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Three soldiers de John Dos Passos
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Three soldiers (1921 original; edició 1921)

de John Dos Passos

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6391131,416 (3.57)1 / 59
This grimly realistic depiction of army life follows a trio of idealists as they contend with the regimentation, violence, and boredom of military service. Incited past the point of endurance, the soldiers respond with rancor and murderous rage. This powerful exploration of warfare's dehumanizing effects remains chillingly contemporary.… (més)
Títol:Three soldiers
Autors:John Dos Passos
Informació:New York: George H. Doran Company, c1921. [6], 433, [9] p. (first 6 p. and last 9 p. blank) ; 20 cm.
Col·leccions:La teva biblioteca

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Three Soldiers de John Dos Passos (1921)

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I was rather disappointed with this novel.

I’m an admirer of Dos Passos’ later USA Trilogy, but his modernistic style wasn’t fully developed yet when he wrote this novel though we do get a lot of snatches of music and a story allotted to several viewpoint characters. There’s also little of his experience as an ambulance driver in World War One. Indeed, there’s not that much actual combat in this novel at all.

The novel follows, despite the title, more than three soldiers.

Fuselli is an ambitious man from San Francisco. His desire to be promoted ultimately comes to nothing despite his good behavior. Sex and relationships were a big part of the USA Trilogy, and that’s true in this novel. Fuselli is engaged but a womanizer, and his fiancé ultimately marries someone back home anyway.

There’s the Jewish Eisenstein from New York who is a Marxist agitator, and he’ll get involved with Reds in France. He’s in the garment trade and also older, 30, than most of the other draftees. We’re not exactly sure what happens to him except he gets in trouble for speaking out against the war.

John Andrews, the novel’s main viewpoint character, is a would-be composer from a Virginia family and moved to New York City. We follow him from enlistment screening to the very end of the novel. He joins the Army thinking that it will somehow fix him; he is sick of his individuality. He needs, he thinks, to be scorned.

Bill Grey is a former cowboy. He’ll be the first one to talk about desertion, a major theme of the book.

Some of the soldiers are definitely not in the “making the world safe for democracy” mold. They talk about wanting to rape German women and humiliate German officers before shooting them. I suspect that must have been rather shocking in 1921. Chrisfield, from Indiana, is rather like this.

On the ship over, there is talk of some onboard casualties (falling overboard, spinal meningitis), and Chrisfield will develop a murderous fixation on an officer he will eventually kill later.

There is a brief appearance by a soldier from Minneapolis, a major setting in the USA trilogy. He comments on how he knows a lot less about what is happening in the war when he’s in France than when he was home.

Eisenstein talks about the “system” and how you have to “turn men into beasts before ye can get ‘em to act that way.” It’s a similar metaphor to the machine one used for the titles of the book’s parts except the last two: “Making the Mould”, “The Metal Cools”, “Machines”, “Rust”, “The World Outside”, and “Under the Wheels”.

There is a great deal of interaction with the “Y” men (as in YMCA), sometimes they are helpful, other times they come across unsympathetically as parrots of patriotic clichés who have never seen combat. There is mention of the YMCA distributing a pamphlet on German atrocities with pictures of children with their arms cut off, babies on bayonets, and women strapped to tables and being raped by Germans.

There are a couple of men who have seen combat and disabuse, in a café, the newbie characters about the glory of combat. One of them frequently seems to be facing court martials including one for going AWOL. Another soldier literally can’t take the stress. One day he refuses to get out of bed. An officer places him under arrest, and he just dies.

It isn’t until the third part of the book, “Machines”, (slightly more than a quarter into the book) that we get to combat and then, of course, not for all the characters.

The battle seems to be the Meusse Argonne, and Dos Passos actually captures what little I’ve read about it. Fought in a forested area, American units often lost contact with each other, and, at times left the fight (either because they were lost or temporarily deserted). It is during this battle that Chrisfield gets to kill the object of his fixation, a wounded Sergeant Anderson.

There is a line uttered by Andrews about how maybe the best thing that could happen to them is be killed in battle because they are a “tame generation”. He says this to Chrisfield who is anything but tame.

Another moment that was probably shocking for 1921 readers of this novel was the part when an officer heavily insinuates, due to their shortage of rations, that surrendering Germans should be killed and not taken prisoner. The Y men refuse to believe any American solider would shoot a surrendering German. To them, barbarism is only a German trait.

While hospitalized, several soldiers disparage making the world safe for democracy and how they are all suckers.

Andrews also gets hospitalized and thinks, when discussing the war with another soldi,er that

“Men were more humane when they were killing each other than when they were talking about it.”

While hospitalized, Andrews learns the war is over, and the book isn’t even half done.

The Army of Occupation in Germany is brought up a fair bit. Andrews even hears officers talking about going AWOL in Paris.

Chrisfield is eventually promoted to a corporal, and Andrews makes the acquaintance of another “college man” who tells him about a program where soldiers can stay in Paris and study.

The last third of the book is mainly following Andrews around Paris and the subculture of the deserters. He also takes a French lover and also falls in with the set of a rich French woman. (Paris of the Peace Conference was also a major part of Dos Passos’ 1918.)

Andrews keeps trying to get discharged. Then, one day traveling with that French woman, Genevieve, he is arrested by some MPs for not having a travel pass. It’s implied they’ve been robbing supplies or army payroll.

He is sent to a labor battalion, escapes, and falls in with a family crew on a river barge and then finds his way to Genevieve’s villa. Andrews starts to openly identify with the socialist/communists here, and Dos Passos’ ideological point becomes more blatant.

Genevieve greets Andrews and he takes a room, but he has no money, the landlady turns him in as a deserter, and the novel ends with him jumping out a window to his death, the papers with his composition flying about in the breeze.

The novel is interesting for the little asides that later Great War novels might leave out.

Dos Passos has a lot of dialogue and most of his descriptions are of the landscape, particularly its light. While the cynicism, socialism, and bitterness are interesting, the novel goes on too long in the last part. ( )
  RandyStafford | Feb 6, 2021 |
Author John Dos Passos came out of World War I believing that socialism and pacifism offered the world a better way forward. He finished writing Three Soldiers in the spring of 1919, but the novel was not published until 1921. Interestingly, the 1932 Modern Library edition of the novel that I read includes an introduction dated June 1932 in which Dos Passos laments the fact that he did not “work over” the novel much more than he did before it was first published in 1921. It is obvious from the introduction that the author was a disillusioned man in 1932 but that he had not given up on changing the politics of the average American. According to him:

“…we can at least meet events with our minds cleared of some of the romantic garbage that kept us from doing clear work then. Those of us who have lived through have seen these years strip the bunting off the great illusions of our time, we must deal with the raw structure of history now, we must deal with it quick, before it stamps us out.”

Three Soldiers follows a pattern familiar to anyone who has read even a few war novels, be those stories about WWI, WWII, or the wars in Viet Nam, Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We first meet the main characters as civilians and then follow them through their military basic training, their deployment to the field, into battle, and finally, to the aftermath of their combat experiences. While Dos Passos did take this approach in Three Soldiers, there are strikingly few pages dedicated to actual battle descriptions and the like. Instead, the author focuses more on what happens to soldiers when combat ends by showing his main characters as they recuperate from their wounds in war zone hospitals. In that way, it is easy for Dos Passos to contrast the disillusioned, sometimes physically and emotionally crippled, soldiers there to the patriotic, ambitious boys they were when they eagerly joined the army to serve their country.

This is not an easy novel to read, mainly because each new chapter seems to open with long, dreary descriptions of the cold, wet days that the soldiers wake up to every morning. Those descriptions help set the tone for the mental state of the author’s three soldiers (although the bulk of the novel is really about only one of them) as they finally figure out how naïve they have been about how the system really works. Rather than winning promotions and pay increases, they find themselves doing menial tasks and reporting to men who simply gamed the military system better than them. They get bored – and the reader starts getting bored with and for them. Perhaps that is what Dos Passos was aiming for; if so it works beautifully.

Bottom Line: Even to its last two pages, Three Soldiers is one of the most depressing war novels I’ve ever read. The argument that Dos Passos makes for socialism and pacificism is clear enough, but because the author sees everything in such black and white terms, he does not, in the long run, build a very effective case for either.

Bonus Observation: This Dos Passos quote from the 1932 introduction could have easily been written last week:

“Certainly eighty percent of the inhabitants of the United States must read a column of print a day, if it’s only in the tabloids and the Sears Roebuck catalogue. Somehow, just as machinemade shoes aren’t as good as handmade shoes, the enormous quantity produced has resulted in diminished power in books. We’re not men enough to run the machines we’ve made.”

I can only imagine what Dos Passos would think if he were alive today when all of us have hundreds, if not thousands, of books at our electronic fingertips twenty-four hours a day? ( )
  SamSattler | Feb 26, 2020 |
Dos Passos presents the varied backgrounds of his Three Soldiers and their early driving concerns: get to the front, get promoted to Corporal, and
survive the battles, then follows only John Andrews as he attempts to write music, then deserts the Army.

His personality evolves from anti-war and hatred of the Army to becoming a pretentious, tiresome, self-centered and selfish individual who cares
little about other people's feelings or his impact on their lives. Worse still, he proceeds to confound his friends and us with a sequence of stupid
decisions like traveling without required papers, dog tags, or a pass, all of which he has or can easily get. His choices lead to a really dumb conclusion. ( )
  m.belljackson | Nov 15, 2017 |
According to the blurb on the back of my edition, this, along with [b:The Enormous Room|144896|The Enormous Room|E.E. Cummings||285621] and [b:A Farewell to Arms|10799|A Farewell to Arms|Ernest Hemingway||4652599], the American novels, in other words, are the three great books of the First World War. No [a:Barbusse|26978|Henri Barbusse|], no [a:Graves|3012988|Robert Graves|], no [a:Blunden|31139|Edmund Blunden|], no [a:Jünger|281443|Ernst Jünger|], not even [a:Remarque|4116|Erich Maria Remarque|] can, apparently, hold a candle to Three Soldiers. Sadly, I think this blurb is dreadfully misguided.

Three Soldiers is ostensibly about three American soldiers in the A.E.F. in World War One. One, Fuselli, is a stock Italian American. The second, an Indiana farmboy named Chrisfield, is more interesting, but is left underdeveloped. That is because Dos Passos' focus is squarely on the third, Andrews. The book should really have been called One Soldier.

And, unfortunately, Andrews is a crashing bore. A well educated but restless young man from the East Coast who is attracted to socialism, Andrews is, in his own way, as stock a character as Fuselli. Unlike Fuselli, we are stuck with him for page after interminable page of him moping around Paris trying to decide what to do. We are, I think, supposed to sympathise with the plight of a free thinking man caught up in the military machine, a worthwhile point. But, time and again, Andrews dithers. When he does get the chance to exercise his free will he rarely takes it and instead gets depressed thinking about how awful it is to be him.

Dos Passos developed into a formidable writer and there are occasional flashes of interest here. Chrisfield is interesting when he appears, and so is a character named 'The Chink' who emerges towards the end to offer some prescient commentary on the looming spectre of Bolshevism. Sadly, though, we are stuck focused on a self-involved dullard. ( )
  JohnPhelan | Oct 4, 2016 |
My guess is that the impact of anti-war books, that is anti-war books from a number of years ago, has diminished because of the volumes and volumes of such books that have been published over the years. Therefore, the impact of such a book as Three Soldiers is probably not as profound as it was when first published, coming out not too long after the First World War and with the US still fervently believing that armed conflict was the solution to so many of its problems.

But today, after so many classics have been issued, this becomes an interesting story of soldiers fighting in WWI (actually, primarily focused on after the war is over but before being sent home), but not the profoundly moving anti-war story it was at one time.

Don’t get me wrong; still a good novel. Starting with training before the war, the three soldiers of the title are introduced. However, the story doesn’t exactly follow the three of them through their voyages, but rather visits them at different points in their travels – shifting focus between them at various times. Of interest, there is very little focus on the actual battles (as one might expect in an anti-war novel). Instead, after the training we see them as they prepare for battle. Then the majority of the novel is taken up with post-war France – primarily after the Armistice.

A different telling of a story than you might expect, which is why this novel is more interesting than it might have been (particularly, as I’ve already mentioned, with the fact that it is not as shockingly anti-war as it was in the past.) Interesting character studies, and a frank portrayal of those characters in a bad time. A book worth reading for all of these things, and in spite of what it used to be. ( )
  figre | Dec 16, 2011 |
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This grimly realistic depiction of army life follows a trio of idealists as they contend with the regimentation, violence, and boredom of military service. Incited past the point of endurance, the soldiers respond with rancor and murderous rage. This powerful exploration of warfare's dehumanizing effects remains chillingly contemporary.

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