Home > 1910, 20th Century, British Literature, Novel, West Rebecca, WWI > The Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West

The Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West

Warning: this is an “after-reading” review, without any summary of the plot and full of spoilers. I decided to participate to this month’s War and Literature readalong organized by Caroline. For a review describing the plot and without spoilers, see her post here.

This book isn’t at all what I expected. And what did I expect? The return of a soldier, broken by terrifying nightmares and experiencing difficulties to re-adapt to the quiet world of everyday life. Maybe I was unconsciously influenced by my memory of La Douleur by Marguerite Duras and by another French book about a Poilu coming back home whose title I don’t remember.

Here, Chris is suffering from shell-shock and doesn’t remember his last 15 years of life. War plays a role as a setting – it hovers over the characters’ life – and as a deus ex-machina. For me, the novel isn’t about shell-shock and honestly, I don’t care to know if the symptoms described here are accurate. This is literature, not a scientific publication. If I wanted to know what shell-shock is, reading literary fiction wouldn’t be my choice. Rebecca West could have written the same kind of story by making Chris fall off his horse, hit his head against a rock and suffer from amnesia. So, the point isn’t the war and what it does to soldiers, even if the reader can’t help thinking Chris’s mind wouldn’t have snapped if he hadn’t attempted to protect his sanity from the horror of the trenches by recalling the happiest days of his life. No, the core of the book is the pursuit of happiness and the dichotomy between what would make us happy and what we need to do to fulfil our social role.

Chris, after losing Margaret on a silly fight and because of a most inconvenient sequence of tiny events, such as other people not forwarding his letters, is called back to duty. The odds seem against Chris and Margaret and their wasted love story sounds like Romeo and Juliet. Chris’s father needs him to run the business. As Margaret is lost forever, he throws himself in expending his estate Baldry Court, marrying, redecorating the house. He acts according to other people’s expectations and has to support relatives and wife.

At his father’s death he had been obliged to take over a business that was weighted by the needs of a mob of female relatives who were all useless either in the old way, with antimacassars, or in the new way, with gold-clubs; then Kitty had come along and picked up his conception of normal expenditure, and carelessly stretched it as a woman stretches a new glove on her hand.

With that little sentence, Rebecca West brings on the advantage men could benefit from if the women in their lives (sisters, wives, mothers…) could make their own living. I pitied Chris for this. West describes him as being under a “yoke”, which is a very strong image. Chris puts up a good show, though. Even the watchful Jenny thought he was happy. But the fact that they have to say it aloud (“He was so happy here!” ; “He could not have been happier.” ; “This house, this life with us, was the core of his heart.”) may prove they unconsciously knew he wasn’t.

The narrator, Jenny, is Chris’s cousin and it sounds obvious right from the start that she is desperately in love with him. She notices physical details you don’t pay attention to when you love someone with a non romantic love. She does. (“As he bent over me I noticed once again how his hair was of two colours, brown and gold”). The way she talks about Chris betrays her:

To see him was to desire intimacy with him, so that one might intervene between this body, which was formed for happiness, and this soul, which cherished so deep a faith in tragedy.

Jenny is ready to befriend with any woman Chris loves, just to stay by his side and grab some leftovers of their happiness. Chris is more important to her than anyone else and she worries more about him than his wife Kitty. She shall do whatever it takes for him to be safe and happy. She’s pathetic but noble and loves him enough to be disinterested. However, she is lucid about her feelings and her jealousy.

As I went up-stairs I became aware that I was near to a bodily collapse; I suppose the truth is that I was physically so jealous of Margaret that it was making me ill.

She’s also very well aware that her love is unrequited:

I remembered it well, because my surprise that he passed me without seeing me had made me perceive for the first time that he had never seen me at all save in the most cursory fashion. On the eye of his mind, I realized thenceforward, I had hardly impinged.

But Jenny is a good-hearted woman. When Margaret first comes, she alone perceives her goodness and sees her human qualities beyond the poor clothes. Although she doesn’t hide that she’s repulsed by her appearance, she catches her merits.

And then Kitty.

Beautiful women of her type lose, in this matter of admiration alone, their otherwise tremendous sense of class distinction; they are obscurely aware that it is their civilizing mission to flash the jewel of their beauty before all men, so that they shall desire it and work to get the wealth to buy it, and thus be seduced by a present appetite to a tilling of the earth that serves the future. There is, you know, really room for all of us; we each have our peculiar use.

As long as Chris seems to love Kitty, Jenny restrains herself from disliking her. Kitty is a sort of vapid woman, interested in her beauty and in that of her house. She works hard to be pretty, to act prettily. Ugliness and poverty insult her and she can’t bear it. She can hardly be polite to Margaret during their first encounter. Kitty acts as if she were a work of art. Is she responsible for this? She was educated to be a perfect lady. In peace times, she is. In war times, her lack of personal qualities is brought out into the open when she has to face dramatic circumstances. There lingers the idea that hardship takes off her social mask.

The ending is what we call in French a “choix cornélien”, a “Cornelian choice”. The term comes from the French playwright Corneille (17th C). In his plays, the characters must always make a choice between passion and duty, between happiness and what is right. Here, Margaret and Jenny face a Cornelian choice: to cure or not to cure Chris. To cure him is to allow him to be a soldier and be sent to the trenches again, to lead him to a highly probable death.

When we had lifted the yoke of our embraces from his shoulders he would go back to that flooded trench in Flanders, under that sky more full of flying death than clouds, to that No-Man’s-Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead.

Not to cure him would keep him safe at home but maintain his mind in his blissful oblivion. “He would not be quite a man”. Stay at home or go to war: very antique.

Jenny states:

While her spell endured they could not send him back into the hell of war. This wonderful, kind woman held his body as safely as she held his soul.

The use of “spell” is not neutral. It links Chris and Margaret’s story to fairy tales and myths. And indeed, I thought of Greek mythology. Monkey Island Inn looks like a Greek style construction. In Greek mythology, after they die, humans reach the Hades, the underworld, by crossing the Acheron, ferried across by Charon. 15 years ago, Margaret was a sort of Charon, bringing Chris to another world, the world of happiness. Chris losing his memory could be seen as Orpheus crossing the Acheron to find Eurydice again. For a while, he finds her. Then Jenny and Margaret force him to look back on the 15 years he left behind and face the truth: Margaret-Eurydice is dead and will disappear again. Chris will definitely stay in Present Time and Margaret in the Past.

Religion is also important in this text and Rebecca West being from Irish and Scottish origins, I suppose she was raised in catholic faith. She evokes churches in catholic countries and their specific scent due to incense sticks used during masses. Margaret is seen as a saint, transfigured. Margaret, M, like Mary or Maria-Magdalena. In addition, by obliterating 15 years of his life, Chris goes back to the Garden of Eden. The time he spends with Margaret is always in Baldry Court’s gardens. There’s a bucolic scene where Jenny spies on them and Chris is sleeping peacefully by Margaret’s side. Jenny and Margaret’s choice to cure him is a way to make him fall down from this. “He wouldn’t be quite a man”: man can be understood here as “human”.

Why did her tears reveal to me what I had learned long ago, but had forgotten in my frenzied love, that there is a draft that we must drink or not be fully human? I knew that one must know the truth. I knew quite well that when one is adult one must raise to one’s lips the wine of the truth, heedless that it is not sweet like milk, but draws the mouth with its strength, and celebrate communion with reality, or else walk forever queer and small like a dwarf. Thirst for this sacrament had made Chris strike away the cup of lies about life that Kitty’s white hands held to him and turn to Margaret with this vast trustful gesture of his loss of memory.

That passage is full of catholic vocabulary. To “raise to one’s lips the wine of the truth” makes me think of catholic mass and the Communion rite, when the priest drinks wine representing the Christ’ blood and the congregation’s acceptance of Christian faith as a truth. Later she uses “celebrate the communion” and “sacrament”, which enforces my theory.

By curing him, they give him back to Earth, knowledge and suffering. The apple is his dead son’s jersey, and his fall is due to a woman, like in the Bible. They also make him turn his back to myth, spells and paganism.

The only part I didn’t like is the one about the dead children. Chris and Margaret both lived through the death of their child. The boys died at the same time, from the same kind of mysterious illness. They withered inexplicably. Margaret is convinced that she should have had a son with Chris and that their sons born from relationships with wrong partners only had half a life and that’s why they didn’t survive. This made me think of the Platonic vision of love: two halves endlessly searching for one another. Under West’s pen, Chris and Margaret were meant for each other. The idea of half alive children is creepy. 

I have so many things to say about the substance that I have no room left for the form and that’s a pity because I really enjoyed it. She has a delicate way to describe sentiments and landscapes, mixing the two sometimes like here “the Lebanon cedar, the branches of which are like darkness made palpable.”

I really love this book and I should re-read it later. I’m sure I would discover subtleties I have missed here. Thanks Caroline for proposing this title for the readalong, I wouldn’t have discovered this book by myself. I’m curious to read other people’s thoughts about it.

  1. March 25, 2011 at 10:13 am

    This is a great review and I like it even more because it is so complementary to mine. That’s what I wrote in my rveiew too, this book is rich enough to offer more than one reading. I was slightly more focused on the war aspects and the underlying Freudian theories but you capture it very well. I did not pay attention to any allusions to Catholicism but reading your review it does make sense.

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    • March 25, 2011 at 11:43 am

      When I read your review, I was glad to see you hadn’t emphasized on the same aspects as me. I had seen the Freudian theories but I had no room to talk about it. The last doctor also made me think of the film The King’s Speech. Have you seen it?

      .

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      • March 25, 2011 at 3:45 pm

        No, I haven’t seen the movie yet.
        I think it’s great when to reviews complete each other like this. We will see if there is anyone else reviewing it. I think Litlove had planned on it but I’m not sure she will make it. On the other hand it’s a weekedn thing. Until Monday when I will do the wrap up it will be fine anyway. I would have liked to get more input from the Rebecca West Society. Before I read that psychlogists comment I thought it would be much more like Par Barkers Regeneration Trilogy and focus on a real shell-shock case. On the other hand why couldn’t he suffer from PTSD and from amnesia at the same time?
        I see that it is not all that important. The choice – truly Cornelian- is important and it shows the three women in all their differences,

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        • March 25, 2011 at 4:28 pm

          It’s a good movie.

          I hope someone else has read it too.

          For me, really, the war thing isn’t that important. The choice is. I’m not really familiar with French classic tragedies but they always deal with the opposition of family duty and love. I prefer Molière to Corneille and Racine.

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  2. leroyhunter
    March 25, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    West seems unjustly overlooked in recent times so this is a great choice by you & Caroline….
    I haven’t read the full review bookaround as this is one I plan to get to myself at some stage. Glad to read your final paragraph though.

    I started her massive opus Black Lamb, Grey Falcon last year and confess I gave up after a while: not because of the writing, which was superb, but because of the sheer size of the book – which means I can’t take it out with me and hence cuts down on opportunities to read. It deserves more focus then I can give it just now.

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    • March 25, 2011 at 12:24 pm

      The Return of the Soldier is a very short book. I have the kindle version, I can’t tell you the number of pages, but I think Caroline mentioned it’s less than 150.
      It’s really worth reading, Caroline’s review will give you a good look at it.

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      • leroyhunter
        March 25, 2011 at 2:29 pm

        I’ve looked at it recently in my local bookshop and it is a slim volume alright.

        I’ll pop over to Caroline’s review shortly.

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  3. March 25, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Since you loved this, I am going to recommend A Month in the Country by Carr. There’s a film version (film version of The Return of the Soldier too).

    Like

    • March 25, 2011 at 5:18 pm

      Thanks, I’ll look at it.

      Like

    • leroyhunter
      March 25, 2011 at 7:53 pm

      Seconded – a wonderful book.

      Like

      • March 25, 2011 at 8:55 pm

        I looked for A Month in the Country, it sounds really good. *Sigh…* My TBR is going to grow again.

        Like

  4. March 25, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    I’d never heard of the Cornelian choice, so thanks for that. I really like this post.

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    • March 25, 2011 at 8:42 pm

      Thank you, I’m glad you liked it.
      “un choix cornélien” is commonly used in French when you face a dilemna. I like these expressions, referring to a specific event or person. (like “c’est son violon d’Ingres”)

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      • leroyhunter
        March 25, 2011 at 9:40 pm

        “Hobson’s choice” would be the English equivalent bookaround. Although that means not just a dilemma, but 2 bad options you must decide between.

        What does the Ingres one mean?

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        • March 25, 2011 at 9:45 pm

          The painter Ingres was also a violin player. Literature is my “violon d’Ingres”, it’s my hobby.

          The equivalent of “Hobson’s choice” would be “choisir entre la peste et le choléra”, which means “choose between plague and cholera”, nice alternatives, aren’t they?

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  5. leroyhunter
    March 25, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    Ah right, a nice idea. I found this quote about him: “Ingres’s choice of subjects reflected his literary tastes, which were severely limited: he read and reread Homer, Virgil, Plutarch, Dante”.
    Pretty impressive limits….

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  6. March 26, 2011 at 2:27 am

    The Devil and the deep blue sea?

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  7. March 27, 2011 at 1:41 am

    It’s a phrase/idiom used to illustrate two difficult choices. I’d compare it to “chose between the plague and cholera.”

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  8. March 31, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    I could appreciate the book, but I didn’t love it, and I’ll admit I found it boring at times, mostly the never-ending descriptions of the scenery. But I was expecting a war story, and you’re right in that it’s definitely not a war story. It certainly does provide much food for thought.

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  9. April 4, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    Very interesting review, Bookaroundthecorner, especially the part where you compare the character Margaret to Charon. I’m not sure I would have expected that in a blog post on Rebecca West! Would like to read this book someday, though I think I’ll try and finish Black Lamb and Grey Falcon first since I already own it.

    Like

    • April 5, 2011 at 7:48 am

      Thanks.
      About Margaret and Charon : Rebecca West describes Margaret with the small boat, how she brings the visitors on the other side. That’s what made me think of it.

      Like

  1. March 25, 2011 at 10:01 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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