WWI and Modernist Alienation

saturday evening post

Soldier and Daughter, K.R. Wireman

Upon returning from the First World War, many veterans had not anticipated the shock of immersing themselves in everyday life. Certain elements of this illustrated soldier from the Saturday Evening Post highlight the immense sadness veterans would experience upon returning to their families for the first time.

The most noticeable of these details can be found in the soldier’s body language: his eyes are closed and his face is tucked beneath the ultimate protection (what we presume to be this man’s daughter). His position in the background for this illustration is indicative of passivity – letting go of horrible experiences and trying desperately to accommodate to his old way of life. In contrast to the passive and depressing nature of his body language is the presumed daughter’s position: she is held up, elevated, active, and pursuing attention from her father.

In addition to body language, the color scheme intensifies this theme of alienation. The soldier is depicted in nearly all black, white, and grey tones. This muted range of colors evokes bleakness and sorrow in contrast to the colors the soldier’s daughter evokes. The little girl is wearing a bright red sweater; even her cheeks are flushed and full of more color than her father’s. The contrast of a bright red sweater against a black and white background evokes similar images from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, where the alienation of Jewish people is represented visually in a similar fashion.

This illustration subtly depicts the alienation of soldiers returning home from the war. The body language from both father and daughter illuminate tension and misaligned expectations from each other. Roles within the family have reversed: the damaged soldier now seeks comfort in his innocent child, and the child is now the source of comfort for the once mighty father. The colors used to illustrate this picture coincide with the confused roles and darkness now inherent in their interactions: by posing the daughter in brighter colors than the father, we are able to see how shockingly different their world has become due to challenged roles within the family as a result of horrors experienced by both soldier and families in WWI.

As a result of these horrors, many veterans experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which was not introduced into our culture until after the Vietnam War. Most commonly referred to as “shell shock,” this disorder arises when people face extreme trauma and tuck the experience away because they don’t know how to deal with it. Such intense psychological problems were not accounted for until much later, and “unexplained depression” caused further issues in many soldier’s adjustment to ordinary life.

One important theme that is necessary to understand in order to fully grasp the Modernist movement is alienation. There are endless ways in which this type of ostracizing had affected men and women across America at this time. Poets such as HD wrote about hardships associated with being a female writer, Langston Hughes struggled with establishing his identity as an African American man, and Lowell expressed the complexity of returning home from war. Regardless of class, gender, and race, the American people suffered extraordinary alienation in the abrupt transition from Victorian society to post WWI aftermath.

Wireman, K.R. Soldier and Daughter. 1918. The Saturday Evening Post. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.

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