Character Insight: Hibbert

War Horse: soldiers

Journey’s End is a tragic play and one with valuable lessons about the futility of war – but maybe none more powerful than those Hibbert seems designed to convey. Sherriff described his characters as ‘simple, unquestioning men’ but Hibbert is far from either.

As a construct, Hibbert enables Sherriff to show that some of the men who went to war were not brave or noble or selfless. Hibbert spends most of his time on stage trying to escape the front line through illness. Set against a backdrop of apparent heroes – men we like and admire for a variety of reasons – he is presented in a way which makes us dislike him and perhaps this is the whole point. By disliking Hibbert, we too fall into the trap of thinking that war is somehow acceptable, even noble and worthwhile. We are cleverly led into thinking, ‘Oh don’t be such a coward – get out there with the rest of them and do your duty’ when the real point of the play is to convey the tragedy of war. 

Is it Sherriff’s intention to make us dislike the very man who might just be talking sense?

Stanhope refers to him as, ‘Another little worm trying to wriggle home.’, reminding us on a deeper level of the uncomfortable truth that these very men will almost certainly die in the muddy horrors of WW1. Hibbert’s claim to illness is a combination of factors – psychological and physical – which have also led to Stanhope to alcoholism. He admits that he can only face warfare with a drink inside him but it is impossible for him to admit that Hibbert is perhaps right in trying to escape these horrors even though his words mirror Hibbert’s behaviour, ‘Sometimes I feel I could just lie down on this bed and pretend I was paralysed or something’ (Stanhope A2).

He has to dismiss Hibbert’s claims as ‘Pure bloody funk’: he is responsible for ordering the men into situations he knows are appallingly brutal and usually fatal. In one of the most tense moments, Stanhope threatens to shoot Hibbert if he tries to go sick and it is perhaps at this point that the absolute horror of the soldiers’ position is conveyed. Stanhope says, ‘You may be wounded. Then you can go home and feel proud – and if you’re killed you – you won’t have to stand this hell any more.’ Although neither option is very appealing, he doesn’t mention the third which is arguably even worse: that Hibbert might survive in one piece and have to relive this same ‘hell’ all over again.

Trying to fit in

As the play progresses beyond the raid and the death of Osborne, we see Hibbert presented again in a negative light – he talks of his exploits with women (‘those tarts’) and shows the other men lewd pictures. But it is Stanhope who eggs him on – it is Stanhope who says, ‘That’s the idea! Treat ‘em rough!’ Whilst study guides suggest that Hibbert is simply a weak, ignoble character who represents cowardice, it is possible that in this scene he behaves as he does in an attempt to fit in and be “part of the gang”.  Perhaps he shows off because he believes that the other men will warm to him if he somehow aspires to the stereotype of the “real” man.

The last we see of Hibbert is when Stanhope again manipulates him into doing his duty. He contrives to force him out of the dugout by saying that he will accompany Mason who doesn’t want to ‘get lorst’ in an unfamiliar part of the front line. The stage direction here is puzzling and could be interpreted in interesting ways: ‘Hibbert looks at Stanhope for a moment, then with a slight smile, he goes slowly up the steps into the trench’. That ‘slight smile’ is fascinating. Is it a knowing smile that tells us he understands Stanhope’s ways? Is it a smile of resignation? Acceptance? An acknowledgement of certain defeat? Is he genuinely putting on a brave face? Does he smile at or towards Stanhope or is he looking ahead as he does it?

Hibbert is no ‘simple’ man – he is the embodiment of the questions we should be asking about war.

More character insights:

For further set text support, Oxford Literature Companion study guides and workbooks are ideal for use in the classroom or as revision at home. They include activities designed to prompt a closer analysis of the writer’s language, as well as tasks on characters, themes and contexts.