Historical and political background of ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’

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‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ is set in the early 1900s until the early part of the First World War. At this time, Ireland was under British rule.
John Redmond was the leader of the Home Rule Party from 1900 until he died in 1918. The Home Rule Party wanted Ireland to be allowed to govern herself but did not seek independence from Britain. It did not support the use of violence.
Home Rulers had many opponents. The Ulster Volunteers were formed in 1913 in order to prevent Home Rule, even using violence if necessary. In southern Ireland the Irish National Volunteers were formed. They wanted more than Home Rule.
The Home Rule Bill was passed by the British Parliament in September 1918 but it was agreed that it would not come into effect until the war was over. At this time John Redmond asked the Irish National Volunteers to join the British army and support the war movement. He believed this would help the the Home Rule Bill gain popularity in Britain. The Ulster Volunteers also wanted their supporters to support Britain. Over 200,000 Irish men fought in the First World War. Many joined simply for economic reasons.
One of Redmond’s opponents was Padraig Pearse. He supported Home Rule at first  but soon began to believe that Ireland would never gain independence from Britain while so many people in Ulster opposed it. When war broke out in 1914 Pearse and his supporters saw an opportunity for Irish rebellion while the British were busy fighting in Europe. He became one of the leaders of a group which split from Redmond and began to prepare for insurrection.

Cultural Context of ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ and ‘Sive’

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Cultural Context (referred to as Social Setting at Ordinary Level) focuses on the society in which the story is set. We look for evidence of the beliefs and values held by the author and characters. The social, religious, political and economic structures of society are considered here. The different roles of men and women, the notion of race, social class, customs and rituals and the importance of work can also be included in a definition of Cultural Context.

In order to write a comparative essay on ‘How Many Miles’ and ‘Sive’, start to write notes comparing and contrasting the two texts under the following headings, remembering to make reference Key Moments:

  • The effects of poverty on the characters – helplessness, disease, honour, desperation, violence, pride
  • Customs and Traditions
  • The Role of Women
  • Class Structures – one’s level in society dictates who has money, status, education, power etc.
  • Family life experienced by the characters – How does family influence actions? Obedience, love, duty, violence
  • The treatment of death
  • The attitude towards marriage
  • The attitude to education

Remember that it is the quality of your links that will determine your grade!

‘How Many Miles’ table of contents

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‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ is written in a stream of consciousness format. The novel is presented as a series of memories that Alec has in the hours before his execution. Jennifer Johnston has not structured these memories into chapters as that is not the way we remember events from our lives – it would be unnatural.

However, for ease of study, we can refer to different episodes in the novel. Below I have listed 19 episodes and given their relevant page numbers.

  • Episode 1 – pages 1 – 3
  • Episode 2 – pages 3 – 13
  • Episode 3 – pages 13 – 15
  • Episode 4 – pages 15 – 20
  • Episode 5 – pages 20 – 22
  • Episode 6 – pages 22 – 30
  • Episode 7 – pages 30 – 39
  • Episode 8 Part 1 – pages 39 – 49
  • Episode 8 Part 2 – pages 49 – 62
  • Episode 8 Part 3 – pages 62 – 70
  • Episode 9 – pages 70 – 93
  • Episode 10 – pages 93 – 97
  • Episode 11 – pages 97 – 105
  • Episode 12 – pages 105 – 112
  • Episode 13 – pages 112 – 121
  • Episode 14 – pages 121 – 124
  • Episode 15 – pages 124 – 126
  • Episode 16 – pages 126 – 132
  • Episode 17 – pages 133 – 149
  • Episode 18 – pages 149 – 156

Some quotes from ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’

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Here are some quotes from ‘How Many Miles’ that will be useful for your revision. They paint a bleak picture of life in the trenches and so can be used very well when answering a question on General Vision and Viewpoint. The imagery can be used when answering a question on Literary Genre. They are also a great example of descriptive writing.

‘We landed at Le Havre where, owing to intense confusion about transport, we had to camp for several days. The men complained constantly. The major created more rules. We were ordered not to eat pork when we got up near the front, as the pigs that remained alive, not many I may say, fed and grew temptingly fat on human flesh. English, French, German. The pig is no chauvinist, all races, are the same to the curly-tailed pig. The countryside was dismal. We were all permanently wet. Eventually we were packed into a train and then unpacked at Bailleul fairly late in the evening. It was still raining. We marched the last ten miles to West Outre that night along a road cobbled with stones larger than duck eggs and greasy with mud and horse dung. The centre of the road though pitted by the heavy traffic was paradise compared to the edges where we were forced to spend most of our time wading through mud above our ankles and spattered with filth with the constantly passing transport lorries. The men, of course, complained. Our base was, and has remained, a small derelict farm. A wall with a high metal gate shut us in from the road. There were two barns, one on each side of the yard, for the men, and a squat stone farmhouse where Major Glendinning, Bennet and myself, the N.C.O.s, and the orderlies set up house. In the distance we could hear the big guns, and now and then over to our right the sound of musketry fire, rather too close for total comfort. From time to time the ground shook under us and the few remaining windows would rattle in their frames. There was a wild-looking mongrel who padded his way from room to room searching for his masters and stole any food you took your eyes off for a moment. He was indifferent to either pats or blows from the men, his only interest left being survival.’

p. 73-74

 

‘It was beginning to rain. The wind was blowing straight in our faces and the drops were like a million needles almost puncturing the skin. We pulled up the collars of our coats and hunched ourselves in the saddles like Jerry in an effort to keep warm. A dead horse lying by the side of the lane, its body swollen by whatever chemical changes were going on inside it, was the only visible sign of violence. The noise of shelling folded and unfolded in the distance. The rhythmic beat of the horses’ hooves and the creaking of our saddles were the only noises that I was completely conscious of.’

p. 82

 

‘It would be pointless to say that I wasn’t frightened. Night and day the palms of my hands were sticky with sweat. It oozed constantly from the roots of my hair and lay in cold streaks on my forehead and neck. It wasn’t the thought of my death that made me sweat, there were moments in fact that to die would have been preferable than to continue to live. I was afraid that one day I might wake up and find that I had come to accept the grotesque obscenity of the way we lived. Bennett and I shared a dug-out. It was about six feet high and eight feet long. We slept in our flea bags on a pile of comparatively dry straw that rustled all night long as if armies of creatures were marching and counter-marching through it. Bennett had an enviable facility for sleeping at any time of the night or day. He would lie there on the rustling straw, eyes shut, mouth slightly open, looking like a tired, untroubled child. I lay down because I knew I could no longer stay on my feet. I knew I had a duty to rest, but I found great difficulty in sleeping, and when I did get to sleep I would be awakened what always seemed like a few moments later by nightmares. I sound sorry for myself. I was. I worked out a system for getting through the day which consisted in concentrating on my own petty discomforts and indispositions to the exclusion of everything else except the bare bones of duty. It was the art of not looking beyond the end of your nose, and, for what it was worth, it kept me going. I have always been prone to chilblains and at this stage had them burning away not only on my fingers and toes, but also up the backs of both legs where they had been rubbed raw by my boots. I allowed the pain to obsess me completely in the hope that this way I might become blind to everything else.’

p. 84-85

 

‘The bambardment had let up a little. The men had nothing to report. Jerry was on his own down at the furthest end of one of the trenches. The duckboarding had rotted away out there and he stood in about a foot and a half of water.’

p. 89

Alec and Jerry’s friendship

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The beginning:

  • Friendship is a new and exciting experience for the lonely Alec – ‘looking back it all seems so idyllic’.
  • Up until the point he meets Jerry, Alec’s life is lonely, isolated and restricted.
  • Jerry and Alec bond by swimming together, horse-riding and through Queen Maeve.

Obstacles:

  • The social class barrier proves to be an obstacle in the way of their friendship. Alec’s mother disapproves of the friendship and she takes him to Europe for four months in an attempt to make him forget about Jerry. However this does not have its desired effect.
  • The war: Major Glendinning is also opposed to their friendship on the basis of social class. (p. 131)
  • Bennett, Alec’s friend, is curious about the origins of their friendship. He asks ‘How so?’ when he hears of their friendship. This shows that it was quite unusual for different classes to mix.

Acts of friendship:

  • Jerry shows his concern for Alec when he rubs his sore feet. He helps him take his boots off and massages his feet. This is an intimate act which shows their closeness and trust for each other. (p.122)
  • Alec asks the Major if Jerry can leave the army temporarily in order to search for his missing father. The major has already shown a dislike for Alec and has warned him about being in any way connected to Jerry. Therefore this act is brave of Alec and shows how much he wants to help his friend.
  • When Jerry returns after the search for his father, he knows he is in trouble because he left without permission. Immediately he goes to Alec for help. He listens to Alec’s advice. He decides to trust Alec and stay to face his punishment. Alec says he will speak for Jerry; he will try to persuade the Major not to punish Jerry too harshly. (p. 143)
  • The final point that shows their true friendship is Alec’s act to end Jerry’s life. Alec doesn’t want his friend to die a humiliating and harrowing death in front of a firing squad. By killing Jerry himself he prevents this. He doesn’t think of himself or the conseqences; he simply thinks of is friend. Perhaps he thinks his life is meaningless without Jerry anyway? (p.154-155)

Many thanks to Miss Ryan for her help with these notes!

Relationship between Alec and Alicia in ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’

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Alec finds his mother to be very cold and unemotional. He tells us that he always felt alone, even with his parents: ‘even with them, I was alone’ (p.6).

What evidence is there to show they did not have a good relationship?

  • At the very beginning of the novel Alec writes that he loves ‘no living person’. He will not write to his parents to inform them of the situation: ‘Time enough for others to do that when it is all over.’  He feels sympathy for how his father will react to the knowlege but he says that his ‘heart doesn’t bleed for her’.
  • P. 23-25: His mother forbids him from seeing Jerry.
  • P. 25: Alicia takes Alec away to Europe for four months in an attempt to make him forget Jerry. Alec does not want to go but she makes him. She is not thinking about what her son wants or needs. Instead she is thinking of herself.
  • P. 39-40: Alicia wants him to go to war. WHY? She wants to separate him from Frederick, with whom he has grown closer. She is jealous of this relationship. She wants to be able to tell people that she has an officer son in the war. She can no longer live as a family unit. Each reason shows what a selfish character Alicia is.
  • P. 46-47: She tells Alec that Frederick is not his real father. This is malicious and cruel.
  • P. 64: Alec is repelled even by the touch of his mother and he strongly tells us that he ‘hated her’.
  • P. 109: While at war, he writes a letter to his mother describing the table he is sitting at. This shows that he has no concern for her and that he has nothing of importance to tell her.

‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’

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When you are making your notes on ‘How Many Miles’ here are some pages in the text for you to consult. Remember to include quotations from the text in the notes you make.

When writing about Alec’s relationship with his parents:

p. 3 – 8 (these pages deal with his isolation)

p. 23 – 30 (the fact that the relationship is so distant)

p. 39 – 40 (controlled)

p. 46 – 47

p. 66 – 70

When writing about the friendship between Alec and Jerry:

p. 10 – 13

p.  16 – 18 (hope, fun)

p. 51 – 52 (excitement)

p. 87 – 90 (companionship)

When writing about social class:

p. 17

When writing about the war:

p. 74

p. 81 – 84

p. 91 – 92