Mary Borden: Women’s Work and War Writing


Mary Borden, World War I, Modernism, War Memoir, Women in war

The popular success of men’s Great War novels and memoirs like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War set a pattern for what kinds of things one was allowed to say about the First World War, a pattern that focused attention on the experiences of men in the trenches as the most typical Great War story.  In doing so, women’s experiences of the war were largely shunted aside, represented in texts like Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which emphasizes Brittain’s loss of her fiancee, brother, and other friends even as it narrates her experience as a volunteer nurse.  Mary Borden’s book, The Forbidden Zone, published during the late 1920s wave of war writing, troubles the too-easy categorization of war memoir into feminine and masculine styles and experiences. Her depiction of war trauma equals Blunden’s or Remarque’s, and unlike many of the male war writers, she adopts a distinctly modernist style in order to aesthetically represent the horrors of war.  Borden challenges gendered notions of who can witness, who can suffer, and what the war really means.

Le grand succès des romans et mémoires masculins de la Grande Guerre, comme All Quiet on the Western Front d’Erich Maria Remarque ou Undertones of War d’Edmund Blunden, a établi un modèle pour le genre de choses que l’on était autorisé à dire sur la Première Guerre mondiale, un modèle qui a concentré l’attention sur les expériences des hommes dans les tranchées comme étant le récit le plus typique de la Grande Guerre.  Ainsi, les expériences des femmes ont été largement mises de côté, comme en témoignent des textes tels que Testament of Youth de Vera Brittain, qui met l’accent sur la perte de son fiancé, de son frère et d’autres amis, tout en racontant son expérience d’infirmière volontaire.  Le livre de Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone, publié pendant la vague de récits de guerre de la fin des années 1920, remet en question la division trop facile des mémoires de guerre en styles et expériences féminins et masculins. Sa description des traumatismes de guerre égale celle de Blunden ou de Remarque et, contrairement à de nombreux écrivains de guerre masculins, elle adopte un style résolument moderniste afin de représenter de manière esthétique les horreurs de la guerre.  Borden remet en question les notions sexuées de qui peut témoigner, qui peut souffrir et ce que la guerre signifie vraiment.


            Mary Borden dedicated her Great War book, The Forbidden Zone, to “the poilus who passed through our hands during the war, because I believe they would recognize the dimmed reality reflected in these pictures » (3). Characterizing her writing as a series of “pictures,” Borden emphasizes the painting-like quality of the text, which Ariela Freedman suggests leads to “the argument … that the dominant aesthetic influences on Borden’s work are paintings rather than books.  Like a cubist painter, she portrays a dehumanized and abstracted landscape” (116).   Certainly one could not call the book a memoir, or a short-story sequence, or a novel, or a prose-poem, or any other name that describes a coherent text.  John Berger writes that “Cubists broke the illusionist three-dimensional space which had existed in painting since the Renaissance. It did not destroy it… It broke its continuity” (21). The Forbidden Zone has a similar aesthetic, breaking the continuity of the war memoir, the nursing memoir, and fictional genres in its quest to represent the Great War accurately, in all its chaos and disjunction.  In doing this, it echoes modes of writing that it cannot replicate, calling into question not only pre-war literary modes but also the social values that informed them.  Borden’s book, first published in 1929, deploys modernist strategies of fragmentation, incompletion, and indeterminacy as the most accurate ways to capture the feeling of the war, disrupting readers’ expectations of how a war story should play out and particularly of how a woman should write about war.  Rather than displaying feelings of motherly compassion or professional sympathy, Borden’s nurses display detached numbness, their own version of shell-shock.

            The Great War challenged writers through their sense that the war itself was unlike anything that had ever happened before.  Despite this, war writing settled into remarkably stable forms — or seemed to do so, at least.  With the great flowering of war writing in the late 1920s (1928 and 1929 saw the publication of novels including  All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms, and memoirs by Edmund Blunden, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves, among others), a mode of encountering the war gained social and critical acceptance.  Both during the war and after it, writers explored a variety of ways to tell the story of the war, from trench newspapers like the Wipers Times, which relied on pastiche and parody to recount the experience of the war to soldiers in the trenches who had no need of descriptions of conditions at the front, to Virginia Woolf’s incorporation of the aftereffects of the war in Mrs. Dalloway. However,  a pattern emerged in which war stories were to be the stories of front-line soldiers; when noncombatants wrote, their texts must uphold the soldier’s tale as the most authentic experience of the war. War memoirs like Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Man or Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That were  structurally conservative, narratively coherent if episodic renditions of events that could be located on a calendar and military map.  Positive experiences were limited to renditions of comradeship, whether this involved shared pleasure such as the extra-rations meal that Paul and his friends wangle at the beginning of All Quiet or shared suffering, as in accounts of battle or trench life.  While writers like Remarque or Edmund Blunden in his memoir Undertones of War clearly use rhetorical devices and make aesthetic choices, such writers do so in order to project a sense of narrative simplicity: that they are reporting the simple, horrible facts as plainly as they can. Until fairly recently, critics imagined the war memoir through a lens partially created by Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).

            This mode of thought allowed little space for the narratively unusual war book, such as David Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937), which Fussell claims to want to like but seems to misunderstand.[1]  It allowed even less for books written by women, and the critical history of The Forbidden Zone reflects this.  Margaret Higonnet notes that “In the twentieth century not only seeing combat but dying in action have become paradoxical prerequisites to the writing and certification of war poetry….Because women were barred from the ultimate rites of war, they became its symbolic stakes, what war was fought for” (192, 195). But Borden, as Higonnet notes, resists the cultural pressure to conform her story to a pre-made pattern.  “War and nursing both engage in the struggle at the threshold between life and death,” she writes. “Because war so often is understood as a question of borderlines, it becomes symbolically identified with other thresholds of initiation, such as sexuality and death” (204).  Heroic in the hands of Hemingway and Remarque, these themes in Borden’s writing become “empty riddles” (204). Like other women writers of war, Mary Borden never forgets that “the primary sacrifice of life exacted by war” is borne by men.[2]  Yet at the same time, I argue, she asserts a reality that is contiguous to but not identical with men’s experiences on the front line, a reality that observes and codifies their suffering while also asserting a separate and equally meaningful suffering on the part of nurses who, while noncombatants, were still located in the battle zone, witnesses to the war’s vast and inhuman destruction.

            Freedman describes The Forbidden Zone as “work[ing] at this dangerous edge of representation,” saying that Borden’s “experimental and fragmented vision of the war dramatizes the limitations inherent in the noncombatant’s representation of trauma” while it goes “beyond ‘representation’ to ‘iteration’ by using strategies of dislocation that destabilize the reader” (110). Thus, as with many modernist texts, Borden’s book aims not to tell the reader about the events it describes, but rather to create in the reader herself the feelings it records.  While Borden’s experience of the war is second-hand by one way of reckoning, it is exposed and traumatic enough that it exacts psychological coping strategies and debilities similar to those of combatants. Thus, for Laurie Kaplan, The Forbidden Zone is notable because it “emphasizes the inadequacy of language and the ineffective simple-mindedness of the singular form” while it “explore[s] the corroding effects of war and challenge[s] assumptions about what is ‘appropriate’ for the woman writer to take on in terms of form, content, imagery, and realism” (35). Just as canonical war memoirs often feature authorial interjections about the inability of language to truly capture the experience of the war, Borden’s text begins with the claim that the only people who will fully understand the book are those who do not need to read it because they were there. The failure of language, no matter how ingeniously deployed, to express the experience of the war is a prominent theme of her book, one that is highlighted by the experimental forms through which Borden feints at capturing what it was like to be there.  Thus, through a combination of experimental form, direct denunciation of her own project, and evocative and startling descriptions of her experiences, Borden represents the war in the mode of Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (1) and for similar reason: “The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind” (7-8).

            Like many war memoirs, notably Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War, The Forbidden Zone does not describe shell shock but rather enacts it through its oftentimes blank and distanced prose. So in a sketch like “Conspiracy,” Borden’s sentences passively assert that “It is all carefully arranged” and “It is arranged that men should be broken and that they should be mended” (79).  The text never specifies who does the arranging, and for what purpose.  Instead, the humans involved — the broken and the menders — are mere objects of the impersonal arrangements of war. 

            Borden compares these objects, the wounded men, to torn and dirty clothes: “Just as you send your clothes to the laundry and mend them when they come back, so we send our men to the trenches and mend them when they come back again” (79).   This “we” acts like an automaton: “And we send our men to the war again and again, just as long as they will stand it; just until they are dead, and then we throw them into the ground” (79).  The slight shifts in the meaning of “just” in this passage show how carefully constructed the prose is: at first, it means “exactly,” then “until,” then “merely.”  But this last time, the “merely” is “merely dead,” a juxtaposition of a diminishing qualifier with a concept usually accorded heavy weight, particularly in war writing.  Borden omits the meaning of “just” as right and proper from this passage. Male war memoirists often said, with Sassoon and Owen, that they didn’t want to glorify war or death in war, as had so often happened in past war writing[3], but within their texts death is still personal and honorable — that is, the person who dies is seen as connected to other soldiers; his suffering, no matter how pointless, is ennobling.  But Borden’s blank affect and passive sentences emphasize the machinery of war, the interchangeableness of soldiers who are not individuals or even members of regiments or battalions but simply pieces of laundry, tagged and sent to be fixed up or discarded. The metaphor suggests, too, that they are dirty laundry as they go up to the front — not the noble innocents or heroic sacrifices that earlier war poetry would suggest. The step back that Borden must take because her gender prevents her from standing in the firing line, even though she is at the front, allows this broader view that depersonalizes suffering and death even as it fervently rejects narratives of heroism and meaningful sacrifice. These men do not have names or even numbers; Borden’s narrative conveys the war’s horror by stripping them of their humanity. In this, she counteracts soldier-writers’ instinct to bring meaning to deaths they saw as senseless. The observing narrator is also stripped of humanity in that she operates like an automaton, mechanically acting in the same way, over and over, despite the irrationality and futility of her actions. In this way, Borden reflects the view of war expressed in trench songs such as “We’re here because we’re here,” an ode to the existential dilemma at the heart of the War to End All War.[4]

            In doing so, Borden reflects the reality of working in a front-line hospital.  Men arrive at the hospital anonymous, classified there by their injury: abdominal wounds to the abdomen ward, head injuries to the head ward. The hospital’s job is to fix them up quickly as best it can — Borden’s hospital was a mobile, front-line unit offering more services than an aid station but fewer than behind-the-lines establishments — and send them to hospitals further behind the lines.  Thus, while men might remain at the hospital for a few days to die or begin recuperation before transport, for the most part they spend such a short time at the hospital that the nursing staff does not learn their names or much else to humanize them.  Readers see this most acutely in “Rosa,” where nurses call an injured soldier by the name of a loved one he repeats in his delirium, rather than by his own name, service number, or hospital admission number, at least one of which would have been available to them.

            The question of why nurses participate in the war preoccupies Borden in The Forbidden Zone.  If soldiers’ deaths cannot be described in terms of nobility or even utility, still less can the actions of the “we” who, like unthinking, unquestioning robots, patch men up so they can be pointlessly killed.  Thus, a story like “Rosa,” which deals with an attempted suicide brought to the hospital to be healed so he can be court-martialed and executed by firing squad, highlights the nurse-narrator’s inability to perform the kind of caring and healing functions that presumably motivated her volunteer service. As the story begins, the first-person narrator reveals herself as naive and inexperienced when a soldier arrives at the hospital shot through the mouth, and she thinks, “Shot in the mouth — through the roof of the mouth. He must have been asleep in the trench with his mouth open….You fool — you big hulking brute beast — going to sleep like that in utter careless weariness” (64).

            The surgeon, by contrast, more experienced in the various forms of morbidity the war serves up, knows precisely what he is observing: “He shot himself through the mouth. It’s a suicide” (65). He and the other medical personnel begin their mechanical acts to save the man’s life so that he can be “shot, Madame, for attempted suicide” (66), but the narrator, innocently, cries out against the pointless cruelty: “You don’t understand…You’ve made a mistake….He had a reason…Leave him alone with it. You can’t bring him back now to be shot again” (66). The contrast between the narrator’s humane impulse to withhold medical care so that the soldier’s plan to die can succeed and the doctor’s methodical and unquestioning performance of his medical duty, no matter how pointless and cruel, probes the question of how one can be caring and supportive in time of war. The nurse, shown as both more innocent and more humane than the doctor — she still believes she is there to do good for the soldiers — argues for a mode of caring in which empathy is privileged over medical duty. That ethic, of course, has been stifled by the time of “Conspiracy,” but Borden chooses here to demonstrate the difficulty of maintaining one’s own ethical principles in the maelstrom of the Great War.

            In the end, all the narrator can do is  instruct her subordinate to leave the soldier’s bandage off the next time he removes it.  The narrator reminds readers of the moral problem at the center of the story through the nurse’s response: “She was highly trained.  Her traditions, her professional conscience, the honour of her calling loomed for a moment before her, then her eyes lighted” (69). The war offers only bad choices to its participants, whether soldier, nurse, or civilian.  Failure to do one’s duty turns out to be the kinder and more humane response to the injured soldier’s plight. Santanu Das describes the problem of nurses like the one in Borden’s story as “the fundamental unshakability of the experience of the soldiers, and yet the juddering of the senses by serving the wounded body so intimately” and argues that it “leads to a crisis of experiencing.” Nursing, he writes, is “a constant emptying of oneself before great need and greater pain, and yet somehow always falling short” (244).  In this way, nurses experience both great responsibility and inability to meet it, correlating their role with that of combatants like junior officers, who Pat Barker argues in Regeneration are feminized by their position of care and powerlessness in the front lines.[5]

            Hazel Hutchinson notes that the narrator’s decision to follow her conscience rather than her professional duty to heal provides key insight into Borden’s probing of gender politics in The Forbidden Zone.  “[T]he power of the female nurse over the passive patient demonstrates the failure of the conventional sexual hierarchy,” she writes, “especially as the nurses’ defiance deliberately undercuts the male chain of command of army regulations, which would have them restore the soldier’s physical self at the expense of his emotional self — only to destroy him all over again” (148). The requirement of war for soldiers to offer their bodies to the Army for disposal as generals see fit prevents those same soldiers from reclaiming their lives; as the doctor in “Rosa” says, “But, Madame, we have epidemics of suicide in the trenches. Panic seizes the men. … Unless the penalty is what it is — to be court-martialed and shot — the thing would spread” (68). The fundamental illogic of this — in order to prevent mass suicide, the Army requires mass executions — cannot be acknowledged by the male doctor, but only by the female nurse who privileges her compassion and empathy over the rigid discipline of the military.  At the same time, the soldier himself crosses boundaries of gender through his name — the nurse-narrator calls him “Rosa” because the soldier keeps muttering that name, which seems to be connected to whatever problem caused him to attempt suicide.  But the soldier’s passivity and struggle against life also mark him as something other than human: the narrator remarks his “dark look of dumb subhuman suffering” (68). The war, then, has utterly disrupted the usual grounds on which humans see and interact with one another.  Compassion, the ostensible reason a woman like Mary Borden becomes a nurse, runs counter to the military mission, as of course it must.  From the masculine point of view of the doctor, “Rosa’s” fate is regrettable but reasonable.  Only the nurse’s feminine compassion can break through the military logic and allow the soldier to die as he wished.

            But Borden does not make a simplistic argument that feminine values are better than masculine ones. She posits the compassion of the nurse-narrator in “Rosa” as a function of her naiveté: in the same way that the narrator does not at first understand how the soldier came by his injury, she also believes that compassion and humanity have a place in this war.  By the second half of the book, placed in the Somme battlefields, Borden pulls no punches about the relative merits of conventional understandings of gender: neither masculine nor feminine values are suited to the front lines because those values are fundamentally human and the war itself is beyond human imagining or comprehension.  In “Paraphernalia,” the second-person narration is like a disembodied voice standing outside the actor who pointlessly works to save the life of a dying man, prolonging his suffering in a battle she cannot win. But the humanity of the nurse and the dying man matter much less in this story than the paraphernalia of the title: “Here are cotton things and rubber things and steel things and things made of glass, all manner of things” (83). In this world, humanity does not count for much, and neither the narrator nor the protagonist of the sketch can muster up enthusiasm for the futile activities that stave off death for a few moments, allowing the protagonist to feel her actions are meaningful. Instead, “Death is inexorable and the place of Death is void” (83). The distinction in this piece is not between men and women, or between combatants and noncombatants, but between things and people.  While the things are rather pointless — the narrator asks, “You have crowded the room up with all manner of things. Why do you crowd all these things up to the edge of the great emptiness?” (83) — they at least are solid and less ephemeral than the human beings: patient and carer, equally meaningless. As the man dies, the narrator chides the nurse for “filling the room with sound as you have filled it with your objects,” accusing her of “annoying Death” (84). Readers might expect the text to assert the importance of people over things, but because the dying soldier and the ‘you’ addressed by the narrator are both silent and anonymous, the things that preoccupy the narrator’s attention are the focal point of the text, not the human beings who seem more peripherally attached to it. In the end, only Death merits a name and personification.

            At the same time, though, the narrator strives to assert the primacy of the dying man, whose death she watches while the nurse-protagonist seeks to prevent it.  As Hutchinson notes, “the role of observer was closely tied to her national identity as an American, as well as to her literary antecedents. This observing role was also, increasingly, perceived as a role for women, the passive complement to masculine action and engagement…The figure of the watching woman is a powerful one in The Forbidden Zone” (147).  The assertion of the soldier’s death as the rightful focus of the text, argued through the narrative’s decrying how the nurse’s activities and paraphernalia obscure and diminish the meaning of one man’s dying, suggests a conventional ordering of roles: the soldier fights, experiences, and dies while the nurse merely observes, her presence a black mark on what should be a sublime transcendence for the dying man.  But the modernist aesthetic of the piece pulls back against that somewhat conventional reading.  The story is a conversation between the narrator’s disembodied voice and an unspeaking protagonist — over the body of a dying, unnamed, generic man. The only named character in the sketch is Death, which arguably has more personality than the nurse, who bustles and fusses but has no apparent emotion.  By contrast, Death is “annoyed” by her fussing and doing. 

            This leads to a depiction of the futility of trying to resist death: “And here are all your things, your blankets and your bottles and your basins….Your syringes and your needles and your uncorked bottles are all about in confusion. You have stained your fingers. There is a spot on your white apron; but you are superb, and here are all your things about you, all your queer things, all the confusion of your precious things” (84). The protagonist is just as much a prisoner of the war’s impetus to action as the dead soldier: just as his job is to bravely face pointless death on the battlefield, so hers is to pointlessly resist it in the hospital. And, just like Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did only backwards and in high heels, the nurse also needs to look “superb” while doing it — but the impossibility of meeting that gender norm resides in her stained fingers and spotted apron. More to the point, though, the nurse in this sketch and throughout the book is always ineffective in forestalling death. Is she, perhaps, on Death’s “pay-roll,” as Edna St. Vincent Millay put it in “Conscientious Objector?” (16). In that poem, Millay suggests that noncombatants are equally responsible for the evils of war: without nurses to patch the men up and send them back to the front — without nurses to put a patina of civilization and compassion on the war — nations could not fight.  Borden seems to agree.  Not only does The Forbidden Zone enact the trauma of nurses’ war service, but it also explores the guilt they feel over their participation in the death and inhumanity of the war.

            The cubism Higonnet notices throughout The Forbidden Zone forces readers to triangulate the problem presented here: the narrator’s angry voice, the frenetic activity of the nurse, the sideline death of the soldier, and Death’s annoyance generate a complex moral reality in which no good choices appear.  Though the narrator decries the nurse’s bustling activity, her intervention in normal circumstances is of course perfectly appropriate: it is only the inhumanity and mechanization of the war that renders her paraphernalia problematic rather than helpful. So whereas the narrative voice sees the nurse as one who does wrong by deploying her equipment to thwart death, the sketch as a whole disperses responsibility: no one is wholly to blame because they are all just doing the best they can in impossible circumstances.  That apron with one spot aptly emblematizes this problem. The nurse has an obligation to be clean and white and starched[6] for the soldiers, but also has an obligation to vigorously pursue her professional duties and not to shy from blood or other bodily fluids. The slightly messy apron she bears at the end of the sketch reveals how impossible her task is: she cannot perform both duties, and yet this fault lies with the duties themselves and the impossible requirements the war puts on her.

            Yet her failure to save the men and to inject civilization and human compassion into the field of war never leaves the narrator’s attention.  While the nurse is helpless to avoid this failure, it nevertheless remains a morally important one.  After “the little boy who had been crying for his mother” dies “with his head on my breast,” the narrator of “Blind” wonders “How many women…were waiting out there in the distance for news of these men who were lying on the floor?” But she immediately stops herself from that human engagement: “It didn’t do to think. I didn’t as a rule, but the boy’s very young voice had startled me. It had come through to me as a real voice will sound sometimes, through a dream, almost waking you” (92). Here, Borden creates a first-person narrator whose crossing the border between human compassion and professional distance replicates for readers the moral complexity of the nurse in wartime: unable to do much beside offering a human touch — a substitute mother’s breast to die on  — she is forced to insulate her emotions from her grim surroundings and the soldiers she wants to help.  Of course, she does this not merely for her own sanity, though certainly I would argue she has a right to do what she can to preserve herself in this environment, as do the men in the line with their gallows humor and other coping strategies.  Rather, she must distance herself from her own compassion in order to perform her healing function adequately.  Again, the nurse’s two objectives are incompatible with one another; whatever she does, she will inevitably fail to perform as she expects herself to do.

            The narrator of “Blind” survives this paradox by resolutely compartmentalizing patients, duties, and her emotions.  Thus, when a colleague asks her to “Come and help me a moment. Just cut this bandage, please,” and the patient’s brain “came off in my hands when I lifted the bandage from his head,” she responds in a matter of fact way, telling her colleague, “His brain came off on the bandage,” and answering his question of where she had put it with “I put it in the pail under the table”  (94). Afterwards, “I left him to finish the dressing and went about my own business. I had much to do” (95).  She reports that “Yes, I was happy there” and takes pride “because our mortality at the end of three months was only nineteen per cent, not thirty” (98). To highlight the cubist double-vision of the story, Borden has her narrator speak of the war both as if she is narrating present events and in reminiscence. This allows her to show the catatonic functioning of her character during the war while at the same time commenting on the narrator’s former self: “I think that woman, myself, must have been in a trance, or under some horrid spell. Her feet are lumps of fire, her face is clammy, her apron is splashed with blood; but she moves ceaselessly about with bright burning eyes and handles the dreadful wreckage of men as if in a dream.  She does not seem to notice the wounds or the blood” (99). Moving into the present tense, Borden shows how close the decade-old war is to the present-day narrator. The sounds, sights, and smells of the war return, crowding out the sense of distance that allowed her to function at the time.  The war’s grotesqueries, represented by a knee “boiled up for an experiment” and nearly eaten for lunch, reappear without troubling the narrator much (100). But the expert coping of the nurse in wartime reveals itself as far from perfect emotional deadening when the narrator returns to the side of the blind soldier for whom the story is named.  When he tells her he was afraid he had been left alone, she begins to collapse: “I seemed to awake then.  I looked round me and began to tremble, as one would tremble if one awoke with one’s head over the edge of a precipice” (103). Lying to the soldier that she “had not forgotten you, nor left you alone,” she “fled from him…ran down the long, dreadful hut and hid behind my screen and cowered, sobbing, in a corner, hiding my face” (104). Her compartmentalization broken, the narrator becomes for a moment a human being again, one who feels as she performs professionally, and this reintegration of her feminine empathy with her distanced professionalism sets off the emotional collapse of the sketch’s end. 

            The brokenness and fragmentation of The Forbidden Zone is always a gendered modernist strategy, though Borden famously says “There are no men here, so why should I be a woman?” (43). Instead, “There are heads and knees and mangled testicles,” body parts that echo and authorize the text’s fragmentation (43). But Borden’s narrators always specify a particularly feminine set of problems brought about by the war. Because a nurse must function dispassionately in order to perform her job professionally, she must cold-bloodedly kill her own emotions of compassion, even though these traditionally feminine feelings motivate and allow upper-class women like Borden to serve in the war.  “She is no longer a woman,” Borden writes. “She is dead already…Her heart is dead. She killed it. She couldn’t bear to feel it jumping in her side when Life, the sick animal, choked and rattled in her arms….Blind, deaf, dead — she is strong, efficient, fit to consort with gods and demons — a machine inhabited by the ghost of a woman” ( 43).  Contemporary cultural expectations that men in war have access to a range of heroic emotions, including courage and honor, while women may only deploy feelings of compassion and empathy — onlookers’ emotions rather than those allotted to actors — prevent the woman serving in war from integrating her feelings with her function, even when the function is predicated on women’s “natural feelings.” Instead, Borden argues that a woman in war must become that most unfeminine thing, a machine — fitting for a war that contrasted the power of machines and munitions with the frailty of the human body.  As with so many of the other machines of war, Borden’s nursing protagonists and narrators break under war’s pressure, and her book’s structure echoes and enacts their brokenness and fragmentation. A Cubist hellscape, the terrain of The Forbidden Zone explores the feminine interior, rather than the fields of war. In sharp contrast to the masculine Great War story with its tales of camaraderie and death, Borden’s book surveys the spiritual and emotional numbness of the woman traumatized by the war’s unending stream of broken male bodies which she is powerless to heal.


Works Cited

Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 1993 (1991).

Berger, John.  The Moment of Cubism and Other Essays.  New York: Pantheon, 1969.

Borden, Mary. The Forbidden Zone.  Hesperus, 2008.  Originally published 1929 by William Heinemann. 

Das, Santanu. “‘The impotence of sympathy’: touch and trauma in the memoirs of the First World War nurses.” Textual Practice 19.2 (2005), 239-262.

Dickinson, Emily. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (1263). The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Ed. Ralph W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998.

Freedman, Ariela. Mary Bordens Forbidden Zone: Womens Writing from No-Mans Land.”  Modernism/Modernity 9.1 (January 2002), 109-124.

Higonnet, Margaret. “Women in the Forbidden Zone: War, Women, and Death.” Death and Representation, ed. Sarah Webster Goodwin and Elisabeth Bronfen. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1993. 192-209.

Hutchinson, Hazel. “The Theatre of Pain: observing Mary Borden in The Forbidden Zone.” First World War Nursing: New Perspectives. Ed. Allison S. Fell and Christine E. Haller. New York: Routledge, 2013. 139-155.

Kaplan, Laurie. “Deformities of the Great War: The Narratives of Mary Borden and Helen Zenna Smith.” Women and Language 27.2, 35-43.

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “Conscientious Objector.” Accessed January 7, 2017.

Sassoon, Siegfried. The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston.  London: Faber and Faber, 1937.


[1] Fussell dislikes Jones’s use of allusion, for example, understanding the presence of ancient stories in the poem as Jones’s attempt to see the war as wholly like all other wars in history and saying of one scene, “In another writer that passage might be highly ironic, but here it’s not, for Jones wants it to be true” (165). Meanwhile, Fussell can see the ways in which the poem itself disrupts his assumptions about how In Parenthesis works: “We feel that Jones’s formula is wrong, all wrong, but it is exactly the vigor and pathos of his own brilliant details that have taught us that” (164). Formally distinct from the main line of war poetry, In Parenthesis evades Fussell’s desire to fit it into his metanarrative.

[2] See, for instance, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, in which she says, “[Roland] has to face far worse things than any sight or act I could come across; he can bear it — and so can I” (132).

[3] See, for instance, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” where the pointlessness of soldiers’ deaths is part of what makes them so noble and praiseworthy.

[4] To mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme’s beginning on July 1, 1916, the UK National Theatre and Birmingham Repertory Theatre produced, in cooperation with 26 organizations, a theater-in-the-streets event featuring actors dressed in World War I uniforms who appeared in a number of cities in the UK.  The actors did not speak to citizens in the streets but would, if questioned, produce a card with information on a soldier who had perished on the first day of the Somme.  Periodically, the actors would sing “We’re here because we’re here.” For more details, photos, and video, see See also Jeremy Deller, We’re here because we’re here (London: Cultureshock Media, 2017).

[5] See, for instance, the passage on page 107 where Rivers compares front-line junior officers to “women who were bringing up large families on very low income, women who, in their early thirties, could easily be mistaken for fifty or more. It was the look of people who are totally responsible for lives they have no power to save.”

[6] This image of nurses is rendered in many soldiers’ memoirs, as, for example, Sassoon’s description of his hospitalization for trench fever in MemoirsofanInfantryOfficer (447).

Jen Shelton is an associate professor of English at Texas Tech University, specializing in modernism and British literature. She is the author of Joyce and the Narrative Structure of Incest as well as essays on Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, and Great War writing.

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