Not with a Bang, but a Letter: How Violet Evergarden rewrites traditional World War I narratives

By: Katie Randazzo July 24, 20190 Comments
Violet walking through a green field on a sunny day, carrying a parasol

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains general discussions of war, violence, mental illness, suicide, and post-traumatic stress. Some linked sources also contain discussion of and images of graphic violence, sexism, references to assault, and other potentially triggering topics. This article, however, takes care to not discuss this content in detail. SPOILERS for the Violet Evergarden anime, including light discussion of the OVA.

When Kyoto Animation’s gorgeous drama Violet Evergarden, based on the light novel by Kana Akatsuki, dropped on Netflix, I walked in expecting a wholesome tale of a young woman who just wants to know what love is, à la Foreigner’s hit single. I didn’t expect to cry. 

I was blindsided and proved wrong within minutes. It was a tearjerker. It was a war drama. It was a steampunk alternate history tale. But, above all, it was a trauma narrative. 

Violet Evergarden reimagines historical discussion of post-traumatic stress, early 1900s literary tropes, and the popular “war narrative” genre, but with a female child soldier as its protagonist. In its remixing and calling back to World War I history and especially women’s history, the series provides a fresh take on an old tale with a strong undercurrent of feminist themes.

Dulce et decorum est: World War I in history and fiction

Violet, in a white shirt, covered in bandages, salutes and says "Excuse me, Lt Colonel Hodgins."

I’m not the first person to talk about Violet Evergarden as a war narrative.Mother’s Basement, for example, did a phenomenal video about how the series’ writing allows for a tender portrayal of empathy and for Violet’s character to grow. But I haven’t seen much discussion of how this war story featuring a traumatized, disabled young woman both empowers its protagonist and realistically portrays post-traumatic stress.

With that in mind, we should start by laying down some basic facts about what, exactly, the war in the fictional Telsis is mirroring: World War I. Very heavily abridged, this conflict took place between 1914 and 1918, and while no one can really agree on the source of the conflict, it began very quickly and with the general expectation that it would be over by winter of 1914.

Suffice to say, it wasn’t. The war dragged on for another four years. The infrastructure of the various militaries involved, especially the French, German, and English, were woefully under-equipped to deal with the new weaponry and warfare style that became popular during this period: Trench warfare, to the point where it became known as the “War of the Trenches” or the “Trench War.” 

Major Gilbert sitting in one of the tents at the combat camp, lit by the light of an oil lamp

Combined with the fact that many of the soldiers were inexperienced and very young, the war became much worse than anyone had ever imagined. A “new” disease emerged among soldiers who returned from the war: “male hysteria,” colloquially called “shell shock,” or what would later be diagnosed as PTSD/PTSS (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder/Syndrome).

At the time, “hysteria” was a catch-all term used during the extremely gender-role-rigid Victorian period to diagnose mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress, and this term was primarily applied to cis women. As such, using the term “hysteria” to describe these soldiers’ symptoms led to them being emasculated and ostracized by society.

Not only that, but there was a collective trauma among the nations involved in WWI—and their colonies—to the point that the fallout from Germany’s involvement and the economic slump afterward eventually led to the rise of Nazism. (I’m oversimplifying and abridging, of course, but the full details would require a long essay for a different article.) Even now, World War I is a major theme in French, English, and German media, and the letters left behind by combat veterans and their loved ones worldwide can still be read today.

Violet puts a letter into an envelope, her metal prosthetic clearly visible.

To say that the Great War had a significant impact on our world would be a vast understatement. There are many ways it influenced literature, history, and warfare today. What matters here, however, is that unlike in these other well-known war narratives and histories, which are almost always exclusively about men, the titular Violet Evergarden is a female soldier.

Granted, this is largely because men were the only ones allowed to actively serve in most militaries during this period. There are some notable exceptions, such as Flora Sandes, the only female British soldier active in combat during WWI (who served in the Serbian army); and a Russian platoon nicknamed “The Russian Battalion of Death,” headed and comprised by a young woman, Maria Bochkareva.

Violet engaging in combat, a knife in one hand and flames behind her. She is expressionlesss.

For the most part, though, women in the military’s service worldwide during World War I usually worked as nurses on the battlefield, or helped with the war effort in other ways, such as by working in factories. A good example of this was the American “Yeomanettes” and “Hello Girls,” who did not serve in active combat but did their part to support the war effort through a myriad of jobs, ranging from telegraph operators to “camoflauge designers” and “torpedo assemblers.”

Still, even with a wealth of women’s narratives to draw from (and don’t even get me started on how many more there could be if we include non-binary individuals, by our modern standards!), the vast majority of war stories told in fiction were male-centric. Women were usually featured as supporting characters there to lament and mourn the fallen soldiers, or to serve as love interests, or to… well, have unsavory things done to them. In other words, they were objects for the sake of male character growth, oftentimes “fridged.”

Life Beyond the Battlefield: Violet Evergarden and the new post-war narrative

Violet, sitting in a carriage, staring at her bandaged hand. Subtitles read "I'm limited to only performing certain duties because of my current condition."

Within the world of Violet Evergarden, combat and warfare are largely seen as masculine pursuits as well, and women are often relegated to “passive” roles. Yet unlike the rest of her compatriots, Violet is a notable exception not just because she’s female, but because she’s also described as a “tool” given to Gilbert as a “gift” (my skin crawled just writing that) by his brother Dietfried. Violet is objectified; her only reason for being kept alive is to kill, and her only motivation is to follow Gilbert’s orders.

That abuse, combined with the traumatic loss of Gilbert in the war and the violence that Violet witnesses, is what leads to her having clear PTSD. She exhibits a number of common symptoms of PTSD throughout the series, including:

  • Increased alertness (in a destructive way) or hypervigilance in day-to-day life, such as difficulty sleeping, agitation, or constantly being on edge
  • Re-experiencing the event through flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, etc.
  • Reckless or self-destructive behavior
  • Dissociation
  • Persistent feelings of shame, guilt, horror, etc.
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Emotional numbness, feelings of detachment from others, and feelings of disinterest in events one normally enjoys.
Violet, with bleeding scratches on her face, looking distraught

We see these symptoms most notably after Violet writes a letter for Oscar, a mourning author dealing with the death of his daughter. As she finally begins to comprehend her actions in combat, Violet experiences a string of flashbacks to her time at the front.

This culminates in her visiting the battle site in an attempt to find Gilbert. When she cannot find him, she falls into a deep despair, which spurs her to attempt suicide. This is still a high risk for veterans, leading to more deaths than combat.

Violet's hand clutching an emerald pendant

Like many historical World War I narratives, Violet’s personal journey largely deals with her coping with her post-traumatic stress. This is reflected in the structure of the series as well. 

Violet Evergarden begins with an emotionally numb Violet trying to recover after her injuries from the front. However, as Hodgkins warns our protagonist in episode 7, her memories are “flames [that are] burning [her] up” and one day she “will notice all of the burn marks.” And notice she does. As Violet is reminded of her time on the battlefield, not only does she experience flashbacks, but the viewers do as well.

However, unlike historical treatment of PTSD, which was seen as “emasculating” and a “weakness” instead of a legitimate mental illness and response to trauma, Violet Evergarden treats Violet’s shell shock with respect. It asks the viewer to empathize with her, in the same way she’s been empathizing with others during her Auto Memory Doll work.

A close-up of Violet, a scratch on one cheek, looking thoughtful

Once Violet stops denying Gilbert’s death and acknowledges her trauma, she is able to begin the long, fraught process of healing. In Trauma Studies, this is called “Post-Traumatic Growth,” and it can be either negative (stagnation, impulsive behavior, denial) or positive (moving forward, gaining coping mechanisms, and so on). 

Luckily for her and invested viewers, Violet’s Post-Traumatic Growth is positive, for the most part. As she works with others as an Auto Memory Doll, Violet begins to accept and rationalize her own emotions, which sets her on the path to healing.

Violet and another woman stand in a train station, looking at a wall covered in photos and notes, with small votive candles illuminating each one

Now, it is worth mentioning that while some of the “customer of the week” episodes in this show fall into the exact formula of “women as longing lovers who lost their sweethearts in the war” (the OVA is a good example of this), this is not inherently a bad thing. The OVA is realistic to the experiences of plenty of women during WWI, even down to the vast volume of letters that were sent worldwide, many of which remain today as historical documents

Yet Violet herself, throughout the series, bucks that historical and literary trend. She came home. Her loved one did not. The soldier returned, carrying new wounds. 

And, because of her history, she is able to empathize with both the clients who have lost loved ones and the lost loved ones themselves. In other words, Violet is a liminal figure. It is within that liminality—that space between “civilian” and “soldier,” “women’s world” and “men’s world,” “military” and “domestic”—where Violet can truly blossom.

Conduits and Catalysts: Challenging the fictional image of the “passive woman” 

Violet's hand lifts her skirt to perform a curtsy, with her parasol and suitcase at her side.

Violet’s liminal position gives her a unique edge in her Auto Memory Doll work. While her writing can come across as being a bit… curt, like many women in real life during this period, she follows a wave of women who became typists and ghostwriters during the Victorian era and WWI era worldwide. 

These women became codified in literature through the “woman as medium” trope (most famously seen in Bram Stoker’s spooky classic, Dracula, in the character of Mina Harker). They served to channel the thoughts of others into tangible form, using typewriters and telegraphs—and even shorthand!—to deliver the messages of others. While they were often objectified as well in the sense that they were “tools being used to an end” (to quote philosopher and literary theorist Martha Nussbaum), this job was, for many women, their first taste of agency in a patriarchal world.

In fact, according to Professor Arlene Young, “typewriting acquired an aura of youth and glamour, and the lady typewriter evolved into the typewriter-girl, the quintessential late-Victorian young working woman who represented modernity and female independence.” Violet, and many of her coworkers in Telsis, fall into that mold as well.

iolet at her typewriter, with a plush dog on her desk, illuminated by sunlight streaming in through an open window

While Violet’s motivation is initially a bit different than the Victorian woman trying to flex her newfound agency in society, Violet chooses to become an Auto Memory Doll because she has a goal: Understanding others, and most specifically, understanding the Major’s final words to her. Through her position as a “medium” for the thoughts and feelings of others, she is able to finally recognize her own feelings and gain agency after the abuse and trauma she endured.

Unlike the traditional “woman as medium” trope and archetype in literature of the period leading up to and during WWI, Violet’s position as a liminal figure is the very thing that gives her agency. She has immense power in how she is able to empathize with and understand both the domestic and military sides of war. Whether she’s studying lost soldiers’ letters to write lyrics for an aria about the war, being a more literal medium for a mourning father, or helping two siblings reconnect, Violet isn’t simply a conduit for others’ emotions, but a direct agent of change. 

Violet Evergarden differs from history in that, unlike historically portrayed typists and mediums who were often thought of as passive, Violet takes an active role in the stories of those around her. Through her work as an Auto Memory Doll, she not only helps others grow, but is able to grow herself.

Violet crouches beside a young man under a blanket in a dimly lit room. Subtitles read "I would want to be your son again."

A phenomenal example of this is the heartbreaking episode 11, where Violet both takes down a squadron of rebellious soldiers and records the final words of a dying soldier, Aidan. She then has to deliver the news—and his words—to his family. By doing so, and by empathizing with both sides of the war, she is finally able to openly grieve for herself and for others. It is from here that she is able to, at long last, begin to healthily mourn the Major.

Violet is not merely a tool here—she is an active participant in her own post-traumatic growth. It’s a fresh and contemporary take not just on the traditional war narrative, but on the historical information we have about both shell shock and female typists during and after World War I.

Violet being consoled by Aidan’s parents and girlfriend

Violet Evergarden exhibits strong World War I influences, be they from history or literature. Whether it is in its sympathetic portrayal of PTSD or its critique of the “woman as medium” archetype, the series exists in conversation with this crucial period of history—a period that is slowly beginning to go quiet as the last of the WWI veterans pass away.

However, unlike the World War I narratives it pays homage to, Violet Evergarden’s fantasy world blends both the domestic narrative and the war narrative to smartly subvert the tropes so common to both genres. In its steampunk fantasy world, the series gives a new spin to well-worn tropes, telling a progressive tale. 

Violet, smiling at the camera. Subtitles read "I will be right here."

Shell shock is something to sympathize with, not a “weakness.” Women are the stars of their own stories. Female mediums are more than just a literal “medium” for other people—they serve as active forces for growth and change in their clients and themselves.

By treating veteran’s narratives, mental illness, and women’s stories with the respect and nuance they deserve, Violet Evergarden provides a template for how to retell traditional war and trauma narratives. They can be more inclusive, healthier, and even empowering. After all, it is the least we can do to honor the memories of those who have passed and those who have served. Even if people say that “war never changes,” as Violet Evergarden shows, the way we tell war stories definitely can.

Author’s Note: This article was written before the horrific arson attack on Kyoto Animation’s studios on July 17, 2019. As you can guess, KyoAni means a lot to me, and to many other anime fans as well. I am heartbroken. Still, there are ways to help: If you are able, please consider sending a message of support, buying high-res digital images from the studio, sending money directly to KyoAni’s bank account, or donating to Sentai’s GoFundMe. In the meantime, may the victims of the attack who have died rest in peace, and may those who have survived have a swift recovery.

About the Author : Katie Randazzo

Katie Randazzo is an aspiring media scholar and critic, currently a graduate student and teaching assistant in the University of Iowa’s English PhD program. Her research specializes in intersections between fandom studies, feminist & queer studies, graphic narratives (games, comics, film, TV, etc.), and in genre fiction (especially SF and romance). When she isn’t doing academic work, you can find her writing, reading, watching anime, playing video games, and channeling her inner magical girl. You can read her past work at Odyssey Online, and she can be reached on Twitter at @starsinherwake, or on Instagram at @carryingstarlightinherwake.

Read more articles from Katie Randazzo

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