This excerpt is from a provocative article by Sandra M. Gilbert, "Soldier's Heart: Literary Men, Literary Women and the Great War." The essay appears in Connecting Spheres: Women in the Western World, 1500 to the Present, ed. Marilyn Boxer and Jean Quartaert, Oxford University Press, 1987.

Even the most conventionally angelic of women's wartime ministrations must have suggested to many members of both sexes that, while men were now invalid and maybe in-valid, their sisters were triumphant survivors and destined inheritors. Certainly both the rhetoric and the iconography of nursing would seem to imply some such points. To be sure, the nurse presents herself as a servant of her patient. "Every task," writes Vera Brittain of her days as a VAD (Voluntary Aide), "had for us . . . a sacred glamour." Yet in works by male and female novelists the figure of the nurse ultimately takes on a majesty which hints that she is mistress rather than slave, goddess rather than supplicant. After all, when men are immobilized and dehumanized, it is only these women who possess the old (matriarchal) formulas for survival. Thus, even while memoirists like Brittain express "gratitude" for the "sacred glamour" of nursing, they seem to be pledging allegiance to a secret glamour-- the glamour of an expertise which they will win from their patients. "Towards the men," recalls Brittain, "I came to feel an almost adoring gratitude . . . for the knowledge of masculine functioning which the care of them gave me."

Not surprisingly, this education in masculine functioning that the nurse experiences as a kind of elevation is often felt by her male patient as exploitation; her evolution into active, autonomous, transcendent subject is associated with his devolution into passive, dependent, immanent medical object. In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway's Frederic Henry clearly responds with a surface delight to being cared for and about by Catherine Barclay. Yet there is, after all, something faintly sinister in her claim that he needs her to make "unpleasant" preparations for an operation on his wounded knee and something frighteningly possessive in her assertion that "I get furious if [anyone elsel touch[es] you." Similarly, in The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway's Jake Barnes, consoled by the nymphomaniac Brett Ashley as he lies limply on his bed, cannot forget that she "was a V.A.D. in a hospital I was in during the war" and fell in love with him because "she only wanted what she couldn't have," a line that ambiguously implies a form of perverse penis envy as well as a species of masochistic desire. More openly, Lawrence writes in "The Ladybird" about a wounded middle European prisoner who tells a visiting English Lady with whom he is falling in love that she must "let me wrap your hair round my hands like a bandage" because "I feel I have lost my manhood for the time being." Hopelessly at the mercy of his aristocratic nurse, this helpless alien adumbrates wounded males who also appear in works by women-- for example, the amnesiac hero of Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier, whom a former girlfriend restores by gathering his "soul" into "her soul"; and Lord Peter Wimsey, in Dorothy Sayers's Busman's Honeymoon, who is so haunted by memories of the war that he confesses to his bride that "you're my corner and I've come to hide."

Where nurses imagined by men often do seem to have sinister power, however, the nurses imagined by women appear, at least at first, to be purely restorative, positively (rather than negatively) maternal. The "grey nurse" whom Virginia Woolf describes in a notoriously puzzling passage in Mrs. Dalloway is thus a paradigm of her more realistically delineated sisters. Knitting steadily while Peter Walsh dozes, she seems "like the champion of the rights of sleepers" who responds to "a desire for solace, for relief." Yet even she is not an altogether positive figure. Like "The Greatest Mother in the World" depicted in Alonzo Earl Foringer's 1918 Red Cross War Relief poster-- an enormous nurse cradling a tiny immobilized male on a doll-sized stretcher-- Woolf's grey nurse evokes a parodic pietà in which the Virgin Mother threatens simultaneously to anoint and annihilate her long-suffering son, a point Woolf's imaginary male dreamer accurately grasps when he prays "let me walk straight on to this great figure, who will . . . mount me on her streamers and let me blow to nothingness with the rest." Does male death turn women nurses on? Do figures like the pious Red Cross mother experience bacchanalian satisfaction as, in Woolf's curiously ambiguous phrase, they watch their patients, one-time oppressors, "blow up to nothingness with the rest?" A number of texts by men and women alike suggest that the revolutionary socioeconomic transformations wrought by the war's "topsy-turvy" role reversals did bring about a release of female libidinal energies, as well as a liberation of female anger, which men usually found anxiety-inducing and women often found exhilarating.