The Return of the Soldier

by

Rebecca West

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The Return of the Soldier: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After Margaret is driven home, Chris comes to Kitty and Jenny in the drawing room and says that Margaret has explained things to him, and everything is all right. Kitty responds sarcastically that she’s glad he has accepted such news on Margaret’s authority, and from her drooping demeanor, it’s clear that she recognizes the chasm that’s come between the two of them.
Margaret’s presence has brought Chris a measure of peace, but that’s no comfort to Kitty, who instinctively recognizes that an alliance with Margaret inevitably means a rejection of her.
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From then on, Chris spends his days sitting like “a blind man waiting for darkness to lift,” except for those hours he spends in Margaret’s company. Kitty, depressed, is like a “broken doll,” rarely getting out of bed. Jenny grieves too, spending her days taking what pleasure she can find in the house and grounds so that she doesn’t have to think.
Margaret illuminates the meaninglessness of Chris’s present by allowing him to indulge in the joy of his past. This devastates both Baldry women, dislodging them from their confident places within Chris’s world and showing them that their attempts at crafting superficial beauty in their lives are no match for the deeper, more genuine joy that Chris and Margaret share.
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A week after Chris’s reunion with Margaret, Kitty, still bedridden, declines a walk and reminds Jenny that Dr. Gilbert Anderson is coming that afternoon—their last hope. Everyone must see him, she adds, including “that woman.” So Jenny goes out alone into the lovely spring day, wishing for Chris’s and Margaret’s company. She suddenly envies the two, not their love for each other, but the beautiful sights they’re looking at together. She feels cut off from Chris, unable to connect with him because all her effort goes into maintaining a stoic exterior that doesn’t betray her grief. Margaret, by contrast, is now different—her eyes smile, and even her shabby clothes look somehow endearing. Jenny throws herself onto a pile of dead leaves in despair.
Jenny has moved from disdain for Margaret, to ambivalence, and here to acceptance—even to a fondness and desire for friendship. Yet she senses that Margaret understands Chris on a deeper level than she can, which grieves her. Margaret, meanwhile, is able to love and support Chris as she’s long dreamed of doing.
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Jenny says that while it might seem as if she and Kitty attributed too much importance to Chris’s delusions, Chris appears to be perfectly sane, even while walking the grounds with various doctors who have come to see him. She feels ashamed “that he had rejected us when he had attained to something saner than sanity.” It would have been easier, she thinks, if he had coldly spoken his rejection, but his polite blankness—seeing Jenny as a “disregarded playmate” and Kitty as a mere “decorative presence”—is worse. Yet his steadfast attention to the essentials of his life—namely his renewed love for Margaret—seems an “act of genius” to Jenny.
There is a disarming sense of reality to Chris’s amnesia. Despite being stuck in the past and therefore scarcely functional in the present, he seems to have found a deeper happiness than real life could ever give him. Because Jenny and Kitty have organized their lives around Chris, this is a deep blow to both. Yet Chris’s abandonment of himself to the past vindicates Jenny’s long-standing belief that he would someday achieve transcendent happiness.
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Jenny sees herself, Kitty, and Margaret as symbolizing different types of women. Kitty is the type of woman who “makes the body conqueror of the soul,” Jenny mediates between body and soul, making them run evenly “like a well-matched pair of carriage horses,” and Margaret “[champions] the soul against the body.” Jenny thinks that Chris sees a transfigured, eternal version of Margaret; she and Kitty, however, are only worth a glance, because “there is nothing more to us” beyond “our material seeming.”
Jenny’s description of herself might be a reference to the imagery in Plato’s Phaedrus, in which the soul is a winged chariot driven by two horses, representing noble and base desires—the soul’s job is to subdue the “base” horse for the sake of the soul’s beautification. In Chris’s eyes, Margaret represents the triumph of the soul—something Jenny and Kitty can’t attain, in part because of the restrictions of their wealth and social class.
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Jenny has little faith in the many doctors who’ve visited over the past week. One of them seems to have successfully hypnotized Chris, causing him to remember Kitty and regain his middle-aged personality, but as soon as the hypnosis ceased, Chris immediately reverted to his amnesia. Jenny goes in search of Chris in a faint hope that today’s doctor might offer something different. But she dreads coming upon him with Margaret and witnessing their intimacy.
Hypnosis was a fairly cutting-edge form of psychological treatment at this time, and it was understood to help a patient recover repressed memories. Still, West presents it as a failure, in contrast to the more advanced psychoanalytic theory that will be applied to Chris later.
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Though Jenny has been thinking discontentedly of Margaret’s ugliness, she is stunned by the beauty she sees when she comes upon them in the woods. They are sitting on a rug in a clearing, Chris has fallen into an innocent, childlike sleep, and Margaret is watching him. To Jenny, they are like an archetype of men and women: the man’s soul gathered protectively into the woman’s soul, allowing him to rest. Jenny knows that Chris has been sleeping poorly at Baldry Court, but she was unable to do anything to help him.
The scene in the woods represents the pinnacle of Margaret’s beauty; her inner beauty and union with nature have transformed her outer ugliness. More than that, the scene represents the height of the female role, as West presents it—a protective, sheltering role that enables in private what men must do in public. Jenny grieves that she can’t be the one to provide this.
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Watching them, Jenny realizes that Margaret has been generous to her and Kitty, too. By placing Chris into “this quiet magic circle,” Margaret has created a pattern in their lives that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. Jenny speculates that even Margaret’s “dinginess” is an aspect of this generosity. Perhaps in the same way that Chris was led to amnesia, Margaret was led to poverty, because it allowed the conditions that made Margaret’s soul so attractive to Chris.
Because Margaret has restored Chris’s peace, Jenny sees Margaret as restoring a kind of balance to their broken household as a whole. Her poverty and ugliness play an unconscious, supporting role in this work, rather than being at odds with it as Jenny had first believed.
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Margaret has also given Jenny the gift of peaceful sleep—she no longer dreams of No Man’s Land, because she knows that in Chris’s condition, he cannot be sent back to the Army. That very morning, in fact, Jenny had come upon Chris reading a history of the war, horrified by what had happened in Belgium. Because of Margaret’s kind presence, Chris’s body is protected from the war as well as his soul.
Ultimately, Margaret’s apparent healing of Chris means that Chris, securely stuck in the past, is safe from the war—she has rescued him both in body and soul, because he won’t be sent back to battle as long as he has amnesia.
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Though it feels intrusive—it’s clearly an ecstatic moment for both Margaret and Chris, who stirs awake but keeps clinging to Margaret’s hand—Jenny sits on the rug beside the two. She tells them about the doctor’s impending visit, and they follow her back to the house, talking quietly. A silence tells Jenny that the two have stopped to embrace.
Margaret and Chris’s quiet scene in the woods recalls their ecstatic, moonlit evening on the isolated island in their youth. This parallel foreshadows disaster; Margaret’s story of their breakup has already made it clear that such idealized peace can’t last.
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