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The return of the soldier

By dollydoyourhomework Mar 08, 2014 1501 Words
The Return of the Soldier
Rebecca West writes to expose the social issues of her time. There are many perspectives one could take in reading her novel The Return of the Soldier, each equally valuable. There is one fine thread throughout this novel that I find most relevant. West raises the question; how well do social norms serve people when confronted with cold reality? Particularly, the role that women were expected to play is worth paying attention to throughout West’s writing. This is risky business for a woman of the early 1900’s, but is a theme she comes backs to in much of her work. West was a lively soul with a real hunger for experience. She led an interesting life, and was not afraid to roar in the face of society. She confronted some of the most controversial issues of her time, and did so with serious ferocity. Butting heads with some of the greatest minds of her time, she stood out as a valuable critic. Her wealth of experience really comes through her writing, and gives her work merit. Of obvious influence is Marcel Proust with his reference to a writer’s ability to carry on with “simultaneity” in a natural way. In Hynes introduction he describes this ability by explaining the experience of the writer as ‘looking both in the cherry tree and into his own mind’. What the writer is projecting on to the page is a description of the external world while revealing relatively more about the internal experience. This experience is both subjective and objective at the same time. West has a wonderful talent for shedding light on larger social issues while drawing the reader’s focus to the inner life of her characters. By studying West’s style and influences we can better understand why she writes. (The Return Of The Soldier, 21) Before delving further into what the novel brings to light about women it is important to look into West’s close involvement in the feminist movement. In the earliest days of her writing career she worked for Freewoman and the Clarion, two feminist weekly publications, as a journalist. West was also active along side her sister, Lettie in street protests. This is a bold move for a woman of this time, and West clearly has no fear in expressing her opinion vividly and openly. Without understanding her background in this issue, the connection within the text may be missed. In her essay Hands That War: the Night Shift West explores women’s role in World War I and their changing identity. While touring a wartime factory, West explores this evolution. She describes surviving during wartime as the ‘art of living on one’s head’ after conversing with one of the factory workers. She continues, making the observation that these women ‘cannot be beaten’ at this art. Hearing a story about how four of these women, having only been employed four short months had produced more than four men with six years of training. (The Return Of The Soldier, 165) There is a sad irony in these women’s willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of the soldiers. All their effort and love went into the very objects killing their men. West made the observation that these were ‘not picked women, but just the common stuff of humanity rising to the occasion’. This paints a very different portrait to the way women were previously viewed. There is discovery in her voice. As if she is surprised to find this strength and willpower from common women. (The Return Of The Soldier, 165) Feminism is not the same beast it was in the early days of the women’s suffrage movement. There is a need to qualify what ‘feminism’ is now and what it was. A certain quality is missing from the current version. Maybe it’s the sense of urgency or need that’s gone. The relevancy to today’s issues is small in comparison. Certainly the rebelliousness and risk are no longer there.

A woman’s place was to arrange the pleasant experience of the men in her life. To be selfless, or motherly somehow translates to being denied the breadth of human experience and emotions. This theme stands out in the novel. To be unpleasant was the worst crime of all. West responds to Ellen Key’s idea that pacifism is a natural extension of feminism, which Key expands on in the essay Woman Worship: War, Peace and the Future. This idea that Key puts forth of how women should create themselves to be the ideal of femininity by sitting still and ‘(being) as female as they can’ ,as West puts it, clearly offends her. Instead of suggesting that women pursue intellectual exercise, or explore their human qualities, Key is suggesting that simply being female is enough to change the world. (The Return of the Soldier, 160) West is dedicated to truth seeking and uses her writing as the digging tool. Although Hynes states, truth seeking is not exactly the goal for West, but ‘truth is what frames’ the design of her work. Keeping these realizations in mind we can now look at The Return Of The Soldier with deeper insight. (The Return of the Soldier, 21)

The Novel
What stands out to me in this novel is the heavy contrast of the treatment of Chris to the women around him. Chris, at first, seems to be the focus of the novel. He turns into the needle that weaves the connection of these three women; Jenny, Kitty, and Margaret. Chris is the object of affection, but also the tool revealing the thoughts, emotions, and societies expectations of the women in his life. The fact that the novel is from the point of view of Jenny is significant. This shows West’s focus on the female perspective during WWI. To clarify, West is not writing about WWI. She writes to reveal the evolving identity of women. Jenny serves as a kind of floating consciousness between the role Kitty plays and the role Margaret plays within the question of feminine place in society. She plays with emerging ideas, and at times reverts back to what she knows. She observes Chris’s relationship to Kitty with confusion. They are the proper example of a well bred couple, perfectly matched in class and manners. Jenny stumbles between hatred, and love of Kitty, in all her properness, and their way of life together. She watches how Chris showers Kitty with a sort of empty attention, ‘such as an unmusical man pays to good music.’ (The Return of the Soldier, 52) Though Jenny seems at times disgusted with these learned values, having no example to escape to, she quickly reverts to what she knows. Jenny observes Margaret and Chris often in contempt as well. At other times she sees them with absolute resolution that they are her only true friends in the world because she can have a real, human conversation with them. We see her struggle as she describes the way Kitty and herself have been the perfect example of feminine energy, but still’ ‘how dreary was the empty stage.’ (The Return of the Soldier, 52) This scene struck me the most. As Kitty walks a disoriented Chris upstairs the confusion and disconnect between them cannot be ignored. She’ lifted her arms as though she struggled through a fog’. Falling behind Chris, halfway down the stairs, Kitty sees that Chris does not actually acknowledge her, and freely expresses his separateness from everything he once knew. (The Return of the Soldier, 65) Kitty is bewildered by the experience of loosing the affection of her husband to a woman of Margaret’s class. She is lost in the ugly, raw face of life that her feminine values have not prepared her for. Spending all her time and energy on arranging Chris’s comfort, anticipating his every need, has left her a stranger to her own self. She cannot face the reality of her situation because she has no idea what she’s made of. Margaret, however, has not been handed anything in life. She takes very little for granted, and has tested the cold waters life brings. She knows her strength, acknowledges her pain, and can move forward from a grounded place. Margaret symbolizes, within the novel, this evolving woman. The woman that rises to the occasion, that expresses genuine emotion, and can even manage to state her opinion without loosing any grace.

The Return of the Soldier is an exploration of the ways a woman of West’s time could choose to respond to the expectations of society. This is West playing with ideas, and questioning reality. She does so in a way that does not preach, but bluntly digs for the truth and lays it out with a chilled slice of life. “ If the soul has to stay in its coffin till the lead is struck asunder, in its captivity it speaks with such a voice.” (The Return of the Soldier, 65)

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