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Portrayal of War’s Effects Within 20th Century Literature

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Throughout history, war has been a popular topic amongst writers looking for inspiration for new pieces. This includes anything from on-site reports to fictional works based off of real wars or battles. Looking at the timeline of when different war novels were published, it is easy to see a trend of writing styles. Stories like Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” seem to exaggerate the details of war, appealing to an audience that wishes to see a facade of romanticized war. However, more modern war stories – mainly from late 20th to present 21st century – still maintain darker moments and keep the vividness that the genre is so well known for while being less grandiose in scale and detail. Aside from sharing general and personal recounts of war, the genre stays true to one of the main goals of writing which is communicating opinions and emotions. War stories have always been a platform where writers can voice their feelings on war whether it be directly or through an elaborate story. The most popular era for these stories is the 20th century. During this time, American writers were actively involved in some of the biggest wars in the history of our nation and the world alike. Some of the most well known works include “The War Prayer,” “Soldier’s Home,” and “The Things They Carried.” Regardless of whether or not these authors actually saw combat, their works still touch on self-conflict caused by war, opposing views brought on by war, and other psychological and emotional effects that war induces.

The excerpt titled “On the Rainy River” from Tim O’Brien’s work is a great example of a piece that covers some of the more unexpected internal effects of war. As a whole, the story seems to start off as a seemingly more personal war recount, yet deeper into the novel it tends to stray away from this basic genre and forms its own valuable takeaways. Nevertheless, the excerpt is still an excellent portrayal of the emotional effects of war because on top of developing personal conflict, it does so in a way that the journey and result is surprising to the reader. The protagonist, Tim O’Brien, which is a semi-autobiographical character within this meta-fiction, struggles to decide whether to run away from the Vietnam War draft or just face it and enlist. When the chapter reaches its resolution, the typical reader will be confused to read that O’Brien thought that running away to Canada was the option that took the most bravery, whereas the option that he chose, which was enlisting, he viewed as cowardly. In fact, he states his only reason for joining the war when he writes “I would go to the war – I would kill and maybe die – because I was embarrassed not to.” Ultimately, just the very thought of war was enough to, in a way, peer pressure O’Brien into signing his life off for the effort. In this way, war is able to create strong feelings of guilt within the mind that eventually suppress all other internal instincts, whether they lead to good decisions or bad ones.

O’Brien also mentions that his decision to fight will have repercussions that are out of his control. During the river scene, O’Brien writes “My whole life seemed to spill out into the river… everything I had ever been or wanted to be.” His hint at his, now abandoned, future dreams means that the psychological effects of war can spread far further than the present. Seeing as O’Brien believes that all of his ambitions are now lost due to his decision to fight, this shows that wars effects aren’t localized within one point in a person’s life, but rather that they have lasting consequences that can change the course of one’s life permanently.

Going into a deeper analysis of “On the Rainy River,” it can be seen how war tends to create divided sides caused by differing viewpoints. Typically, there are avid supporters of a war as well as avid opposers of the conflict. Multiple pro-war groups are mentioned as O’Brien begins to get frustrated with “their blind, thoughtless, acquiescence to it all.” Eventually, this mention of a population split returns towards the end of the piece in a more physical manner. In a setting with a literal split between the land – which is the river – O’Brien, the only opposer to the war that was mentioned up to this point, first views the free Canadian shoreline then turns to his homeland to see all the groups of people that are cheering him on to join the war effort. This scene has a very patriotic mood due to the imagery used to describe the Minnesota shore. Furthermore, the example as a whole is still able to present the passion that comes with war and how it is able to influence uneducated minds toward supporting the effort.

On top of the internal effects that war can have before the conflict starts, it can also have post-combat results that are just as drastic. In “Soldier’s Home” by Ernest Hemingway, the reader sees a much more psychological-related effect of war rather than an emotional split that was seen in Tim O’Brien’s work. In the story, Krebs, a soldier returning from World War I, has trouble reacclimating in his hometown due to his experiences while on duty. He tries to be open about his time spent during war, but he finds that the only way to get past the long gone interest in hearing about the war stories is to lie to the people he talks to. When Hemingway writes “Kreb’s acquired the nausea in regard to experience that is the result of untruth or exaggeration,” it can be deduced that lying in every conversation begins to sicken him and his views on life in general become more blunt and straightforward as they have been shaped by war. Today, Krebs’ overall condition would be described as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and its side effects almost always include being antisocial and depressed. This concept of being disconnected from society led him to rethink his beliefs and even caused him to turn down his own desire to chase a girl. In the story it was even mentioned that “the world they were in was not the world he was in,” proving that he was mentally detached from the rest of the community. Ultimately, Krebs’ condition never improved during the story proving that the lasting psychological damages that the author was trying to shine light have the ability to make people feel emotionally detached from society, further causing physical changes in lifestyle as a result.

Apart from these lifestyle changes, Hemingway’s piece also hints at the belief changes that events like war can bring about. Common, fundamental values (at the time of World War 1) such as love and religion were all altered within Krebs’ head just because of a single tour of duty. When talking with his mom, religion is brought up. Once he states that he is “not in his Kingdom” and refuses to pray when asked by his mother, it is evident that his stance on the topic has clearly changed due to the shocked reaction of his mother to these responses. On top of this, Krebs also seems to reject the concept of love and immediately responds with “No…I don’t love anybody” when asked if he loves his mother. The story goes on by mentioning that he feels he is not capable of loving anyone after the events of his tour. Ultimately, this ability to alter views on such fundamental beliefs for this time period is more proof of war’s ability to have lasting internal effects on the mind.

War can also cause arguments amongst diverse social groups, splitting up populations because of different views of the conflict. “The War Prayer” by Mark Twain is one of the better examples that shows this social divide. Twain was very progressive on multiple debated topics at the time which explains his main purpose for writing “The War Prayer.” This piece was ultimately written in response to the United States’ actions in the Philippine War. In fact, it wasn’t even published due to its anti-war nature. Nevertheless, within the story a crowd of passionate listeners cheers on their soldiers as they prepare for a coming war. A speaker leads them in prayer as they ask that their soldiers outlast the enemy and come out victorious. Eventually, a stranger interrupts the prayer to warn of the losses that come with war. The crowd reacts as if “the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.” This reaction shows how blind and unaccepting the crowd is to outside views on conflict simply because of the way that the argument over war has made them. The two groups – the larger group taking part in the celebratory prayer and the stranger that warns them of the negatives that come with war – can be identified as the two divisions of the moral split on the war. This gap is then furthered by the fact that it actually was taking place in real life during the time of this work being published. In fact, the sole reason that this short story was delayed in being published is because it was feared it would cause too much tension. The ability of war to be able to cause a separation within groups with this much tension, both in a story and in real life, is only accomplishable by certain topics. Therefore, this again shows how war can inspire people to have emotions toward the subject, causing a social divide consisting of stubborn and rigid viewpoints.

For as long as war remains a constant of life, art forms that show its psychological and emotional effects will also not cease to be made. It seems to be the nature of art to follow topics that have a larger influence on the mind and body, ensuring that the writing has a form of deeper meaning. Writing about war will have no shortage of content for these larger influences and effects. These effects often include some form of divide whether it be an internal struggle or an outward divide where one finds their views on war different from someone else’s. The characters in the pieces each have their own levels of intensities towards war, much like the writers that create these pieces. Stories like “Soldier’s Home” discuss full-blown, mind-altering diseases that are caused by war while “The War Prayer” tends to stay more on the surface of the effects of war, discussing only broad divisions in society that are caused by war. Nonetheless, both of these sides of the intensity spectrum still contain valid reasons to write, as seen by the popularity of both of the mentioned pieces. Furthermore, the examples within the discussed pieces and excerpts show that something so common in the modern world has had, and still does have, lasting effects that multiple people seem to be unaware of, whether they be a direct victim of the effects or a bystander. Bringing light to the mental repercussions of war has a large importance. It functions as both an informational and opinion-writing process by helping to make readers aware of these effects while still incorporating the writer’s own views using contrast, imagery, tone, mood, and other literary devices which are all present in the works listed above as well as many other war-related works.

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Portrayal of War’s Effects Within 20th Century Literature. (2019, Jun 27). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 26, 2022, from
“Portrayal of War’s Effects Within 20th Century Literature.” GradesFixer, 27 Jun. 2019,
Portrayal of War’s Effects Within 20th Century Literature. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 26 May 2022].
Portrayal of War’s Effects Within 20th Century Literature [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 Jun 27 [cited 2022 May 26]. Available from:
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