By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Elijah Alexander
From Here to Eternity was named by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century. It earned the National Book Award for fiction in 1951.
Reading it in 2014 makes one hope American’ civilization has progressed since Jones wrote his Army opus about pre-WWII’ Hawaii. Jones writes about the months before and immediately after Pearl Harbor. At the very least, Jones alludes to every ethnic stereotype ever written—from Jew boy, to wop, to the dreaded “N” word. Every woman in the book is a whore. Every man is a whore monger, repressed homosexual, or sadomasochistic narcissist.
Generally, men come off better than women, but only marginally. Men are shown to be extraordinarily tough, and brave, but often dim-witted. Women are wily sirens that lure men away from the best they can be. The only heroes are men. Women are by-standers, sex objects, and crafty manipulators. Love is an exercise in keeping score. Men are seeking sexual satisfaction while women are seeking security.
Is that what men believed in 1941? Is that what men believe in 2014? Maybe in 1941 and likely in 2014, but with some role reversal, less clarity, and slightly more equality.
Women in 2014 are more overt about their strengths. Modern women, more than Jones’ women, are shown to be equals of men in toughness and bravery. Seeking security is recognized as a motive force for both men and women in 2014. Jones’ women are less secure and more dependent on men. Ethnic stereotyping is more subtle today but still plays a significant role in American society. Homosexuality continues to be stigmatized in 2014.
James Jones writes about ideals in “From Here to Eternity”; i.e. ideals that are distorted and magnified by characters crafted from his experience as a 1939’ soldier in Hawaii. Jones shows how non-commissioned officers are the backbone of the Army because they handle day-to-day activities of military personnel. From personal experience, that was true in the 1970s and is probably true in 2014.
Sergeant Warden, one of Jones’ main characters is a manipulative, intelligent, leader of men. (One might remember Warden as Burt Lancaster in the movie, From Here to Eternity, a pale version of the book.) He loves himself and reviles disorganization, either in life or in military duty. Warden insists on control of his men, his circumstances, and his life. He attempts to manage those above him, at his rank, and below him. Like all human beings he finds he cannot control all men, all circumstances, or every part of his life.
Warden finds his equal in a woman. They vie for control of each other and find their reach exceeds their grasp. Warden expects blind obedience while his paramour demands obeisance. Neither can fulfill the needs of the other; each is driven by their own demons.
Private Prewitt (pronounced Pruit) is a 30-year-man but is an outlier that Warden tries to control. To a degree he is successful but even with wisdom, experience, and foresight, Warden fails Pru. Private Pru is a musician that is good enough to play taps at Arlington. Taps are an inference that Pru’s life ends before the final page is turned.
Pru sees the world as black and white, either right or wrong; without any in-between. He murders a prison sergeant after being released from a stockade run by a sadistic Major and his non-coms.
Jones infers that Pru is justified in his action though the idealism of a fellow prisoner named Malloy predicts Pru’s tragic end. Molloy is an interesting late character that exemplifies a man with a superior perception of reality, an understanding that humans are flawed; that humans are both good and evil; that salvation of humanity is in letting life be. Molloy recognizes that humans cannot control destiny’s details or the nature of humankind.
Jones’ novel is a caricature of real life. There is a common refrain about jazz’ and blues’ music that presages the life of an Army 30-year-man. Django Reinhardt, considered by some to be the best jazz guitar player that ever lived, is a symbol of a life lived hard and death come too soon.
The stereotyping, misogyny, and bravado of Jones’ characters are, at times, cloying, and at other times, entertaining. From Here to Eternity is a guy’s-guy’ novel that embarrasses men who think they are brave and women who are brave.