - "There was so much screaming and so much roaring of fires that Robert couldn't hear the planes when they returned or the next string of bombs when they fell." Finally, pages 185-186: "The roof...went up in seconds like a tinder box. Within less than a minute of the fire being set, the rear portion of the roof fell into the barn...onto the backs of horses...Robert began shouting 'I can't! I can't! I can't!' and by the time Mickle realised that this meant "I can't open the doors," it was too late....There were flames all around them and his (Robert's) clothes were on fire....The dog was never found." This symbolises that Robert was more interested in life than death and would help someone/something if he could, but he had to learn this by serving in the war, living in a life with deadly risks and few second chances.

The following additional material was submitted by Candace Robicheau who was unable to attend all of the group meetings. In the class discussion of this topic, it emerged that Ms Robicheau had views that were somewhat different from those of others in the group. For this reason, some of her suggestions are recorded separately below



pg. 28- After a long silence Mrs. Ross dropped the cigarette and used her toe to squash it out- grinding and twisting it until it was just a mess of juice and paper, torn beyond recognition.

In this quotation the cigarette that Robert's mother is butting out seems to represent the tragedy of death that will occur later on in the novel when Robert joins the army and witnesses the dismembered bodies of his fellow troops that were blown up in the battle field.

pg. 45-6- ..., frozen fingers of nameless rivers, heralded by steam and whirling snow, the train returned him to his heritage of farms...

The steam from the train could signify the anger that was built up inside of the soldiers after witnessing the death of some of their fellow troops and then having to leave their corpses unburied, while they moved on in hopes of winning the war.

pg. 46- ...- and he (Robert) stood and he stared as he passed the fires of his father's factories, every furnace blasting red in the night...- and where did his father and his mother sleep beneath the pall of smoke reflecting orange and yellow flames?

This quotation refers to the destruction of buildings and homes while the Great War was happening and how thousands of innocent lives were taken by the opposition. It is also in reference to the worries that the soldiers had, such as whether or not they would return home alive and whether or not their families and friends were safe and well.

pg. 54- She (Robert's mother) treated the cigarette like something she'd found and looked at it much to day: whatever made me think that this was mine?- and threw it away.

This quote seems to illustrate the emotional problems that Mrs. Ross faced when Robert left for the army- she feared for his safety and well-being and so, she seemed to be ill-at-ease because instead of losing one child, the future may hold that she would in fact lose two- Rowena and Robert, whose chances for surviving the war are slim.

pg. 55- She treated the cigarette like something she'd found and looked at it much to say: whatever made me think that this was mine?- and threw it away.

The cigarette refers to Rowena who is now dead and Robert who is fighting in the war and may not return home safely. It also refers to Mrs. Ross's sadness towards the death of her daughter and the fact that she dislikes Robert being in the army.

pg. 72- Houses, trees and fields of flax once flourished here. Summers had been blue with flowers. Now it was a shallow sea of stinking gray from end to end. And this is where you fought the war.

This symbolizes, again, how thousands of innocent lives were taken, and how areas were forced to meet the fate of destruction, due to the war, and had as yet been unable to fix things back to what they were. The destruction of the buildings seems also to be in reference to the sadness and disturbed thoughts that people have when family and friends are in battle for the rights of their homeland.

pg. 82- On the far side he could see that the men and the wagons and the rest of the convoy were drawn up near fires and he just kept thinking: warm, I am going to be warm.

This seems to refer to the desperation that Robert and the rest of the troops have in order to remain alive.

pg. 178- The barns were a heap of burning rubble. So was the Signals Office. In the center of the yard, there was just a smoking hole.

The smoking hole may be a symbol of the thousands of people that were killed during the war. This quotation also refers to the destruction which occurred and how the enemy was ruthless enough to destroy any of its opposition, let alone anything that stood in its path, so that they could take over the country. This is also illustrated on pg. 180- The earth had baked beneath their feet....

Back to Findley Page