Analysis of ‘Disabled’ by Wilfred Owen
The poem “Disabled” by Wilfred Owen, written in third person, presents a young British soldier who lost his legs from the First World War. The soldier is left in solitude, as he no longer appears charming to the others and his sufferings from the war changed him into a completely different man. Therefore, Owen presents the soldier as extremely sympathetic by emphasizing that one impulsive, naive decision he made as a teenager led him to become ostracized and estranged from his own society.
First of all, Owen portrays the soldier as a sympathetic character by emphasizing that he was too innocent and immature to comprehend the possible consequences of war. The young man’s decision to join the army had been so impulsive and illogical that he cannot recall exactly why he made such decision. The poet uses punctuation to suggest this- frequent use of commas and semi colons when he says “that’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg…” expresses the poet’s hesitation as he struggles to remember exactly why the protagonist enlisted for the war. The poet mentions “…. aybe, too, to please his Meg.. ” and “someone said he’d look good in kilts”. The use of ambiguous words such as “maybe” and “someone” add to the vagueness of his motive. Since the readers are fully aware that catastrophes such as injuries and deaths occur in battlefields, the fact that the soldier joined the war without a logical reason shows that the decision had been completely spontaneous. As the majority of men would’ve joined the war out of patriotism, the soldier’s ambiguous or non-existent motive clearly emphasizes that he was incapable of making judicious decisions for himself.
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The soldier rather saw the war as an opportunity to gain pride, love and respect- this is suggested when the poet mentions “he thought of jeweled hilts for daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes; and care of arms…” The frequent use of semicolons shows the soldier’s endless exhilaration towards joining the war. The use of alliteration in “smart salutes” gives a melodic effect, and the imagery used in “jeweled hilts” creates a mesmerizing picture. This suggests the soldier had only considered the superficial aspect of the war.
This once again shows how innocent he had been, as the readers often express horror towards the violence of war rather than excitement. His endless dreams and fearlessness also indicate that he was just like any other youths with ambitions. This triggers the readers’ sympathy, as he was evidently a normal teenager in need of guidance, and was simply misguided by the misleading image of war created by the society. Moreover, the readers feel extremely sympathetic towards the soldier as the society neglects and avoids him after he sacrificed his legs in the war.
This is effectively seen as the poet juxtaposes people’s attitude towards him before and after the war, constantly switching between past tense and present tense. Before the war, the protagonist was admired and welcomed by the society. The use of alliteration as he mentions, “girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim” creates a pleasant sound, highlighting the fact that he appeared charming to many girls. The phrase “carried shoulder-high” indicates the protagonist’s superiority and prominence within the society.
However, the society, such as the girls, avoids the protagonist as he comes back from war as a cripple. He becomes completely alienated, seen as the poet mentions, “now he will never feel again how slim girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands”. The use of enjambment shows the soldier’s longing for the past, showing that the all the girls are no longer willing to get close to him. Also, the girls “touch him like a queer disease”. The use of simile suggests that the soldier is perceived as an abnormality or even causing disgust.
The word “disease” conveys a sense that people see his misery as ‘contagious’, leading to their reluctance to socialize with him. His presence within the society is no longer appreciated, or even acknowledged at all. Owen states that the soldier is clad in a “ghastly suit of grey”. The use of sibilance and alliteration creates a sinister atmosphere. This also exhibits him as a ghost, showing that he is almost invisible and is considered as a rather unpleasant figure to the rest of the society.
The protagonist’s grey clothes also blend in with the darkening atmosphere, indicating the protagonist’s gradual loss of significance and vitality. In addition, the society’s absurdity is revealed as the poet mentions that “some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer goal”. This suggests that from the society’s point of view, scoring a goal in a football game is more important than greeting a man who had just sacrificed his legs from the war. People’s intolerance towards abnormalities shows the society’s narrow-mindedness.
This also shows the hypocrisy of the society, as it had strongly encouraged the soldier to join the war by only presenting the charming aspect of war. Therefore, the soldier is displayed as a victim of the ruthless society, evoking the readers’ sympathy towards him. Furthermore, Owen triggers the readers’ sympathy as the war seems to have changed the soldier from a teenager to an old man, both mentally and physically. The poet highlights this by juxtaposing his life before and after the war. The protagonist had evidently been very energetic and lively prior to the war- the poet emphasizes this through his use of imagery.
Words such as “glow-lamps” and “light blue” convey a sense of warmth, and choice of words like “swing”, “glanced” and “carried” indicate the ceaseless movement taking place around the protagonist as well as the large amount of attention he used to receive from the others. The use of enjambment also adds up to the fast, lively pace of the poem. This shows contrast with the soldier’s state after the war, where imagery is used to describe him as an old man. Darkness is used to represent the lack of motivation and hope in his life.
The phrase “waiting for dark” indicates that the protagonist no longer has anything to look forward to in his life other than death. The fact that he was “waiting” for dark emphasizes his inability to move, as well as the fact that nothing could be done to improve his life. The poet mentions that the soldier “shivered in his ghastly suit of grey”- the color grey indicates cheerlessness and a sense of mourning. The use of sibilance in the phrase also produces a rather terrifying atmosphere, foreshadowing the worthless and solitary life ahead of him.
Words such as “wheeled chair” and “shivered” are also used to present the soldier as an old man and show that he is physically vulnerable. The poet’s choice of diction as he states that sleep “mothered” the boys away from him suggests that he is physically and mentally incapable of supporting himself and that he is completely dependent. The readers become more sympathetic towards the soldier as it had been clearly shown that he has nobody to depend on. In addition, the poet presents the soldier as an old man as he reveals his different way of thinking.
The soldier does nothing but look back at his life, as if his life is almost coming to an end. His regret of the past is effectively described as the poet states, “ He thought he’d better join (the war). –He wonders why. ” The dramatic pause created by the caesura gives a stronger impact, expressing the wounded soldier’s profound remorse towards joining the war. Moreover, the soldier makes a desperate attempt to cling onto his memories and remain a young boy, as he realizes that his choice of joining the war had been irrevocable.
His denial towards the cold reality is shown through the use of rhetorical questions and repetition as he says, “Why don’t they come and put him into bed? Why don’t they come? ” Although he is clearly aware that girls are no longer interested in him, he acts as if he is completely oblivious of the significant changes in his life. Although the soldier has no formal occasion to attend, he is clad in a “suit of grey”. This shows his desperate attempt to hold onto his old self as a teenager, as back then he felt that there would only be happiness ahead of him.
It is also seen as a painful reminder that his life can never go back to the way it used to be. Overall, Owen presents the soldier as extremely sympathetic, as his impulsive decision of joining the war had not only led to the loss of his legs but his position within the society. Everybody makes mistakes in their lives- especially during their youth, where people are more prone to making impulsive decisions. Since the consequences are normally not as severe as what the soldier has to face, the readers feel that he had been purely unlucky and had simply been victimized by the ruthless and deceiving society.