World War Ii

When John F. Kennedy was asked his favorite author, his answer was Mary Renault.

Mary Renault was a British author born in September of 1905 and died in December of 1983. She has been nominated for the Lost Man Booker Prize for her novel Fire From Heaven. Renault is mainly known for her writings on Ancient Greece while she was living in South Africa, but I will be focusing on her writing while she was living in England. While writing in England, her work primarily focused on World War II and romance during the war. She wrote in a Postmodernist view in response to the violence and carnage of the second world war. She aimed to bring a romantic, simpler light to a harsher, violent time period. Her first war novel was about a heterosexual romance but her second was about a homosexual romance, written to show the true nature of homosexuality and refute the homophobic thoughts heavily circulating the world at the time. Renault wanted to have her writing change to change the way people think, similar to many postmodernist authors.


Mary Renault had the childhood you would expect of a girl being raised in the early 1900’s, she was sheltered and did what little girls were expected to do. She loved books and literature as child, which was strange at the time for a girl. She had a mind on her, which disappointed her parents and society because she was expected to marry young and have children. That was not what Renault saw for herself because in 1928 she received her degree in English from Saint Hugh’s College in Oxford. During her time there she was mentored by J.R.R Tolkien, who taught her many of her writing styles. After graduation she again rebelled against her parents wants and instead of finding a man, she worked as a nurse in Radcliffe’s Infirmary. At the infirmary she treated survivors of Dunkirk, giving her knowledge of the soldiers and their journey through war. The infirmary did her well, she also met her lifelong partner there Julie Mullard, another nurse. After working as a nurse she wrote The North Face a heterosexual romance novel, but with Julie’s influence she started writing The Charioteer.

The Charioteer was the first British novel to face homosexual love in a fair view, this made Renault an important figure in The Sexual Revolution. She portrayed homosexuals as complex beings and not perverted campy figures, which outcasted her in society. Due to homophobia in England, Renault’s novel The Charotier was heavily taxed and tariffed. These constant penalties were not allowing Renault and Mullard to live the life that they wanted to, so they moved to tax-free South Africa, and never returned to England. The pair became citizens of South Africa and fought there against the racial intolerance and homophobia. They also traveled to Greece where Renault wrote majority of her work about Ancient Greece.


You cannot talk about postmodernism without talking about modernism, since postmodernism is a direct counter period to modernism. Modernism is a response to victorianism which was heavily structured and one dimensional. Modernism was about allusion and twisting the line between real and imaginary but to still convey a message. It was about combining the exterior world with the internal mind to create a piece of literature. Modernism put an emphasis on impressionism and subjectivity, on how seeing takes place rather than what is visibly seen. Modernism focused heavily on details and mechanics and blurred genres. During the modernist period some of the harshest historical events happened such as The Great Depression and The First World War, modernism seeked to mask this harshness in the world and to bring a more imaginative light.

Postmodernism is not an exact opposite of modernism, it takes modernism and twists it into a more expecting broader spectrum of literature. Postmodernism asks questions about society and how people are treated. Postmodernism breaks down the ideas that validate the status quo, it asks why these are put in place and challenges them to change. Postmodernist literature is characterized by techniques such as paradox, irony, and fragmentation. Postmodernism emerged in the post World War II era, and responds to the cruelty of humankind during WWII. Writers and Artists during the postmodernist period strived to make a change in the way people think and view things. They wrote for a purpose of changing the minds of people. Postmodern writing tended not to have straight forward endings, which caused people to think and create their own version of an ending. It caused people to use their minds and think about the world and what was happening under their noses.

The Charioteer could be a dictionary definition of postmodernist literature. Renault was heavily influenced by World War II and the survivors she treated at Radcliffe’s Infirmary. Renault was also influenced by the homophobia she encountered in England. She saw the way people talked about homosexuals and how people wrote about them. Homosexauls were protrayed as overly dramatic, preverted freaks. People who were homosexual kept it a secret and did not want people so they would not be discriminated against and attacked. Renault did not like the treatment of this and wanted to make a change in the way people treated homosexuals. In the Charioteer she gives them development and layers, she shows them as emotional beings and real people. She changed the viewpoint of many people with her writing and gave homosexuals their first proper representation. They had no romance novels to read, they had nothing to feed their imagination. Everything they saw was heterosexual and they had nothing to relate to. Renault changed this and gave something to people to relate to.She gave people something to think about and she made people change their minds.


The Charioteer is a war novel about a wounded Dunkirk soldier named Laurie Odell, the novel takes you in chronological depth into Laurie’s mind ─ his character, his thoughts, his memories. While being treated Laurie meets a hospital orderly Andrew Raynes, he inescapably falls in love. Later Laurie is reconnected with an old schoolmate, Ralph Layon who was expelled from school for being homosexual. Throughout the novel Renault shows the relationships between Laurie and Andrew, and Laurie and Ralph grow and develop. It also shows Laurie grow and develop in a society which does not let him be his true self. Laurie has to make a choice based on morality and love where in the society he lives in, homosexuals are seen to be immoral.

Renault includes various allusions to Ancient Greek literary references as well as Biblical literary references. Laurie is vastly interested in The Phaedrus by Plato, which is about a myth about two totally different horses, the white horse and the black horse. Both of these horses represent different morals, ideas and thoughts. This is essentially a metaphor of the book since Laurie must choose between Ralph or Andrew. Two totally different men with different morals, ideas and thoughts. Renault describes Andrew as an intriguing, rebel type, he says in page 95 that “There was something different about him (Andrew), elated and defiant, like a schoolboy breaking bonds.” Renault describes Ralph as a confident intellectual, he says in page 174 “...he saw Ralph walk briskly in at the street door. The contrast was dazzling. His energy and precision stood out among the sick, worried people.”Renault makes the love for Andrew seem spiritual, alluding to the white horse and she makes the love for Ralph more grounded and earthly, representing the black horse.