‘Courage’ and ‘cowardice’ – words that adorn the front cover of the book: ‘Private Peaceful’ by Michael Morpurgo and it is this theme that I intend to examine. Throughout the novel bravery is contrasted with that of cowardice and although they represent opposite ends of the spectrum, at times it proves impossible to untangle one from the other and we are left in a state of confusion as to the exact meaning of these terms.
When we stop to consider bravery and cowardice it is invariably in the physical form – bravery, where a person bodily performs a spectacular feat without hesitation or fear that they themselves may suffer harm; cowardice where a person is too afraid to move or act in a confrontational situation. Throughout the novel we are presented with many examples of this type of bravery and cowardice, which I will expand on later. However, bravery and cowardice can also be considered from a moral perspective. Moral heroism is when a staunch and resolute stance is taken, irrespective of the views of others, whilst moral cowardice is where a person is too frightened or weak to disobey or even question authority. Morpurgo fails to give us his definition of the terms cowardice and bravery and as I have already stated, at times it proves difficult to unravel and disentangle the two.
The novel Private Peaceful is a poignant story of a young soldier who is reminiscing about his life. The novel which yo-yo’s between the present and the past, is written in the first person narrative through Tommo’s eyes (one of the protagonists), and to begin with we have a child’s perspective whilst at the end, it is a young adult being reflective. Dramatic art is used in a simplistic manner to create a powerful and heart rending story. Morpurgo’s handling of bravery and cowardice is not prejudiced by the fact that the book will be read by schoolchildren as well as adults. The regiments camp is a pitiful place perched on the edge of ‘no-man’s-land’ and it is through the use of imagery that the horrendous squalor and rancid conditions that the soldiers had to endure in the trenches and dugouts are vividly depicted. We acknowledge that men who are able to survive such conditions are undeniably brave soldiers. Indeed, Morpurgo manages to convey the terror and ferocity of warfare without the need to be too explicit when detailing the carnage; all of which would be unsuitable for the younger readers. The novel makes compelling reading through our ability to become emotionally involved with the characters. It is through our ability to empathise that we can start to decipher the irony of bravery and cowardice depicted within the novel.
The novel is full of emotion and atmosphere where Tommo is determined to recall every incident that has happened to him. The reader is left to ponder the relevance and importance of such a need and it is during this vigil that the concepts of bravery and cowardice as established, bureaucratic principles are exposed and discussed. The novel ends with a poignant postscript which highlights the plight of 290 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were court-martialled and sentenced to death by execution for alleged cowardice. It would appear that no humanitarian rationale (such as these soldiers being traumatised by the ravages of war), has been taken into consideration and therefore it could be contested that they had received an unfair trial. It also highlights the British government’s failure to award posthumous pardons to these soldiers. The inclusion of this postscript establishes the books political agenda and the significance of Charlie’s story and unwarranted capital punishment. Morpurgo has developed a juxtaposed situation where a hero has been produced only to be executed by his own regiment for cowardice.
The notion of people dying in war to no avail emulates the harsh cynicism of the war poet Wilfred Owen who wrote:
“The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori”.
(War Poems & Manuscripts of Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum est)
In the novel, one of the protagonists is shot, not during combat, but at the mercy of those he has stood shoulder to shoulder with on the battlefield. This gives a harrowing and heart rending effect to this cynicism. For many people, death in war is irrational and pointless but death by those that are on your own side is absurd. Throughout Owen’s poem, ‘The Hero’, contempt for the notion of ‘devotion to duty’, is interspersed with a harsh but realistic representation of life on the frontline.
Another World War One poet who shares the same sentiments as Owen, is that of Siegfried Sassoon. Likewise, there are similarities between his wartime experiences and those found in this novel. Sassoon, single-handed seized a German trench, was decorated with medals for bravery and sustained war injuries. He defied orders to return to the war zone following his recovery from injury but, unlike Charlie Peaceful, Sassoon was fortunate enough not to be court-martialled; instead he was sent to a hospital to recuperate. Ideological parallels exist between Sassoon and Morpurgo’s views on bravery and cowardice where both men can be considered to have a contemptuous attitude with regard to patriotism.
The novel exposes how many people, automatically associate death during wartime with the concept of heroism. It stems from the notion that soldiers die whilst defending their country and family. However, it is the fear of cowardice that impels Tommo to sign up to go to war. The old woman’s teasing makes him resolute: “I had to prove myself. I had to prove myself to myself” (p.103), only to realize and discover that war has very little to do with bravery. When Charlie and Tommo pass another regiment returning from the front line, they do not consider them as victorious heroes but “haunted and hunted” (p.124) individuals. Whilst on patrol duty in the trenches, Tommo remarks that courage is not about heroic acts but instead, possessing the skill not to show your fear (p.127). He even acknowledges that the Germans are “are brave too. They do not falter” (p.140).
Morpurgo does recognise and acknowledge that soldiers out on the battlefield are brave, but he proposes that true heroism manifests itself through camaraderie. After a successful attack, Tommo remarks: “I feel a surge of triumph inside me, not because we have won, but because I have stood with the others.”(p.140). It can be considered that by the time we finish the novel, Tommo fulfils his need to be brave, but this is achieved not through strength of mind and character, but instead by a betrayal of those in charge and a breaking of his inner spirit: “taken away our spirit, drained the last of our strength, destroyed our hope” (p.161).
Although it is important to be able to identify the difference between ‘institutionalised’ bravery and a person’s heroic action, the concept of bravery and cowardice becomes increasingly problematic as the novel progresses. Morpurgo fails to actually define the terms bravery and cowardice but instead opts to expose their complexities through the two protagonists, Charlie and Tommo. The two brothers personify two juxtaposed characters where Charlie is motivated by courage and impetuosity, whereas Tommo is constrained by fear and restraint. These contrasting roles are implanted from the very onset of the novel as we learn about the brother’s experiences from childhood through to life in the war zone.
The novel allows us to make an analogy between the terrors that Tommo suffers when he attends school for the first time, to that which he experiences on the frontline. Tommo fails to differentiate between the two feelings and repeatedly equates being afraid with that of being a coward which will result in subsequent disgrace. For him it is impossible to demarcate between acceptable anxiety and irrational fear. The start of the novel informs us about the apprehensiveness of Tommo on his first day at school along with the considered concerns of loss of innocence and change (p.8). We understand Tommo to be a shy, thoughtful and pensive person. A shy temperament is not indicative of a coward, but Tommo is powerless to interpret and comprehend it in any other way, because it is always in contrast with Charlie’s.
As readers we progressively realize that the concept that determines a heroic action or decides whether a person can be classified as being ‘brave’ is down to individual perception. : Tommo perceives Charlie as “the bravest brother in the world” (p.24), whilst he sees himself as being plagued by fear. Tommo is under the delusion that having the self assurance to confront a person or problem is equivalent to bravery, especially as this is the mode that Charlie’s bravery takes. Tommo admires and commends Charlie for not only confronting, but also for defying authority – at school, he goes head-to-head with Jimmy Parsons in the school playground, brazenly admits to the Colonels face that he stole his foxhound, and he is insubordinate when he defies Sergeant Hanley. This impulsiveness and impetuosity is balanced by Charlie’s feelings of dignity and pride, as exemplified by his honourable silences when caned by Mr Munnings (p.24) or smiling at Tommo as he displayed fortitude during the punishment inflicted by Sergeant Hanley (p.118). These inner qualities originate from Charlie‘s self determination, fortitude and will-power, as well as from his moral principles. His moral judgements and beliefs as to what is right and wrong often underlie his actions and behaviour. Repeatedly we see Charlie protecting the victim or underdog – Bertha the old bloodhound, Big Joe his autistic brother, Molly the girl he loves and of course Tommo who causes his final demise. Charlie’s execution is the result of his refusal to leave his wounded brother on the battle-field, as well as for openly refuting Sergeant Hanley’s orders. Charlie considered Hanley’s orders to be imprudent and irrational, so he chose to defy them (p.172).
Throughout the novel it is apparent how Tommo has great admiration for his brave brother in whose “glow” (p.127) he lives in; but as a reader it is important in addition, to consider ones own perspective of bravery. Tommo lacks Charlie’s impetuosity, recklessness and die-hard temperament and it is these traits that Tommo is in awe of. Tommo believes that these qualities, which he himself lacks, are what makes his brother brave. Charlie’s impulsiveness is always judged as being a positive quality never negative. It is this acceptance of Charlie’s bravery without any questioning, which echoes his reticence and powerlessness to make a distinction as to whether his own actions are brave or cowardly. When Jimmy Parsons calls Big Joe names, Tommy: “discovered that sometimes you’ve got to stand up for yourself and fight for what’s right, even when you don’t want to.” (p.22). Tommo fails to recognise that this stance that he took was a brave action.
Although Tommo perpetually manages to conquer his early qualms and insecurities, throughout the novel, he fails to acknowledge or give recognition to his achievements. The novel opens with Tommo fearing school but no reference is made to this again, and similarly when he finally plucks up courage to take off all his clothes to go swimming in Okement Pool, or after he manages to talk to Anna from the estaminet, there is no acceptance that he has been courageous. Similarly, even though he has managed to overcome these fears, Tommo never considers himself as brave for even when he is victorious on the battle field, he views it pessimistically. Tommo believes his actions are defying cowardice as opposed to an act of bravery: “I feel a surge of triumph welling inside me, not because we have won, but because I have stood with the others. I have not run.” (p.140) Tommo fails to accept that he consciously made the decision to stay rather than abscond.
Tommo has no self esteem and no confidence in his own abilities. Our observations of Tommo as a coward, is for the most part, at his own admission. Tommo’s perception and interpretation of his own fear as being that of a coward has been primarily shaped by a harrowing incident, where fear of death made his legs freeze and “incapable of movement” (p.14). The result was that Tommo’s father demonstrated the ultimate act of bravery by surrendering his own personal life for his son. When a falling tree is about to crush Tommo, James Peaceful manages to reach the child and push him out of the way, crushing him instead. Tommo blames himself for his father’s death because he was too afraid to move when danger loomed and he has shown more cowardice by not being brave enough to tell anyone the exact circumstances to his father’s death. Nevertheless, fear for Tommo metamorphoses from a weakness to an indispensable asset, as exemplified when he is on sentry duty in the trenches. It is fear that gives Tommo the power to stay awake all night and in doing so, it transforms into a strength.
Ultimately, the novel is as much Tommo’s tragedy as Charlie’s. Charlie’s heroic temperament and innate bravery is scarred by being found guilty and convicted of cowardice. On the other hand, Tommo’s introspective temperament is shattered, and although he is involved in heroic feats they are not perceived as being brave because they come from hopelessness (p.163). When Tommo contemplates deserting even his “courage to be a coward had evaporated” (p.161). Indeed, Tommo’s perceptions of bravery do not coincide with the mundane concepts of bravery. We have already noted that he regards staying with his battalion as cowardly compliance. Tommo, on the other hand, considers that desertion would represent true bravery because it necessitates insubordination to authority coupled with courage for any punitive reprisals that may be inflicted.
Morpurgo infers, without overtly stating, that cowards are not those that are afraid, which is how Tommo misguidedly perceives it, but, are those that prey on the weak and take advantage of their vulnerability. In the novel, the cowards are: the colonel who would have no reservations about evicting a widow and her three children and threatens to shoot a harmless old dog, an aunt that maltreats a child with learning difficulties, a vindictive sergeant who intimidates and persecutes his troops to attain power. So who are the true heroes of the novel? These can be identified as Charlie, Tommo, Mother, Molly and Sergeant Wilke, all of whom were committed to shielding those who were more vulnerable than themselves.
The novels underlying message on individual bravery is implicit from the first page.
When Tommo nervously sets off to school for the first time, Charlie takes him by the hand and reassures him that all will be alright and it is Molly who helps restore self confidence when she shows him how to tie his shoelaces. Morpurgo illustrates how friendship and camaraderie are the essential ingredients to conquer fear and generate bravery. The nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’, is a theme which surfaces when there is a dilemma or a situation of conflict. When sung it unites families, friends and troops who are all trying to overcome fear in the face of adversity.
Within the novel, bravery and cowardice are presented as a paradox. We are left to decide whether it is braver to conform, obey rules and orders and so become a model soldier or whether it is braver to listen to and follow ones own inner beliefs. Charlie and Tommo represent each of the questions, Tommo the first and Charlie the second. However, throughout the novel both brothers exhibit their own mode of bravery and neither can be considered a coward. This corroborates the belief that how a person perceives bravery and cowardice is personal and does not follow an institutionalized ideal. In the end, Tommo survives not through fearlessness but because he has promises to keep and a family to protect. This brave view is in marked contrast to the Tommo we met at the start of the novel who was weak and afraid.
Morpurgo, M. (2003), Private Peaceful, HarperCollins
Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/secondary/keystage3/downloads/en_novel_privatepeaceful.doc
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Private Peaceful, (Durrington High School)
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The Thin Line Between Bravery and Cowardice in the Things They Carried www.researchover.com/termpaper/The_Thin_Line_Between_Br…
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War Poems & Manuscripts of Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum est, http://www.hcu.ox.ac.uk/jtap/warpoems.htm#12 (Accessed on 23rd February)
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