The Return of the Soldier

by

Rebecca West

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The Return of the Soldier: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next day, it’s Jenny’s job to fetch Margaret from Wealdstone. Before she leaves, she sees Chris rowing a skiff around the pond. He feels uncomfortable being around Kitty and all the evidence of her work on the estate. Jenny finds it “dreadful” seeing a middle-aged man playing like a boy in this way. She warns Chris that Margaret is aged and no longer beautiful; she thinks he won’t love her. Chris says it won’t matter.
Chris is literally escaping from Kitty and the house by playing a boyish game. The contrast between Chris’s age and his behavior is unsettling, and the sight will later help Jenny decide how best to help Chris. For now, she tries to prepare him for the shock of reality versus nostalgia.
Themes
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Wealdstone isn’t a bad town, but it’s covered with railway lines and factories, and it’s populated by lower-class women who can’t afford everything they would like to buy. Margaret’s austere little house seems to blend into the ungroomed field beyond. Margaret herself “belongs” to this place; when she answers the door, her hair is askew, she’s covered with flour, and she’s sweating. Jenny tells Margaret that Chris is home.
Wealdstone’s industrialized condition is a count against it in Jenny’s mind, which is consistent with her view of the failings of modernity. She also connects its industrialism with the deprived state of its residents. Margaret’s home matches Wealdstone, in stark contrast to everything about Baldry Court.
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Margaret, apologetically telling Jenny that her “girl” is off today, seats her in the parlour. Jenny is disgusted by the parlor, which contains a sagging sofa, nostalgic pictures, and Mr. Grey’s carpet slippers. Outside, Mr. Grey himself is digging ineptly in the garden and frequently sneezing.
The fact that Margaret can afford a servant (the “girl” who has the day off) shows that she isn’t completely destitute. Nonetheless, Jenny’s disgusted attitude toward her and her modest home reveals the strict social hierarchy in English society at the time.
Themes
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Women’s Roles Theme Icon
After Jenny describes the situation with Chris, Margaret weeps, explaining that when something resurfaces after 15 years, and one is very tired, it’s difficult. She knows it’s wrong, but she wants so much to see Chris. Jenny encourages Margaret to visit, assuring her that even Kitty expects her to come. Margaret exclaims that Kitty must have “a lovely nature,” but Jenny cannot even think about Kitty right now. She seems like “a faceless figure with flounces,” and only Chris and Margaret seem real.
Margaret has evidently harbored feelings for Chris over the years, even though she’s dutifully sought to suppress them. In contrast to Margaret’s genuine emotion, Kitty seems unreal and artificial to Jenny, demonstrating how Jenny’s understanding of reality and beauty is shifting as she gets to know Margaret.
Themes
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Mr. Grey comes in from the garden, and Jenny understands from Margaret’s “girlish” tone that she has made it her life’s mission to “keep loveliness and excitement alive in his life.” After she’s given Mr. Grey instructions about his supper, Margaret reappears in the garish raincoat and hat that Jenny had despised the first time she saw them. She cringes at the thought of Chris seeing the present-day Margaret compared to the timeless Margaret he imagines, but she follows through on her promise to bring Margaret to Baldry Court.
Margaret has something in common with Jenny: she devotes herself to the comfort of the man in her life, much as Jenny has done for Chris. With this comparison, West suggests that such a “mission” is a universal burden for women, even though it can also provide them with meaning. Nevertheless, Jenny still feels embarrassed to present this awkward, lower-class woman to Chris, who seems to belong to a totally different world.
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As they leave, Margaret comments that Mariposa is “a horrid little house,” and Jenny is forced to agree. Yet, “with the smile of the inveterate romanticist,” Margaret points out that “Mariposa” means “butterfly.” To distract Margaret from her shyness around the chauffeur (“the poor are always afraid of menservants”), Jenny asks what came between her and Chris, since Chris didn’t remember their parting. Embarrassed, Margaret tells the story. She describes Monkey Island in the same magical way that Chris did, even mentioning the hawthorn tree by the ferryside.
Even in the midst of less than ideal circumstances, Margaret persists in finding beautiful things to enjoy, a trait that Jenny will come to admire. Still, Jenny at this point continues making class-based assumptions about Margaret. Margaret’s description of Monkey Island substantiates Chris’s account of the same—it had the same timeless quality for both of them, and natural beauty predominates in both their memories.
Themes
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Social Class, Beauty, and Humanity Theme Icon
Mr. Allington and Margaret had settled on Monkey Island after Mrs. Allington’s death, when Margaret was 14. Life had been happy for her there. When Chris appeared one day for a visit, looking spry yet thoughtful and serious, Margaret was instantly devoted to him. But Jenny stops Margaret from talking about their romance, fearful of feeling jealous. Margaret describes their quarrel, which happened just a week after they’d declared their love. She was in a dinghy with a neighboring innkeeper’s nephew, laughing at the boy’s clumsy antics, when Chris suddenly rang the ferry bell, frowning and distant. When Margaret tried to explain, she realized that Chris couldn’t completely trust a girl of her class. That was the end of it.
Margaret readily sees people’s inward potential; that’s what drew her to Chris for the first time. Jenny’s discomfort with the conversation shows that her own devotion to Chris has something approaching a romantic quality, even though she never makes this explicit. Margaret and Chris’s romance ended over a fairly typical young lovers’ quarrel, yet there’s a class element as well—Margaret implies that Chris, despite his love for her and his attraction to her wild beauty, assumed that a girl of her station would be less inclined to remain faithful. This piece of information makes it clear that, even when Chris had the chance to reject class-based expectations and pursue deeper joy, he couldn’t quite bring himself to do so.
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Jenny makes the connection—in the spring 15 years ago, old Mr. Baldry’s business had begun to fail. Chris had been summoned home to be told that he had to take it over. When Jenny passed him on the drive, she’d noticed the “drowned look” on his face, as well as his total obliviousness to her presence, which made her realize that he’d never really noticed her. From that time forward, he’d been busy with the mines in Mexico, his youth “dulled by care.”
Jenny realizes that Chris’s romance coincided with a crisis in his life—the demand that he take over the Baldry business, a role he never wanted. Class expectations intruded on his magical romance and redirected the course of his life. Jenny implies that this crisis might be connected to Chris’s classist assumptions about Margaret, as he wrestled with the unwanted demands of upper-class responsibility.
Themes
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Jenny mentions something of this to Margaret, who brushes indifferently past it, going on with her story. Three weeks after her quarrel with Chris, Mr. Allington died. She longed for Chris to come, but he never did. Depressed, she transferred the inn’s lease to someone else and attempted to become a mother’s helper, which went poorly for her. Two years later, she began a courtship with Mr. Grey, whom she eventually married. Mr. Grey is an unsuccessful man: he was out of work for a time, and his health is poor. Margaret is most contented while tending to him, and when she has no outlet for that protective instinct, she gets depressed.
For Jenny, Chris’s change of role constituted a crisis in her own life, but for Margaret, it’s relatively unimportant; this suggests that the demands of social status aren’t as meaningful to someone of her class and character. However, Margaret, like Chris, settled into a marriage thought to be better suited to her class. She isn’t in love with Mr. Grey, but she finds meaning in protecting and caring for him, much as Jenny does in caring for Chris.
Themes
One day, Margaret was seized with a desire to visit Monkey Island once more. The new proprietor gave Margaret 12 letters that had been left for her at the inn and never forwarded. For a long time, Margaret refrained from reading them, thinking it against her wifely duty. But after she got Chris’s telegram, she finally opened the letters. She now weeps at the memory, saying nothing of their contents.
Margaret doesn’t reveal the dates or contents of Chris’s letters; it’s simply clear that Chris’s feelings for Margaret didn’t disappear after their quarrel. Margaret’s sense of duty to her wifely role wars with her deeper emotions, similar to Chris’s inner conflict; his amnesia has let these emotions come to the fore, but presumably they were always there.
Themes
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Women’s Roles Theme Icon
As they arrive at Baldry Court, Margaret looks out at the strip of turf along the drive, which is landscaped and covered with flowers. Jenny observes that this border has no aesthetic justification; in fact, the common land along the road, with its wildflowers and rough grasses, looks much prettier. But within the gates, there must be only “controlled beauty.” Margaret’s aged “dinginess” contrasts with such beauty. Jenny expects Margaret to notice this and to feel self-conscious.
Though the landscaped flowery border is more beautiful from an upper-class perspective, Jenny begins to see it with new eyes after having talked with Margaret. The border is beautiful, but it has no deeper meaning. Uncultivated beauty, by contrast, has a special appeal of its own.
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Margaret, however, merely pities Chris for having to work so hard to keep up such a place. Jenny is privately shocked; no one has ever pitied Chris in this way. She and Kitty have always made a pretense of creating the home of Chris’s dreams; but Margaret’s words, she realizes, reveal that Chris has always desired something deeper.
Margaret’s reaction to Baldry Court is another marker of class difference. While Baldry Court is Jenny’s pride and joy, to Margaret—who’s actually familiar with manual labor— it just looks like wearisome toil. Margaret’s words also suggest that both she and Chris are attuned to a different kind of beauty than the one Jenny and Kitty prioritize.
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While the women drink tea, Jenny contrasts Margaret’s appearance—especially her dull hat and air of suffering—with a decorative bowl on the table, which was chosen by Kitty. On the bowl is the image of a delicate nymph, forever occupied with nothing but “contemplation of beauty.” Beside it, Margaret’s appearance looks especially offensive. Jenny thinks the nymph on the bowl also symbolizes Chris’s idealization of women—passionless figures who only exist for others’ admiration. She cringes at the thought of the impending meeting between him and Margaret.
The nymph on the decorative bowl symbolizes Kitty’s beauty—leisurely and detached from everyday life. Next to that, Margaret looks ugly; their respective beauties can hardly be compared. Jenny also assumes that Chris is drawn to Kitty’s type of beauty, but his reunion with Margaret will soon reveal that Jenny’s assumption is incorrect.
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After Jenny sends Margaret outside to meet Chris, she finds she’s on the point of an anxious collapse—or perhaps, she admits to herself, it’s jealousy. She wanders up to the nursery, where Kitty is sitting by the window, staring out at the garden. It’s a bedraggled, windy March day, and Jenny sees that Margaret’s yellow raincoat stands out starkly against the gray.
Jenny senses that something monumental is about to happen between Chris and Margaret. The women’s location in the nursery suggests that it’s from this perspective—the site of a past family crisis (the baby’s death)—that the current crisis should be viewed.
Themes
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Jenny sees Chris running across the lawn, just as he’d run across No Man’s Land in her nightmares; and just like that dream, he collapses on his knees, only he does so in front of Margaret. Jenny covers her eyes, dreading Chris’s recognition of Margaret’s age and poverty. But when she looks again, the two are embracing; they gaze delightedly at one another and begin talking animatedly, as though resuming an interrupted conversation. Kitty weeps, and Jenny reflects that Chris was right; to lovers, many things don’t matter.
Jenny’s memory of her dream suggests that Margaret is the safety for which Chris has been running all this time—or is that a delusion, too? At this point, it’s unclear what exactly Chris is drawn to in Margaret and how much of it is real. Meanwhile, their joyful reunion finally convinces Kitty that Chris is lost to her.
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