Private Peaceful begins with an optimistic impression of religion and spirituality. While Tommo is at home in England, he and his family seem assured in their Christian faith—faith that, in turn, comforts them through times of loss and grief. Over the course of the book, however, Tommo’s religious faith proves inadequate to deal with or explain the horrors of war. Eventually he decides that there is only earth and mankind after all, and that there is no point in trying to believe otherwise. Yet however initially traumatic, the dissolution of Tommo’s religious faith is also accompanied by a newfound appreciation for his own experiences and memories—ultimately suggesting the value in focusing on and drawing strength from earthly life rather than some spiritual beyond.
At the beginning of the novel, at Tommo’s father’s funeral, the Peaceful family find comfort in their faith. Tommo’s mother assures Big Joe that his father is “up there,” pointing to heaven, and “as happy as the birds.” The whole family believe that their father has moved into the afterlife in the form of a swallow which is present in the church at his funeral. Big Joe in particular carries his faith with him throughout the novel, which Tommo eventually envies. When Joe’s dog, Bertha, is killed, he finds comfort in going to the church tower in his innocent and unwavering belief that this is the site of heaven itself. Tommo’s home life is therefore associated with this simple belief in religion and spirituality.
When he journeys to France, however, and changes his “world of home for [a] world of war,” Tommo’s faith is shaken. This is exemplified in his early mention of the fact that even the church towers in France are mostly destroyed, and he has seen one in particular “hanging down like a broken promise.” If church towers at home in England are representative of the Peacefuls’ faith, particularly of their belief in heaven, here in the war zone this faith is literally being destroyed.
At the moment when he believes that Charlie has just died in battle, Tommo admits that he has completely lost his faith. He claims that he can “no longer even pretend to [him]self that [he] believed in a merciful God, nor in a heaven, not any more.” He admits that he envies Big Joe and his unrelenting faith. Instead, he can “believe only in the hell [he is] living in, a hell on earth, and it was man-made, not God-made.”
Later, when Anna is killed, Tommo again confirms his lack of belief in any afterlife, but still wishes he could believe, just as he earlier envied Big Joe’s faith. He wishes he could imagine Anna in “Big Joe’s happy heaven,” an innocent and naive “Sunday-school Heaven,” but he knows that “she was lying in the cold earth at [his] feet.” Once he has kissed the cold earth, he leaves Anna behind. The image of Tommo kissing the earth itself again demonstrates this transition from having faith in a mystical world beyond his own to one in the earthly reality before him.
Notably, as Charlie actually does die, both boys sing “Oranges and Lemons.” The song, though technically about churches, is a non-religious prayer for them, evoking comforting thoughts of Big Joe, their family, and their home. That they prefer to focus in the end on these elements of their lives rather than any sort of spirituality points to the value and meaning to be found in secular life. Tommo even sends away the padre (the military chaplain who has been sent to offer comfort to Tommo) in an ultimate rejection of religion.
Eventually, Tommo stops wishing that he could maintain his prior religious faith altogether. Instead, he devotes himself solely to the earthly—that is, to his memories of Charlie. He wills himself not to wish: “Don’t wish, Tommo. Remember. Remembrances are real.” Where before religion may have been a crutch, it is now a hindrance to honoring the life his brother left behind. Tommo thus devotes his attention to the real, tangible memories of his brother, rather than fantasies about his life after death.
Religion and Faith ThemeTracker
Religion and Faith Quotes in Private Peaceful
A swallow swoops over our heads all through the prayers, all through the hymns, flitting from window to window, from the belfry to the altar, looking for some way out. And I know for certain it is Father trying to escape. I know it because he told us more than once that in his next life he’d like to be a bird, so he could fly free wherever he wanted.
He told me once […] that your father was up in Heaven and could still see us easily from where he was. He was pointing upwards, I remember, and I didn’t understand exactly what he was trying to tell me, not at first. I thought he was just pointing up at the sky in a general sort of way, or at the birds maybe. But then he took my hand and made me point with him, to show me. We were pointing up at the church, at the top of the church tower. It sounds silly, but I think Big Joe believes that Heaven is at the top of the church tower.
I was once told in Sunday school that a church tower reaches up skywards because it is a promise of Heaven. Church towers are different in France. It was the first thing I noticed when I came here, when I changed my world of home for my world of war. […] There are not many steeples left now. I have seen the one in Albert, hanging down like a broken promise.
I looked up at the church steeple, a dark arrow pointing at the moon and beyond, and tried with all my heart and mind to believe she was up there somewhere in that vast expanse of infinity, up there in Sunday-school Heaven, in Big Joe’s happy Heaven. I couldn’t bring myself to think it. I knew she was lying in the cold earth at my feet. I knelt down and kissed the earth, then left her there.