In Journey’s End, Sherriff presents to the audience the cyclical nature of life during war. The soldiers in the trenches try to organize their lives around eating meals, drinking tea, sleeping, and taking orders, which ultimately adds a repetitious quality to their collective existence. Indeed, they are always either standing watch or waiting to stand watch. What’s more, the kind of violence that characterizes trench warfare is itself repetitive: the attacks come intermittently, such that the soldiers know what to expect but not when to expect it. In turn, this leads to feelings of powerlessness and futility, as if no matter what the soldiers do (and no matter how they prepare), the war will continue forever. As this sensation of helplessness and futility pervades the play, characters like Stanhope undergo what can only be called existential crises; questioning the agency he has within his own life, he develops new perspectives regarding his position in the world. In this way, Sherriff highlights the psychological process that soldiers experience when they feel there is little they can do to influence their lives. Under this interpretation, repetition leads to a sense futility, and this futility threatens to significantly restructure the way a person conceives of their own existence. By showcasing this progression, Sherriff illustrates to the audience exactly how war alters a person’s perspective on life in general.
From the very first scene of the play, Sherriff infuses Journey’s End with cyclical imagery. When Osborne arrives in the trenches and speaks with Hardy, the man whose position he’s taking over, the two men notice an earwig acting strangely on the table. “It’s been running round and round that candle since tea-time; must have done a mile,” Hardy says. This is a perfect representation of the way the setting of Journey’s End ensnares its characters, keeping them trapped in the trenches doing the same thing over and over again. Of course, the earwig itself might think it has actually gone somewhere, rather than simply retraced its own steps. Similarly, any sense of progress the soldiers experience in the trenches is superficial or fleeting. For instance, Stanhope privately criticizes Hardy for not tidying up the trenches before leaving, but when Osborne suggests that he himself will clean the trenches the following day, Stanhope laughs and makes it clear that he doesn’t truly believe such superficial concerns actually matter. As Stanhope shows his mounting apathy, the audience begins to understand that such chores do nothing to truly influence the war. The soldiers can clean the trenches all they want, but doing so will only momentarily distract them from the cycle of violence and fear that monopolizes their lives day in and day out. Like the circling earwig, they are merely keeping themselves busy without achieving anything substantial.
Of all the soldiers, Stanhope is the most influenced by the futility of his wartime efforts. However, he is captain of the infantry, so he also tries to stick to protocol, even if doing so feels futile. As he proceeds in this manner, though, the repetitious nature of his duties wears on him more and more, until he starts questioning not only the usefulness of his own efforts, but the entire point of his existence. This soul-searching comes out in a conversation with Osborne, in which Stanhope drunkenly says, “Whenever I look at anything nowadays I see right through it. Looking at you now there’s your uniform—your jersey—shirt-vest—then beyond that…” This desire to break things into their tangible parts—to “see right through” them—makes sense for someone struggling to put together his own life in a way that creates greater meaning. As captain, Stanhope has to adhere to everyday patterns and duties, but nothing he does seems to contribute meaningfully to ending the war. No matter what happens, the Germans keep attacking, and he and his comrades keep doing the same things over and over, keeping themselves pointlessly occupied in the trenches. Thus, the components of Stanhope’s everyday life don’t add up to anything significant. It’s unsurprising, then, that he has begun to “see right through” ordinary things, wondering how they might all add up to make something of value. Struggling to find the point of his soldierly efforts, he begins to question the very nature of his existence.
Sherriff doesn’t allow Stanhope—or any of his characters—to ever gain any sort of closure regarding the significance of their military actions. This is because as a playwright, he is interested in exploring the existential problems that arise when people have trouble finding meaning in their everyday lives—not in the conclusions they may or may not reach. Indeed, the play itself ends in the middle of a battle, suggesting that the violence to which these soldiers have become accustomed will inevitably continue (in real life, the Battle of St. Quentin did indeed last for three full days, and World War I itself didn’t end for another eight months). Simply put, the end of the war—the “journey’s end”—is to these soldiers elusive and seemingly unattainable. This, in turn, makes their efforts seem pointless, and this outlook refigures the way they think, forcing them to question their purpose. Most importantly, Stanhope exemplifies how this search for meaning easily turns inward, as he grasps at existential quandaries and reexamines his place in the world. This, it seems, is what Sherriff is most interested in revealing: the fact that, despite its patterns and protocols, war is an inscrutable thing that has the power to fundamentally alter the way people conceive of life itself.
Repetition, Futility, and Perspective ThemeTracker
Repetition, Futility, and Perspective Quotes in Journey’s End
RALEIGH: It’s—it’s not exactly what I thought. It’s just this—this quiet that seems so funny.
OSBORNE: A hundred yards from here the Germans are sitting in their dugouts, thinking how quiet it is.
RALEIGH: Are they as near as that?
OSBORNE: About a hundred yards.
RALEIGH: It seems—uncanny. It makes me feel we’re—we’re all just waiting for something.
OSBORNE: We are, generally, just waiting for something. When anything happens, it happens quickly. Then we just start waiting again.
OSBORNE: I remember up at Wipers we had a man shot when he was out on patrol. Just at dawn. We couldn’t get him in that night. He lay out there groaning all day. Next night three of our men crawled out to get him in. It was so near the German trenches that they could have shot our fellows one by one. But, when our men began dragging the wounded man back over the rough ground, a big German officer stood up in their trenches and called out. ‘Carry him!’—and our fellows stood up and carried the man back and the German officer fired some lights for them to see by.
RALEIGH: How topping!
OSBORNE: Next day we blew each other’s trenches to blazes.
RALEIGH: It all seems rather—silly, doesn’t it?
S-M: Well, then, sir. If they don’t get through the first day, they’ll attack the next day and the next—
STANHOPE: They’re bound to.
S-M: Then oughtn’t we to fix up something about, well [he gropes for the right words]—er—falling back?
STANHOPE: There’s no need to—you see, this company’s a lot better than A and B Companies on either side of us.
S-M: Quite, sir.
STANHOPE: Well, then, if anyone breaks, A and B will break before we do. As long as we stick here when the other companies have given way, we can fire into the Boche as they try and get through the gaps on our sides—we’ll make a hell of a mess of them. We might delay the advance a whole day.
S-M [diffidently]: Yes, sir, but what ’appens when the Boche ’as all got round the back of us?
STANHOPE: Then we advance and win the war.
OSBORNE: Haven’t you read it?
TROTTER [scornfully]: No!
OSBORNE: You ought to. [Reads]
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale?
How cheerfully he seems to grin
And neatly spread his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
TROTTER [after a moment’s thought]: I don’t see no point in that.
OSBORNE [wearily]: Exactly. That’s just the point.