The Inescapable Torment of Suffering in Owens Exposure

Categories: William Shakespeare

Owen's presentation of suffering in Exposure is of inescapable, relentless torment. The quotation: 'Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us...' is a very strong and powerful opening as it instantly shows that nature is against them. The wind being described as the 'east' wind possibly suggests how Owen is comparing it to the German forces as the Germans attacked from the east to the western front, much like the wind now, showing how the wind is more of a threat to the soldiers than the German forces are.

Nature is personified against the soldiers making the soldiers seem vulnerable and weak. The title 'Exposure' also suggests how vulnerable and defenceless the soldiers are to the enemy, as if they are exposed to them, with nowhere to run or escape. The phrase, 'Our brains ache' suggests not only the physical torment and agony they have to endure but also the psychological torment as well, being alone, in the freezing cold, scared of a German attack.

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The constant torment from Nature is described as 'iced' and 'merciless' shows us not only the harsh conditions but also how it is never-ending with no sympathy. Despite the soldiers doing 'nothing' they are still tormented. Furthermore, the wind being personified as 'kniving' them gives a very strong and violent image, but also further implies how the soldiers' torment is on-going and unceasing, as the verb is in the continuous form, and it is almost as if the soldiers are not allowed the pleasure of a quick death and the misery is instead dragged out tortuously.

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This is also supported by the ellipses at the end, further emphasising the unceasing torment instead of a quick death. Additionally, the quotation:

'Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,

Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles,'

Gives a sense of confusion and unease, the phrase, 'Watching, we hear' gives a mangling of the senses as if even the soldiers' senses are dying, in a state of confusion. Furthermore, the phrase 'mad gusts tugging on the wire' further emphasis how Nature is against them with the wind being described as 'mad' shows how it seems crazy, unpredictable and also angry while being personified to make it seem like it is the true enemy as German commanders were often described as 'mad'. Secondly, the phrase 'tugging on the wire' gives a sense of more elongated torment as it possibly suggests how it is toying and testing their defence, even though the soldiers know they will die, the wind continues to torment and toy with the soldiers. The simile, 'Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles' gives the reader a sense of the pain the soldiers experienced. Instead of being strong and fighting young men, they are stationary and weak, and it gives a sense of how Nature is torturing them before they die. Lastly the phrase, 'among its brambles' gives a sense of entrapment and how Nature is omnipotent, as instead of being in pain from being trapped in barbed wires -man's creation- they are dying by brambles, Nature's creation, slowly in 'agony'.

As well as physical suffering, the soldiers experience mental torment. The quotation, 'Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the door the doors are closed' gives a sense how even in their imagination the soldiers have mentally barred themselves from the warmth and everybody else, and even in their fantasies before death, they are still tormented not only by Nature but also by themselves. The repetition and addition of 'on us' further emphases the fact that them and only them are not allowed the warmth of home. Lastly, the quotations, 'Slowly our ghosts drag home' and 'fires, glozed/With crusted dark-red jewels' gives a sense of worthlessness and futility. The word 'Slowly' also demonstrates how even when they are dead, they are still being slowly tortured and can't quickly go home. The word 'ghosts' suggests how the soldiers are metaphorically dead to this world and how war has spiritually killed who they are, and now they are left as empty husks. The fact that the fire is described as being crusted with 'dark-red jewels' shows how valuable the soldiers see heat as it is being compared to an expensive jewel, yet like a like jewel, it serves no purpose and is just there to look at.

The structure of Exposure also possibly suggests the soldiers' constant suffering and Owen uses it to give the reader insight in the horrors of waiting in the trenches, making it seem like every second was torment to them, not all torture was from the battlefield. This is because the poem has a regular repeating structure which also emphasises how the solders' pain is constant and unceasing. The use of the plural personal pronouns 'we' and 'our' shows how Owen wanted to emphasise that this is what all soldiers went through, including himself. Additionally, the half-line at the end of each stanza gives a sense of futility and despair as all their life is wasted and they will be forgotten as 'nothing happens' and gives a sense of how the soldiers are waiting and are willing to die, to end their misery.

Owen's presentation of suffering in Mental Cases is of eternal, psychological pain. This is shown in the quotation: 'Stroke on stroke of pain', this quotation gives connotations of a whip being used to torture the soldiers, and could be possibly suggesting how they are mentally attacking themselves with memories of war constantly in their mind, and with the repetition and sibilance of 'Stroke on stroke', it gives the reader a sense of the elongated and eternal suffering they have to endure. Furthermore, the quotation is an oxymoron as stroking gives connotations of love and affection, however Owen uses it to show unceasing pain and suffering. Another quotation which shows the oxymoron of the relationship between love and pain is, 'Memory fingers in their hair of murders'. This quotation shows us how the soldiers cannot escape from their horrific memories of 'murder'. The phrase 'Memory fingers', shows us how the soldiers are haunted by everything they have seen and done even when shown motherly love and affection. The alliteration with 'murders/ Multitudinous murder' gives the reader a sense of the scale and horrors that haunt the soldiers as well as the soft 'm' sounds hiding the harshness of the atrocities the soldiers have committed. The use of the word 'Multitudinous' gives a greater sense of the scale and the incomparable damage they have caused. These things were forced on to the soldiers, breaking their minds down with guilt that we have imposed on them, this is shown by the quotation, 'Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.' The use of 'pawing' perhaps suggests the soldiers being more animalistic or even monstrous than being normal and gives a sense of desperation, as if the soldiers are trying to escape from battlefield. This could be further shown by the title of the poem, Mental Cases showing us the generalisation, lack of identity and labelling the shell-shocked soldiers get, as if they are a problem ('cases'). The quotations: 'Snatching after us', 'Drooping tongues' and 'Baring teeth' further emphasise that Owen is possibly linking the break down of the soldiers' minds being more similar to an animal than of a normal person, but also could suggest they have a lack of control. This is shown by the word 'Drooping'. The quotation 'Baring teeth' possibly suggests that they are provoked and ready to attack, which links to animalistic behaviour. This is because there are very harsh verbs used and gives connotations to a wild animal attacking, not humans, further suggesting how the soldiers' mental breakdown has made them more like an animal than human.

Furthermore, Owen also presents the notion of suffering for the soldiers as entering hell. This is shown in the quotation, 'purgatorial shadows' which suggests that these men are trapped between hell and heaven, however, the soldiers are unable to forget and lose their guilt and are eternally stuck in hell, forever remembering the murdering of thousands of innocent people. Mental Cases also has many similarities to Dante's Inferno, where the reader is sent to hell, and Owen uses this idea show the reader the pitiable, shell-shocked state of the soldiers, by showing us the torment in the hell of the soldiers' minds of which they are trapped within. Furthermore, the quotation, 'Baring teeth that leer like skulls' teeth wicked' shows us how the brings out the worst in people, making the soldiers seem like monsters. On the other hand, the quotation could possibly suggest that they are trying to act normal enforced by the government, to not discourage people to join the army and continue the propaganda of all the soldiers being "happy, jolly lads". The simile in the quotation links the living to the dead, making the soldiers seem half alive and half dead and 'Baring' gives monstrous and animalistic connotations and emphasis a lack of control as if they don't know what they are doing and are acting in self-defence, against us, the offenders. We who 'dealt them war and madness' are the true enemies here, forcing the soldiers to mentally break down and lose their own sanity over the murdering that we forced them to do, while watching, leaving them to suffer and keep killing for our benefit. The use of the quotation 'Snatching after us who smote them' gives a sense of how everybody is to blame due to the use of 'us', furthermore the word 'us' puts the reader in the seat of the offender, forcing them to consider the severity of the damage they have caused, and the word 'smote' possibly suggests how God is punishing all.

The structure of Mental Cases could also support the soldiers' suffering with long verses possibly mimicking the soldiers' extended suffering. The rhetorical questions in the first stanza are like an attack on the reader, forcing them to realise that they too are involved in the soldiers' current state, giving a sense of guilt to the reader. Owen also does not use any full rhymes possibly suggesting that there is only misery and no happiness to be found however there is no physical pain mentioned in Mental Cases, only the psychological torment that the soldiers have to endure eternally, trapped in the hell of their minds, fighting the war within their heads to escape insanity.


Updated: Apr 29, 2023
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The Inescapable Torment of Suffering in Owens Exposure. (2019, Nov 27). Retrieved from

The Inescapable Torment of Suffering in Owens Exposure essay
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