Rebecca West's "The Return of the Soldier": Analyzing the Interrelationship of Male and Female Traumas
Rebecca West’s 1918 novel The Return of the Soldier dissects the socioeconomic and psychological tensions wrought by the upheaval of the First World War. In a nuanced reiteration of the typical trope of a soldier’s return, Christopher Baldry is dispatched from the Western front when it becomes apparent that selective amnesia has trapped his mind fifteen years in the past. This preoccupation with shell-shock and immersion in the past subtly couches the novel’s larger motifs in the language of the trauma narrative, as Christopher struggles to reconcile his idealization of a past love with the impending demands of warfare and the modern world.
Rather than a simplistic account of a soldier’s mental breakdown and subsequent cure, however, the novel portrays Christopher’s post-traumatic stress in its impact on the women he left behind, particularly his wife and his cousin. His shell-shock becomes an aesthetic strategy that literalizes the traumatic strain the war has placed upon them, as Kitty and Jenny desperately attempt to preserve a social order that has been rendered obsolete by the brutalities of modernity. By analyzing the feminine role in West’s trauma narrative, insight can be gained into the novel’s larger motifs of classist tension, the gender divide between the war and home fronts, as well as the advantages and limitations of Freudian psychoanalysis.
The classist preoccupations of the female characters of the novel, in particular Christopher’s wife Kitty Baldry and his cousin Jenny, constitute an intriguing manifestation of the central tenets of trauma theory. In their obsession with preserving the prewar social order, a move portrayed with ambivalence by the leftist West, they form a carefully constructed defense mechanism against its impending destruction. Cathy Caruth, a scholar of the interrelationship between literary narrative and the traumatized psyche, defines trauma as the “singular possession by the past…while the images of traumatic reenactment remain absolutely accurate and precise, they are largely inaccessible to conscious recall and control. It was this curious phenomenon that challenged Freud in his confrontation with the ‘war neuroses’ stemming from the First World War” (151). Christopher Baldry, suffering from a selective amnesia that has caused him to forget his marriage and to remember only the events of fifteen years previous, embodies what Caruth describes as “the traumatic nightmare, undistorted by repression or unconscious wish…[that] occupies a space to which willed access is denied” (152). But when applied to Kitty and Jenny, the parameters of traumatic memory are more difficult to determine.
The trauma that they face is the forced reconstruction of their social identities precipitated by the economic and cultural shifts of the war, which they fight against through a façade of classist hauteur. Even the description of Oliver’s nursery, the Baldrys’ late son, has undertones of opulence with its “tall arched windows,” “flowered curtains,” “soft rugs, patterned with strange beasts” and “chintz ottoman” (West 3). This initial description is a crucial instance that reveals the women’s strategies for coping with trauma. Though Kitty has preserved Oliver’s nursery and is clearly still within the cycle of traumatic recall, Jenny’s meticulous cataloguing of the room’s contents is an indicator of the solace of materialism. This brand of materialist consolation is a predominant feature of the novel’s early pages, as Jenny describes the rooms and grounds of the estate. Much as Christopher is trapped in the prewar past through his amnesia, the women of Baldry Court enclose themselves within a seemingly innocuous prewar past. Baldry Court, built with “the knowing wink of the manicurist” and “matter for innumerable photographs in the illustrated papers,” is a well-maintained symbol of a dying aristocracy, their haven away from the horrors of the modern world (4).
Here the deliberately heightened language of Jenny’s narrative verges on heady, illustrating her own intoxication with classist escapism. She asserts that “I could send my mind creeping from room to room like a purring cat, rubbing itself against all the brittle beautiful things that we had either recovered from antiquity or dug from the obscure pits of modern craftsmanship…I was sure that we were reserved from the reproach of luxury because we had made a fine place for Chris, our little part of the world” (6). Her continual attempts to justify these luxurious surroundings for Christopher’s sake ring hollow, as it is later implied that he resented his spendthrift female relatives and viewed the house as a reminder of his late son. They also remind the reader that outside the charming insularity of Baldry Court, Britain is not nearly so prosperous, pouring all of its financial resources into a war that will cost the country its economic and imperialist eminence. Jenny’s fixated admiration of the house represents a distinct form of traumatic recall that parallels Christopher’s attempts to reconstruct the past in order to escape from the troubling realities of the present, rather than the unwilled recollection of a specific event.
Yet this repression of trauma through classism is not excluded to the material; it also colors their social interactions. The tension generated by their disdain towards the working classes comes to a head when Margaret comes to inform them of Christopher’s amnesia. Though Margaret is the bearer of bad news, there is a great deal more to this exchange than shooting the messenger. Upon receiving her calling card, Kitty is horrified that she is from Wealdstone, reflecting that “one cannot now protect one’s environment as one could in the old days” (9). Margaret is an irritation because she is an outsider, a reminder of the wartime present outside the enclosed estate. When she tries to explain Christopher’s shell-shock, Kitty dismisses it as fraud and snaps that she is “impertinent” (14). Even though she is disgusted with Kitty’s disregard for Christopher’s safety, Jenny admits to “hating [Margaret] as the rich hate the poor” and despises the “evil, shiny, pigskin purse” that is so out of place among the “solemnly chosen fabrics” of Baldry Court’s luscious interior (14, 12, 6). Similar to the opening scene, their arrogant dismissal of Margaret’s news exemplifies the reaction to trauma initially illustrated in the extended descriptions of Baldry Court. Faced with welcoming a wounded soldier back into their home, a man who has become a “broken and queer” stranger, they immediately revert to the social norms of the prewar order, convinced that Margaret can only be a criminal because of her low socioeconomic status (17). The callousness of this reflex undermines their desperate nostalgia by placing the cruelties of the old order into harsh relief. Yet again, this trait has parallels in Christopher’s psyche, as Margaret recalls that in a jealous fit “he wasn’t trusting me as he would trust a girl of his own class” (52). West’s unique perspective on the trauma narrative infuses it with social consciousness, reminding the reader that the past which the women and Christopher cling to in different ways was not necessarily the antidote to wartime tension that they perceive it to be.
Aside from the socioeconomic aspects of The Return of the Soldier, Jenny’s narrative use of wartime imagery is a more conventional aspect of the trauma narrative, but also addresses the gendered tension between the war and home fronts. The distinctions between male and female spaces of war have been blurred by the war-films and newspapers, allowing knowledge of trench warfare to pervade the text. Though Jenny has not experienced trench warfare, these forms of simulation provide her with knowledge of combat scenes that act as a metaphor for her own traumatic experience. From the early pages of the novel, this phenomenon becomes apparent in the form of recurrent nightmares, as Jenny admits that “of late I have had bad dreams about him [Christopher]” (5). The dream itself is an almost cinematically vivid depiction of a war scene: “By night I saw Chris running across the brown rottenness of No Man’s Land, starting back there because of the awfulness of an unburied head…For on the war-films I had seen men slip down as softly from the trench parapet, and none but the grimmer philosophers would say that they had reached safety by their fall” (5). Here the disturbingly precise battle scene possesses the same haunted bitterness of a Wilfred Owen poem, and is a jarring departure from previous descriptions of Baldry Court’s opulence. But for all its focus on Christopher’s struggle for survival, this aspect of Jenny’s narrative also illuminates her own traumatic dilemma.
Her torturous cataloguing of the hardships of trench warfare is almost a reproach for the expensive lifestyle she and Kitty have been maintaining at Baldry Court, a reminder that he is far from “this green pleasantness his wife and I now looked upon” (5). Her guilt over these luxuries is compounded by the fact that she is not his wife, but an apparently unmarried cousin and childhood playmate whose current position in the household is precarious at best. Recounting these horrors of the war front allows her to a establish a relationship to his character; since he is absent for the first part of the novel and an amnesiac for its duration, she becomes the voice which translates his experience in a way that he cannot, despite the heavy strain on her own psychological well-being. In her essay “Trauma and Testimony,” Dori Laub analyzes a similar dynamic between interviewers and Holocaust survivors: “The listener (or the interviewer) becomes the Holocaust witness before the narrator does...To a certain extent, the interviewer-listener takes on the responsibility for bearing witness that previously the narrator felt he bore alone, and therefore could not carry out. It is the encounter and the coming together between the survivor and the listener, which makes possible something like a repossession of the act of witnessing” (Caruth, 69). Yet Christopher cannot remember his experiences on the front, so it is left to Jenny to reconstruct them from what she has seen in the newsreels and newspapers. Her point of reference is rather the “flattened” voice of the “modern subaltern,” who recalls his friend shouting “Help me, old man, I’ve got no legs![sic]” and having to respond “I can’t, old man, I’ve got no hands!” (5). Once Christopher returns to Baldry Court, she describes his confusion towards the present almost as that of a prisoner of war, asserting that “all the inhabitants of this new tract of time were his enemies, all its circumstances his prison bars” (29). The “modern horrors” of war cannot be kept outside the walls of the quaint estate, as “a lost zeppelin sometimes clanks like a skeleton across the sky above us” and “a searchlight turn[s] all ways in the night” over Christopher’s head at the open window (26, 30). Despite his distrust of her advanced age, which he in his amnesia cannot process, she fondly imagines herself as his “trusted nurse,” an ally who records his struggles to regain memory and self (32).
But this attempt to become beloved confidant fails, much in the same way as her endeavors to placate the aggrieved Kitty, and the novel becomes an account of her mental unraveling as much as Christopher’s. He turns instead to Margaret, his former love, for support, and Jenny is left veering between relief that his shell-shock temporarily disqualifies him from the front and extreme jealousy of her rival. She describes his reunion with the aged Margaret through the same combat metaphor as the early scene, as she asserts that “there he was, running across the lawn as night after night I had seen him run across No Man’s Land…I assumed at Margaret’s feet lay safety” (59). Margaret pulls him up in “the movement of one carrying a wounded man from under fire,” and “it was as though her embrace fed him, he looked so strong as he pulled away” (59). Here Jenny’s appropriation of battlefield imagery indicates the stress of his rejection. Christopher has sought refuge with Margaret and has all but forgotten her. Much as she tries to sympathize with his happy immersion in the past, this touching scene parallels her nightmares.
This time it is not so much Christopher as she who is trapped on the barren stretches of No Man’s Land; in the narrative of his return and recovery, she has become a dispossessed outsider, superfluous in the eyes of her beloved cousin and subtly despised by his wife. Although in this instance a terrible strain, she clings to her position of testimony, describing his reconciliation with Margaret as a sanctuary from the horrors of the war front. The toll this has taken on her sanity becomes apparent when she realizes that she is “utterly cut off from Chris” and flings herself face-down in a pile of leaves while on a walk outside Baldry Court (63). She agonizes over his view of her as “a disregarded playmate” and imagines the moment of his amnesia in an almost hallucinatory fashion (65). She thinks of “it happening somewhere behind the front” where the houses have “uncovered rafters which stick out like broken bones” (66). Here, in this landscape that closely resembles the war front of her nightmares, an old man who is “the soul of the universe” has mesmerized Christopher with identical crystal balls of Margaret and the women at Baldry Court; Christopher grabs at the image of Margaret and breaks the other in doing so, and “no one weeps for this shattering of our world” (66-7). While this bizarre episode erodes her narrative reliability, it reveals her struggles to come to terms with her own displacement. This instance, while lacking the Owen-esque visual accuracy of the earlier descriptions, deals with a dreamlike war front in which Jenny has become the one facing horror and destruction. She might have imagined him braving atrocities in the trenches, but he clearly was not thinking of her while he was doing so; his mind, apparently, would revert to the time spent on Monkey Island with Margaret in times of distress. The combat diction which characterizes much of Jenny’s narrative illustrates her appropriated role as Christopher’s testimonial voice, but in the process also becomes a metaphor for her resultant dispossession.
West’s choice to conclude the novel with a psychologist’s agenda for curing Christopher’s shell-shock is an abrupt one, generating ambivalence toward the relative advantages and limitations of the psychoanalytic method. For the women of The Return of the Soldier, the arrival of Dr. Gilbert Anderson is in many ways both a blessing and a curse. Reviving herself from the leaf-pile hallucination, Jenny cries out that “Gilbert Anderson must cure” Christopher and fills herself with “a gasping, urgent faith in this doctor” despite others’ failed attempts through hypnosis (67). Kitty pronounces him “our last hope” (62). But once he is invited into the drawing-room, he verbally attacks Kitty when she suggests that Christopher could cure himself “if he would only make an effort” (79). He snaps in response, declaring that “the mental life that can be controlled isn’t the mental life that matters…There’s a deep self in one, the essential self, that has its wishes. And if those wishes are suppressed…[the essential self] takes its revenge…But that’s all technical. My business to understand it, not yours” (79). Invoking the cult of the male professional, he “gleefully” and with “winking blue eyes” humiliates Kitty by repeatedly asserting that “quite obviously he [Christopher] has forgotten his life here because he is discontented with it” (79-80). Though he assures her “it was not [her] fault,” Jenny understands this as a diluted attempt at flattery and not as the truth (80). The unspoken blame placed on Kitty for Christopher’s amnesia is hardly a fair assessment of a wife who has waited loyally for his return, and has suffered her own trauma through the death of their son and now through her husband’s shell-shock. His insensitive probing into the death of Oliver and Margaret’s previous sexual relationship with Christopher only serves to traumatize her further while purporting to cure her husband.
Even as he appears to be the deus ex machina that will cure Christopher, the doctor is a singularly inept and anti-woman figure in the text. Margaret, the only woman in the room whom he recognizes as “an intellectual equal,” is the one who has the idea of explaining to Christopher about his deceased son to recall him to the present (81). He uses the knowledge to castigate Kitty once more for her omission, then urges Margaret to “take him something the boy wore, some toy they used to play with” (82). As he sees it, his job is to return Christopher to a stable psychological state and to the war front; the stress and shame this attempt will place on the women in his life is immaterial. His bumbling method, however, proves effective, for when Christopher returns to the house after seeing Oliver’s ball and jersey, he looks “every inch a soldier” and is declared “cured” by his wife (90). Despite the psychoanalyst’s success in reviving Christopher from his amnesia, the treatment method seems pat and reductionist, ignoring any post-traumatic stress that might have been caused by his time on the frontlines. Psychoanalysis, while recalling him to the present, is hardly the source of a happy ending; it is the method through which Christopher has been assessed and treated to be returned to service, reinitiating the traumatic cycles through which he and the women who wait for him have repeatedly suffered.
To explore more clearly the advantages afforded by a psychoanalytic reading of the novel, it is necessary to move away from its rapid conclusion and to examine the psychological state of Kitty throughout The Return of the Soldier. Analyzing the nature of the interrelationship between Kitty and Christopher’s forms of traumatic recall requires a return to the description of Oliver’s nursery on the first page of the novel. In its initial lines, Jenny has happened on Kitty just as she “slip[s] the key into the lock” of the nursery door (3). The room has been “kept in all respects as though there were still a child in the house” (3). His “rocking-horse, “Teddy Bear,” and “woolly white dog” are all there, with the exception of their owner (3). Here, Kitty is “revisiting her dead” (4). The disturbing tenor of this scene, as well as the fact that all of Oliver’s former toys have been kept eerily in place, indicates that Kitty has not mourned the loss of her son in a healthy way. Freud describes this phenomenon in his essay “Melancholia and Mourning,” asserting that “melancholia…is on the one hand, like mourning, a reaction to the real loss of a loved object; but over and above this, it is marked by a determinant that is absent in normal mourning or which, if it is present, transforms the latter into pathological mourning” (587).
Both Kitty and Christopher have slipped into a melancholic state through detachment from what Freud denotes as “reality-testing,” or the ability to understand the reality of one’s surroundings despite the necessary deflection that results from a traumatic event (Freud, 585). Christopher’s case is more explicit, as some form of retrograde or selective amnesia has caused him to literally lose touch with the present. Kitty’s descent into melancholia is subtler and therefore less easy to trace. On the surface she is an unlikable character, seemingly vain and unsympathetic towards her husband’s plight. A second glance, however, reveals that she embodies many of the traits of the melancholic personality. Her materialism is a well-established aspect of the text, both through the decadence of the estate and Jenny’s assertion that “Kitty had come along and picked up his [Chris’] idea of normal expenditure and carelessly stretched it” (8). In his assessment of the melancholic, Freud discovered that in self-evaluation “it is only his fears of becoming poor that occupy a prominent position” (585). When viewed in these terms, her obsessive attempts to surround herself with expensive décor is a method of seeking comfort from her wealth, for creating a fantasy in which she does not have to face the untimely death of her son or the possibility of her husband’s death on the frontlines. Her fervent denials, first of the news of Christopher’s shell-shock from Margaret and then of his discontent from Dr. Anderson, indicate how entrenched she has become in the phantasmagoric world of Baldry Court. Kitty’s melancholia has resulted from an inability to address traumatic strain, as she suppresses it through the construction of a fantasy in which it does not exist. While the power of psychoanalysis to reenact rather than cure trauma became apparent in the Dr. Anderson episode, a more nuanced Freudian reading does have the advantage of portraying Kitty’s character in a more rounded and sympathetic light.
West’s appropriation of the return-of-the-soldier trauma narrative, a conventional wartime mode, is unique in these alternating classist, testimonial, and psychoanalytic elements. Gendered analysis of The Return of the Soldier is significant for opening new lines of inquiry in terms of women’s agency during wartime, the limits of trauma theory, and the larger sociocultural anxieties that pervade the text. The majority of culturally accepted World War I texts, including German author Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front and the stories of American writer Ernest Hemingway, utilize the first-person account of a soldier who is struggling to survive or to come to terms with his injuries in the war. Virtually no women appear in these narratives, and if they do they are primarily supportive, one-dimensional characters.
An examination of the importance of female characters in West’s depictions of trauma re-affirms her subversion of this male-centered literary tradition. Here the narrative focus, while ostensibly on the man returning home, in fact explicates the ways in which women handle trauma on the home front. Jenny, feeling herself an outsider in the Baldry household, struggles to reclaim her relationship with Christopher by becoming his testimonial voice; Kitty tries to deny the double traumas of her son’s death and her husband’s amnesia through the illusory reconstruction of the prewar aristocracy; Margaret braves humiliation at the hands of the classist Kitty and Jenny and sacrifices her own happiness in suggesting the way to treat Christopher’s shell-shock. The First World War in many ways initiated a modern condition of warfare in which women could access the horrors of the front through film, newspapers, and recorded interviews. The resultant trauma caused by this knowledge is a largely forgotten history acknowledged by West. Another insight that can be drawn from paralleling trauma theory and The Return of the Soldier is the field’s relative silence on the subject of the First World War. The work of leading trauma scholars such as Cathy Caruth and Dori Laub have primarily discussed the Second World War, particularly in terms of the mass destruction caused by the Holocaust and Hiroshima and their manifestations in literature and film.
While this is certainly a legitimate focus, greater analysis of Freud’s World War I case studies is a notable omission. The process of narrative transmission, which has been examined in terms of Holocaust interviews, plays a very prominent role in The Return of the Soldier, as Jenny endeavors to voice the wartime experiences that Christopher has never directly shared with her. With wide-ranging discourse on trauma’s literary manifestations in the works of figures as diverse as Kleist and the French symbolists, the expansion of trauma theory’s historical scope will be a crucial step in asserting its universal relevancy. Lastly, this mode for analyzing West’s novel illustrates her unique perspective on the credos of modernist representation and the larger cultural anxieties of her time. The Return of the Soldier is a work whose implications lie in what remains unsaid, an aesthetic feature that resembles the difficulties of testimony described by trauma scholars. The unsaid, the forces at work in the society outside the cool aristocratic walls of Baldry Court, are as central to the novel as any of its confessional aspects. World War I was a conflict that devastated the British Empire, legitimizing the nationalist claims of many of its territories and bankrupting its coffers. The financial center of the world transferred from London to New York City, indicating America’s rise to preeminence. Kitty and Jenny’s preservation of the prewar social order acts on one level as an allegory for the bygone days of British imperialist dominance. Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier is a complex novel that brilliantly explores the militaristic and sociocultural tensions of its historical moment.
Caruth, Cathy. “Recapturing the Past: Introduction.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 151-157.
Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1989. 585-589.
Laub, Dori. “Truth and Testimony: The Process and the Struggle.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 61-75.
West, Rebecca. The Return of the Soldier. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.