Armed Hostilities

The Wars by Timothy Findley


It is worth noting that the action of the novel written by Timothy Findley occurs during World War I. The plot of the book unfolds around the story of the short life and tragic death of Robert Ross. He goes to fight in Europe as a volunteer to escape from his grief over the death of his sister for which he blames himself (Findley, p. 21). Moreover, his decision is an attempt to run away from the social norms of the repressive Victorian upper-class society. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the patterns of symbolism observed at different levels in the novel that allow understanding the main hero better.

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Interestingly, the author of the book has turned to the military theme since he considered the events of 1914-1918 a prefiguration for future cataclysms of the 20th century. The story of the life of the protagonist is built as a document, which is characteristic of the belletristic literature of the last few decades (Hulan, p. 48). The events taking place in the life of Ross are verified through archival evidence and memories of people whom he met on his life path. These testimonies are used to capture the reality of that distant time (Hulan, p. 48). The story must be told in the second and third person to allow the reader to hear the voices of the witnesses of that time.

The author uses symbolism to allow the reader to interpret the events and the character of the main hero independently.

Discussion of Symbolism

The analysis of the patterns of symbolism should begin with a discussion of the title of the novel – The Wars. The plural form of the noun implies that multiple conflicts happen at different levels of the story. Wars occur during the service of Robert in the army. Clashes also happen during personal communication among soldiers, and this confrontation takes place during wartime. Robert’s idealized point of view is contrasted with the worldview of the people on whose behalf the narrative is being laid out, which further enhances the novel’s impact on the reader (Krause 57). Moreover, internal conflict may be observed inside the main character since he goes to war to escape from remorse for his sister’s death (Findley 21). Robert also does this to run away from the repressive society. Thus, the title of the book reflects the multi-level internal and external struggle.


Apart from that, animal imagery plays a major role in comprehending the main character and his understanding of the frugality of the natural world. Different animals appear in multiple parts of the writing, and they reflect the various memories and feelings of Robert. In particular, birds are a symbol of danger in the book and are often used as a warning. When the main character notices that birds stop singing, it means that an attack may be expected (Findley, p. 122). The birds are a symbol of life and freedom for which Ross has to fight on a personal level. Notably, the image of birds is used to reflect the feelings of the hero better. Robert shoots the soldier, who was not planning to kill him and his companions (he simply reached for binoculars to look at the birds but not to take his weapon). As the author puts it: “The sound of it would haunt him to the day he died” (Findley, p. 131). The image of the birds and their singing is an expression of the deepest inner regret for the deed.

Rabbits, Dogs, and Horses

Rabbits are also an important symbol observed throughout the story. They bring back Ross’s memories of how he did not want to kill these animals since they belonged to his deceased sister (Findley, p. 23). Each mention of rabbits gives Robert flashbacks of his sister, which turns this animal into a symbol of purity and innocence. In addition, dogs and horses are other crucial symbols that can be seen in the novel, and they represent friendship, dedication, and frugality. Dogs are mentioned in the prologue, and the main character also meets them (and a horse) on the way to the brothel, which means that they are friends who do not judge (Findley, p. 38). Horses are a symbol of fragility and reflect the values, Robert. Shooting a horse is an act that contradicts the nature of the main character. They are a retrospection to Ross’s happiest part of his life when his sister is still alive. In an old photograph, Rowena sits on a pony, and this scene is an allusion to the best time of his life.

When Robert has to shoot a horse, he remembers the murder of his sister again. The scene in the ship’s holding is quite important since it allows understanding the deep sorrow and guilt Robert is feeling in regards to his sister’s death. When he kills the horse with the broken leg, and it falls, his mind immediately evokes the memories of Rowena (Findley, p. 64). The author writes: “A chair fell over in his mind” (Findley, p. 65). Animal imagery in this context is a strong tool used to convey the disturbing feelings experienced by Robert – killing the horse is like killing his sister again.

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Thus, it can be concluded that Findley uses symbolism as an instrument to reveal the humanity of the main character in the context of war and to show his connection to the natural world. He employs different patterns of symbolism at multiple levels to enhance the effect on the reader. This way, the audience can deconstruct the nature of the main hero and comprehend the complex internal and external conflict occurring inside Robert Ross and in the setting of that time.

Works Cited

  1. Findley, Timothy. The Wars. Markham: Penguin Books, 1978.
  2. Hulan, Renée. Canadian Historical Writing: Reading the Remains. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
  3. Krause, Dagmar. Timothy Findley’s Novels between Ethics and Postmodernism. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2005.

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