The Return of the Soldier


Rebecca West

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The Return of the Soldier Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Rebecca West

Cicily Fairfield was born to a musically talented Scottish mother, Isabella, and a journalist, Charles, who had served as a stretcher-bearer during part of the American Civil War. Charles deserted the family when Cicily was a newborn. Isabella moved the family, including Cicily’s two older sisters, to Edinburgh, Scotland, where Cicily grew up in a bookish and intellectual home. As a young woman already advocating for feminist causes in various periodicals, she adopted the pseudonym Rebecca West, taken from the heroine of Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm. After West published a provocative review of one of H. G. Wells’s novels, Wells, intrigued, invited West over for lunch, which led to a 10-year love affair. Their relationship produced a son, Anthony West, with whom West had a troubled relationship. West wrote widely, including travel narratives (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon), literary criticism, novels (The Return of the Soldier was her fiction debut), and coverage of the Nuremberg Trials for The New Yorker. By middle age, West had accrued both fame and fortune for her writing, and during World War II, she sheltered Yugoslav war refugees on her southern England estate. Though she considered herself a member of the political left, West was also staunchly anti-Communist in her writings, a position that didn’t endear her to some erstwhile allies. West was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1959. She traveled widely and wrote prolifically well into old age.
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Historical Context of The Return of the Soldier

World War I began in the summer of 1914, sparked by the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and ended in November, 1918. On one side fought Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and on the other fought the Western allies of France, Britain, Russia, and (eventually) the United States. Two of the distinctive developments of World War I included the emergence of mechanized warfare (e.g., the use of machine guns, tanks, and airplanes) and the prevalence of trench warfare, in which soldiers spent months living in opposing muddy trenches, often at a near-stalemate as they fought over small sections of land up and down the warfront. Shell-shock like Chris Baldry’s caused high numbers of casualties during World War I due to the effects of relentless bombardments on soldiers in the trenches. The novella also includes an early portrayal of psychoanalytic theory—the attempt to understand the repression of desires due to societal pressures, and the symptoms such repression was understood to cause—as developed by the 20th century’s most famous psychological thinker, Sigmund Freud.

Other Books Related to The Return of the Soldier

Rebecca West’s best-known work is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), a nonfiction work about Yugoslavia’s history and culture. Willa Cather’s One of Ours (1922) is another World War I novel by a female author, this time told from the perspective of an American soldier. The Return of the Soldier has also been compared to Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922), which portrays a soldier through the perspectives of the women surrounding him. Pat Barker's novel Regeneration is similar to The Return of the Soldier in its focus on the trauma and shell shock suffered by British soldier's in World War I. Notable nonfiction accounts of World War I include Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel (a memoir of a German soldier) and Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (a memoir of a British volunteer nurse).
Key Facts about The Return of the Soldier
  • Full Title: The Return of the Soldier
  • When Written: 1916-1917
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: 1918
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Setting: England
  • Climax: Chris Baldry’s amnesia is cured.
  • Antagonist: Kitty Ellis Baldry
  • Point of View: First-person limited

Extra Credit for The Return of the Soldier

Groundbreaking Debut. Besides being West’s debut novel, The Return of the Soldier is considered to be the first World War I-themed novel written by a woman, and it is one of the earliest fictional portrayals of shell-shock as well.

Stage and Screen. There have been two dramatic adaptations of The Return of the Soldier: a 1928 play which ran in London’s West End, and a 1982 film starring Alan Bates, Glenda Jackson, Julie Christie, and Ann-Margret.