Interchapter VII is a short excerpt from For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. The passage is about a soldier who is immersed in battle in Fossalta, northern Italy, during WW1. The soldier prays to God, vowing to spread the Lord’s word to everybody in the world if God spares his life. As the shelling moves further up the line, God saves the soldier’s life. Rather than keeping his promise, the soldier fails to tell a soul and instead spends the night with a prostitute.
Themes of war and battle, including the atrocities of trench warfare are prominent in this text. Some connotations associated with soldiers are bravery and loyalty, although, this text challenges these cultural assumptions and allows readers to judge the actions of the soldier. I was at first sympathetic toward the solider due to the culturally embedded ideology that our soldiers are heroes, fighting in dire conditions for the freedom of this country and for such deeds they should be honoured. However, after learning that he failed to keep his oath to God, I negotiated my reading position and suddenly felt unsympathetic toward him. Considering the war period was a time of extreme pressure for soldiers, a number of men would have been seen praying, many as a last resort rather than an act of faith. However, despite the text’s representation of this as ‘normal’, I took on a resistant reading, due to my cultural background and the importance that is placed on religion and the sacred act of prayer.
Considering I am a middle class, Caucasian female, I was subjective toward the marginalization and lack of voice from women in this text. The story objectifies the woman by making reference to her as ‘the girl upstairs’. Due to my intertextual knowledge, I knew this was in reference to a prostitute. Not once is the female character given a name or any status and as I am too a woman living in a largely patriarchal society, I am able to identify with this fellow female. In many novels, the female character is usually a damsel in distress or simply portrayed as a sex symbol. Interchapter VII naturalizes this ideology, as the woman’s single role is to pacify the male protagonist in order to sustain her livelihood. Considering that I am accustomed to the representation of women in fantasy novels as powerful and strong, this text has failed to adhere to the codes and conventions of other novels in my literary repertoire. Therefore, I resisted the marginalization of the female. Furthermore, as I am a young female and have no personal involvement with war, I feel as though my ability to adopt a dominant reading position and understanding of the soldier’s identity is inhibited.
In addition to the discussion with the tutorial group about the silencing of women in the text, we also conversed about the prevalence of the binary oppositions at work. The oppositions of day and night, war and peace, promise and betrayal, pleasure and pain and everybody and nobody, all appeared in the text. While day, peace, promise, pleasure and everybody denote positive polysemous meanings of light, safety, innocence, bliss and assurance, their counterparts attract negative connotations. Such negative words are effective in creating a heightened atmosphere, in this case the dire state of the war, thus reinforcing the dominant reading.
By incorporating this text into my pedagogy, I would be able to effectively further on Moon’s (2009) notion teach students about the utilization of different voices, points of view and narration. The author swaps between first person, to make the text appear more personal, first plural to involve the reader and third person to fill the reader in with detailed information that dialogue alone cannot provide. I would ask students to complete an activity whereby they are to play with the voice and narration of the story. Additionally, I would ask students to rewrite the story from another characters point of view, for example, the silenced prostitute or God. Not only would this teach students about voice and narration, but it would allow them to embed their own cultural, social, economic and educational values into the story and create an alternative reading, such as an open or closed ending.
Hemingway, E. (1941). Interchapter VII: For Whom the Bell Tolls. London: Cape.
Moon, B. (2001). Literary Terms: A Practical Glossary. Cottesloe, WA: Chalkface Press.