Themes

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Last Updated on August 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459

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...

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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.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 373

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 nature takes her toll, in terms of worn-out bodies and shattered dreams; as Widow Gray makes clear, though, the generosity of the human spirit is able to prevail under even harsh conditions.

Garland was a critic of land speculation and banks. A follower of economist Henry George, he saw the ubiquitous mortgage as the primary reason for the poverty of farm life. At one point in this story, the narrator even contrasts the sacrificing patriotism of Private Smith, who left his farm, wife, and babies to fight for the North, with the selfish millionaires who sent their money to England for safekeeping. Private Smith is constantly aware of the insatiable mortgage, ever threatening to devour all that he has worked for, including the security of his family. The injustice of it all is palpable, and it is relieved only slightly by the strength of character of the victims themselves. There are glimpses of a depressing determinism that presages the naturalism of later writers such as Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser.

Despite the cultural and material poverty he describes, Garland affirmed the dignity and nobility of the human spirit. Conditions might be harsh, but tenderness and family affections still survive, as does the struggle of the father and the mother to make a better life for their offspring. Still, there is no retreat to sentimental optimism. One finishes the story convinced that the protagonist and his family are good, loving, and deserving. However, it is clear that they cannot overcome the drabness and harshness of their environment. Their joys, whether visiting Widow Gray or simply resting together outside by the well, are all the more poignant because they are so few.

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