James Jones: From Here to Eternity

14th Impression, Nov 1956, Collins: St James Place, London


“The Book That Swept America” appears on the dustcover of the fourteenth impression, November 1956, of From Here to Eternity.  Considering that there were fourteen impressions after the first, which appeared in February 1952, it certainly must have swept the country.  And I wonder why?   Not because I do not think it is probably the best novel I have ever read, but precisely because it is the best novel that I have ever read.  It is not a novel that I would have expected to become a bestseller. 

It challenges all the conventions of society and presents us with a protagonist who rejects the honours that it hands out.  Before the book was turned into a movie  there were fears that it would offend, especially the army, so much was changed. And after the movie came out in 1953, the scene in the movie that stood out most in people’s minds was the scene of the lovers on the beach (a scene I scarcely remember from the book), it seems that the focus in the movie was on the love affair between Milt Warden and Karen Holmes and that the search for an authentic existence, which was Robert E. Lee Prewitt’s quest, was sidelined. The Hollywood treatment of the novel was to be expected and if the film version was popular (I did not see it), it had to be because it fulfilled popular expectations.  But the book does not; yet it was popular.  What was happening in the United States in the 1950s that allowed this book to become a bestseller? 

The novel is based on the author’s experience as an enlisted soldier in Schofield  Garrison in Hawaii.  It is the story of Robert E. Lee Prewitt who joins up when he is eighteen, is assigned to a Bugle Corps where he is the best bugler in the corps.  But he is being transferred out of the Bugle Corps and he accepts it passively.  “The reason was, he wanted to be a bugler. … He had to leave the Bugle Corps because he was a bugler… He had to leave, because he wanted most of all to stay.” (16) His reason is not logical and that is what makes it right; action that is logical is expedient.  For him doing what is not logical presents a challenge and gives meaning. to being human. To be logical is to fall in with the accepted norms and that means losing yourself in routines that deprive you of your ability to choose and be fully yourself.


And he chose to enlist because it is in the army that your individuality is drilled out of you and you do not have the right to choose.  For him to join the army is not logical and he has decided that he will be a thirty-year man.  His life, therefore, will be a constant chess game in which he has to remain wide-awake not to be checkmated.  For him that means being a live. To be logical and to accept the easy way out is not to live at all, not to realise your human potential.


I cannot remember whether I saw the 1953 movie but reading a summary of the scenario on Wikipedia, it seems to me that the film presented Prewitt as a victim.  The one thing he was not. He was a man who made choices and did not succumb to expediency.  Yes he is punished throughout his life for being his own man but he knows exactly what he is doing and remains true to his beliefs. He does not want the perfunctory life in which one does not have to make conscious choices.  When he is killed, he recognises his death as an act of passive resistance. 


We normally accept the social contract as the means by which we create community and preserve community.  And we accept it as providing us with our humanity.  That is what ubuntu means; a person is a person through other people.  But Jones shows us the karmic nature of the contract.  It is both negative as well as positive, like the burglar guards we put up around our home that keep out burglars and turn our homes into prisons.  In the novel Jones shows us that by colluding with the system or by simply accepting the security that it offers, we are called upon to sacrifice that which makes us uniquely individual.  Jack Malloy, one of the characters in the novel says, “you can’t divide the mass by a common factor that will give you a norm to work by, because while it may be mathematically correct it is false when applied to the individual member.  The masses are one thing, the amalgam of individuals is another.  And you cannot escape that paradox by levelling them off to a fourth-grade-mind common to all … And you can’t force the individual who makes up your nonexistent masses into anything unless he wants it ” (568)

In the novel Prewitt decides to give up boxing after he kills a man in the ring but he is an excellent boxer so the system, following its logic, puts pressure on him to go back into the ring.  He refuses because of a personal code of honour and he is severely punished.  But he will not give up his integrity and offers up a passive resistance to those who wish to force their will upon him by accepting the punishment that they inflict on him.  And his whole existence in the garrison becomes one of passive resistance.  As passive resistance is the means by which one asserts one’s moral integrity, it is also the means that exposes the lack of moral integrity in those who oppress. And the awareness of their own moral inferiority turns the oppressors even more violent.  So Prewitt is subjected to increasingly inhumane punishment.  Prewitt has instinctively embarks on passive resistance and does not realise that that is what he is doing. 


It is only as he is dying that he understands that he is a passive resister. His pursuers expect him to run to avoid their fire – that would be logical, expedient, but a denial of his beliefs. He stands absolutely still and is shot. The only people who mourn him are the MP who shot him and Lorene.  The MP acted as an automaton not a human being and his remorse is logical.  Lorene whose whole existence is based on expediency did not really understand Prewitt and her love for him was not logical but she did not see its illogic as a redeeming factor.  When he dies, she turns his death into an opportunity; gives him the status she wishes he had and claims to be his fiancée. 


To her he was a victim. But he is not. He does not feel sorry for himself and he does not blame anyone; he understands that what has happened to him is a result of the choices that he made, choices that preserved his uniqueness as an individual, choices that he made to preserve his humanity.

 In From Here to Eternity, Jones makes one aware that it is easy to lose one’s humanity living in society.