When they reach the house, they see Dr. Gilbert Anderson, and Jenny feels a chill of premonition. He has a surprisingly “unmedical” appearance, including a cheerful moustache and a spotted tie. He is playing with a tennis ball as they approach. Dr. Anderson takes in the three of them, identifies Margaret, and tells her they’ll talk later. He walks off with Chris. Inside the house, Kitty emerges in a nice dress, ready to meet a new man. Jenny wryly thinks that women like Kitty lose “their otherwise tremendous sense of class distinction” at the prospect of a new admirer.
Dr. Gilbert’s comical appearance contrasts with Jenny’s sense of foreboding; he doesn’t look like a serious physician, which, according to the pattern that the story has established so far, suggests that there’s more to him than meets the eye. Kitty, true to form, rouses herself from her grief when there’s a chance of being admired.
Jenny and Margaret go upstairs, and even in her anxiety, Margaret openly admires the beauty of Jenny’s things, praising her taste (“The charity, that changed my riches to a merit!”). As Margaret fixes her hair, she suddenly gives a cry—she has found the photograph of Oliver that sits on Jenny’s dressing-table. It was taken a week before Oliver died, five years ago. When Jenny explains this, Margaret reveals that her own son, Dick, died around the same time and that he, like Oliver, was two years old.
In keeping with her generous personality, Margaret instinctively notices beauty and thinks the best of others. By this point, Jenny understands that this is an act of “charity”; she knows that her “riches” aren’t really worth as much as Margaret’s kindness and inner beauty. Because Chris has no memory of his child, Margaret hasn’t heard of his existence until this point.
Jenny explains that Oliver had always been delicate, and that he finally faded away from a cold. Margaret explains that the same thing happened to Dick. “It’s as if,” she says, “they each had half a life.” She falls to her knees and embraces Oliver’s photograph. Watching this, Jenny reflects to herself that childless people have the greatest joy in children, because to them children are simply lovable, while to mothers, they can be sources of deep agony. The sight of Margaret’s pain disrupts Jenny’s sense of a benign “magic circle” enfolding Chris; the world is crueler than she’d realized.
Oliver and Dick’s lives paralleled each other, as if both boys were somehow weakened by their parents’ loveless unions. The eruption of this raw grief into the “magic circle” parallels the crisis that ended Chris and Margaret’s romance the first time, suggesting that the same thing is about to happen again.
The parlourmaid knocks with the message that the doctor wishes to see them. Margaret’s grief-stricken gestures as she sets the photograph aside give Jenny a foreboding feeling. They find Dr. Anderson in the drawing room, cheerfully discussing amnesia. He explains that Chris’s unconscious self is refusing to let him reconnect with his normal life, hence the loss of memory.
Dr. Anderson cites the Freudian psychoanalytic theory which was ascendant at this time. Chris’s amnesia, in other words, is his unconscious self’s attempt to avoid confronting reality.
Kitty suggests that if Chris would just make an effort, perhaps he’d be cured. Dr. Anderson reacts sharply to this. He explains that the “controlled” mental life isn’t the one that really matters. There’s an essential self that lies much deeper than self-control, and that self has strong desires. When those desires are suppressed, they eventually take revenge by manifesting in odd obsessions. Chris’s obsession, Dr. Anderson says, is that he can’t remember the last 15 years. What, then, is the suppressed desire?
Dr. Anderson explains psychoanalytic theory in greater detail. Basically, the “essential self” cannot be controlled by a simple act of will. The unconscious and its desires are much more powerful than what’s on the surface—what seems to be in charge. The key is confronting whatever Chris has been trying to escape.
Kitty argues that Chris lacks for nothing, but Dr. Anderson responds that there must be some discontentment in his life—people forget only those things they want to forget. He questions the women as to what it might be. Kitty has nothing to say, but Jenny admits she has always sensed something wrong in him. Then Margaret speaks up, saying that Chris has always been “very dependent.” She asks the doctor what the purpose would be in “curing” Chris—doing so can’t make Chris happy, only “ordinary.”
Kitty has a characteristically shallow view of Chris’s wants and needs, revolving around herself. The other women’s replies reflect their own relationships to Chris as well—Jenny’s is a partial, inarticulate suspicion, and Margaret’s is a pointed diagnosis of Chris’s weakness. Margaret also recognizes that Chris’s cure and his happiness will be incompatible.
The doctor seems relieved at Margaret’s words, admitting that he can only return people to a generally accepted “normal,” though it often doesn’t seem necessary to him. Margaret says that only a jarring memory would bring Chris back—like the memory of his boy, Oliver. The doctor is surprised—Kitty had not mentioned this. He says that Margaret must be the one to remind Chris.
Even the doctor acknowledges that while psychology aims to heal people by restoring them to what is conventionally called “normalcy,” this is mainstream version of what’s desireable is often incompatible with people’s actual happiness.
Jenny takes Margaret to the nursery to find some of Oliver’s belongings. Seeing Oliver’s things, Margaret can’t help beaming at the baby’s frocks and rocking horse, but she soon turns sorrowful, crying, “I want a child […] It’s all gone so wrong!” Trying to steady her, Jenny gives Margaret Oliver’s blue jersey and red ball, but Margaret quails at presenting them to Chris.
Margaret, who’s always been so emotionally steadfast, falters at the prospect of destroying Chris’s happiness. This is connected to her own deep sorrow over her childlessness and her inability to be with Chris.
Margaret says that she ought never to have come to Chris, or else they should just let him be. After living a hard life, she knows that happiness is the most important thing there is. She can’t bear that Chris should lose it—and then he’d have to go back to the war. Jenny relaxes, grateful that Chris will be able to know an enduring, youthful happiness.
The book has been driving toward the question of whether happiness or reality should be the ultimate priority in a person’s life. Here, it appears that the women will decide in favor of Chris’s happiness—essentially allowing him to remain a young man forever.
But then Kitty appears in the doorway, looking grief-stricken and clutching a little dog that she usually ignores. After looking in at them tearfully, she walks on. Somehow, her presence, despite her “falsity,” recalls them to reality. Jenny remembers that “there is a draught that we must drink or not be fully human.”
Kitty’s appearance jolts Jenny and Margaret out of their decision. Her embodiment of “falsity” reminds Jenny that she doesn’t want to see Chris reduced to the same state; in other words, she doesn’t want him to lead a fake life like Kitty’s. After all, then, Jenny seems to conclude that reality is more critical to one’s humanity than happiness is.
Jenny further realizes that if they truly love Chris, they must safeguard his human dignity. If he stayed in the “magic circle,” he would eventually become senile, doddering, and eccentric, “not quite a man.” She looks at Margaret and sees that the other woman has realized the same thing. Grieving, they embrace in this shared knowledge.
Notably, Chris’s fate rests in Jenny’s and Margaret’s hands—it’s up to the women, and their moral compass, what course the rest of his life will take. Their decision also suggests that nostalgia is an insufficient refuge that society must reject, no matter how hard it is to face modernity.
Sadly, Margaret takes Oliver’s jersey and ball and goes downstairs. Jenny collapses on an ottoman, her “spirit asleep in horror,” trying to take comfort in the thought of the parts of Chris’s personality that will remain intact after the shock. Kitty comes in and paces fretfully, asking Jenny to see what’s happening outside. Finally Jenny looks and sees Margaret and Chris on the twilit lawn. Margaret is in the shadows, cradling something in her arms. Chris faces the house, looking hopelessly up at it, with a “dreadful decent smile.”
Margaret’s retreat into the shadows suggests that she (and the deep joy and beauty she represents) will no longer occupy a prominent role in Chris’s life—she will go back into the recesses of life, a suppressed desire once again. Chris’s gaze at the house, meanwhile, shows that he is free of delusion and has dutifully assumed the burdens of his real life once again.
Chris no longer walks boyishly, as he had that afternoon, but with a soldier’s tread. Jenny realizes that the worst is yet to come—this cure means he will have to return to “that flooded trench in Flanders.” Kitty keeps begging to know how Chris looks, and at last Jenny tells her, “Every inch a soldier.” Kitty looks over her shoulder and whispers with satisfaction, “He’s cured!”
This is the true “return of the soldier”—now that Chris remembers his duty, he will inevitably be sent back to the front, Jenny’s nightmares will resume, and Chris may even die. Kitty alone takes joy in this return, since she is the only one who stands to gain happiness (however shallow) from Chris’s cure.