Questions and Topics for Discussion
English poet, novelist, and biographer Richard Aldington wrote that after finishing his first novel, the mordantly ironic Death of a Hero, he “sort of collapsed nervously.” However, he soon rallied and declared that he would before long be “completely all right.” That Aldington should have temporarily fallen apart after completing Death of a Hero was only fitting, for the book itself describes an entire world coming unglued. Aldington, a cofounder of the Imagist movement in poetry, served more than two years in the British Army during the war, rising to the rank of captain. He was therefore eminently qualified to write Death of a Hero, a stark chronicle of social disintegration and apocalyptic violence that some consider the greatest of all novels about the Great War. Although Death of a Hero ranks among the most potent pieces of antiwar fiction ever published, it is so much more than that. While it quickly became a cliché for World War I novels to lament the loss of the innocent world that allegedly existed before 1914, Death of a Hero pointedly examines that world and finds it anything but innocent. Bitterly recollecting the bourgeois complacency, hypocrisy, and ill–founded patriotism of the nation in which he spent his youth, Aldington mounts a scalding critique of prewar social values—values that, he suggests, were not swept aside by the war but actually helped to make the global catastrophe inevitable.
The hero of Aldington’s title is George Winterbourne, a man of deep sensitivity but sometimes shocking moral obtuseness. As war gradually approaches, Winterbourne finds himself perpetually at odds with the world around him. A boy of artistic talents, he has been born to parents wholly incapable of understanding his gifts. Just as his youthful humanity begins to flourish, he is sent to a school that seems bent on destroying his noblest instincts and blunting his most delicate perceptions. Seeking love, he falls under the influence of two women—Elizabeth, whom he marries, and Fanny, whom he takes as a mistress—who are driven by carnal passions and selfish desires that he can only partly comprehend. What finally awaits him, however, is a still less comprehensible destiny: to be caught up in a seemingly pointless and endless war that slowly dismantles his soul long before it annihilates his body.
Acerbic, merciless, and sometimes despairing in its anger, Death of a Hero does more than chronicle the literal death of its protagonist. With frightening and unerring precision, it dissects the process by which a war can reduce a brave and decent man into a shattered walking ghost. It tells of how an innocent spirit is gradually coarsened and corrupted by a philistine society. Stained with the guilt of a society founded on lies, cursed with the brutality that continually reasserts itself in the human heart, George Winterbourne dies not once but perpetually, and his world dies with him. Around the edges of this dark and brooding work, faint hopes for redemption arise, emerging from the resilient beauty of nature, the equally resilient courage of men, and the recurrent ecstasy of new love. Yet to read this book is to know that life in and after war can never be, unlike Aldington himself, “completely all right.”
ABOUT RICHARD ALDINGTON
Born Edward Godfree Aldington in Portsmouth, England, in 1892, Richard Aldington spent his early adulthood in the heart of the nascent Modernist literary movement. He married fellow poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) in 1913 and, with her, pioneered the school of poetry that Ezra Pound named Imagism. He was, at various times, a close associate of T. E. Hulme, Wyndham Lewis, and Ford Madox Ford. Aldington also had a significant friendship—and, later, a savage falling out with future Nobel laureate T. S. Eliot. Aldington joined the British Army in 1916 and served as an officer in the storied Royal Sussex Regiment. He emerged from the war with post–traumatic stress disorder, then known as shell shock, to discover that his wife, pregnant with another man’s child, had been having affairs with partners of both sexes. The couple eventually separated. Still on friendly terms, they divorced in 1938. In addition to Death of a Hero, Aldington published a large body of work, including the novels All Men Are Enemies and Women Must Work, and a highly controversial biography of T. E. Lawrence. H.D. herself paid him perhaps the highest compliment when she called him “a spirit beyond all tyranny.” Richard Aldington died in France in 1962.