Examine the view that Burns is the character that elicits the most sympathy from the reader

Throughout the novel Burns is consistently presented to be the embodiment of the trauma caused by war,
Barkers lack of constraint by the bounds of history, as with Sassoon and Rivers, enables her to fully
explore the suffering that a soldier was made to endure. This, pitiful, exposition of trauma consequently
can be seen to elicit more sympathy for Burns than any other character, both real and fiction. Prior, for
instance, is given a chance to recover, Burns is deprived of any such luxury. As such he can be seen to
symbolise the far end of the spectrum, acting as a culmination of all the symptoms of trauma we see in
each individual character; epitomising loss through his inability to escape the war, highlighting the
isolation experienced by soldiers and acting as the physical manifestation of the horrors of war.
Arguably Barker could be aiming to elicit a sense of pity rather than sympathy towards Burns from the
reader, as he is portrayed as an byproduct of the war. Sympathy, stems from the sense of shared
similarities and more personal engagement, whereas pity is less engaged and relates to a sense of concern
and discomfort towards a situation. Being introduced as a ‘twenty-two year old’ the reader is immediately
aware of the youth of this character, such images evoke a sense of hope in the reader as well as
expectations of vibrance life, and innocence. Therefore when Burns is depicted as the antithesis of this
notion, as merely ‘skin and bone casing for a tormented alimentary canal’ a sense of pity is created at the
unfortunate and suffering that was ‘without purpose’. Furthermore, the use of the concrete noun ‘casing’
highlights the sense that Burns is trapped in his current state, to which there are ‘no redeeming
features’.Burns is stripped of his humanity, as an ‘alimentary canal’ Barker portrays Burns as only being
capable of having the most fundamental of human function, and nothing else. Barker begins to question
the values of society who had forsaken a man in such dire need of help, presenting an almost accusatory
tone at the view that soldiers physically or mentally affected, were of no use to society, as indicated by
‘casing’ which holds connotations to expendability as it can be seen to be referencing the bullet ‘casings’
that are seen as nugatory. The reader would feel a great sense of outrage that anyone would be subjected
to such attitudes, but given that this was a common occurance it could be seen that Burns, is a symbol for
the sombre reality the youth faced. This deprivation of any character highlights the corrosive nature of the
war, which in itself creates a pitiful reaction from the reader rather than sympathetic, as burns is given no
distinct character for the reader to feel any connection towards, his suffering is therefore presented as
unfathomable and hence so extreme.
Though concerned and acknowledging that Burns’ plight is ‘without purpose’ the reader is unable to
distinctly sympathise with Burns, but are rather made to feel like powerless onlookers, perhaps in an
effort to parallel the domestic front of the war, with the public feeling equally powerless towards the
suffering. Barker therefore conveys Burns’ innocence to augment the sense of sorrow that the reader
feels, as Burns is portrayed ‘like a child’ and described as a ‘fossilised school boy’ Barker seems to
condemn Burns to a life of suffering as the verb ‘fossilised’ is indicative of a state of permanency,
suggesting that unlike the other characters Burns has no hope of ‘regeneration’ but will remain a victim of
the war, even when living. This further creates a sense of hopelessness and desperation in the reader
towards Burns, pitying the loss of his life and all he is missing, rather than sympathising with him. Barker
places Burns so far on the spectrum of suffering that there is no way the reader could fully relate to him.
In this way, Burns can be seen to be isolated in his suffering, as characters like Prior are portrayed to be
longing for their innocence. Prior was ‘remembering his childhood games, making dens’... having a sense
of ‘childhood excitement’, the use of the verb ‘remembering’ in conjunction with the abstract noun of
‘childhood’ which has connotations to joy, carelessness and optimism is indicative of Prior reminiscing
about his childhood highlighting Prior’s yearning for the innocence he has lost as a result of the war. This
notion of a loss of innocence can be sympathised with by the reader as it is a relatable sense of longing, in
doing so we see how Barker contrasts Burns’ suffering with Priors, as Burns is seemed to be trapped in
his innocence and Prior ‘aches’ for it and therefore presents Prior to be a character we can connect and
sympathise to and Burns someone we can only pity. The depth of Burns’ suffering could be seen across
the nation, with works such as ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ commenting from a soldier's point of
view on how “I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and
fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow”. Here we see Burns’ suffering again being a symbol
for the extremities of warm yet still portraying its reality. Both Burns and Paul (the quoted character) are
works of fiction, but highlight that the youth of the war were scarred from the war with no hopes or
chance of recovery, as they have been ‘fossilised’ in this state, during the most impressionable stage of
their life, to know nothing else but pain. Once again Barker employs Burns’ innocence to elicit sympathy
in the reader more so than any other character as hope is present for everyone else.
The reader can also see Burns’ sense of entrapment through his inability to escape the war. Burns is
presented to be incredibly sensitive to any kind of war stimulus when ‘almost crying’ as a result of a
‘branch’ that ‘rattles against the window like a machine gun’. Here Barker highlights the most mundane
and common of occurrences to an everyday person, such as the reader, is means something almost worlds
apart to Burns. The use of the noun ‘branch’ is significant as it is a seemingly inert/powerless object, yet
its ability to make Burns almost ‘cry’ highlights the strength it holds over him, as it seems to bring him
back to the war where he would have been surrounded by the incessant sound of such ‘machine guns’.
The verb ‘cry’ is also significant as it was considered a very feminine trait, a sign of weakness, yet given
that it is elicited due to the war, this juxtaposes the notion that the war was synonymous with bravery and
honour, instead Barker explores it to be a negative force. As such, Burns’ sense of entrapment in such a
place would evoke a strong sense of sympathy from the reader, as Barker presents Burns to be the only
character not concerned with conforming to the archetypal soldier, instead fighting the notion that soldiers
were desensitised and benumed to life by presenting Burns as sensitive to a fault. Yet the adverb ‘almost’
is indicative that Burns, no matter how liberated he is initially portrayed as, is bound by the same
constraints of society, as ‘almost’ has connotations to limitation. As such, Burns is burdened by additional
pressures of society on top of that of the persisting trauma of war, which creates a sense of anger in the
reader as he is unfairly burdened by both society and the war, this anger can therefore be seen to transpire
into sympathy for Burns and his inescapable position. This chaos that a soldier experiences was captures
be Sassoon in his poem ‘Attack’, which describe the the sombre reality of what soldiers experienced
when on missions. The poem itself consisted of one stanza, full of enjambment which is indicative of a
soldiers life being uncontrollable, and follow of disorder lacking any level of organisation. Barker seems
to embrace these themes of chaos that is experienced by soldiers and imposes it on Burns’ everyday
experiences, further signifying how his life is like a battle, and he is still trapped in the war.
Yet this inescapability is not simply limited to Burns, characters like Anderson were subjected to the
same sense of sensitivity. After witnessing a ‘slightly blood-stained towel’ Anderson was launched into a
state of hysteria, huddled in ‘a foetal position’. Here Barker presents the same notion of sensitivity as the
adverb ‘slightly’ is indicative of a lack of severity, yet from the ‘stain between his legs’ the reader can
clearly see this was severe to Anderson. Such an act reduces any sense of conventional bravery that was
seen at the time, as the ‘stain’ could be implicit of this incident blemishing his reputation. As such Barker
doesn’t present Burns to be alone in his suffering, or the sympathy he receives (for the same reasons).
Burns does receive the most sympathy however, as his suffering can be seen to be a culmination of the
suffering of a man other patients we are introduced to. The night terrors and vomiting of Prior that
disgusts Willward to make him ‘intolerable’ and the emasculation from society we see in Anderson, for
example, are all present in Burns. Therefore it is the extent of his suffering, the multifaceted pain he
endures that results in him receiving the most sympathy, as he suffers both physically and mentally.
This extended suffering through Burns’ inability to move past the war is further explored through the
motif of ‘wire’. When Rivers visits Burns in his hometown he notices ‘The tangles of barbed wire that ran
along the beach’ yet ‘Burns seemed not to see the wire’. is is significant twofold;
Barker can be seen to employ ‘wire’ as a direct connection to the war, a symbol for the boundaries that
war created for these soldiers, even when they were away from the front lines. The concrete noun ‘barbed
wire’ has connotations to limitation and confinement, this could be seen to be likened to Burns’ own
description of being ‘casing’ which elicits the same notions. This therefore conveys how Burns’ home is a
metaphor for his own mind, and that he is once again presented as trapped, unable to escape. This is
particularly striking as Britain is an island, and the beach therefore symbolises hope for escape and
freedom. Yet the ‘wire’ represents the opposite, highlighting to the reader that the war and the control it
has over Burns is greater than that of nature itself. Secondly, Burns’ inability to ‘see’ the wire could be
implicit of him being so blinded by the war, that he is unaware of its control over his life. This was
common in many soldiers, with under 5% of soldiers ever seeking help after the war as a result of
societies indoctrinations of what it meant to be a man,a running theme in the novel with characters like
Prior ‘not believing’ in it. Rivers further notices that outside of the house ‘each gust of the coils of wire
twitched as if they were alive’. The use of the sibilant verb ‘gust’ represents the aggressive nature that
seems to shadow Burns, as if even in his own home, what was meant to be sanctuary for him, he is being
threatened, with the ‘wire’ seeming to infest every facet of his life. This is augmented by the ‘twitch’ of
the ‘coils of wire’ which personify these wires, equally personifying the constraints that Burns feels
bound by, constraints of the war. The use of the weak verb ‘twitched’ further conjures images of a
perhaps an injured soldier which could allude to Rivers own hope that the constraints that Burns is
subjected to is itself dying. Yet the image of death itself reinforces that Burns is surrounded by his
inescapable sorrow and suffering, given that his hometown could be seen as a symbol for his mental state,
Barker presents Burns himself to be filled with despair without hope of escape, in doing so Barker elicits
the most sympathy for burns in the direness of his situation, where no aspect of his life can be seen to be
free of the trauma caused by war.
Barker further evokes the most sympathy for Burns through the extremity of his suffering which portray
him to be an isolated character. Given that Burns’ hometown can be seen to be an extended metaphor for
his own mind, the fact that ‘Aldeburgh was the end of the line’ shows how Burns himself is so far
detached from society and the real world that he too is ‘at the end of the line’, distanced from all others,
which can be seen as characters like Prior and Anderson do share common characteristics with Burns, but
fail to ever engage with one other. In doing so Barker conveys Burns’ sense of loneliness to be
unfounded, yet this is made unfairly unclear to Burns who continues believing he is alone, despite the
physical proximity between him and them, this creates a great sense of frustration in the reader towards
Burns’ lonesome suffering, and sympathy that he is missing this opportunity to engage with others. His
inability to participate and socialise with others is highlighted when he arranges a ‘circle’ of corpses and
‘felt a great urge to lie beside them. But his clothes separated him’ Here Burns can be seen to be more
comfortable with the dead than the living, his ‘urge’ to lie beside them could be seen to stem from his
close belief in his own similarities and association with the ‘corpses’. Coupled with the verb ‘lie’ which
has connotations to resignation and defeat it is possible that he might believe he isn't worthy of living and
to take off his clothes is to liken him to the animals. Alternatively, his uniform gave him identity, purpose
to keep going and as he loses such sentiments in his own life it may symbolise his final detachment from
that part of his life. This act of protest distances himself from the army, the only connection he has
society, in doing so Barker presents Burns to be a pariah, as he would have been treated for his war
trauma. Yet this disconnect from society is heightened as ‘he cupped his genitals in his hands, not because
he was ashamed, but because they looked incongruous’. The adjective ‘incongruous’ is indicative of his
own belief in his emasculation, highlighting the strength of societies clutches over Burns, as his belief in
him not being worthy of living may be a result of societies indoctrination that everything he faces as a
result of war is a sign of cowardice, of uselessness and something to ashamed of. War is shown to have
stripped him off his masculinity, his manhood, which in itself symbolises his strength and self worth. It is
the severity of his reaction to his own isolation, his unwillingness to continue and his belief that he is
more alike to the ‘corpses’ than other people, like Prior or Anderson, the fact that ‘this is where he wanted
to be’ that evokes such a strong sense of powerless sympathy towards Burns more than anyone else, as
the reader feels utterly at a loss for him, able to do nothing but hope that he will get better, a hope Burns
himself has lost.
Throughout the novel the childlike presentation of Burns is employed to heighten the sense of unfortunate
and unfair sense of suffering that Burns is made to endure. Though this could evoke pity rather than
sympathy, it is not arguable that Burns is presented to be the most emotionally, and physically, hindered
of all characters in the novel. This is because the potential for ‘regeneration’ is lost with Burns, his
suffering is ‘a joke’ in its senselessness, which could allude to Barkers own sentiments of war being a
“unnecessary evil”. This innocence is however, contrasted by the inherently mature world that led to his
suffering (war), here Barker conveys her own criticism of such youthful soldiers fighting in the war, with
over 250,000 underage soldiers entering the army. Whilst Burns is seemed to be trapped in his innocence,
condemned to knowing nothing but ‘pain’ and suffering, he is arguably the least innocent characters, as
we see characters like Prior yearn for his fond times of youth, Burns wouldn’t likely look back wistfully
at this period of his life, as he knows no innocence. The sense of entrapment is further augmented by the
seeming haunting of the war with this omnipresence of ‘wire’ in his life, symbolising the wars control
over him, even in his hometown where he could be seen to have been seeking refuge. In doing so Barker
evokes the most sympathy for Burns as he is the most disturbed of characters, facing the burdens of his
past for what is suggested to be the majority of his future. The burdens themselves are so significant as
burns epitomises soldiers suffering, having a the brunt of most of the other patients symptoms. The
strong sense of isolation that causes him to concede to the war, to society and the harm it imposes
highlights the pressure that each soldier was subjected to. As such, Burns can be considered to be Barkers
own metaphor for all that is wrong with wars, and the dire consequences they create and therefore Burns
is given the most sympathy, to further her own message condemning war.
a) Inability to escape:
‘Branch rattled against the window like a machine gun’
‘Each gust of the coils of wire twitched as if they were alive’
^ Show his sensitivity ↓ What is mundane to most is significant to him- contrasts view that
soldiers are benumbed by making them appear to have base emotions augmented to a fault
‘The tangles of barbed wire that ran along the beach’
‘Burns seemed not to see the wire’ + ‘instead of walking along the path, Burns struck out across
the shingle’= Comfort
‘trees against him’
‘He pressed the two strands of wire apart and eased himself through’= Nature against him- only
knows conflict- age
‘boots like mud-clogged’
‘Stumbling and fumbling’= Wilfred Owens’s poem called ‘Dulce et decorum est’.
Barbed wire
b) Isolated
‘Aldeburgh was the end of the line’.
‘A sharper gust of wind’ and the use of colour, such as ‘wash of grey’ - ‘Each gust of
the coils of wire twitched as if they were alive- cyclical= haunted
arranges a ‘circle’ of corpses (from his hallucinations) and ‘felt a great urge to lie beside them,
but his clothes separated him’
‘He cupped his genitals in his hands, not because he was ashamed, but because they looked
‘various stages of decay’
Parent absent from his life - only 22- Rivers ‘held him, coaxing, rocking’.
+ ‘he heard Rivers voice’= voice of reason- deprived of love
By late afternoon Burns’ It instantly makes us concerned for Burn’s safety
Not totally:
‘And then they laughed’- hope- is not the ‘alimentary canal’ + connection to Rivers
‘Burns appeared’ (rivers thought he’d forgotten)- small victory
c) Physical manifestation
‘Beaten bronze’
‘White as root’ vs ‘illuminated yellow’
+ ‘Its halo of copper wire’’
‘Tormented alimentary canal’
‘Skin and bone casing’
‘Bones of burns face gleaming in the moonlight’
1) Pity vs sympathy + innocence + prior
2) Fragility from this innocence + elsewhere- prone to stimulus- as with andersonculmination of all the symptoms- inescapability (windows)
3) Isolation as a result of this inescapability- culmination - connection to others= heightened
sense of sympathy that he feels disconnected- ‘he was concerned to pretend that (wire)
everything was normal’ + ‘I am not a sight for sore eyes’
4) Culmination and embodiment = physical manifestation
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