It's easy to forget when reading the many great novels written in the 1920s that they were written in the aftermath of a great and terrible schism. Their main characters are often young men returned from the war, and even if the narrative isn’t explicit about their experiences, they are haunted by what they’d seen in the trenches.
Think of Jay Gatsby (in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), who commanded the Lewis machine guns of the ninth machine gun battalion and was decorated for valor for his participation in the Marne and the Argonne. Think of shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith (in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway) who hallucinates about his friend and commanding officer Evans who’d been killed in Italy just before the Armistice. And think of Christopher Tietjens (in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End), unable to forget the young boy whose eye was shot out as Tietjens was trying to carry him to safety. His soon-to-be lover, Valentine Wannop, suddenly understands that he had been through hell. “Hitherto, she had thought of the War as physical suffering only; now she saw it only as mental torture. Immense miles and miles of anguish in darkened minds.”
In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence shows how the aftermath of those four years of unimaginable suffering affects everyone, even those who had never set foot on the front line. Sir Clifford Chatterley is shipped home “smashed” in 1918 to his young wife Constance. He is confined to a motorized wheelchair, the lower half of his body destroyed, with no chance for either himself or his wife of a sexual life or of children. It is a novel notorious for its frankness about female sexuality, but it is also masterful in its depiction of a general sense of disaffection and ennui, and the pointlessness of existence left over from the great slaughter. In observing the intellectual chatter of her husband and his friends, Constance begins to understand the damage that has been done to her entire generation:
“...It was the bruise of the war that had been in abeyance, slowly rising to the surface and creating the great ache of unrest, and stupor of discontent. The bruise was deep, deep, deep... the bruise of the false inhuman war. It would take many years for the living blood of generations to dissolve the vast black clot of bruised blood, deep inside their souls and bodies. And it would need a new hope.”
“All the great words, it seemed to Connie, were cancelled for her generation: love, joy, happiness, home, mother, father, husband, all these great dynamic words were half dead now, and dying from day to day. Home was a place you lived in, love was a thing you didn’t fool yourself about, joy was a word you applied to a good Charleston, happiness was a term of hypocrisy used to bluff other people, a father was an individual who enjoyed his own existence, a husband was a man you lived with and kept going in spirits. As for sex, the last of the great words, it was just a cocktail term for an excitement that bucked you up for a while, then left you more raggy than ever. Frayed! It was as if the very material you were made of was cheap stuff, and was fraying out to nothing. All that really remained was a stubborn stoicism; and in that there was a certain pleasure. In the very experience of the nothingness of life, phase after phase, étape after étape, there was a certain grisly satisfaction. So that’s that!”
Unfortunately that wasn’t that. There was another conflagration still to come, and yet more millions of people around the world would be killed or have their lives and bodies smashed and broken. Constance was right when she foresaw that it would take “the living blood of generations” to diffuse the deep, deep bloody bruise of those two wars.