Rebecca West’s novella The Return of the Soldier is set during one of the bloodiest phases of World War I, the spring of 1916. English soldier Chris Baldry is suffering from amnesia caused by “shell-shock” (psychological disturbance caused by the trauma of warfare) and he remembers nothing more recent than 15 years ago, in 1901. When he returns to his country estate to recover, he cannot even remember his wife, Kitty, and so he rekindles a romance with his girlfriend of 15 years ago, Margaret. Yet because Chris’s and Margaret’s romance is stuck in an idealized past, it renders Chris helpless to face the present. By portraying Chris’s longing to return to a seemingly “simpler” time as an eventual failure, West suggests that while nostalgia might provide a shelter from present horrors, it’s only a temporary solution because it fails to deal honestly with reality.
Traumatized by the war, Chris suffers a sense of dislocation from the present and he remains stuck in the past. Although Chris doesn’t remember Kitty or his life with her, he vividly recalls his romance with Margaret Allington 15 years ago. As he describes their visits to Jenny (his cousin and the story’s narrator), he reflects, “[P]resently Margaret in a white dress would come out of the porch […] Invariably, as she passed the walnut tree that overhung the path, she would pick a leaf and crush it and sniff the sweet scent; and as she came near the steps she would shade her eyes and peer across the water.” While the present remains inaccessible—even to the extent that Chris can’t recognize his wife—memories of Margaret are palpably real to Chris.
Upon meeting Margaret, Jenny sees a stark difference between the “Margaret of time” (the aged, work-worn Margaret of the present) and the “Margaret of eternity” whose timeless memory Chris cherishes. Jenny believes that the aged “Margaret of time” cannot please Chris: “I perceived clearly that that ecstatic woman […] was Margaret as she existed in eternity; but this was Margaret as she existed in time, as the fifteen years between […] had irreparably made her. Well, I had promised to bring her to him.” Jenny assumes that because Chris is stuck in the past, he will reject the “Margaret of time” just as he’s rejected Jenny and Kitty.
Though Jenny predicts that Chris will not be able to love the aged Margaret, this assumption proves to be incorrect. Because Chris has always romanticized Margaret, the aged Margaret of the present does not disrupt his timeless perception of her, allowing her to become a refuge from present horrors. Chris recalls the dreamlike night when he first declared his love to young Margaret: “That he loved her, in this twilight which obscured all the physical details which he adored, seemed to him a guarantee that theirs was a changeless love which would persist if she were old or maimed or disfigured.” In a sense, then, Chris has always looked at Margaret through a biased lens that “obscured” certain things about her. When Margaret was young, Chris didn’t always see her clearly, instead seeing her in a romantic light that didn’t allow for the possibility of real change. Therefore, now that Margaret has aged, he still sees that imagined Margaret—the one who lets Chris hide from realities of the world around him.
In the escape that their relationship offers, Margaret represents a reprieve from the horrors of modern war. Though a recovered Chris would be expected to return to the front, Jenny takes comfort in the fact that “They could not take [Chris] back to the Army as he was. Only that morning as I went through the library he had raised an appalled face from the pages of a history of the war. ‘Jenny, it can’t be true—that they did that—to Belgium?’ […] While [Margaret’s] spell endured they could not send him back into the hell of war.” Under Margaret’s timeless spell, in other words, Chris has ceased to be a functioning soldier—he no longer recognizes the world in which he is supposed to fight and he’s thus able to hide from its demands on him.
Though Margaret’s love offers a temporary shelter from the horrors of the war, this is ultimately shown to be a negative coping mechanism because it’s a mere escape from reality—and a degradation of Chris’s humanity. Even though Chris seems to be truly happy with Margaret, Jenny and Margaret conclude that leaving him in a nostalgic delusion would ultimately be cruel, since it effectively denies the truth: “We had been utterly negligent of his future, blasphemously careless of the divine essential of his soul. For if we left him in his magic circle there would come a time when his delusion turned to a senile idiocy; […] He […] would become a queer-shaped patch of eccentricity on the countryside […] He would not be quite a man.” In other words, if Chris is allowed to stay disconnected from reality, he will lose something essential to being human—that is, his ability interact with the present. His happiness will eventually degrade into something pathetic and pitiable, reducing his dignity and potential. The reality of the present moment, then, is more important than happiness.
Like Chris Baldry returning home, people in West’s England no longer feel at home in the world they inhabit. Chris’s amnesia can be read to symbolize society’s understandable yearning to return to a deceptively simpler, happier, pre-war past. Yet West warns that pining for an earlier age isn’t the answer; memories of an idealized past can’t be trusted, and they don’t help people face the changes all around them. Confronting those changes, in her view, is more important and more in keeping with human dignity than clinging to a deluded comfort.
Nostalgia, Escapism, and Reality ThemeTracker
Nostalgia, Escapism, and Reality Quotes in The Return of the Soldier
Here we had made happiness inevitable for him. I could shut my eyes and think of innumerable proofs of how well we had succeeded, for there never was so visibly contented a man: the way he lingered with us in the mornings while the car throbbed at the door, delighting just in whatever way the weather looked in the familiar frame of things, how our rooms burned with many-coloured brightness on the darkest winter day, how not the fieriest summertime could consume the cool wet leafy places of our garden; the way that in the midst of entertaining a great company he would smile secretly to us, as though he knew we would not cease in our task of refreshing him; and all that he did on the morning just a year ago, when he went to the front. . . .
“Oh, I’ll take you up!” Kitty rang out efficiently. She pulled at his coat sleeve, so they started level on the lowest step. But as they went up the sense of his separateness beat her back; she […] fell behind. When he reached the top she was standing half-way down the stairs, her hands clasped under her chin. But he did not see her. He was looking along the corridor and saying, “This house is different.” If the soul has to stay in his coffin till the lead is struck asunder, in its captivity it speaks with such a voice.
She braced herself with a gallant laugh. “How you’ve forgotten,” she cried, and ran up to him, rattling her keys and looking grave with housewifery, and I was left alone with the dusk and the familiar things.
That night […] we sat about the table with our faces veiled in shadow and seemed to listen in quiet contentment to the talk of our man who had come back to us. Yet all through the meal I was near to weeping because whenever he thought himself unobserved he looked at the things that were familiar to him. Dipping his head he would glance sideways at the old oak panelling; and nearer things he fingered as though sight were not intimate enough a contact […] It was his furtiveness that was heartrending; it was as though he were an outcast and we who loved him stout policemen. Was Baldry Court so sleek a place that the unhappy felt offenders there? Then we had all been living wickedly and he too.
As I played I wondered if things like this happened when Purcell wrote such music, empty of everything except laughter and simple greeds and satisfactions and at the worst the wail of unrequited love. Why had modem life brought forth these horrors that make the old tragedies seem no more than nursery shows? Perhaps it is that adventurous men have too greatly changed the outward world which is life’s engenderment. There are towns now, and even the trees and flowers are not as they were; […] And the sky also is different. Behind Chris’ head, as he halted at the open window, a searchlight turned all ways in the night like a sword brandished among the stars.
Well, one sounded the bell that hung on a post, and presently Margaret in a white dress would come out of the porch and would walk to the stone steps down to the river. Invariably, as she passed the walnut tree that overhung the path, she would pick a leaf and crush it and sniff the sweet scent; and as she came near the steps she would shade her eyes and peer across the water. “She is a little near-sighted; you can’t imagine how sweet it makes her look.” (I did not say that I had seen her, for indeed this Margaret I had never seen.)
She was then just a girl in white who lifted a white face or drooped a dull gold head. And as that she was nearer to him than at any other time. That he loved her, in this twilight which obscured all the physical details which he adored, seemed to him a guarantee that theirs was a changeless love which would persist if she were old or maimed or disfigured. He […] watched the white figure take the punt over the black waters, mount the grey steps and assume their greyness, become a green shade in the green darkness of the foliage-darkened lawn, and he exulted in that guarantee.
When she came back into the parlour again she was wearing that yellowish raincoat, that hat whose hearse plumes nodded over its sticky straw, that grey alpaca skirt. I first defensively clutched my hands. It would have been such agony to the finger tips to touch any part of her apparel. And then I thought of Chris, to whom a second before I had hoped to bring a serene comforter. I perceived clearly that that ecstatic woman lifting her eyes and her hands to the benediction of love was Margaret as she existed in eternity; but this was Margaret as she existed in time, as the fifteen years between Monkey Island and this damp day in Ladysmith Road had irreparably made her. Well, I had promised to bring her to him.
Then, one April afternoon, Chris landed at the island, and by the first clean quick movement of tying up his boat made her his slave. I could imagine that it would be so. He was so wonderful when he was young; he possessed in great measure the loveliness of young men, which is like the loveliness of the spry foal or the sapling, but in him it was vexed into a serious and moving beauty by the inhabiting soul. […] [F]rom his eyes, which though grey were somehow dark with speculation, one perceived that he was distracted by participation in some spiritual drama. To see him was to desire intimacy with him so that one might intervene between this body which was formed for happiness, and this soul which cherished so deep a faith in tragedy.
But instead she said, “It’s a big place. How poor Chris must have worked to keep it up.” […] No one had ever before pitied Chris for the magnificence of Baldry Court. It had been our pretence that by wearing costly clothes and organizing a costly life we had been the servants of his desire. But she revealed the truth that although he did indeed desire a magnificent house, it was a house not built with hands.
I covered my eyes and said aloud, “In a minute he will see her face, her hands.” But although it was a long time before I looked again they were still clinging breast to breast. It was as though her embrace fed him, he looked so strong as he broke away. They stood with clasped hands, looking at one another (they looked straight, they looked delightedly!), and then as if resuming a conversation tiresomely interrupted by some social obligation, drew together again and passed under the tossing branches of the cedar to the wood beyond. I reflected, while Kitty wept, how entirely right Chris had been in his assertion that to lovers innumerable things do not matter.
You may think we were attaching an altogether fictitious importance to what was merely the delusion of a madman. But every minute of the day, particularly at those trying times when he strolled about the house and grounds with the doctors, smiling courteously, but without joy […] it became plain that if madness means liability to wild error about the world, Chris was not mad. It was our peculiar shame that he had rejected us when he had attained to something saner than sanity. His very loss of memory was a triumph over the limitations of language which prevent the mass of men from making explicit statements about their spiritual relationships.
I felt, indeed, a cold intellectual pride in his refusal to remember his prosperous maturity and his determined dwelling in the time of his first love, for it showed him so much saner than the rest of us, who take life as it comes, loaded with the inessential and the irritating. I was even willing to admit that this choice of what was to him reality out of all the appearances so copiously presented by the world, this adroit recovery of the dropped pearl of beauty, was the act of genius I had always expected from him. But that did not make less agonizing this exclusion from his life.
I have often seen people grouped like that on the common outside our gates, on Bank Holidays. […] So it was not until now, when it happened to my friends, […] that I knew that it was the most significant as it was the loveliest attitude in the world. It means that the woman has gathered the soul of the man into her soul and is keeping it warm in love and peace so that his body can rest quiet for a little time. That is a great thing for a woman to do. I know there are things at least as great for those women whose independent spirits can ride fearlessly and with interest outside the home park of their personal relationships, but independence is not the occupation of most of us. What we desire is greatness such as this which had given sleep to the beloved.
Perhaps even her dinginess was part of her generosity […] I could believe of Margaret that her determined dwelling in places where there was not enough of anything, her continued exposure of herself to the grime of squalid living, was unconsciously deliberate. The deep internal thing that had guided Chris to forgetfulness had guided her to poverty so that when the time came for her meeting with her lover there should be not one intimation of the beauty of suave flesh to distract him from the message of her soul.
Not only did [Margaret’s agony] make my body hurt with sympathy, it shook the ground beneath my feet. For that her serenity, which a moment before had seemed as steady as the earth and as all-enveloping as the sky, should be so utterly dispelled made me aware that I had of late been underestimating the cruelty of the order of things. Lovers are frustrated; children are not begotten that should have had the loveliest life, the pale usurpers of their birth die young. Such a world will not suffer magic circles to endure.
“Effort!” He jerked his round head about. “The mental life that can be controlled by effort isn’t the mental life that matters. You’ve been stuffed up when you were young with talk about a thing called self-control— a sort of barmaid of the soul that says, ‘Time’s up, gentlemen,’ and ‘Here, you’ve had enough.’ There’s no such thing. There’s a deep self in one, the essential self, that has its wishes. And if those wishes are suppressed by the superficial self […] it takes its revenge.
Now, why did Kitty, who was the falsest thing on earth, who was in tune with every kind of falsity, by merely suffering somehow remind us of reality? Why did her tears reveal to me what I had learned long ago, but had forgotten in my frenzied love, that there is a draught that we must drink or not be fully human? I knew that one must know the truth. I knew quite well that when one is adult one must raise to one’s lips the wine of the truth, heedless that it is not sweet like milk but draws the mouth with its strength, and celebrate communion with reality, or else walk for ever queer and small like a dwarf.
He walked not loose-limbed like a boy, as he had done that very afternoon, but with the soldier’s hard tread upon the heel. It recalled to me that, bad as we were, we were yet not the worst circumstance of his return. When we had lifted the yoke of our embraces from his shoulders he would go back to that flooded trench in Flanders under that sky more full of flying death than clouds, to that No Man’s Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead[.]