After learning that Chris has suffered shell-shock on World War I’s Western Front, Jenny wonders, “Why had modern life brought forth these horrors that make the old tragedies seem no more than nursery shows?” Rebecca West explores this question in various ways throughout The Return of the Soldier, identifying manifold “horrors” that impact the natural world, the individual psyche, and society at large. While the immediate culprit for human suffering is World War I, which frames Chris’s troubled homecoming and inevitable return to battle, West doesn’t reduce Chris’s troubles to the war alone. By situating Chris’s sufferings alongside other traumatic circumstances in the early 20th century, West argues that modernity is fraught with perils that alienate people from the natural world, each other, and even themselves.
Aspects of modernity, like industrialism and war, alter the natural environment in ways that detract from its beauty and constrain people’s happiness. Jenny muses that the encroaching horrors of modern life are due to the fact 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,” with imported Mediterranean crocuses and Chinese larch trees altering the native English landscape. “And the sky also is different,” she goes on; “a searchlight turned all ways in the night like a sword brandished among the stars,” an inescapable reminder of the war’s hold on human lives. In other words, men’s ambition has introduced foreign elements (too many towns, unfamiliar plants, and artificial light) into the environment, all of which create distance between people and their natural environment.
Describing one of those newly built towns, Jenny says that “Wealdstone is not, in its way, a bad place; […] But all the streets are […] freely articulated with railway arches, and factories spoil the skyline with red angular chimneys, and in front of the shops stand little women” making “feeble, doubtful gestures as though they wanted to buy something and knew that if they did they would have to starve some other appetite. […] It was a town of people who could not do as they liked.” Though she does not draw an explicit connection between the effects of industrialization (railroads and factories) and people’s poverty, Jenny suggests that people’s lives are constrained by the looming presence of industrialism—another sign of “adventurous men” altering the outward world to their liking.
In addition to its impact on the natural world, modernity also takes a psychological toll on individual people, as exemplified by Chris’s amnesia. Though the war itself is clearly responsible for Chris’s suffering (a shell concussion causes his amnesia), West suggests that the war is a symptom of the all-encompassing social pressures of modern existence, which are thus the deeper cause of Chris’s unhappiness and alienation from his own life.
When a succession of doctors visits Christ, their “most successful enterprise had been his futile hypnotism. He had submitted to it as a good-natured man submits to being blindfolded at a children’s party,” remembering Kitty and recovering a semblance of his middle-aged personality. “But as his mind came out of the control he exposed their lie that they were dealing with a mere breakdown of the normal process by pushing away this knowledge and turning to them the blank wall, all the blanker because it was unconscious, of his resolution not to know.” In other words, Chris’s amnesia isn’t just a disruption of normalcy, but, on some level, a willful resistance of a reality that’s too much for Chris to bear.
Dr. Anderson, who helps finally cure Chris, actually confirms the idea that Chris’s amnesia is an escape from an unhappy superficial life, explaining: “The mental life that can be controlled by effort isn’t the mental life that matters. […] 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.” It’s implied that Chris’s deeper desire is to put aside his marriage to Kitty and his unsatisfying efforts to maintain his wealth—trappings of modern life—in order to embrace happiness with Margaret, who represents a simpler life that’s closer to nature. While shell shock is the immediate cause, Chris’s bigger problem is living according to a modern script (running a business he doesn’t care about, marrying a wealthy girl, and fighting a pointless war) that alienates him from his true desires.
Dr. Anderson’s diagnosis of Chris is an expression of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, which was all the rage in the early 20th century when West wrote this novel. West’s point, though, is not to advocate for a particular psychological theory, any more than she directly opposes the war or mounts a considered critique of modern industrialism. Her point is that the various forces of modernity exert a crushing influence on individuals and society at large, and that these forces—attitudes about the natural and political worlds and what constitutes a happy life—must be critically examined, if people hope to live meaningful, connected lives in the future.
The Traumas of Modernity ThemeTracker
The Traumas of Modernity Quotes in The Return of the Soldier
“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.
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.
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.
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[.]