Monday, December 13, 2010

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

The Return of the Soldier is Rebecca West's first novel, published in 1918 when she was just 24 and meeting with general critical success. West had already met with some literary fame at the time--not only was she a reviewer (In 1916, she had published her first book, Henry James, which, among other things, criticized James's portrayals of women), but she also was a journalist. (Source: Robinson, LitEncyc)

The Return of the Soldier follows the lives of three women and the homecoming of the shell-shocked Chris Baldry. One of the women is his wife, Kitty, another his cousin (Jenny, the first-person narrator) who has lived with Kitty and Chris, and an old love by the name of Margaret whom Chris has not seen for fifteen years. When Chris returns, he suffers amnesia and does not recall his most recent life with Kitty and Jenny but does recall his time with Margaret, which he presents to Jenny as idyllic and representative of true love in his account to her.

The novel begins with Jenny's descriptions of the perfectly trimmed, well-manicured house and grounds of Harroweald, where Kitty, Jenny, and Chris lived before the war, and where Kitty and Jenny still live. There is something clearly generic and public in the description; Kitty herself "looked so like a girl on a magazine cover that one might find a large '7d' somewhere attached to her person," and the place was a "matter for innumerable photographs in the illustrated papers." Jenny describes how it has been the shared task of hers and Kitty's to create this perfect little world for Chris. The two women soon receive a visit from Margaret, who is described unflatteringly by Jenny as poor in looks and grossly un-aesthetic amidst the beauty that she and Kitty have created. Margaret tells them of Chris's state (which she knows from letters that he has sent to her) and the two other women give her a rather harsh reception, assuming at first that she is a fraud looking for money.

A letter from Frank Baldry, Chris's cousin, confirms the truth of Margaret's story. Chris returns, and he tries but cannot recall Kitty beyond very superficial aspects such as one might know about "a woman staying in the same hotel," as Chris puts it. One evening, after Kitty goes to bed, Jenny asks what to Chris seems real, and he tells her about Monkey Island, the site of his and Margaret's romance, and where Margaret helped her father with an Inn. We are given Chris's account of Monkey Island and his time with Margaret filtered through Jenny, though the picture seems so full of detail and vivid that it might as well have been narrated by Chris. 

On Chris's request, Jenny agrees to fetch Margaret. At Margaret's humble home, Jenny hears the story of the lovers' parting, precipitated by a seemingly minor quarrel over Chris becoming jealous seeing Margaret with an old playfellow. The quarrel was made permanent by Margaret's father's death and her need to seek employment, finally coming into contact with a wealthy family where she made contact with her future husband, the shabby William Grey (whom Jenny views as a general nonentity which Margaret protected but did not love). Before Margaret and Chris reunite, Jenny warns each of them that each will not be as young as they were, but looks and time don't turn out to matter for the lovers as they sink with relief into each others' arms, as Jenny watches from a window.

At last, one doctor Gilbert Anderson is brought to "cure" Chris. He pronounces, with a flourish of Freudian psychoanalysis, that Chris has repressed that which has been actually painful to him (his life with Kitty and Jenny) and remembered that which has been truly desirable to him. During the course of the doctor's visit, Margaret happens upon the fact that Chris and Kitty have had a child together which they lost (Margaret too has lost a young child) and suggests that a toy of the child's might recall Chris back to his "normal" life. She doesn't want to do this, at first, but in the end she succumbs to letting him know the "truth." At the end of the novel, Kitty ecstatically notes that Chris has been "cured," but as Jenny remarks, he looks "every inch a soldier" and all that means is that he will return to war.  

It is clearly apparent, despite her ever directly acknowledging this, that Jenny is infatuated with Chris and  is driven throughout by her desire to become intimate with him. Even Jenny's gradual acceptance of Margaret and Chris's love seems a symptom of her wanting to get closer to him; she writes that she and Margaret "kissed, not as women, but as lovers do; I think we each embraced that part of Chris the other had absorbed by her love."

Overall (as Robinson suggests) the irony of Chris's "cure" being his return to the scene of war levels cynicism at Freudian analysis which claims restore an individual to "normalcy." Such "normalcy" means a duty to a joyless marriage to a woman who seems the embodiment of all that is "false" and "superficial" and to a manhood in which he will likely die in the flooded trenches. However, the book reads as much as a foray into the (almost pathological?) desires of the unmarried, lonely first-person narrator. After all, the narration shuts out any direct access to any of the other parties; in her account, "Chris" is little more than an idealized and objectified male figure whom she desperately desires. She is obviously highly unreliable, to the point that any clear "critique" the novel levels seems highly suspect: do Chris and Margaret actually possess as saintly, pure, and idyllic of a love as the narrator suggests? Is Kitty (whom at one point the narrator admits hates her) in fact as superficially and vapidly concerned with just making things look nice (herself included, in order to spur male desire)? It seems that no "ending" would be suitable for the narrator, whether Chris is "cured" or if he remains in ignorant bliss--either way, he is as inaccessible to the narrator as he is to the reader. In the beginning, Jenny's descriptions of Harroweald's beauty are tinged with a critique of its vapidness, later, it seems a reversal when she fixates on Margaret's lack of aesthetic appeal. When she finally accepts Margaret as "generous," and almost "saintly," it seems it it also because she has felt that through her, she has gotten closer to Chris. In the end, it seems as if one of the truest statements uttered in the novel is Margaret's to Jenny: "Oh you poor girl!"

1 comment:

Vicki Derkova said...

Hello. I have a question for you about something you wrote in your post on "The Return of the Soldier." Are you still responding to comments on the blog?