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.
- In his preface to Death of a Hero, Aldington writes that his book is “not a novel at all” but rather a book that has “entirely disregarded” novelistic conventions. Is he right about this? How, if at all, do the conventions of novel writing reassert themselves in the work despite Aldington’s claim?
- Aldington also calls his book a “jazz novel.” What do you think he means by this designation? How, if at all, is the novel stylistically reminiscent of jazz?
- By announcing Winterbourne’s death both in its title and on its first page, Death of a Hero makes few claims to suspense. What may have motivated Aldington to give away his ending? Did he make the right artistic choice?
- In effect, Aldington tells his story twice: first summarizing the action in the prologue and then more deliberately in the three numbered sections that follow. Apart from their length, in what important ways do these two tellings differ? Why do you think Aldington chose this organization for his book?
- Although it is best known as an antiwar novel, Death of a Hero is approximately two thirds complete before George Winterbourne joins the army. Is the designation “antiwar novel” too limiting for Death of a Hero? How do the things to which it is “anti” extend beyond armed combat? How does Aldington’s lengthy critique of middle–class English society before the war enable us to understand his criticism of the war itself?
- Aldington is especially pointed in his treatment of sexual mores before and during the war, as represented by Winterbourne’s relationships with his wife, Elizabeth, and his mistress, Fanny. Discuss these relationships in terms of their love, passion, and morality, or lack thereof. How do Winterbourne’s relationships fit into Aldington’s reflections on the war?
- Aldington harshly criticizes the culture of England’s public schools. What aspects of life in these schools particularly enrage him? What connections does he perceive between public school culture and the English world view that led to the war?
- During his military service, George Winterbourne comes rather quickly to doubt that the Germans are his true enemies. Who or what are the real enemies in Death of a Hero, and how does Aldington propose fighting them?
- During the war, while Aldington was in France, his wife, H.D., began a more than twenty–year lesbian relationship with the novelist Annie Winifred Ellerman. Aldington himself took a mistress. Before the war was over, H.D. became pregnant with another man’s child. When Aldington returned from duty, suffering from shell shock, he and H.D. tried to salvage their marriage to no avail. The couple lived completely separate lives before finally divorcing nine years after Aldington published Death of a Hero. How might these events have influenced Aldington in his thoughts on free love as expressed in Death of a Hero?
- Death of a Hero has a logical defect in its narration: the story is told not from an omniscient point of view but by an unnamed fellow soldier who knew George Winterbourne near the end of the war. This narrator offers us many facts that he could not possibly know, including Winterbourne’s thoughts moments before his death. How does this twisting of narrative logic have an impact on your reading of the novel?
- The literal death of Aldington’s hero takes place on the morning of November 4, 1918. In what ways, though, does the entire novel describe the gradual death of George Winterbourne?
- What, in Death of a Hero, do most of the characters seem to regard as manliness? How, by contrast, do Winterbourne and Aldington appear to define what is manly, and how do their ideas contrast with the prevailing view? What is your own definition of manliness?
- Although he is deeply repelled by the pettiness and hypocrisy of life in society, Aldington does find in the world possible sources for individual redemption. What, for Aldington, are the potentially saving experiences of life? Why do they seemingly fail to save George Winterbourne?
- Although the title of Aldington’s novel concerns only the death of a single hero, the work may be read as proclaiming the general death of heroism in the modern world. Discuss Aldington’s concept of the heroic and the forces that, in his view, undermine the very possibility of heroism.
- What functions are served by the poem that Aldington wrote for the epilogue to Death of a Hero? What levels of meaning does the poem add to the novel? How does it change the poem to read it in light of the novel?