The Return of the Soldier
A war story set in a secluded cottage, a love story laced with profound psychological and moral ramifications: this is a precisely executed novella that haunts and hopes in equal measure.
Rebecca West / British / 1918 / 90 pages
It wasn’t until 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association (largely at the behest of veterans of the Vietnam War) finally included post-traumatic stress disorder in a revised version of the DSM. Although the disorder is now associated with a much broader range of causes than warfare alone, there has since time immemorial existed a particularly compelling correlation between the battlefield and psychological anxiety. Something that has always seemed disingenuous to me in the media discourse surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the idea that these well-understood psychological effects of war are perhaps more serious now, or at least more prevalent now, then they were with previous wars. What is more plausible is that they were simply lost in the shuffle. When legions of soldiers die on the battlefield from microbial germs rather than bullets, when massive geopolitical campaigns fundamentally restructure the contours of the nation-state, when atomic weapons decimate millions of citizens — surely it is here that the less explosive psychological dimension is dwarfed in comparison. By virtue of there being a dearth of atomic warfare in Iraq, an absence of million-man casualty lists in Afghanistan, we have now focused our interests on the subtler forms of damage.
But, of course, none of this is untrodden ground and we would all do well to read The Return of the Soldier in an effort to bring ourselves up to speed. Rebecca West has written a powerful and precise exploration of the aftermath of the battlefield and her insights into the medical treatment of the mind belie the novel’s 1918 publication date. In addition, she raises a number of complex questions about the nature of truth and the (at times unpleasant) responsibilities inherent in its pursuance. At just 90 pages in length, I can also wholeheartedly assert that the novella is worth its weight in paper.
West composed the story while residing in the English countryside during World War I and the action is set approximately during the war’s middle years. The novella opens on two women, Kitty and Jenny, who are biding their time as they wait for Christopher (Kitty’s husband and Jenny’s cousin) to someday return from the front lines. When an unfamiliar woman named Margaret knocks on their door one day bearing a letter from Chris, we get our first glimpse into the fundamental tensions that will drive the remainder of the narrative. It seems that Chris has suffered from “shell shock” (an early 1900s term for what today passes as PTSD) and has been temporarily hospitalized due to bought of amnesia in which he’s completely forgotten the events of the past 15 years. Odder still is the fact that Margaret is actually his long lost lover, a woman to whom he last spoke some 15 years prior. The letter suggests that he believes that he is once again 20 years old and in love with Margaret. He remembers nothing of his home and nothing of his wife.
Chris is discharged from the hospital and sent home where he is profoundly uncomfortable in the seemingly unfamiliar surroundings. In a magnanimous effort to pacify his anxieties, Jenny and Kitty allow Margaret to stay on at the house. Over the course of a few days, it becomes evident that she and Chris are soul mates who were separated by chance rather than personal agency. Kitty is wounded and Jenny is left to navigate the high wire act by herself: she wants her cousin to be happy, but, at the same time, she wants the house to return to normal. Her ideal outcome, however, implies something of a catch-22. Should Chris one day recognize his wife, then he is, in a sense, “cured” of his bought of shell shock and must therefore return to the war.
What good is the truth if it ruins us? What good is a responsible engagement with the world if it drains for us the world’s value altogether? According to West, the answer to these questions are difficult to accept, but straightforward nonetheless. “I was sensible of the bitter rapture that attends the discovery of any truth,” she writes at one point early on in the story. Indeed, West uses the first-person narrations of Jenny to fill the text with many such carefully penned aphorisms. Her prose is perhaps not quite as precise as that of, say, Marilynne Robinson, but she writes with both economy and grace. At several points in the novel, I was very much taken by her descriptive passages. West seems to have a penchant for lacing her descriptions with broader significances. When Jenny looks at Margaret and thinks “she was not so much a person as an implication of dreary poverty, like an open door in a mean house that lets out the smell of cooking cabbage,” we, as readers, begin to consider Jenny’s deeply aristocratic air. Without such a profound sense of class, we would have never been privy her description; the passage is not only lyrical, but substantively revealing.
A running joke with my friends (the extent of its hilarity is probably worth debating) is that I never gush over shorter novels. It’s oftentimes difficult for me to detect all the ingredients of literary greatness in a work that pulls up short and, to this end, I have an elephant’s graveyard of noteworthy novellas that I should probably be more charitable toward: books such as The Old Man and the Sea, The Metamorphosis, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Chess Story, half of Steinbeck’s entire output, etc. With The Return of the Soldier, however, it was a no-brainer. I found myself in awe at the amount of material West was able to seamlessly integrate in so short a span and the conclusion of the story packs the same punch of a novel five times its girth.
Rating: 9 / 10