The Return of a Private

by Hamlin Garland

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Last Updated on August 4, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 675

Hamlin Garland's short story "The Return of a Private" is about a group of soldiers who return home from the Civil War. The story focuses on one of those soldiers: the eponymous Private Smith.

He saw himself sick, worn out, taking up the work on his half-cleared farm, the inevitable mortgage standing ready with open jaw to swallow half his earnings. He had given three years of his life for a mere pittance of pay, and now!

This first quotation alludes to the sacrifices Smith made when he decided to fight in the Civil War and to his prospects now that the war is over. There awaits a mortgage "standing ready with open jaw to swallow half his earnings." The personification of the mortgage gives the impression that it is a kind of monster and thus positions Smith as the victim. The reader is perhaps meant to think that this is not a fitting reward for someone who has fought for their country.

Billy Tripp. Poor Billy! A “minie” ball fell into his breast one day, fell wailing like a cat, and tore a great ragged hole in his heart.

This second quotation describes the thoughts of one of Smith's fellow soldiers, a man called Saunders, as he remembers a friend of his who died during the war. The impact of the musket ball in his friend's chest is described with the simile "fell wailing like a cat," which gives the impression of the noise and the carnage of the impact. The adjectives "great" and "ragged" to describe the "hole in his heart" further compound the impression of an utterly devastating wound. The "hole in his heart" could here also refer, metaphorically, to Saunders. The loss of his friend has left him with a metaphorical "hole in his heart." Saunders remembers the death of his friend as he is making his own way home, which reminds the reader that although the war is over, the memories of it will endure for a long time yet for soldiers like Saunders.

His head drooped forward on his palm, his shoulders took on a tired stoop, his cheekbones showed painfully. An observer might have said, “He is looking down upon his own grave.”

This third quotation also describes Saunders. He is at this point in the story close to home. He sits on top of a hill, looking down at his home, described metaphorically as "his own grave." Similar to the first quotation, we have the impression here that life for these soldiers after the war will be no respite, no matter how deserved a respite might be. The poignancy of this moment is increased by the fact that it marks the end of part one of the story. The moment, accordingly, resonates with the reader.

He threw down his scythe and grub-ax, turned his cattle loose, and became a blue-coated cog in a vast machine for killing men.

This fourth quotation describes the moment when Smith decides to join the army and fight in the Civil War. The metaphor describing the war as "a vast machine for killing men" alludes to the impersonal ruthlessness of war. Readers are reminded that the individual doesn't count for much in war. The individual is, as suggested by the machine metaphor, merely a cog that can be easily replaced.

The vast moon swinging above the eastern peaks, the cattle winding down the pasture slopes with jangling bells, the crickets singing, the stars blooming out sweet and far and serene, the katydids rhythmically calling, the little turkeys crying querulously, as they settled to roost in the poplar tree near the open gate.

This final quotation is from the end of the story. It is full of sensual imagery, describing an almost overwhelming abundance of sights ("The vast moon," "the eastern peaks") and sounds ("jangling bells," "crickets singing"). The overall impression is that Smith, upon finally reaching his wife and children, is somewhat overwhelmed by the occasion. It is almost as if he has come back to life from the verge of death.

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