The Return of the Soldier pointedly contrasts wealthy, beautiful Kitty (the wife of Chris, a World War I soldier) and impoverished, ugly Margaret (Chris’s girlfriend from 15 years ago) through the eyes of Jenny, who is Chris’s cousin and the narrator. At first, Margaret’s appearance and mannerisms are described in almost dehumanizing terms, and her lower-class home environment is distasteful compared to Kitty’s gracious, cultivated Baldry Court. These details lead the reader to expect that Chris, whose amnesia means he can only remember a younger Margaret, will reject Margaret when he sees her ugliness compared to Kitty’s beauty. Yet he finds Margaret to be a healing presence, and by the end of the novella, Jenny concedes that Margaret possesses a spiritual beauty that the shallow Kitty can never have. Through this reversal of expectations, West argues that the poor are more sensitive to beauty and true humanity than the rich, whose wealth insulates them from deeper beauty (and hence from pain and love).
At first, Margaret’s poverty causes others to associate her with a dehumanized ugliness. When Margaret first appears at Baldry Court, she’s an unwelcome intrusion. Her very appearance offends Kitty and Jenny: “The bones of her cheap stays clicked as she moved […] there was something about her of the wholesome endearing heaviness of the draught-ox or the big trusted dog. Yet she was bad enough. She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty[.]” Even Margaret’s better qualities are described in animalistic terms when they compare her to an ox or a dog. From Kitty and Jenny’s perspective, Margaret does not belong in the refined world of Baldry Court—rather, she belongs closer to nature and her presence in their home is therefore “repulsive.”
Although Jenny usually shows more sensitivity and compassion than Kitty does, she expresses “hatred” for Margaret’s poverty: “I pushed [her] purse away from me with my toe and hated her as the rich hate the poor, as insect things that will struggle out of the crannies which are their decent home, and introduce ugliness to the light of day.” Jenny identifies Margaret (and, presumably, other people like her) with “insect things,” implying that she’s lowly and repulsive. In Jenny’s mind, rich people shouldn’t even have to see Margaret’s “ugliness,” much less have it in their homes.
After Kitty shrilly dismisses Margaret as a fraud, Margaret tries to form a retort but she gives up, “simply because she realized that there were no harsh notes on her lyre and […] had fixed me with a certain wet, clear, patient gaze. It is the gift of animals and those of peasant stock. From the least regarded, from an old horse nosing over a gate […], it wrings the heart.” Margaret has a kind of gentle sincerity that wealthy people see as weak and inferior, yet it softens Jenny’s attitude into a sort of condescending sympathy.
Margaret’s and Kitty’s environments—of hardworking squalor and leisured wealth, respectively—reflect their characters, with Margaret’s emerging as the one more grounded in reality. When Jenny goes to fetch Margaret to visit Chris, she continues to find Margaret’s environment distasteful: “So in her parlour I sat […] And as I spoke of his longing I turned my eyes away from her, because she was sitting on a sofa, upholstered in velveteen of a sickish green, which was so low that her knees stuck up in front of her and she had to clasp them with her seamed floury hands; and I could see that the skin of her face was damp.” Jenny can’t reconcile Chris’s longing for Margaret with the ugliness of her lower-class surroundings—the unfashionable furniture, not to mention Margaret’s work-worn hands and sweaty face—that mark Margaret as someone who must do the physical labor of the household.
When Jenny and Margaret first arrive at Baldry Court, Jenny can’t help comparing Margaret unfavorably to these wealthy surroundings. Her description of the landscaping is a metaphorical commentary on Margaret’s and Kitty’s appearances: “There is no aesthetic reason for that border; the common outside looks lovelier where it fringes the road […] Its use is purely philosophic; it proclaims that here we estimate only controlled beauty, that the wild will not have its way within our gates, that it must be made delicate and decorated into felicity.” The “controlled,” artificial beauty within the gates reflects the leisure of Kitty’s life and the superficiality of her personality. At the same time, the wilder, lovelier growth beyond the gates reflects Margaret’s beauty, which Jenny now concedes is more grounded in reality, yet she still feels that it does not belong within the borders of Kitty’s carefully sculpted realm.
By the end of the story, Jenny has moved from disgust to ambivalence to admiration of Margaret, associating her poverty with spiritual beauty. Jenny attributes to Margaret’s poverty a certain nobility, even spirituality: “Perhaps even her dinginess was part of her generosity […] And so 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. […] [so that] there should be not one intimation of the beauty of suave flesh to distract [Chris] from the message of her soul.” In other words, Margaret’s beauty is the beauty of the soul. This is something that the externally beautiful Kitty (who Jenny implies has beautiful “suave flesh” in contrast with the “spiritual” Margaret) altogether lacks. It seems that Kitty’s wealth will not allow her to develop such beauty—in fact, it even stands in the way, since the luxuries it brings only “distract” from the kind of spiritual beauty that Margaret possesses.
West’s romanticized view of Margaret’s beauty expresses her belief—reflected in her later writings and political stances—that the poor and working-class are more grounded in reality than the wealthy can be. Yet the fact that Chris ultimately returns to the present-day “reality” of his marriage to Kitty, forcing him and Margaret to separate, suggests that West is pessimistic about society’s willingness to recognize the poor in this way. Overall, the novella’s exploration of beauty reflects the unease of a society in which longstanding class structures are beginning to shift.
Social Class, Beauty, and Humanity ThemeTracker
Social Class, Beauty, and Humanity Quotes in The Return of the Soldier
You probably know the beauty of that view; for when Chris rebuilt Baldry Court after his marriage, he handed it over to architects who had not so much the wild eye of the artist as the knowing wink of the manicurist, and between them they massaged the dear old place into matter for innumerable photographs in the illustrated papers.
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. . . .
Well, she was not so bad. Her body was long and round and shapely and with a noble squareness of the shoulders; her fair hair curled diffidently about a good brow; her grey eyes, though they were remote, as if anything worth looking at in her life had kept a long way off, were full of tenderness; and though she was slender there was something about her of the wholesome endearing heaviness of the draught-ox or the big trusted dog. Yet she was bad enough. She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.
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.
Wealdstone is not, in its way, a bad place; it lies in the lap of open country and at the end of every street rise the green hill of Harrow and the spires of Harrow School. But all the streets are long and red and freely articulated with railway arches, and factories spoil the skyline with red angular chimneys, and in front of the shops stand little women with backs ridged by cheap stays, who tapped their upper lips with their forefingers and made other feeble, doubtful gestures as though they wanted to buy something and knew that if they did they would have to starve some other appetite. When we asked them the way they turned to us faces sour with thrift. It was a town of people who could not do as they liked.
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.
As the car swung through the gates of Baldry Court she sat up and dried her eyes. She looked out at the strip of turf, so bright that one would think it wet, and lit here and there with snowdrops and scillas and crocuses, that runs between the drive and the tangle of silver birch and bramble and fern. There is no aesthetic reason for that border; the common outside looks lovelier where it fringes the road with dark gorse and rough amber grasses. Its use is purely philosophic; it proclaims that here we estimate only controlled beauty, that the wild will not have its way within our gates, that it must be made delicate and decorated into felicity. Surely she must see that this was no place for beauty that has been not mellowed but lacerated by time, that no one accustomed to live here could help wincing at such external dinginess as hers.
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.
[Jenny] constantly contrasted [Margaret’s] appearance with the new acquisition of Kitty’s decorative genius which stood so close behind her on the table […] This was a shallow black bowl in the centre of which crouched on hands and knees a white naked nymph, […] Beside the pure black of the bowl her rusty plumes looked horrible; beside that white nymph, eternally innocent of all but the contemplation of beauty, her opaque skin and her suffering were offensive; beside its air of being the coolly conceived and leisurely executed production of a hand and brain lifted by their rare quality to the service of the not absolutely necessary, her appearance of having but for the moment ceased to cope with a vexed and needy environment struck one as a cancerous blot on the fair world.
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.
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.
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.