While Rebecca West’s novella revolves around a soldier’s homecoming, the story is told from a woman’s perspective, and the story’s central figures are, arguably, all women. Though men bear difficult burdens in the public realm—whether going to war or struggling to provide for their households—women, like Jenny, Kitty, and Margaret, also bear heavy, albeit largely private, burdens of supporting their men’s happiness and even protecting them from harm to their souls and dignity. Throughout the story, in other words, men’s happiness, dignity, and life trajectories rest in the hands of women. By portraying her female characters’ power in this way, West argues that although women’s roles are most often reserved for the private sphere, their difficult, behind-the-scenes burdens are indispensable to men’s survival in the public sphere.
Women bear the burden of homemaking—a difficult and dignifying task that helps compensate for the unhappiness and failure in men’s lives. Jenny and Kitty bear the burden of making Baldry Court as happy as possible for Kitty’s husband Chris while he runs the family business and then goes to war. Jenny describes Baldry Court as follows: “Here we had nourished [Chris’s] surpassing amiability […] Here we had made happiness inevitable for him.” A little later, she describes this work as “the responsibility that gave us dignity, to compensate him for his lack of free adventure by arranging him a gracious life.” Jenny senses that Chris isn’t happy with either business or war, so she wants to create a home environment that will make up for his constrained, unchosen life.
Like her upper-class counterparts, Margaret, too, bears the burden of making her husband—the sickly, unsuccessful William Grey—as happy as possible. As Jenny overhears Margaret’s motherly tone telling Mr. Grey about the macaroni she’s left for his supper and praising the cabbages he’s grown, she “perceived from its sound that with characteristic gravity she had accepted it as her mission to keep loveliness and excitement alive in his life.” In other words, even though Margaret’s social status is very different, she has the same fundamental task as the Baldry Court women—compensating for the unhappiness in a man’s life by creating the happiest home environment possible.
Women don’t just look out for the day-to-day happiness of the men in their lives; they also bear the burden of protecting men’s souls and preserving their dignity. When Jenny sees Margaret watching over Chris while he naps in the woods, she sees a timeless male/female dynamic: “[T]he 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.” Just as women create a comforting home environment for men wearied by their public duties, Jenny also sees women’s souls as protective guardians for the tired souls of men, enabling them to regain strength for their public roles.
When Chris receives psychological treatment, it is up to the women whether and how Chris should ultimately be protected. Though they’re tempted to let Chris remain stuck in the past, both Jenny and Margaret realize that “the first concern of love [is] to safeguard the dignity of the beloved” rather than letting him remain satisfied with “the trivial toy of happiness.” In other words, they choose to protect Chris’s human dignity by recalling him to the present, instead of leaving him in a fantasy which would eventually infantilize him. Thus Chris’s future is in the women’s hands, not his own or the doctor’s, and they recognize that only they can ensure that he lives a dignified life.
Rebecca West was an ardent suffragette in her youth, and she considered herself to be a staunch feminist throughout her life. The Return of the Soldier provides a good summary of her interpretation of feminism. As Margaret’s “protection” of Chris’s soul suggests, West sees a real yet complementary difference between men’s and women’s roles which goes deeper than the social conditions surrounding them. She believed that downplaying this difference didn’t serve to elevate women, but instead tended to denigrate the crucial, seldom recognized role that women serve.
Women’s Roles ThemeTracker
Women’s Roles 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.
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.
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.
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.