Critical Evaluation

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The Return is among the earliest of Walter de la Mare’s “ghost stories,” and it contains many of the features that were to become intrinsic to his work in that vein—not least, of course, the ambiguity that requires the addition of quotation marks to the description. Although The Return uses an author-omniscient viewpoint rather than employing a possibly unreliable narrator (as many of de la Mare’s later tales of this genre do), the question of what has happened to Arthur Lawford remains stubbornly unresolved and defiantly unresolvable.

The ending of the story is particularly revealing in this respect. Countless tales of surreal experience written in the previous century had been resolved by final awakenings, but de la Mare’s story ends with both the protagonist and his observer falling asleep. Climactic awakenings implicitly condemn not only the particular supernatural intrusions of individual stories to the world of dreams but also all supernatural intrusion into people’s everyday lives. De la Mare’s reversal of the formula is no mere refusal of a cliché; it amounts to a claim that people’s conscious lives are perpetually and inescapably shadowed by the supernatural—metaphorically, if not literally. Sleep can offer no release from this shadowing; at the beginning of the story, it is Lawford’s lapse into sleep that facilitates the change that overtakes him. The text tells us nothing about the condition he will be in when—or if—he awakes from the slumber that overtakes him as he tries to write to his absent wife to explain that he has decided to “blunder on” within their unsatisfactory relationship.

It is difficult to say with certainty what actually happens in the course of the plot of The Return. Perhaps the soul of Nicholas Sabathier really does emerge from the suicide’s grave to bid for possession of Lawford’s body, only to fail on the anniversary of its previous retreat into oblivion. In that case, Lawford’s spiritual battles really are the elements of a war of self-preservation. The main support for this thesis, however, is provided by the Herberts, whose own real existence seems to be a matter of some doubt; nor is the Herberts’ support for a frankly supernatural explanation free of its own intrinsic ambiguities. Whether or not the Herberts inhabit the same world as Lawford’s wife and her determinedly mundane friends, they are certainly not of that world. They represent a whole new world of possibilities into which Lawford might escape if only he has the will to do so, but it is a world that has problematic aspects of its own.

The alternative interpretation of Lawford’s experience is that contemplation of the wrack and ruin of his life has combined with the symbol of Sabathier’s gravestone to release something that has always been locked up within him: the man he might have been. Support for this view is provided by the fact that his convalescence gives him the sense that “behind all these past years, hidden as it were from his daily life, lay something not quite reckoned with.” He reflects, morosely, that people all keep their crazy sides to themselves; this licenses the theory that what happens to him might be a brief liberation of his “crazy side,” forcing a long-overdue reckoning that he is, in the end, incompetent to evaluate or follow through on.

If this is so, the story becomes a bleak meditation on the subject of impotence. Unlike Dr. Jekyll, who finds his other self so monstrous in appetite, inclination, and strength as to be uncontrollable once unleashed, poor Lawford surrenders his commitment to the “lawful” only to find his hidden self...

(This entire section contains 1052 words.)

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beset by uncertainties and confusions of its own. In the end, his metamorphosis is so tentative that there seems no prospect of his reaping the perverse rewards of reckless self-indulgence.

In The Return, Herbert calls attention to the significance of Sabathier’s name, linking it to the hypothetical gatherings that witch-hunters called “sabbats” but suggesting that it might better be construed as a verb meaning “to bemuse or estrange with otherness.” This is an appropriate description of what Lawford’s possessor has done to him, and Lawford adopts it, speaking lightly to Grisel of the time “before I was Sabathiered.”

In Lawford’s conversations with Grisel, the notion of returning is incessantly invoked, but in several different ways. One return is that of “Nicholas Sabathier,” whether that is an actual spirit from the historical past or merely a potential self that Arthur Lawford has put away and stifled. The more important return is that which Lawford decides to make in spite of the temptations that Grisel lays before him: the return that takes him back to his own house to overhear what he is, and will remain, in the estimation of the others. Herbert cannot understand why Lawford makes this choice, but Grisel can; she knows that love alone is not enough to sustain a relationship and that the demands of an unsatisfactory wife are always likely to prevail if there is a child to be considered.

When he wrote The Return, Walter de la Mare’s life had recently undergone a considerable change. For nearly twenty years he had worked as a clerk for an oil company, but, at the age of thirty-six, he had been granted a Civil List pension that allowed him to retire to the country and devote himself entirely to writing. It is not unnatural, in such circumstances, that a man might find abundant time to contemplate what he had been, what he had become, and what he might henceforth make of himself; nor is it surprising that he might conclude that whatever he might once have made of himself, he was by now irrevocably confirmed in his own identity. However pusillanimous the last paragraph of the novel may seem, when Bethany’s response to the imagined “roar of Time’s Winged Chariot hurrying near” is simply to go to sleep, it is certainly realistic. If the ambiguity of his subsequent work is any guide, de la Mare never quite made up his mind as to whether that kind of realism ought to be seen as an appalling kind of cowardice or as the quiet but triumphant heroism of common sense.