Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 810
The Return of the Soldier, Rebecca West’s first novel, concerns a tension-filled love triangle formed by Chris Baldry, the young, wealthy soldier, whose mind has been affected by shellburst in the French trenches during World War I; his wife, Kitty, whom he cannot recall ever having had as either wife or lover; and Margaret Grey, who loved Chris in his youth and prior to his marriage to Kitty.
This short novel chronicles the reactions of Kitty, Margaret, and the narrator, Jenny, to Chris’s return from war and his reaction to them. From the outset, the book’s atmosphere is one of foreboding, of an uneasy calm before the storm. Baldry Court, Chris’s stately house, so aloof from the common realm, is a mirror of Kitty, a woman of delicacy and refinement removed from the world and the war that had rocked it. The reader gradually learns that Margaret Grey, who inhabits a squalid redbrick row house, has received a letter from Chris in France instructing her to meet him on his return.
Kitty, on the other hand, receives no such message about her husband’s imminent return, hearing about it secondhand from Chris’s cousin and her friend, Jenny, the novel’s narrator. Not receiving a letter, combined with Kitty’s discovery that Chris has experienced a partial memory loss, causes her great psychological stress and pain. West first makes it appear inconceivable that Chris should have forgotten about his lovely, clever wife, recalling instead the time he spent with Margaret, a woman now faded and wrinkled by the passing years.
Margaret, an uncomplicated person, has lived her simple, quiet, almost saintly existence as the wife of an older, failed man. Yet despite her husband’s failure in life and the shabby existence his meager income allowed, Margaret has cheerfully, resolutely stayed with him and has given him comfort when it was she who most needed comforting. In spite of her lowly social status and her wrinkled features, Margaret possesses an inner illumination emanating from a love and concern for those with whom she comes in contact. Her inner beauty diminishes Kitty’s outward beauty, making it appear brittle and lifeless. Her love for Chris is a powerful mixture of emotional and spiritual feelings with a strong sexual undergirding.
Kitty, hearing of the letter sent to Margaret, must know more about her. Thus, it is narrator Jenny’s duty to learn all she can about this rival from Chris’s past. As more details about Chris’s and Margaret’s relationship surface, it is increasingly obvious that Chris’s happiest days were spent on Monkey Island and that any memories of his life with Kitty have been lost for an apparent reason: that he wished to void them and recall happier days. It would seem that those years spent with Kitty were so unimportant as to be negligible, and if they are lost, then perhaps it is for a good reason.
Yet Kitty loves her husband, and her memories of their life together are essentially happy and worth remembering. She cannot comprehend how the events she cherishes in her memory can appear to him never to have occurred, nor can she understand how she could have been left so devastatingly alone. Margaret Grey, to be sure, is an ultimate mystery to Kitty, who wonders how one so pedestrian and even drab could be so important in Chris’s eyes.
The first climax of the novel occurs when Margaret meets the returned soldier. Their love for each other has not, as Kitty and even Jenny hoped, dimmed at this reunion. Rather, it is an intensified love, each one finding in the other the acceptance and love not afforded them by other people in their lives. It is a bitter lesson for Kitty, who learns that her hopes for a new life together with her returned soldier will never be realized and that Chris will forever be a stranger to her, no matter how he otherwise might attempt to present himself to her.
The second climax comes when Margaret, out of love for Chris, tries to jar him out of his amnesia by telling him about the child he and Kitty once had who died from an illness years before. By telling Chris about his lost boy, Margaret succeeds in bringing him back to the reality of his marriage to Kitty. The memory of his son’s life and tragic end allows him to be himself. Margaret, by informing him about the boy, reveals a saintly nature unselfish in the extreme, for by bringing him back to Kitty, she loses the one resplendent love she has ever known. The poignant last scene portrays Chris after he has been told about the child’s death, foregoing his happy, casual, youthful walk for the burdened, stiff walk of a middle-aged soldier.