The Devastation of War
In "The Return of a Private," Garland calls attention to the devastation caused by war. First, the Smith family has experienced great strain in Edward Smith's absence. Emma Smith has waited three years for her husband's return and has been tasked with keeping both their farm and their three children in good order in his absence. She is at least a bit resentful of his leaving to fight for an "idea" that she finds "foolish," even if it is "sublime."
Edward also recalls losing a friend, Billy, when his chest was ripped apart by a minnie ball. Billy's death was sudden, and he fell "with only a breath between a laugh and a death groan." Time has not erased this horror from Edward's mind.
It has also, at least temporarily, devastated his relationship with his youngest son. Although Teddy does fall asleep in his father's arms, his initial reaction is fear. He has no recollection of his father, and it will take some time to mend the effects that Edward's physical absence have caused.
The Bonds of Friendship Between Soldiers
This theme is explored early in the story, when Edward is on his way back home. The group of soldiers take care of each other and particularly of Edward, whom they know is sick:
Smith was attended to tenderly by the other men, who spread their blankets on the bench for him, and, by robbing themselves, made quite a comfortable bed, though the narrowness of the bench made his sleeping precarious.
As the group progresses on their journey, there is a sense of jovial camaraderie as they all individually anticipate scenes of family life at home. When they must part, it is with hesitation and a sense of regret. They talk of keeping in touch.
The Sense of Home and Belonging
All of the men want to return to the place where they belong. Edward longs for the simple things at home, like his wife's Sunday dinners and the dog whom he is certain will greet him (but sadly doesn't). When he gets home, he soaks up the scene upon his arrival:
When the excited, panting little group came in sight of the gate, they saw the blue-coated figure standing, leaning upon the rough rail fence, his chin on his palms, gazing at the empty house.
After he has some time to settle in, Edward enjoys the simple sights and sounds around his home: the bells of the cattle, the singing of the crickets, the rhythm of the katydids. All of these sounds and images stand in stark contrast to the anger- and violence-filled environment where he has spent his last three years. The sense of peace he finds at home provides the rest his soul longs for.
Hamlin Garland was at the forefront of the realist movement. He called it “veritism,” and it led him to reject virtually all the romance and sentimentality that had traditionally clothed stories about the farm family. Garland knew the poverty, injustice, and dullness of rural life at first hand and conveyed that understanding with exceptional clarity in his early writings. “The Return of a Private” is a case in point. Although the focus here is on the homecoming itself, the hardships of working the land are always present. The land is not kind, and...
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