Language refers to the choice of style and vocabulary made by the author. When analysing the language Johnston uses you should think about:

  • What: the author’s choice of specific words and dramatic devices;
  • Where/How: the way in which the writer uses specific words and dramatic devices;
  • Why: the effect on the reader.


Johnston uses a lot of imagery in her descriptions of setting, characters and weather.

There are examples of this throughout the notes on character and theme. Some further significant examples are noted below.

There are recurring references to swans throughout the novel.

We first see the swans as the object of Alicia’s affection.

She refers to them as “my loves” in “a voice so unlike her own recognisable voice”.

The swans are used here to show that Alicia is such a distant mother that she reserves her love and affection for these animals instead of her own son.

The swans become part of the idealised memory that Jerry and Alec share of their childhood. Even in the final death scene Alec asks Jerry if he remembers “The lake. The swans …”

The fact that Jerry replies “only that their wings sound like gunshots” foreshadows what is going to happen to him minutes later.

Earlier, a soldier senselessly shoots at a pair of swans, killing one. This too establishes an ominous tone.

Animal imagery is used to show the horrors of the trenches.

The references to rats and fleas show the uncomfortable living conditions endured by men there.

Soldiers are warned not to eat pork as “the pigs that remained alive … fed and grew temptingly fat on human flesh”.

This horrific image emphasises the extent of human loss, and how little dignity these men had in death.

The “wild-looking mongrel” dog that frequently stays in Alec and Bennett’s room is perhaps meant to parallel the men when Johnston writes that all Alec cares about now is “survival”.

Dehumanising imagery is used by Major Glendinning when he refers to his desire that there be “no flaw in the machinery”.

This shows that he has no care for his men as people, but only as cogs in a machine.

Johnston uses this to show the senseless sacrifice of young men who were - as Frederick suggests - metaphorically “Food for cannons”.