Devon Johnson on “Three Soldiers and the Expatriate Artist”
Three Soldiers, by John Dos Passos, is a realistic take on World War I. It refuses to romanticize the war. Instead of focusing on the war directly, the novel focuses on three soldiers serving in the United States military. Fuselli is a store owner from San Francisco, Chrisfield is an uneducated farmer from Indiana, and John Andrews is an educated pianist. The novel studies these three characters to show how the war affects them. Fuselli chases after higher ranks in an effort to please his lover and family at home, Chrisfield murders a fellow soldier, and Andrews struggles with his desire for freedom, which ultimately culminates in his desertion from the army.
The three main characters of the novels are all made expatriates by World War I. Dos Passos focuses on how the three soldiers react and adapt as expatriates because of the war. This makes Three Soldiers unique as an expatriate text because it directly examines the creation of an expatriate in Paris through a fictional lens. This allows Three Soldiers a more indirect look at the expatriate experience than direct, nonfictional works such as Ernest Hemingway‘s A Moveable Feast. This is most clearly done through examination of the character who takes up the majority of the novel, John Andrews.
Unlike Chrisfield and Fuselli, Andrews is an educated man. He can already speak a bit of French and becomes fluent in the language with ease. He is a pianist and he also obtains a scholarly transfer midway through the novel so that he can be excused from direct service. It is during his stay under the French college that he meets a woman and begins to explore his art again. It is also during this period of the novel when Andrews becomes an expatriate artist.
Dos Passos examines what allows the creation of expatriates such as Andrews which primarily boils down to youth. Andrews states that youth is “the most superb medium there is, though, for other things” (Dos Passos 174). It’s because of his young age that he is drafted and it is his youthful desire for school and lovers which draw him toward Paris. This mirrors real life expatriates such as Hemingway or Dos Passos himself.
Andrews’ stay in Paris is symbolic of expatriate artists’ stay in Paris. Dos Passos writes that during Andrews’ stay, “His music, he felt, was progressing now that, undisturbed, he lived all day long in the rhythm of it; his mind and his fingers were growing supple. The hard moulds that had grown up about his spirit were softening” (Dos Passos 225). Paris allowed expatriates time to work on their art as long as they had enough money to pay for a place to sleep and the occasional meal. Similar experiences are documented in A Moveable Feast (Hemingway). While Andrews’ stay is complicated by the need to avoid being caught by army officials, his stay sees the creation of his grand work, a song (Dos Passos 307). This work is created due to his experience within Paris and its environment which allowed him the time and the inspiration.
Andrew’s stay in Paris is similar to that of another expatriate artist: Hemingway. As shown throughout A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s swims in artistic endeavors during his time in Paris as he works on novels and short stories (Hemingway). Like Andrews, Hemingway’s work is able to continue undisturbed as he writes in coffe shops (Hemingway 17). The city and its post-war environment allots him the freedom and time to pursue his art. In Three Soldiers, Andrews mirrors the lives of expatriate artists, demonstrating through the novel how Paris led to their artistic creations and how the city came to shape their lives.
Dos Passos, John. Three Soldiers. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2004. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition. New York: Scribner, 2009. Print.
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