Do you have any sympathy at all for Hibbert? Give evidence for your opinion
It could be argued that the realistic way the horrors of life in a First World War trench are depicted in “Journey’s End” leads us to feel sympathy for all the soldiers, including Hibbert, an officer in the company led by Stanhope. We see how soldiers had to deal with physical hardships like rationed food, rats, extreme discomfort and the emotional traumas of terror and almost inevitable death.
The conditions they come to accept as ‘normal’ would strike anyone not accustomed to them as intolerable and Hibbert’s response, based on his instinct for self-preservation, may be seen as rational and in many ways understandable. However, his stance goes against the crucial military requirements of camaraderie and unity against the enemy and thus he loses the sympathy of the audience, even though he has, in all probability, been forced to go to war through conscription. I shall examine in this essay why it is possible to feel sympathy for Hibbert at the beginning of the play, but how this diminishes as more of his character is revealed.
We first meet Hibbert towards the end of Act One. The stage directions describe him as ‘small, slightly built, in his early twenties’, reinforcing his youth and far from heroic stature. He refuses supper, complaining of ‘beastly neuralgia’ and apologises for continuing to talk about it. Neuralgia is pain associated with damage to the nerves and it seems credible that he is genuinely suffering. At this point I felt justified in giving Hibbert the benefit of the doubt. Osborne too seems to share this view when he says ‘I wonder if he really is bad. He looks rotten.’ Osborne, a former teacher with far more experience of the world and understanding of people than the young Stanhope has more compassion and probably understands that even if the neuralgia is feigned or exaggerated, there is an underlying psychological problem which is leading Hibbert to want to leave the front. We learn that Hibbert has served three months in the trenches so already has experienced considerable pressure. As Osborne says, ‘You can’t help feeling sorry for him.
I think he’s tried hard.’ This balances the unsympathetic response by Stanhope, who from the start is dismissive of Hibbert, constantly referring to him as a ‘little worm’. The phrase underlines not only his small stature, but also evokes his insignificance in the semi-underground trench. (In a sense the soldiers are all ‘worms’ to be sacrificed for the sake of victory.) Stanhope, I think, is biased against Hibbert because of what he feels was an earlier error of judgement when he let another man, Warren, go on sick leave. He also sees in Hibbert a manifestation of the fear he also feels yet tries so hard to cover up. It is worth bearing in mind that this work written for performance and how we respond to Hibbert at this point in the drama depends a great deal on how the actor and director decide to interpret the character. The actor might make it clear by his performance that Hibbert is devious and cowardly, or convey that he is genuinely close to breaking point.
In Act Two, there is a crucial scene when Hibbert, faced with the prospect of the forthcoming battle breaks down emotionally and says he ‘cannot stick it any longer’. I continued to feel sympathy because of his predicament: he has no control over his destiny. Stanhope has already had a word with the doctor to prevent him from sending Hibbert for treatment and the only escape appears to be death, but when Stanhope threatens to shoot him, Hibbert urges him to do so, “Go on, then, shoot! … I’ll never go into those trenches again. Shoot!” In Hibbert, R C Sherriff portrays how unbearable the war was for some soldiers: so bad that some preferred to die than live and fight there. Stanhope changes tactics and instead of threats, manipulates Hibbert into staying. ‘Think of all the chaps who’ve gone already,’ he says and ‘It’s the only decent thing a man can do.
Stanhope is a good psychologist. When Hibbert “breaks down and cries” Stanhope “turns away” because he understands Hibbert’s fear and what is likely to happen to them when the German attack begins. You’re never usually asked to empathise with cowards, but Sherriff makes it hard to ignore the genuine distress driving Hibbert’s behaviour. While feeling sympathy for Hibbert’s anguish though, it cannot be ignored that the character is also in the play to show the problem of cowardice and desertion- and so any sympathy is qualified by the awareness that the man is failing to do his duty in the war. When Stanhope asks Trotter about his cheerfulness: “I envy you, Trotter. Nothing upsets you, does it? You’re always the same…” the response “Always the same am I? (He sighs.) Little you know…” shows Trotter was tormented, in common with many of the other soldiers, yet projected an optimistic front .The exchange demonstrates the strength of many men in the war, and how it is possible to endure the hardships through self discipline and a positive attitude, attributes lacking in Hibbert.
The characters have their own ways of coping with the pressure. Stanhope, for instance, has become an alcoholic and, as he admits: “There were only two ways of breaking the strain. One was pretending I was ill – the other was this (he holds up his glass)” Osborne’s strategy is to escape into Lewis Carroll’s whimsical ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ He often reminisces about walks in the wood, thus escaping to a more pleasant time. Trotter’s prop is food, and he has a chart on which he counts off days – perhaps by the chart’s order he is trying to control the chaotic experience of war and loss. By contrast, Hibbert, in the early part of the play does not appear to have a coping mechanism-and it this that is leading to his breakdown, in my opinion. The coping strategies change the people: Captain Stanhope, for example, has gone from being a “splendid chap” and “skipper of rugby” to simply “a drunkard.” Thus the different personalities and attitudes to the war of the soldiers indicate what sort of an effect it had on them as people.
In Act Three, at the meal after Osborne’s death, I think we see how Hibbert has found a new coping strategy. He is clearly drunk and when Trotter says that he has never seen Hibbert ‘so cheerful out here’ we understand that Hibbert’s form of escapism is to boast about female conquests and make himself appear more manly. It might be argued that Sherriff is revealing Hibbert’s true, unattractive character, but I interpret his boasts as being a way of covering his insecurity as a man and disguising his true fears; the bravado is his way of boosting his confidence, a misguided attempt to appear more heroic. It is a sign of his own insecurity too when he attempts to undermine Trotter’s praise of Raleigh’s ‘pluck’ after the raid with a ‘Did you see him afterwards though…?’ Hibbert is at his most unsympathetic towards the end of the play when he is stalling over leaving the dug-out to go and fight. Compared to the dignity and heroism shown by Raleigh and Osborne in particular he does appear feeble. ‘There is no appalling hurry is there?’ he asks after his colleagues have already left to do their duty.It is time to confront his demons and he intends to delay this for as long as possible. We do not admire him for it, but given what we have seen of the wasteful horror of war, it is easy to understand why he falters.
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