The Return of the Soldier

by

Rebecca West

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The Return of the Soldier: Chapter 2  Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At breakfast the following morning, there is a letter postmarked from France, written by Frank Baldry, a clergyman cousin of Chris. He informs Jenny that Chris has suffered shell-shock and is in “a very strange state.” Chris had telegrammed Frank at Ollenshaws, a place where Frank worked nearly 15 years ago. Upon getting the forwarded telegram, Frank left for France immediately and was surprised not to see Kitty and Jenny on the boat. When Frank found Chris in a Red Cross hospital, Chris seemed not quite himself—he’d greeted Frank in an “oddly boisterous” manner. Chris had seemed eager to get home to Baldry Court.
With Frank’s letter, it is revealed that Mrs. Grey was telling the truth about Chris’s condition. Chris has contacted his cousin at an old address and appears to have reverted to mannerisms from a much younger phase of life, so it seems that Chris is hiding from the realities of the war by unconsciously repressing the more recent events of his life.
Themes
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Oddest of all, though, is that Chris boyishly informed Frank that he is in love with a girl named Margaret Allington, daughter of the innkeeper on Monkey Island. Shocked, Frank asked how long this had been going on, and Chris laughingly replied that it's been true ever since he visited his Uncle Ambrose after finishing his university degree. That was 15 years ago.
When Chris speaks of Margaret, Frank first assumes that Chris has been carrying on an extramarital affair all this time. Chris’s explanation is the first clue to the nature of his old connection with Margaret.
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Chris asked Frank if he wouldn’t mind sending Margaret some money, or fetching her himself, since Margaret hadn’t wired Chris any news of leaving for France. Alarmed, the clergyman told Chris that although he considers himself to be quite “broadminded,” there are limits, even during wartime! Chris just sneered at Frank’s old-fashioned attitude and declared his intention to marry Margaret. When Frank asked what Kitty thought of this plan, Chris demanded, “Who the devil is Kitty?”
Chris’s amnesia becomes clear to Frank—it’s not that he’s cheating on Kitty, but that, in his mind, Kitty isn’t in the picture at all. The fact that he summons his cousin Frank instead of his immediate family, however, suggests that even back then, Chris felt pressured to conform to class expectations and hesitated to reveal his intentions toward Margaret to his family.
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Frank replied that Chris married Kitty Ellis in February, 1906. When Chris learned that it is now 1916, he faints. An hour later, when Frank returned to the room, Chris was studying himself in a hand mirror, finally believing that he is in fact 36, not 21. He was frightened and wanted to see Margaret immediately. He also wept over the information that his father died 12 years ago. Later, when Frank described Kitty as a “beautiful little woman” with “a charming and cultivated soprano voice,” Chris ranted against Kitty (say that he hates “everybody […] who sings”) and spoke longingly of his desire for Margaret.
Chris’s study of himself in the hand mirror recalls Kitty’s doing the same at the beginning of the story—only for Kitty, self-regard is an escape from reality, while for Chris, it’s a painful reckoning with reality. Chris’s disdain for Kitty, whom at this point he knows only as a type and not as an individual, also shows that Chris resists the trappings of his class and that he might not really like the luxurious life at Baldry Court that Jenny and Kitty have so carefully crafted for him.
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The doctor advised Frank to take Chris home for the time being. In the letter, Frank urges Jenny to prepare Kitty for the coming shock. Kitty reads over Jenny’s shoulder and complains that Chris had always pretended to like her singing. Then she demands that Chris be brought home.
Kitty’s sole response to Frank’s letter, while amusing, shows her narcissism and failure to deal with the full reality of the situation. She only sees Chris in relation to her own needs.
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A week later, Chris is brought home. Until he arrives, a restless feeling of dread hangs over the house, and Kitty makes the maids cry. When at last the car pulls up to the house, the women hear Chris’s strong voice, and then he emerges from the gloom of the evening with a sleepy, contented smile. Seeing that part of his brown and gold hair has turned silver, Jenny cries out, and Chris turns to greet her. Jenny feels ashamed to be visibly 35, noticing that Chris appears unsettled by her appearance.
Instead of joy, Chris’s homecoming is an occasion for anxious dread and uncertainty, suggesting that the homecoming of soldiers is a more complex and painful matter than traditionally understood. Even though he has visibly changed himself, Chris still expects things to be as he’d left them, which is why he’s surprised to see how old his cousin Jenny is.
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When Kitty emerges from the shadows, white-faced and grimacing, it’s obvious that Chris has no memory of her. He refrains from inquiring, instinctively not wanting to hurt her, but Kitty volunteers, “I am your wife,” in a voice that’s restraining anger. Chris stoops as if to kiss her, but he cannot follow through; at this, Kitty haughtily retreats.
At once, Chris and Kitty’s reunion is marred by the trauma Chris has undergone—he’s unable to greet her as a husband is expected to. Kitty responds not with compassion, but with anger at the disruption to her world, indicating again that her beauty and tranquility are only superficial.
Themes
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When Chris goes to dress for dinner, he initially starts toward his old bedroom, but Jenny holds him back. Kitty rushes over to guide him in the right direction, but they struggle to climb the stairs at the same pace, and Chris moves ahead, musing, “This house is different.” Kitty laughingly tries to smooth over the moment, and Jenny is left below, reflecting that everything in the house feels touched by strangeness, even time itself.
Even Kitty’s attempts to help Chris navigate the remodeled house—her way of trying to exert control over the situation—fall flat. The husband and wife can’t even climb the stairs in step with one another, suggesting a deeper incompatibility in their marriage that’s only now rising to the surface.
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Related Quotes
Later, when Kitty reappears in the drawing-room, she has changed her outfit. She wears a white dress similar to her old wedding dress, her hair is in her bridal hairstyle, and on her left hand, she’s removed all but the wedding ring. When Chris enters the room, breathing hard from tripping down some unfamiliar steps, he’s greeted by the glowing vision of Kitty. Kitty gestures to her necklaces and says that Chris gave her all these, so it’s strange that he doesn’t remember her. Chris compliments her, but his gaze wanders, and it’s clear he’s thinking of somebody else.
Kitty makes a transparent attempt to shock Chris back to reality by dressing as his bride—an effort that’s as clumsy as Chris’s stumbling around the house. Ironically, though, Kitty is on the right track—her failed attempt to jog Chris’s memory with significant objects anticipates Margaret’s successful attempt at the end of the book. That this attempt doesn’t work highlights Kitty’s relative unimportance to Chris.
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Over dinner, Chris talks cheerfully of childhood memories, but Jenny feels grieved, because Chris keeps staring at and caressing familiar objects. Jenny sees that Baldry Court feels like a prison instead of a home to Chris. Even the butler is a different man than Chris expects, his favorite one having died seven years ago. Jenny knows that she, too, is a stranger to him, not the girl he remembers—“all the inhabitants of this new tract of time were his enemies.”
The homecoming dinner, meant to be a joyous reunion, is instead a mere pretense, since Chris clearly doesn’t feel at home whatsoever. Jenny is much more sensitive to Chris’s internal state than Kitty has been, realizing that the well-meaning household can’t help but seem antagonistic to Chris as he struggles to get his bearings. The way that Chris feels unable to settle into what should be his home subtly underscores West’s point that modernity makes many normal aspects of human life feel unfamiliar and harsh.
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Related Quotes
After dinner, Kitty scolds Jenny for playing Beethoven (“German music”) on the piano, so she switches to a cheerier piece by Purcell, imagining that it recalls a simpler time. She muses on the “horrors” of modern life, which she attributes to “adventurous men” who’ve altered the external world too much; beyond Chris, she sees a searchlight sweeping the sky.
Jenny chooses an English composer to placate Kitty’s superficially patriotic objection. Jenny also wonders nostalgically if past ages have included such sufferings as this one. She sees modernity’s problems as resulting from excessive ambition and willingness to meddle with the natural environment, which hints at Chris’s underlying issue. It’s not just that he’s dealing with shell-shock; it’s that he’s having to confront a broader reality in which he’s never really felt comfortable.
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Related Quotes
Chris speaks up, telling Kitty that he knows his behavior must seem insulting, but that he must see Margaret or else he’ll die. Kitty agrees. Jenny is amazed at Kitty’s unselfishness, then notices the ugly expression on Kitty’s face, as Kitty hisses “That dowd!” so that Chris won’t hear. Jenny tries to comfort her, reminding her that Chris is sick, but Kitty maintains that Chris is just “a man like other men” and must be pretending. This wounds Jenny, who has perceived Chris’s own pain all evening, and she shakes Kitty in anger. Chris interrupts them, imploring them to be kind to each other, and Kitty storms off to bed.
Chris’s plight has unsettled the household, setting each of them at odds with each other and showing the long-reaching effects of wartime trauma. Kitty continues to be in denial, believing that Chris’s behavior is simply a cover for his unfaithfulness, while Jenny is much more attuned to Chris’s palpable suffering.
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Chris and Jenny are left alone to talk, Chris seeming more relaxed in Kitty’s absence. Chris asks Jenny if all these changes—his age, Kitty, the house—are real. Jenny confirms it and asks Chris what does seem real to him. After a moment’s thought, Chris looks up with a bright, laughing expression and begins to tell her about Monkey Island. Jenny can no longer remember his exact phrases, but she will tell the story as she has long visualized it, saying: “I think it is the truth.”
Though Jenny has aged, Chris still trusts her as his old childhood companion and confides in her as he can’t confide in Kitty. For Chris, nostalgic, escapist memories of his youth seem real in a way that the tangible world isn’t. His memories are conveyed through Jenny, who tells what she recalls much later, adding more layers between reality and perception in the story.
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