Analysis of James Jones’s Novels

Critics, especially academics, have increasingly dismissed James Jones (1921 – 1977) as a “war novelist” committed to outdated naturalistic techniques. Though Ihab Hassan provides an extensive and largely favorable discussion of From Here to Eternity in Radical Innocence, his 1961 examination of post-World War II American fiction, two important subsequent studies of the contemporary American novel, Tony Tanner’s City of Words (1971) and Josephine Hendin’s Vulnerable People (1978), ignore Jones completely. This neglect arises, in part, from oversimplified and incorrect perceptions of his work. For example, as the term is most commonly used, Jones is not strictly a “war novelist.” Of his eight novels, only one, The Thin Red Line, is primarily devoted to a description of military combat, while four have peacetime civilian settings. Although it is true that army life provides the background of his best fiction and World War II its controlling event, his reactions to the army and the war exhibit the complexity and ambiguity essential to meaningful art.


James Jones

Especially during the 1950’s, Jones often permitted himself to be depicted as an advocate of masculine toughness in life and literature. A 1957 Life magazine article emphasized the novelist’s devotion to knives and boxing and declared his prominence in the literary cult of violence. However, a careful reader of Jones’s fiction will discover an artist deeply concerned about the capacity of human beings for selfdestruction. In a 1974 interview, Jones discussed his belief that humanity was doomed by two interrelated forces: its own animal nature and the anonymous power of modern technological society. He stressed “the ridiculous misuse of human strength that can include many subjects, not only physical strength, but technology, and all of the things that we live by.” After defining morality as the refusal to give another pain “even though one suffers himself,” he forecast the inevitable failure of such an idealistic ethical code:

In all of us, there is this animal portion… which is not at all adverse to inflicting cruelty on others. This can be quite enjoyable at times. . . . It’s in myself . . . it’s in all of us.

Modern man, Jones believed, is caught in both an external and an internal trap. Human strength, which has its source in the “animal nature of man,” has been translated into an awesome technology that ironically threatens the extinction of human individuality, if not the actual obliteration of humankind. In his civilian novels, Jones’s characters habitually seek the few remaining “frontiers” of individualism (for example, skin diving), only to discover the impossibility of escaping their own “animal” heritage. An element of brutal and destructive competition is thereby introduced into the “frontier,” which is perverted and ultimately doomed. It is in his army fiction, however, that Jones most memorably dramatizes the tragic vulnerability of contemporary man.

In a 1967 Paris Review interview, Jones said: “I’ve come to consider bravery as just about the most pernicious of virtues. Bravery is a horrible thing. The human race has it left over from the animal world and we can’t get rid of it.” His army fiction underscores the destructiveness of this “most pernicious of virtues.” Strength and bravery are essential qualities of the traditional hero. In more romantic ages, these two virtues were often perceived as the very foundation of manhood. Today’s all-pervasive technology makes such romantic concepts of heroism archaic and dangerous. The dominant social mechanism of the modern world is bureaucracy, which can hardly permit heroism, since bureaucracy denies individuality. Jones saw modern warfare as the inevitable product of a bureaucratic, highly technological society. In it, death falls from the sky in a totally “random” and “anonymous” manner. For Jones, a fundamental and dismaying truth was implicit in this impersonal rain of death: In such a technological hell, the traditional Western concepts of the individual and the self no longer hold their old importance. The question he examines throughout his most important fiction is whether they still have any validity at all.

The Army Trilogy

The major achievement of Jones’s career is his army trilogy: From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and the posthumously published Whistle. His novella The Pistol and several of the short stories in his collection The Ice-Cream Headache, and Other Stories also have military settings. The thematic focus in all Jones’s army fiction is upon the evolution of the soldier, a concept that is given a full and convincing nonfictional elaboration in WWII. In Jones’s view, warfare constitutes man’s total capitulation to his animal nature. The traditional concepts of the individual and the self must be discarded in combat: The army trains the soldier to function on a primitive, subhuman level of consciousness. This training is a reversal of evolution; it is a process by which the army systematically dehumanizes the enlisted man. Such dehumanization is necessary for the soldier’s acceptance of his own anonymity and probable death in combat. In World War II’s anonymous, technological warfare, the enlisted man became more clearly expendable and anonymous than he had ever been. Throughout his military fiction, Jones is intent upon describing the manner in which the army, by using technology and its awareness of the enlisted man’s inherent animalism, carried out the dehumanization process.

The three novels that constitute the army trilogy depict three major stages in the evolution of a soldier. It is important to note here that Jones intended the three novels to be seen as constituting a special kind of trilogy. He wished that each “should stand by itself as a work alone,” “in a way that… John Dos Passos’s three novels in his fine USA trilogy do not.” At least in From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, the first two novels in his own trilogy, Jones clearly achieved this ambition.

The army trilogy’s most innovative feature is the presence of three character types in all three volumes. Of these three character types, two are of overriding importance. First Sergeant Milt Warden of From Here to Eternity is transformed into Sergeant “Mad” Welsh in The Thin Red Line and into Sergeant Mart Winch in Whistle. Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt of From Here to Eternity becomes Private Witt in The Thin Red Line and Private Bobby Prell in Whistle. John W. Aldridge, sometimes a perceptive critic of Jones’s fiction, understands a more important reason than Prewitt’s death in From Here to Eternity for the characters’ different names in each of the novels: Increasingly brutal experiences, he writes, have “transformed [them] into altogether different people.” In other words, as they reach new and more dehumanizing stages in the evolution of a soldier, their inner selves undergo transformation.

There is a fundamental level on which Jones’s character types remain constant. Warden/Welsh/Winch is Jones’s realist, who comprehends the inevitability of his own destruction as well as that of his fellow enlisted men. He is burdened by a deep concern for others, but he attempts to hide that concern behind a surface cynicism. Just as he anticipates, his inability to deny his compassion ultimately drives him mad. Private Prewitt/Witt/Prell is the determined and increasingly anachronistic individualist who regularly defies army bureaucracy in the name of his personal ethical code. In From Here to Eternity, which focuses on the old peacetime army, he is a romantic figure refusing to compromise with a corrupt bureaucracy. In The Thin Red Line, a grim account of combat on Guadalcanal, he is reduced to an animalistic level; his defiance seems insane and pointless rather than romantic. Primarily through his analysis of these two character types, Jones analyzes the contemporary validity of the interrelated concepts of the self and the individual.

From Here to Eternity

The central factor in the critical and popular success of From Here to Eternity was its vivid characterization. As Maxwell Perkins had anticipated, Sergeant Milt Warden and Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt are unforgettable figures. They are not, however, the novel’s only memorable characters. Private Angelo Maggio and “the women,” Alma Schmidt and Karen Holmes, are also strong individuals determined to preserve their integrity in an anonymous, bureaucratic world. From Here to Eternity is easily Jones’s most romantic novel. In it, he depicts a world that ceased to exist on December 7, 1941; the novel’s setting is Hawaii, and its climax is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For most of the novel, modern technological destruction has not made its appearance, and individualism seems a vital concept that is to be preserved in spite of “old Army” corruption. On the surface, the novel’s roster of unforgettable characters seems to guarantee the survival of this traditional Western value.

Warden always knows, however, what is coming. He sees the inevitable destruction of the self and struggles to suppress his instinctive sympathy for Private Prewitt’s defiance of the army. Prewitt’s integrity is so strong that ultimately even Warden has to respect it. Nevertheless, the sergeant’s admiration for his “bolshevik” private is a largely nostalgic response; he identifies with this defiant individualism while remaining aware that it is doomed.

Because his individualism is related to much that is crucial to Western values, Prewitt does, in fact, emerge as the dominant character in the novel. In the beginning, his quarrel with the army is almost absurdly simple. His commanding officer, Dynamite Holmes, is determined that Prewitt will become a member of the regimental boxing team; the private is equally determined not to box, even if his refusal means that he must give up playing the bugle, his “calling.” Prewitt undergoes prolonged and systematic mental and physical abuse without acquiescing to Holmes’s insistence that he box. Ultimately, this vicious “Treatment” does force him past his breaking point and into a mistake that enables Holmes to have him sentenced to the stockade, where he experiences further brutality at the hands of Sergeant Fatso Judson. Judson is one of the most unforgettable sadists in American literature, and Prewitt decides that he must be destroyed. The reader can hardly disagree with this decision; still, it assures Prewitt’s own doom.

Much of From Here to Eternity’s unique power derives from the levels of symbolic meaning contained within the deceptively simple Prewitt-Holmes conflict. Boxing is a metaphor for the animal nature of man, while Prewitt’s “calling” to play the bugle comes to represent that uniquely individualistic integrity that makes possible artistic creation. Throughout the novel, Prewitt is something of a romantic folk hero; he is the personification of “the good soldier,” the proud enlisted man. When he plays taps on the bugle or helps in the collective composition of “The Re-Enlistment Blues,” he is also giving artistic expression to the enlisted man’s pain and loneliness. His desire to play the bugle symbolizes the urge to create a distinctive proletarian art. Warden sees the army’s destruction of Prewitt as an illustration of animalism negating man’s potential for lasting creativity. Yet, because Prewitt’s death occurs just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the sergeant has no real opportunity to mourn him. Because Warden understands that December 7, 1941, represented the end of traditional individualism and self-expression, Prewitt’s death seems to him almost an anticlimax.

The Thin Red Line

The mood of doomed romanticism so vital to From Here to Eternity is completely missing from the second volume of Jones’s army trilogy, The Thin Red Line, a grimly detailed account of brutal combat. The bolshevik private in this novel is Witt, whose defiance has no relevance to art or to any idealistic values. In a real sense, the novel’s main character is “C-for-Charlie Company,” all the members of which are forced to submerge themselves into an anonymous mass. The Thin Red Line has been called the best American combat novel, and such high praise is deserved. The novel offers an unforgettable account of the sheer animalism of war. The sexuality of all the men of Charlie Company is systematically translated into brutal aggression toward the enemy. In fact, the only meaningful difference among the characters is the degree to which they are aware that such a transformation is taking place.

The one most aware is the superficially cynical first sergeant, Edward “Mad” Welsh. Like Milt Warden in From Here to Eternity, “the First” continually wonders how much of his basic self can be denied without a resultant loss of sanity. He has come very close to finding an answer to this question; one source of Jones’s title is an old midwestern saying: “There’s only a thin red line between the sane and the mad.” Welsh’s sanity is still intact, but it is being severely strained by his unrelenting awareness of the dehumanization process that he and his men are undergoing. They are threatened not only by the fanatical determination of the Japanese enemy and by the deadly accidents of warfare, but also by the gross incompetence of their own officers. Writing out of a proletarian consciousness, Jones depicted the officer class as incompetent, if not actually corrupt, in all of his army fiction.

The Thin Red Line is Jones’s most structurally sound novel, focusing upon the American struggle to capture an area of Guadalcanal known as “The Dancing Elephant.” The brutality of combat is documented in complete naturalistic detail. Nevertheless, a majority of the central characters are alive when the novel ends with Charlie Company preparing to invade New Georgia. It is only here that the reader comes to share with Mad Welsh an awful knowledge—for those men who did not die on Guadalcanal, another Japanese-occupied island awaits, and then another and another. Thus, ultimate survival seems out of the question, and madness becomes a form of escape from too much awareness.

Although no one individual American soldier could confidently expect to survive the war, the majority of the soldiers did survive to return home. Such men returned to a country that, Jones believed, was being irrevocably changed by an unprecedented wave of material prosperity. Thus, men who had accepted the inevitability of their own deaths and whose sexuality had been converted into unrestrained animalism returned to a vital, challenging economy that could not afford the time for their reorientation. They faced what Jones, in WWII, called “The De-Evolution of a Soldier,” the final and most difficult stage of the soldier’s evolution: the acceptance of life and healthy sexuality by men who, after a long and excruciating process, had been converted to death-dealing and death-accepting savagery. Whistle focuses on this last, and nearly impossible, transformation.


In large part because Jones was unable to finish it before his death in May, 1977, Whistle lacks the power of From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line. Nevertheless, as completed from Jones’s notes, by Willie Morris, it stands as a memorable conclusion to the army trilogy. The novel focuses upon the return home of four characters, all members of Charlie Company and all veterans of the kind of brutal combat depicted in The Thin Red Line. The war is not yet over, but the stateside economic boom is well under way. Although Marion Landers is not one of Jones’s three major recurring character types, he is nevertheless reminiscent of Geoffrey Fife in The Thin Red Line and Richard Mast in The Pistol. All three men are stunned by their forced realization that modern technological combat negates the heroism assigned in romantic myth to warfare. John Strange completes the least successful of the three character types introduced in From Here to Eternity. Like his predecessors, Maylon Stark and Mess Sergeant Storm, Strange (nicknamed Johnny Stranger) is unable to care for anyone but himself, even though he has perfected a mask of compassion. Stark/ Storm/Strange is the exact opposite of First Sergeant Warden/Welsh/Winch.

Jones’s bolshevik private in Whistle is Bobby Prell, who has recaptured much of the Prewitt quixotic idealism that had hardened into animal stubbornness in the characterization of Witt. Very seriously wounded, Prell is battling the army that wishes to give him the Congressional Medal of Honor—the army that also insists on amputating his leg. Although not convinced that he deserves the medal, Prell is certain that he should keep his leg, even if refusing amputation means certain death. Certainly, his conflict is elemental and significant; still, Prell never attains a stature comparable to that of Prewitt. Given Jones’s vision, Prell must, in fact, seem largely anachronistic. Pearl Harbor marked the death of the romantic rebel as hero.

The truly memorable figure in Whistle is Sergeant Mart Winch, the culmination of Jones’s depiction of “the First.” Throughout most of Whistle, Winch functions as Warden and Welsh did, secretly protecting his men by elaborate manipulation of army bureaucracy. He is forced to see, however, the severe limitations of his ability to protect anyone in a new and nightmarish world. After Landers and Prell are shattered by their inability to adjust to civilian society, Winch surrenders to insanity. Thus, he crosses “the thin red line” and is destroyed by the madness that had threatened to engulf Warden and Welsh. The cumulative characterization of “the First” is the most brilliant achievement in Jones’s fiction; it is the heart of the army trilogy. Jones called the vision underlying his trilogy “quite tragic” and talked of the impossibility of an affirmative contemporary literature. He described a world so thoroughly converted to dehumanizing bureaucracy and technology that it drives to insanity those men who still believe in such traditional Western values as the self and individualism.

Major Works:
Long Fiction: From Here to Eternity, 1951; Some Came Running, 1957; The Pistol, 1959; The Thin Red Line, 1962; Go to the Widow-Maker, 1967; The Merry Month of May, 1971; A Touch of Danger, 1973; Whistle, 1978
Short Fiction: The Ice-Cream Headache, and Other Stories, 1968.
Nonfiction: Viet Journal, 1974; WWII, 1975.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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