‘Men’ is a World War Two historical short story penned by American writer Kay Boyle. The short story is about the lives of some French prisoners of war who were missing their families and homes because of the never-ending war and their confinement in the prison labor camps of France. Kay Boyle highlights the sense of conflict between those whose eyes are open to the actual living world of natural ritual and those who are blind to it. Nature is relentless and marches on its way despite the world’s troubles. The prisoners mentioned in this story are victims of war and are losing their belief in freedom, humanity, home, and nationality. Kay Boyle is part of the same group of writers who evolved during the time of Ernest Hemingway. Kay Boyle was a famous twentieth-century short story writer, novelist, educator, and political activist who stood for human rights and fought for the cause of the emotionally dispossessed. Her writings are always informed and based on events in history, especially those relating to the two World Wars. Thus, history seems to inform most of her short stories, including this short story titled ‘Men’.
The short story’s title is ‘Men’ because the story is centered on the French prisoners of war during World War Two who were not fit to fight the war in the trenches and were deployed to work in construction work on the railway lines and roads of France. This group of prisoners was ordered to construct a road over a railway line to prevent disruption in the army’s railway movement. An Austrian Baron who was part of this group felt it was illogical to construct a road when not many army trains used the railway line in the Isere Valley. The ‘Men’ are scholars and educated men from well-to-do respectable families. They all yearn for the war to end going on far longer than the First World War. They were missing their homes and families, especially their women. They were feeling a sense of desolation and emotional frustration. They yearned for the comfort of physical closeness, the warmth of affection, and the security of their homes, where they would be showered with love by their women and would be able to live a normal life once again. At the end of the story, the title’s significance is revealed when not only the Spaniard but all the men working on the road are eager to see the seventeen-year-old lady from France conversing with the Baron. There seems to be a hidden sexual and physical yearning in their observance of her being, which evokes a mixed reaction in the reader’s minds based on the emotional depravity of the men and the fact that they were acting according to their instincts. Other relevant themes in this short story are:
- The loss of freedom, home, and individuality.
- The activities of France during World War Two were not as harsh and inhuman as Nazi Germany.
- The relentlessness of nature, especially when the Baron in the first part of the text openly observes the snow-crested Alps and realizes that nature goes on with its seasons, days, nights despite the disharmony in the lives of the imprisoned men. While the other prisoners were only staring at the house of the seventeen-year-old young French lady, the Baron, who was much more refined and patient than them, was observing the Alps and nature to remember his link with the world around him. His connection to the world was otherwise being quickly sundered as the war waged on.
- The prisoners’ desires and yearnings are highlighted, including their sense of emotional frustration. They feel no aim or goal in sight nor an end to the crisis, but to keep up their spirits, they project their futile actions on simple goals to not give up on life and hope. In this short story, Kay Boyle, through her unpretentious and partly Hemingway plot structure, shows how the men using psychological techniques fixated themselves onto small goals every day, which gave meaning to their work.
Many men were working along with the Baron, but only three other men are mentioned explicitly by Kay Boyle, not by their names but using their nationalities. In this way Boyle brings out the loss of their individuality and how the war saw them not as human beings but merely as people of nations hostile to one another. The Spaniard had a girlish voice and was emotionally troubled by the never-ending war. He seems close to the Baron. Then there is a mention of a Hungarian doctor and a Czech tailor, all victims of their circumstance. They all miss their women, children, old jobs, and families and wish for nothing more than the war to end. The Baron is the most handsome, intellectual, and mature of the lot with his near chiseled features akin to a Greek god but which Kay Boyle more dramatically describes as something chivalrous and alludes to great handsome and daring historical personalities like:
- Theodoric, who was the King of the Ostrogoth
- Emperor Rudolph of Habsburg, and
- King Arthur of England
The Baron is like a sort of patient counselor and comforter of the men, full of vigor and determination. However, this was a façade for even he was yearning for the war to end and gradually losing his sense of freedom and individuality as the years went by. He looked serious by nature but had a wonderful laugh which indicates a clean and amiable human being. The famous Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky is quoted to describe the Baron’s laughter. It is not coincidental that Dostoevsky’s name is mentioned as much of his writings spoke about the harsh life of Russian prisoners and the lack of freedom and individuality in their living conditions.
Notice that all the prisoners randomly and for no particular reason declare that the moment they reach the inviting house in their path, then the war will end. They made this declaration to give purpose to their otherwise empty and void lives and keep them from becoming disheartened. Another reason was that, as human beings, they wanted to talk about something novel relating to their dreams and aspirations of life after the war. Also, they were all emotionally frustrated, as mentioned before. They become even more frustrated when the construction work overtakes the house, but nothing eventful happens, and the speculated ‘War’ does not come to an end. They receive this without visible displeasure and continue their digging, but emotionally and psychologically, they are crushed.
When the seventeen-year-old girl appears on the scene, there is excitement, and the Baron feels worried and anxious. He wishes to prevent the girl from coming too close to the men lest they get too eager to interact with her and thereby scare her off; or by trying to get intimate with her incur the wrath of their officers; that they would probably get emotionally attached to her thus forgetting their commitments at home; or that if she did not meet up to their expectations of female purity, comfort, and security, they would be further disheartened and give up on life. The girl, however, seems to take a liking to the handsome Austrian Baron and even invites him into her house, the house he and the others were early observing for so many weeks. She gives him a cognac drink and reassures him that all will be well when the French win the war. However, neither she nor the Baron is particularly confident that the war would end, and even if it did, they would be the same people they were before the war. The girl is the stereotypical symbol of femininity that the men craved. Where the Spaniard is concerned, he seems to leer at her and receives a slap on the mouth from the Baron when he asks him whether the other men would also get a ‘taste’ of what he got in the house. The Baron feels that the statement insulted the caring young lady who offered him only cognac and so slaps the Spaniard.
Where the desolation of the human spirit is concerned, there is a mention that the Baron and the other men were losing something day by day as the imprisonment progressed. According to Kay Boyle, this loss was not about their freedom, nationality, humanity, or individuality; instead, it went deeper. Through the Baron’s inward musings, we learn that it was something related to the flesh. Probably they were losing the meaning of life itself and the meaning of reality, thereby thinking everything was unreal. This is especially true because while they were prisoners and enslaved people of their conquerors, nature continued on her way with her seasons, sunrise, sunsets, and moon movements, which could prove troublesome to an enslaved person. It could also make such a person feel that his life and being had no significance in the world and that the day he died, the world would not stop, and neither would nature, thus increasing the sense of desolation and emptiness. The story ends with the arrival of the sentry to observe the work of the men. The leering and uncouth Spaniard gets a slap, and Kay Boyle successfully brings out the serious tone of her historically based short story. Her writings are serious and better worded than Ernest Hemingway’s and includes beautiful dialogues between the young French girl and the Baron, which brings out the following:
- That the girl was French and was evacuated from her home with her younger brother because of the war.
- The girl knew that the men, including the Baron, were prisoners and therefore had to do whatever the officers in charge told them to do.
- The Baron probably knew the German language but did not look like a German, indicating her hatred of Nazi Germany.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story penned by American author Kay Boyle. A Braille version of the analysis can be found here. I hope to read and review more classic works by American authors in the coming days. If you are interested in encouraging your wards or students to read the classics, you can check out my book titled Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them. If you are interested in reading some classic American fiction, you can check out my abridgment of Washington Irving’s ghost story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or Jean Webster’s women-centric novel Daddy-Long-Legs. I hope to read and review more works of Kay Boyle soon.
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