Journey’s End

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In 1914 class distinctions were only too apparent within the British military, its structure mirroring the British class system – only the war’s vast death toll required class boundaries to mix as the need for more officers arose; temporary commissioning bestowed the title ‘temporary gentlemen’. The devices Sherriff and Barker use to present class are numerous, their respective genres creating some discrepancy.

Journey’s End is set solely in an officers’ dug-out where somewhat caricatured characterisation depicts clear division between classes; more fascinating is his depiction of division within the officer ranks which may reflect Sherriff’s experience as a serving officer. Barker, too, encourages reflection on ‘temporary gentlemen’ which makes us suspect the true focus of both works is that class is a negative and superficial construct – it does not prevent death.

However, Barker’s sub-textual perspective, based on eighty years of hindsight, merges real and fictional characters to give us only a glimpse of class; her focus appears more on the psychological aftermath of those who have survived. Journey’s End is set in the officers’ dug-out, an indication of division which the opening conversation of talk of ‘fellows’ and exclamations such as ‘Splendid! ’ public school background confirms.

Hardy drying his sock over a candle furthers our impression of public school self-sufficiency as does his understated language when stating the soldiers being ‘frightfully annoyed’ at dirt in their tea after a bombing; the ability to endure harsh conditions with humour importantly displays the classic ‘stiff upper lip’ of the British upper classes, highlighting them as expected leaders of men. The nervous but enthusiastic entrance of Raleigh furthers our understanding.

His public school register when describing their commanding officer, Stanhope, as ‘skipper of rugger at Barford’ and a ‘jolly good bat’ implies privilege although hindsight emphasises the irony in his ignorance of the appalling death toll; a cricket bat would be useless against machine guns. Osborne’s background is less apparent but as a public school master he has adopted the ‘manners’ of the officer class. His maturity and his nickname ‘uncle’ portrays a character we, like the other officers, trust; the epitome of the officer class.

Regeneration is similarly set in an officers’ domain, the hospital at Craiglockhart, but there is less clear division. Rivers’ occupation as a doctor leads us to believe he descends from an upper-middle class background, again his understated, Standard English dialect confirming this: ‘We were rather concerned about you. ’ We also acknowledge the privileged backgrounds of other officers, such as Owen whom experienced a respected education, and Anderson who was a surgeon before conscription. The presence of Mason, the officers’ cook, provides a lower-class contrast.

Sherriff purposely labels him the stereotyped ‘Soldier Servant’ his lower rank status implying inferiority which the stage directions uphold where Mason ‘brings Trotter’s porridge’ and ‘arrives with Trotter’s bacon’; we prejudge him as inferior. The other officers also give orders, Stanhope requesting ‘a cup of tea’ on numerous occasions and Osborne requesting ‘plenty of bread and butter. ’ However, Mason, the inspiration for Elton’s Baldric, is never downtrodden as depicted in his discussion with Trotter about his food: ‘Smells like liver sir, but it ‘asn’t got the smooth, wet look that livers got.

His missing ‘h’ sounds could underline his stupidity but the use of humour in his dialogue matches that of Hardy and Trotter, making him an equal; in war there is no separation as each has his job. Prior indicates his social insecurity to Rivers: ‘it helps if you have been to the right school’ where hindsight informs us this is accurate. Barker uses Sarah to return Prior to his roots as she does not threaten his conflicting elevated status as an officer, hence his open mocking of the ignored censorship of letters as ‘frightfully bad form’.

Barker states he ‘preferred Sarah like this’ when she attacks his implied idea that only officers have ‘honour,’ and we recognise background as superficial. Sherriff uses Second Lieutenant Trotter to present the ‘temporary gentlemen’, a non-commissioned officer who has ‘risen’ from the ranks. Thus he does not share the same social background as the other central characters as his weak Received Pronunciation makes apparent: ‘I ‘ate pineapple chunks; too bloomin’ sickly for me! Sherriff corroborates this difference even in the contrast of physical description.

Whilst Stanhope is described as ‘tall, slimly built with broad shoulders’ Trotter is ‘short and fat’. However, Trotter’s class status bears no reflection on his ability as an officer and we admire his equanimity in the face of a raid which forces the reader to question whether class is an effective system in the army. Barker portrays less clear division in social class. Prior, of working class origin, entered the war as an officer.

Unlike Trotter he faces the prejudices from those more privileged: Rivers asks Prior, ‘how did he fit in’ to which Prior replies, ‘not more than I have here’. Even though he shares the status of the other officers he feels isolated. Barker, however, ensures he is not inferior as he attacks the ‘tiny tiny minds’ of the generals who believe the war will end in ‘one big glorious cavalry charge,’ a sentiment hindsight allows us to share. We appreciate the conformity of most soldiers subjected to class expectations: Osborne is the respected gentleman, Raleigh the courteous, public-schooled adolescent.

Yet Sherriff chooses some characters to be contrary to these expectations. Hibbert, a privileged officer who benefits from Mason’s domestic care, is unable to adhere to the ‘stiff upper lip’: ‘This neuralgia of mine. I’m awfully sorry. I’m afraid I can’t stick it any longer. ’ His intention is to be ‘sent down’ and, recognising his shell-shock, we admire his honesty. Stanhope, however, reminds us this is not acceptable from an officer and Hibbert is encouraged to ‘go on sticking it’.

This exchange reveals how military class structure divides negatively. The British army is built on the order of rank yet ignores the pressures war places on individuals – Sherriff highlights that social expectations exerts even greater unnecessary pressure. Barker’s Sassoon similarly rejects the expected reserved temperament of a dignified officer as his ‘Soldier’s Declaration’ states he is ‘against the political errors and insincerities’ of the war. ’ He is unafraid to question his superiors and is scathing in his expression.

Prior, meanwhile, reluctantly conforms to a status above his own which suggests status is an artificial. Sherriff highlights the need for truth to self rather than to social construction as Prior is scorned by his father who insists: ‘he should’ve stuck with his own. ’ One assumes the military class system protected its officer leaders from the effects of war whilst those in the ranks were expendable due to number. Yet the crucial message concerning class appears to be that it is superficially negative – it does not prevent death.

Sherriff implies, through the working class Mason and Trotter, an immunity to life’s hardships or with a well-developed coping mechanism of ‘eating’ and ‘feeding’ in sharp contrast to the higher-class Hibbert and Stanhope with their respective ‘neurosis’ and ‘drinking’, both as a result of the pressures of the war. Barker also confirms the negativity of the class system through Prior’s anger at class division at the front but herpost-modernist psychological perspective uses class as a device for her character exploration rather than for comment on as a theme.

Being a temporary gentleman also suggests that class is a construct rather than a given. Sherriff recognises that the war had to be fought as even the shell-shocked Hibbert doesn’t question its validity, merely highlights the toll war exacted on those involved, perhaps because his presentation was so close to actuality Barker’s concern for the quality of the survival that Sherriff’s characters are denied is perhaps a result of the weakened class structures of modern day Britain. It would seem that class for both writers is an entity that loses relevance when faced with the truth about this war.

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