The Return of a Private

by Hamlin Garland

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Edward Smith

Edward Smith represents the experience of American soldiers who return home after being away, fighting wars based on "ideas." Even his last name is connotative of an archetypical soldier who spans time and culture. Though Edward has been fighting in the South in the American Civil War, his experience of trying to reassimilate into everyday life is one that every soldier must face upon returning home.

The story begins with Edward nearing home with his fellow soldiers. They have experienced much together, and they have a hard time parting ways when their paths take them in different directions. Pledging to see his comrades again soon, Edward begins his solitary journey home. He looks forward to seeing his dog bounding up the road to meet him with the smile that Edward finds endearing about the dog.

The reality of reuniting with those at home is quite different. When she first sees him, Edward's wife isn't sure about his identity because he's changed so much, which is certainly reflected in her reaction. His youngest son has no idea who he is, and his dog died the year before. Edward's absence during the war has created a new reality for his family, and he has to try to find his place in it again, offering his children apples to try to smooth the initial transition. He quickly turns his attention to the farm tasks that need to be done but first rests, with the natural environment of home easing his mind a bit. Edward understands that his absence has changed his family's dynamic.

Emma Smith

Emma has been left at home in her husband's absence to take care of their three children and all farm responsibilities. She shoulders this responsibility—but not without at least a bit of resentment:

. . . this man, with his girl-wife and three babies, left them on a mortgaged farm and went away to fight for an idea. It was foolish, but it was sublime for all that.

She also thinks that she has carried her share of the collective personal sorrow of this war and is ready for some relief from the waiting, which burdens her soul:

It seemed to her that she had borne her share of the country’s sorrow. Two brothers had been killed, the renter in whose hands her husband had left the farm had proved a villain; one year the farm had been without crops, and now the overripe grain was waiting the tardy hand of the neighbor who had rented it, and who was cutting his own grain first.

Emma is excited to see her husband returning home and tries to reintegrate him into the lives of her children. She works to make Edward comfortable, and their tones of voice are described as loving when they settle in again. She is pleased about the reunification of her family.

Teddy Smith

The youngest Smith child is not excited for the return of his father; he was so young when Edward left that he has no recollection of him. Teddy represents the tragedy inherent in any extended absence of a family member, even for the most noteworthy ideals. Personal relationships are sacrificed in the absence of soldiers who leave home for lengthy periods, and sometimes it takes a great deal of intentional effort to reconstruct the relationships that existed prior to the absence.

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