“The Thin Red Line” (Post 2/2)

Post 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1/2


He was the ‘honest coward.’ If you wanted to make people like you, play the buffoon whom they could laugh at without having to admit anything about themselves. It still did not make him feel any better.


[20] Reference:

“Take the shovel and give me the mattock.”



A hand tool, used for digging and chopping, similar to the pickaxe.

[21] Reference:

On the other side tall jungle trees strung with lianas towered above it.



A liana is any of various long-stemmed, woody vines that are rooted in the soil at ground level and use trees to climb up to the canopy to get access to well-lit areas of the forest. The term is not a taxonomic grouping, but rather a description of the way the plant grows.

[22] Reference:

Welsh and Storm were sitting on the sides of their holes matching pennies for cigarettes.


A simple example game used in game theory. It is the two-strategy equivalent of Rock, Paper, Scissors. The game is played between two players. Each has a penny and secretly turns it to heads or tails. The players then reveal their choices. If the pennies match (both heads or both tails), Player A keeps both pennies. If the pennies do not match (one heads and one tails), Player B keeps both pennies.

[23] Oddly placed semi-colon:

He made up his mind that he was going along; if he had to crawl.


[24] Throughout The Thin Red Line, Jones links combat to sexual experiences/shame. In this scene, Bead is ashamed his fellow soldiers have seen the body of a Japanese soldier he brutally beat to death:

“I feel guilty.”

“Guilty! What the hell for? It was him or you, wasn’t it?” (…)

“I know all that. But I can’t help it. I feel guilty.”

“But why!”

“Why! Why! How the fuck do I know why!” Bead cried. “Maybe my mother beat me up too many times for jerking off when I was a kid!” he cried plaintively, with a sudden half-flashing of miserable insight. “How do I know why!”

Doll stared at him uncomprehendingly.


Bead, as a youth, associated masturbation with guilt, not because of the pleasure but because it was discovered. Bead wanted the killing of the Japanese soldier to be a private thing, possibly because he felt some strange pleasure in the action and aftermath.


[Bead] still did not know what he really felt. Nobody told him anything that made any sense. But he realized now, quite suddenly, that he could survive the killing of many men. Because already the immediacy of the act itself, only minutes ago so very sharp, was fading. He could look at it now without pain, perhaps even with pride, in a way, because now it was only an idea like a scene in a play, and did not really hurt anyone.


[26] The terrain detail (and movement across it) is described so intricately that it becomes confusing. Strangely, too much information makes it impossible for me to set a good visual in my head. I had to keep using the map at the beginning of the book to situate myself.

(The land structure they are crossing has been named The Dancing Elephant, which is why there are references to the Elephant’s Head, Neck, etc.)

There were three of these little folds in the ground. All of them were perpendicular to the south face of Hill 209, parallel to each other. It had been Stein’s idea, when inspecting the terrain with Colonel Tall the evening before, to utilize these as cover by shoving off from the right end of the hill and then advancing left across them and across his own front – instead of getting himself caught in the steeper ravine immediately between the two hills, as had happened to Fox Co. Tall had agreed to this. (…)

The third and furthest left of these three folds was about a hundred and fifty yards from the beginning of the slope which became the Elephant’s Neck. This slope steepened as it climbed to the U-shaped eminence of the Elephant’s Head, which from five hundred yards beyond commanded and brooded over the entire area. This hundred and fifty yard low area, as well as the third fold, was dominated by two lesser, grassy ridges growing out of the slope and two hundred yards apart, one on other side of the low area. Both ridges were at right angles to the folds of ground and parallel to the line of advance. With these in hand plus the Elephant’s Head, the Japanese could put down a terrible fire over the whole approach area. Tall’s plan was for the forward elements to move up onto these two ridges, locating and eliminating the hidden strong points there which had stopped 2d Battalion yesterday, and then with the reserve company to reinforce them, work their way up the Elephant’s Neck to take the [sic] The Head. This was the Bowling Alley. But there was no way to outflank it. On the left it fell in a precipitous slope to the river, and on the right the Japanese held the jungle in force.



What time was it, anyway? Stein looked at his watch, and its little face stared back at him with an intensity it had never had before. 6:45; a quarter to seven in the morning. Back home he would be just – Stein realized he had never really seen his watch. He forced himself to put his arm down.


[28] Reference:

They were hosed to earth (…) before they could defilade themselves.



Enfilade and defilade are concepts in military tactics used to describe a military formation’s exposure to enemy fire. A formation or position is “in enfilade” if weapons fire can be directed along its longest axis. A unit or position is “in defilade” if it uses obstacles to shield or conceal itself from enfilade.

[29] Another character connecting the sensations of sexual experience and killing:

So Doll had killed his first Japanese. For that matter, his first human being of any kind. Doll had hunted quite a lot, and he could remember his first deer. But this was an experience which required extra tasting. Like getting screwed the first time, it was too complex to be classed solely as pride of accomplishment. Shooting well, at anything, was always a pleasure. And Doll hated the Japanese (…) But beyond these two pleasures there was another. It had to do with guilt. Doll felt guilty. He couldn’t help it. He had killed a human being, a man. He had done the most horrible thing a human could do, worse than rape even. And nobody in the whole damned world could say anything to him for it. He had gotten by with murder (…) Doll felt an impulse to grin a silly grin and to giggle. He felt stupid and cruel and mean and vastly superior. It certainly had helped his confidence, that was for sure.



Stein, who had never liked him, and didn’t like him now, watched him go with a growing admiration which only increased his dislike.


[31] Reference:

It had no more reality for Welsh than a movie. He was John Wayne and Tella was John Agar.



John Agar (1921 – 2002) was an American actor best known for starring alongside John Wayne in the films Sands of Iwo Jimi (1949), Fort Apache (1948), and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).

This reference creates an anachronism: The Thin Red Line takes place in 1942. Agar’s first film was Fort Apache, so Welsh would not know who he was. (John’s Wayne career was already established so his inclusion could make sense, but not with Agar.)

[32] Vocabulary:

And, despite the fact that he was chary of his personal endorsements, he now liked Bell.



adjective – cautiously or suspiciously reluctant to do something.

[33] Another character adds to the sexual pleasure/guilt/war associations:

John Ball [sic, character name of Bell is misspelled on this page] stopped and stared, transfixed by a revelation (…) His climb out into the trough that first time, even his participation in the failed assault, all were – in some way he could not fully understand – sexual, and as sexual, and in much the same way, as his childhood incident of the graveled road.


After setting the theme up for a hundred pages, Joyce finally addresses it directly:

Covertly Bell with his new knowledge looked around at the others. Were their reactions sexual too, then? How to know? (…) Could it be that all war was basically sexual? Not just in psych theory, but in fact, actually and emotionally? A sort of sexual perversion? Or a complex of sexual perversions? That would make a funny thesis and God help the race.



There was a joyous feeling in the safety of killing.



The truth was, Witt loved them all, passionately, with an almost sexual ecstasy of comradeship.


[36] Reference:

These three would never make it farther back than Noumea.



The capital city of the French special collectivity of New Caledonia.


There didn’t seem to be anything else left to say. Fife still had not got said what he had been trying to say, nor had he come anywhere near it. How did you go about telling someone you were a coward? How you had never thought you would be a coward, but it had turned out that you were?

“I’m a coward,” he said to Storm.

“So am I,” Storm said immediately. “And so is everybody who aint a fucking goddam fool.”



The basic problem was something else. And Stein didn’t know the answer to that either. The question was: Had Stein refused Tall’s orders really because he was afraid for his men, because so many of his men were being killed? Or had he refused Tall’s order because he was afraid for himself, afraid he might be killed? (…) Perhaps it had been some of both. But if it had been both, then which had been the stronger impulse? Which had really dictated his decision? He just didn’t know. And if he didn’t know now, he never would know. It would remain with him, unsolved.


[39] Reference:

Sent forward to CINCSWPA by cable.



Abbreviation for Commander in Chief, Southwest Pacific Area.

[40] Vocabulary:

He never would have believed, whatever their internecine fights, that Welsh would not have stood up for him.



adjective – destructive to both sides in a conflict; of or relating to conflict within a group or organization.

[41] Reference:

He had been evacuated to Esperito Santo for safekeeping.



A state in southeastern Brazil.

[42] By the last hundred pages, Jones’s repetitive vocabulary grates. Welsh is continually described as “sly”: his eyes are sly, his looks are sly, his voice is sly. Men are constantly “sobbing” for breath, characters have the same thoughts in the same way. Jones will use a new word two or three times in quick succession. All of this is forgivable (even unnoticeable) if a book is interesting enough to hold my attention, which tells you where I was at this point in things.

“Yeah,” Fife said gloomily. “If they don’t die of infection. Or get killed in an air raid before they get shipped out.”

“Hey! You sound pretty gloomy!”



“All right,” Fife said guardedly.

Doll raised his eyebrow, his old prewar gesture. “Because you don’t seem very happy.”

“Happy enough under the circumstances.”

“Old Jenks is kind of a cold fish. Or I always thought so, anyway,” Doll grinned. “Not an understanding guy.”

“I guess he’s a good enough squad leader,” Fife said guardedly.


[43] The character of John Bell has a wife back home, Marty. All we ever know about her is that she has a large sexual appetite and is a sexual object. Bell only wants her for sex; she only wants him for sex. Jones gives her no other characteristic, no personality. Soldiers think about sex an awful lot, I get it, but I need more information about this woman to care at all about the marriage and its ultimate dissolution.

That powerful, perpetually affirming, female force for life that was in her would require her to go on living, even when she might not want to; require her to go on needing to be loved by a male, another male, even when she might have preferred not.



Bell still could not free himself from that earlier illusion that he was in the midst of a nightmare dream, that he would soon wake up home in bed with Marty and push his face between the softness of her breasts to forget it. He would slide his face down her to inhale the lifecreating, lifescented womanperfume of her which always reassured and soothed him.



What could I have done, Marty? You’re a woman. You want to make life. You don’t understand men.



In a way this war was tougher on [Marty] than it was on him. Bell knew how much a need she had of physical affection, its reassurance, its re-establishment of – of existence, of personality. In a way it was much harder for her to be back there where there were lights, nightclubs, booze, people than it was for him to be here where there was nothing to be tempted by. Much harder.



He added to that first superstition a second which was that if he and Marty both remained true to each other, he could make it back with his genitals intact.



He thought about his wife Marty. Ah, Marty. He hoped if anything every [sic] happened to him like that, that nobody would ever write or tell her how this cock and these balls of his which she had loved so had finally wound up.



The more Bell stared at [the dead men’s eyes] the more he felt them to be holes into the center of the universe and that he might fall in through them to go drifting down through starry space amongst galaxies and spiral nebulae and island universes. He remembered he used to think of his wife’s cunt like that, in a more pleasant way.



He had to keep going. If he ever wanted to get back home again to his wife Marty, if he ever wanted to see her again, kiss her, put himself between her breasts, between her legs, fondle, caress, and touch her, he had to keep going.



John Bell could not possibly live through this war. He could not possibly go home to his wife Marty Bell. So it did not really make any difference what Marty did, whether she stepped out on him or not, because he would not be there to accuse her.



He had not thought of that episode in a long time. When he had told that one to his wife Marty, it had excited her too, and they had gone rushing off to bed together to make love. Ahhhhh, Marty!



Suddenly Bell knew (…) that he was cuckold; that Marty was stepping out, was sleeping with, was fucking, somebody. Given her character and his absence, there was no other possibility. (…) But with one man? or with several? Which did one prefer, the one man which meant a serious love affair? or the several which meant that she was promiscuous? What would he do when he got home? beat her up? kick her around? leave her? Put a goddamned grenade in her bed, maybe.



If he couldn’t believe in Marty, he couldn’t believe in anything now. With a half-erection from thinking about her he got up.



He had gotten to thinking about his wife and her lover. And to speculating about what kind of a guy he was. Because he was sure she had one (…) Nothing in her batch of warm, loving letters during the week off tended to make him think any differently. Sure, they were warm. But, in there between those lines, his hunger to see sexual hunger in her, through her letters, went completely unfelt.


This is the closest Jones comes to giving Marty any personality, and of course the story is post-sex, pre-sex, and a discussion about sex:

Bell remembered something Marty had told him once, before they were married. They were walking across the campus in Columbus, returning from a rendezvous in the apartment of married friends who let them use it afternoons for their love making. It was early fall. They had been holding hands as they walked. Marty had turned to him, eyes smiling coquettishly, and wearing a slight flush of confession, and had said suddenly: “I’d love to have a black baby. Once. Sometime.” The remark had thrilled Bell. Intuitively he understood exactly what she meant, and also why she’d said it. Though he couldn’t have put it into words, any more than she. It was, first, a crack in the face at social convention which they both hated. It was a compliment to him, also, that she would let him in on the inside of this particular fantasy. But there was more than that. And the only word for that part of it he could give, was the ‘sexual esthetic’ of it. He had been pleased she’d told him and at the same time furious with her. He had squeezed her hand and said: “Well, you’ll have to let me watch the conception of it.” And intuitively she had understood what he meant, too. She had colored deeply and said: “But I happen to be in love with you.” And they had turned in their tracks and gone back to the living room rug of the apartment, which was as far as they had gotten, even though both of them missed a class.



It was on that same day that Sgt John Bell got the letter he had been waiting for from his wife (…) The guy was an Air Force Captain at Paterson. She had fallen deeply in love with him (…) She wanted a divorce to marry him (…) It was all there. It was sane and sensible and calm and even sad. It was proper and it was reasonable. It was even prim. What was not there was any information about what they did together. How they went to bed. What they did in bed. What other things they did. Not one word about how he compared to Bell. (…) Why, from the letter you’d think they didn’t even have any sex together at all, it was so prim and proper and polite and distant. Come on, I used to fuck you, Baby!



The pain of transposing his own experience of making love to Marty into an imagined love-making between her and this other guy was too much to stand. He put his mind on other problems.


I would have jumped for joy if Jones had mentioned… oh, I don’t know… that this woman was musical, what she studied in college, any interest in the universe she might have. It’s insane. All Bell’s lost was a person to screw, as far as I can tell, and he’ll be able to find that on leave.

[44] Typo? Are we missing a “not”? Am I reading this wrong?

When the orders came, they came in the voice of the 1st Battalion Exec, but from the person of the Regimental Commander himself.


[45] Again with the redundancy. The dialogue attributions get out of control near the end of this book.

“Is that an order then, sir?” Beck growled, staring at him (…)

“No, sir.” Beck growled it furiously.


And if Jones had to do the second, he would have been better with:

“No, sir,” Beck growled.


“No, sir,” Beck said furiously.

Growling furiously is a redundancy inside a redundancy.


Nobody dies normally. Not to himself, at least.


[47] For all of the “anyone can die at any moment” feeling attempted throughout this book, it is not supported in the plot. None of our main characters die (I’m considering Fife, Doll, Stein, Welsh and Storm as the leads) and only a couple of ancillary leads die. Bead is the most fleshed out character we lose and that happens around the halfway mark (page 251). Once you realize Jones isn’t striking at the characters we know the book loses any sense of tension or conflict. People are going to die, but not our main characters, which only supports our own illusion of the immortal self – a point Jones is trying to dismantle in this very book.

I don’t need to recommend or not recommend this book. People who are interested in war, battles, (more specifically, World War II) would probably like The Thin Red Line. If your interest in WWII is limited to Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan-type works (admittedly, about where I fall), this might be one to avoid.

August will be The Magus month with multiple posts each week, because yes, I have that much to say about John Fowles’s 1965 novel and its 1977 revised edition.


One thought on ““The Thin Red Line” (Post 2/2)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s