Trying to get a tiny bit ahead on the reading for the Summer class I’ll be starting Monday (which I’m very excited about by the way) I read Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier over the last few days. Since I read it online I’m not precisely sure about the page count, but I think this would be considered novella or near-novella in length. As I was reading I noticed something: that I was re-reading. Somehow I had completely forgotten that I ever read this novel until I picked it up again, which is one of the delights/horrors of growing up, I suppose. Incidentally the class is on the British Modern period (between WW1 and WW2) so expect a lot of books from that period coming soon, including Joyce, Ford, Woolf, and Conrad, perhaps obviously. Onward!
Published in 1918, The Return of the Soldier is West’s first novel and it follows a shell shocked Captain Chris Baldry as he returns from the front (WW1). Who he returns to are three women: his cousin Jenny who is the narrator, his wife Kitty who he does not remember, and his childhood love Margaret. The strange thing about Chris is that he’s lost the last 15 years of his memory, including the birth and death of his son. Margaret, whose life after Chris has gone in a decidedly southern direction, receives the news that Chris is alive, but shell shocked, and is going to be sent home. Even though Margaret is married and very poor, she forces herself to go to his beautiful estate and tell his beautiful wife the news. Instead of being nice-at-all, Chris’ beautiful wife Kitty takes Margaret for a beggar and accuses her of grifting, which they somehow sort out. Chris, waking up in the hospital, is still madly in love with the now poverty-haggard Margaret and demands to see her. They bring him home to his estate and Kitty puts on every piece of jewelry she has to try and jog his memory; he asks to see Margaret instead. Kitty submits and Jenny, who is incessantly commenting on how ugly Margaret is, brings her to the estate knowing that Chris will be devastated into reality the second his handsome manly eyes see her pug-fuglyness. Except they’re still madly in love and he doesn’t even notice that she’s been ravaged by time and mean living. Still in love Chris and Margaret spend copious amounts of time together under Jenny’s watchful eye as Kitty rage-suffers in the background. Jenny slowly comes around to liking Margaret and eventually siding with her as she realizes that she is a wonderful, stunning human being under that poverty-flesh, while simultaneously realizing that Kitty, while super beautiful and rich, is kind of a nasty dumpling. Finally, one of the doctors (a psychoanalyst) that Kitty brings in “cures” Chris with Margaret’s help, help that Margaret briefly considers not giving, but of course does because she’s a wonderful person. Chris returns to being “every inch a soldier,” which delights Kitty and disappoints everyone else, including me, because she’s a total b-. This “cure,” incidentally, not only takes Marget back out of Chris’ life, but it means he’ll have to return to the trenches immediately. Oh, but Kitty’s happy and that’s all that matters (to her)!
Grr! So before I get to the grr! parts of the novel, the first thing to talk about is the language. It’s West’s first novel and it is filled to the brim with descriptor-heavy sentences and feels intensely sentimental. For me this makes the novel feel like a series of photographs or a movie, full of sound and color, but since the Modern period really becomes about the feeling of isolation in society and loss of identity, the novel hasn’t gotten much attention until fairly recently. The Modern period I really consider, perhaps more than any other, a real golden period for man literature. It’s manly! Also it deals with what it means to be a man and, interestingly, the emotional inner lives of men, more than perhaps any other period of literature. As a fan of gender studies in general I find this period of literature fascinating, but don’t study it per se because … well because I don’t want to I guess. While I do really enjoy this period of literature, West doesn’t fit in well because her writing is entirely to feminine. I like it though so just because it doesn’t fit in doesn’t mean it’s bad.
Speaking of man literature, you have to acknowledge the internalization of a male fantasy in a plot where three women are competing for the attention of one man. Margaret is a wonderful person, is married, and knows being around Chris is wrong, but she can’t help herself because he’s so amazing and handsome. Also she’s been carrying a torch for him for fifteen years, a difficult circumstance that I think West handles deftly. Kitty is beautiful and rich and she will be damned if that doesn’t get her everything she wants, she. will. be. damned. Kitty allows Chris to be around Margaret not because she’s a selfless person, by the way, it’s because Kitty sees Margaret as ugly and doesn’t realize she’s competition until it’s too late. Oops! Finally the narrator, Jenny. Gurl. Jenny has got some issues. For the first part of the novel she seems to be in love with Chris, then as she grows close to Chris and Margaret she wants to spend all her time with them and realizes that Kitty hates her. Finally, there comes an event that I actually do study, called a “lesbian disruption,” when Jenny passionately kisses Margaret out of the blue. No one says anything and they move on, Margaret exits the narrative and that’s that. I’ll have to discuss lesbian disruptions later on since it deserves to be treated separately, but novels like Mrs. Dalloway are famous for them while tons of seeming-unrelated novels (like Clarissa) contain them as well.
What is treated for the female characters is the effect of motherhood on women. Kitty and Margaret have both lost children – sons – both dying in infancy. Paralleling the deaths of so many young men on the front, losing a son was part of motherhood during this period, and Margaret is crushed by it, while Kitty is barely addressing it. As it turns out, losing their son is a central trauma to Chris, and confronting it leads to him recovering his identity. This not necessarily healthy, it just snaps him back to reality, as his boyish, carefree gait becomes stiff and constrained. For Chris, Kitty’s refusal to change the baby’s room (because she is either unwilling or unable to mourn) and returning to war almost promises that he will come home shell shocked once again.
Another major theme for the female characters is something Hélène Cixous addresses in The Laugh of the Medusa:
Men have committed the greatest crime against women. Insidiously, violently, they have led them to hate women, to be their own enemies, to mobilize their immense strength against themselves, to be the executants of their virile needs.
Just as Chris comes home from the front he enters a house full of women at war against one another. Jenny is absolutely cruel in her early descriptions of Margaret – as is Kitty – and watching her slowly shift over to Marget’s side is one of the most wonderful aspects of the novel. The grr part of the novel is Kitty, since she is beautiful and heterosexual (Jenny, I’m looking at you girl) she fits perfectly into the system. The system, however, is fatally flawed, because it links her entire use value to the maintenance of this marriage. This is emphasized by a sculpture of a pure white nymph kneeling and staring into a black pool, which I believe to be Echo. Kitty is Echo in this story, someone whose identity is tied to Narcissus (Chris, who only sees what he wants to see), but who is unable to function when her double cannot or does not function. As Kitty f(l)ails she begins to implode and, perhaps, confront what it is like not to be wanted for the first time in her life. When Chris is “cured” her chance as growth ends and Kitty finishes the novel having learned nothing at all. Margaret has to sacrifice for the good of England, a major theme in war time writing in general, but she does it under the guise of the truth being more important than happiness. However Jenny, our narrator, achieves real growth during the course of the novel, and has the greatest chance of self-actualization after it ends.
Finally, I generally don’t deal with class in novels because it feels a little forced some times, but this novel absolutely deals with class. Or Kitty’s lack thereof, burn! No seriously though, Kitty vs Margaret is as much a class war as anything, it’s money and beauty vs stoicism and goodness. Physical possessions litter the text and there is an obsession with keeping up appearances that Jenny and Kitty equate with duty, an illusion that Margaret undermines. The real blow up in the novel isn’t what happens in the text, it’s what happens after the text ends, when Chris comes home shell shocked again (which is probable), when Jenny faces herself and asks what she’s doing in this house, when Margaret arrives home to a marriage compromised by the re-introduction of her true love into her life, when (if ever) the baby’s things are packed away, when Kitty looks in the mirror and realizes that it’s cracked. Because that’s what the novel does, it doesn’t shatter anyone’s illusions; but it does fatally crack the mirror.