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The “return” of the title is ambiguous. It refers both to Arthur’s temporary removal from his familiar life through physical and spiritual changes and the return of a wandering spirit to its resting place. This story is a cautionary tale that explores the shadow side of human existence, in part through reflections on social propriety and the deadening influences of conformity on the spirit.

Arthur always had been a drab conformist, and his life was fairly meaningless to him. His passions were few and illnesses constant; he was self-centered and not attentive to his wife’s feelings or needs. Sheila is most troubled by her husband’s strange appearance and behavior because she believes that it represents a terrible secret somewhere in her husband’s past or within his soul. Bethany, the vicar, is sure that it represents a visit by a devil, and they are both far more concerned with how this scandalous event will reflect upon them than they are about how it affects Arthur.

Arthur becomes a stranger, the “other” so feared by people who, out of fear or lack of reflection and self-knowledge, must think and act alike. The dramatic change he endures when he is forced out of the herd of ordinary society requires Arthur to reflect on long-repressed memories of childhood, home, and family.

The spirit of Sabathier tries unsuccessfully to inhabit the earthly body of Arthur Lawford. As Herbert says, he “just left an impression in the wax” of Arthur, not taking him over completely. An outcast, the “other” even in death, where his grave is placed far away from the others in the cemetery, Sabathier is unable to rest in peace, perhaps because he had committed the Christian sin of taking his own life.

Through Herbert’s philosophical ramblings about Arthur’s predicament, Walter de la Mare describes the deadening influence of modern culture in the early twentieth century. Lively people had become watchers and puppets, and they were no longer “actors.” The troubled spirit of Nicholas Sabathier, a rambler in his time, chose the weakened body and dispirited heart of Arthur to express his desperation at the restrictions of society of his time; Arthur believes that this is the price he himself must pay for having been closed-minded, bigoted, and unimaginative.

The story’s main message is that not straying from the herd has an even greater price. Through the bizarre experience of possession by a restless ghost and his odd conversations with Herbert and Grisel (with whom he surely would not have associated in his previous day-to-day life), a door is opened to Arthur. He returns to himself through solitude and reflection as the ghost of Sabathier is returned to the grave. When his feet are “dangling over the grave,” Arthur comes to know himself for the first time.

Surely reflecting the dull constraints of the author’s real life as a civil servant in Britain in the late 1890’s, The Return is a parable of the importance of charting one’s own course in life. De la Mare drew great praise for his highly original, mysterious stories and poetry, garnering both the Companion of Honour in 1948 and the Order of Merit in 1953.

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Critical Evaluation