Wyatt Bonikowski, Shell Shock and the Modernist Imagination: The Death Drive in Post-World War I British Fiction

Wyatt Bonikowski, Shell Shock and the Modernist Imagination: The Death Drive in Post-World War I British Fiction (Oxford: Routledge 2013) 200pp. £34.99 Pb, £100.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781409444176

Wyatt Bonikowski’s study, Shell Shock and the Modernist Imagination: The Death Drive in Post-World War I British Fiction, makes an extensive investigation of the understanding and representation of shell shock during and immediately after World War I within the framework of the so-called modernist imagination. As he states in the introductory chapter, Bonikowski’s primary argument concerns 'the importance of the shell-shocked soldier, as a historical and a literary figure, in raising the problem of the effects of war on the mind' (1). As the book’s subtitle suggests, Bonikowski’s argument about the significance of shell shock to the modernist imagination concentrates on British fiction and finds its best evidence in texts such as Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End, Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

Bonikowski opens his study by tracing the history of shell shock as a physical and psychological disorder, observing that, '[a]s the twentieth century progressed through a series of wars and violent vents, the questions that shell shock raised were posed repeatedly, culminating in the official recognition of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association' (1). Extrapolating from a review of medical records and reports from psychologists who treated men exhibiting the condition, including the reports of W H R Rivers, the doctor who treated Siegfried Sassoon, Bonikowski offers important insights into how shellshock was first perceived, considering the symptoms associated with it and the conditions of war and violence that caused it, and how those first perceptions of the condition began to be reflected in the imagination of British modernist writers.

Having established how shell shock was understood by the medical community and also how this impacted its first representation in fiction, Bonikowski proceeds to analyse key examples of how shell shock was represented in mainstream British modernist fiction. Although he devotes whole chapters to Parade’s End, The Return of the Soldier, and Mrs. Dalloway, Bonikowski identifies characters in the works of other early twentieth-century authors who are or could be diagnosed as having the symptoms of shell shock to make a more general case for the prominence of shell shock in literature of the period.

This identification of characters with the symptoms of shell shock has two apparent objectives, however, in the broader framework of Bonikowski’s argument. In the first instance, the sheer number of examples of characters with the symptoms of shell shock in British modernist fiction justifies the focus of his study upon such texts. In the second, the recognition of shell shock as a trait of certain characters allows Bonikowski to extrapolate the various ways in which shell shock functions as a metaphor within the modernist imagination. He investigates how shell shock can be interpreted figuratively in relation to the experiences of World War I and the attitudes of male characters and even certain writers (like Ford Madox Ford) who experienced it.

In his analysis of Mrs. Dalloway, Bonikowski shifts his focus to concentrate on the effect of shell shock in society, of the returned soldier and his effect on society. The self-evident but nonetheless vital observation he establishes at the beginning of his chapter on Woolf’s text is that '[w]hen the shell-shocked soldier returns home from war, he discovers that home is not the same home he remembers. It has been made unheimlich, unhomely, by the temporal and spatial displacements he has experienced as well as by symptoms of amnesia, speechlessness, and repetition compulsion' (133). He adds to this, still with a concentration on Mrs. Dalloway, that literature also makes 'the encounter between the shell-shocked soldier and civilians, especially women, [... into] an allegory of the revelation of a traumatic knowledge about the nature of the home, self, and civilization' (133).

Bonikowski’s discussion of the death drive emerges from this perspective of the encounter between the shell-shocked soldier and society. He draws on Freud and the broader field of psychoanalysis which emerged in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. One of the most striking aspects of his argument, however, is the interpretation of the shell shock in literature as a metaphor connected to the concept of the death drive, the experiences of the war, and the artistic dimensions of British modernism. This connection, in particular, has implications for readings of the representation of shell shock in British modernist fiction because it converts the representation of the condition and the condition itself into a metaphor and a mode of communication reflective of a desire for self-annihilation, both on behalf of individual characters and on behalf of society. Bonikowski suggests not only that shell-shocked characters demonstrate a death drive but that the death drive itself is an integral part of the representation of shell shock in British modernist literature – the vital detail about the effects of war and modernism that British modernist writers sought to represent, reflective of a fundamental way in which society had changed in response to war and related experiences such as industrialization.

Bonikowski’s work makes an important contribution to the study of modernist and post-war literature and modernist post-war literature because of the framework of interpretation that it elaborates by connecting shell shock with the psychological notion of a death drive and the literary concerns of modernism.

Charlotte Fiehn, University of Oxford