The Forbidden Zone (1929) by Mary Borden

By JM
Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone, an accumulative collection of ‘fragments’ as termed by Borden, accrues both prose and poetry in a personal memoir of her time serving as a Red Cross volunteer nurse for the French army during the First World War from 1914-1918.
Borden, a rich heiress from Chicago initially looked for ‘enjoyment’ from the war, stretching her abilities and the new found freedom and liberation that the war’s opportunities brought for women, although the harrowing brutality and tone of the book conveys such joyous expectations as likely unfulfilled. Excerpts of The Forbidden Zone were written separately throughout the First World War, although the text was refused publication until 1929 when war fiction gained a new found interest.
The Forbidden Zone as defined by Borden within the collections prologue, is the ‘strip of land immediately behind the zone of fire’, which coincidently foregrounds the text as one that explores what goes on behind the warfare. The ‘La Zone Interdite’ is not restricted to a single location, but follows behind the firing line, in Belgium and Champagne, and is prominent regardless of geographical change. This ‘strip of land’ is the view of World War One that the book gives insight of. This new, more personal strand of war literature focuses intently on the war away from the trenches, from a female’s perspective, ultimately focusing on what is left behind after the gunfire in both the injuries of the soldiers and the emotional trauma of those caring for them.
In terms of structure, the book is sectioned into three parts. The first two entitled ‘The North’ and ‘The Somme’ are comprised of story excerpts and extended prose poetry, followed by a collection of 5 poems. The interjectory stories offer insight into the makeshift operating theatres, and the disfigurements of soldiers whilst following an almost stream of consciousness narrative style to channel the raw mental and physical frenzy of the text. To review the novel as singular ‘fragments’ would do the text an injustice, as it is in my opinion that the texts non-linear, chaotic narrative that affirms the text as one not to be left on the shelf.
Incomparable to any other war literature of its time, the structure is somewhat disjointed, and has been widely critiqued for being unchronological and incoherent. Borden unapologetically addresses her writing style in the prologue, ‘To those who find these impressions confused, I would say that they are fragments of a great confusion’. The fragmented structure effectively mirrors the broken poilus, countries and view of the war as celebratory. In my opinion, Borden’s ability to reflect the undertone’s of the ‘Great War’ as a ‘great confusion’ through her portrayal of the war as physical and metaphorical fragments, instead of solely relying on description, makes it most applicable for a modern day reader to comprehend the wars atrocities from the perspective of a war-time nurse.
Borden relies heavily on explicit imagery, calling on the five senses within ‘Blind’ to exaggerate the wars solitude through of the blind soldier’s fear of being left alone. This fear resonates throughout the text, with anxieties of what will come post-war foregrounded in ‘The Regiment’, in which soldiers are dehumanised to robot-like figures chanting ‘We are here because our sons are gone to protect the homes we cannot go back to’. Borden depicts soldiers as hopeless, fighting not for glory but as social servants obeying their General. It is only when we are given personal insight into the soldiers as patients, awaiting death later in the text, do we see the dehumanised machines as the human beings they are. Unlike Remarque, Smith and other established war writers of the era, it is this extremely personal and raw composition of Borden’s work that I find most significantly touching. The focalisation of the wars ‘damaged goods’, in my opinion evokes a greater level of empathy by viewing soldiers as fragile human beings than the opposing war propaganda images of glorified male machines who must ‘do their bit’ to aid the war effort.
Ideas of brutality, not only in warfare but in lack of empathy resonates throughout the collection, portraying a communal hopelessness in the soldiers that fight for their lives, the surgeons ability to save them and any positive outlook of the war as a whole. The soldier’s courtesy in death, perhaps first viewed as an act of chivalry becomes mentally harrowing that they view death as an inconvenience for which they have no fight for. The surgeons are depicted as being stripped of empathy ‘In the Operating Room’ as they wait for patients to die, search for valuables from within their pockets to then toss their bodies aside as they make use of the newly found space. I find this numb, emotionally stagnate tone in comparison to the emotive first person narrative in ‘Blind’ makes for an uncomfortable read, as shellshock and dehumanization are reflected through its tone.
Forgotten for a number of years, The Forbidden Zone gained new interest in 2008 after the nurse’s perspectives of World War One became of significant curiosity to both historians and modern day readership. Previously deemed unreliable as they had not adorned artillery or fought in the trenches themselves, female writer’s accounts were long cast aside in favour of male insight into the life of a soldier. The Forbidden Zone quite rightly became deemed a pioneering testimony of front line female roles within the war, merging irony and out right political criticism, Borden transfers her experiences into prose and poetry that still resonates and chills the modern day reader.

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