Literature and War Readalong March Wrap up: The Return of the Soldier

For one reason or the other I had a feeling I knew exactly what this novel was going to be about but I was very wrong. I think that with the exception of Danielle who read The Return of the Soldier for the second time we were all more or less surprised by the book.

When you expect to read a novel about a shell-shocked soldier you don’t necessarily expect to see Freudian theories at work and much less you expect this book to be about a choice, a decision that will change all the lives involved considerably.

What did strike me most in this readalong are the differences between the reviews that have been written which underlines what I wrote in my post where I said this book could be read in many different ways. While I concentrated on summarizing the plot and comparing the symbolical meaning of the three women, trying to link them to Freudian theories, Bookaroundthecorner and Danielle focused on a core theme of the book which is the choice. In her post Bookaroundthecorner points out the following:

The ending is what we call in French a “choix cornélien”, a “Cornelian choice”. The term comes from the French playwright Corneille (17th C). In his plays, the characters must always make a choice between passion and duty, between happiness and what is right. Here, Margaret and Jenny face a Cornelian choice: to cure or not to cure Chris. To cure him is to allow him to be a soldier and be sent to the trenches again, to lead him to a highly probable death.

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric) pointed out that what she liked the most about the book was the fact how it didn’t just give easy answers but encouraged you to think about the characters and their motivations. She also mentioned how life changing the death of Chris’ father was, a fact I must have overlooked completely. Anna also wrote that she felt we never really get to know Kitty and Margaret due to the first person narrative and that she would have liked to hear more about Chris, about what happened to him in the trenches. Although I did appreciate the book’s subtle use of war scenes through the means of Jenny’s nightmares, I expected it to be more from Chris’ point of view as well.

Danielle made an interesting comparison to Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Much like the letter that was shoved under the carpet rather than just under the door in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, letters that should have found their recipient but did not meant an entirely different ending for the two lovers until this unusual meeting.

Danielle also mentions that in the introduction West was quoted saying that a novel should have no empty sentences. This struck me as well, when I read it and I think I can agree with Danielle on the fact that this novel really is a fine example of this.

In all the posts and discussions, the treatment of the classes was mentioned. Apart from Kevin, no one really felt like understanding Kitty. I must admit, I felt an intense dislike and think the others shared this more or less. Of course, Kevin is right in pointing out that she is a product of her upbringing and the society she lives in.

What struck me as very interesting is that Kevin perceived the book as non-feminist. I think I disagree but understand very well how one could come to this conclusion. I believe she deliberately created a weak and vain character like Kitty to criticize the passivity of certain women, especially those who had everything, money, looks, status.

I found the treatment of the war very interesting although it was extremely toned down or rather, because it was so toned down and blended into the story. As a final word I’d like to quote Verlyn Klinkenborg.

It is certainly necessary to read The Return of the Soldier as a way of analyzing the experience of war from the civilian side. But it is also imperative to read this novel as West’s means of analyzing the experience of being female. At the age of twenty-four, West is holding up disparate versions of a woman’s experience and waiting to see which one crashes to the floor. (From the Introduction to The Modern Library Edition, p.xx )

I don’t know if you have noticed the different book covers. I think this is the one I like the most.

11 thoughts on “Literature and War Readalong March Wrap up: The Return of the Soldier

    • You are welcome and I am very glad you enjoyed it and thanks for participating.
      Maybe there is another one on the list that might tempt you. 🙂
      I’m glad I discovered a new author and think I want to read either The Fountain Overflows or The Birds Fall Down very soon.

  1. I’m sure you probably know this, but shellshock was considered the ‘male version’ of hysteria, and so ripe for a Freudian treatment.Septimus Smith in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is another prime example of shellshock/hysteria as it captured a writer’s imagination. Male victims of it tended to be portrayed as infantilised and passive and at the mercy of authoritative doctors – characteristics generally associated with the feminine in this era.

    • I’m familiar with parts of the theories. I’m just about to finish Siri Hustvedt’s THe Shaking Woman and there is a whole passage on that aspect also linked to panic disorder that is very interesting. She says that there were never as many cases of shell-shock as during WWI due to the confinement in the trenches. I forgot about Mrs Dalloway. It is a book that is due for a rereading.

  2. I had no idea that shell shock is compared to hysteria–very interesting! I can see where this could be read from a feminist perspective, though I think I wasn’t necessarily thinking of that while reading–I have the ML edition and had read that quote–she portrays three very different types of women–or at least classes of women–and you wonder which one of them in the end was happiest.

    • That’s an interesting question and I would say as long as everything goes well Kitty might be the happiest as she has it all and questions nothing. I found the realtionship between the cousins interesting and a bit awkward. Imagine to live in the same house with someone who love you this much or the oter way around, live with somone yu love that much without the person being your partner/spouse. I cannot rmemeber whether it is said why Jenny lives with them.

      • Who was the happiest? It’s hard to tell. None of them was happy but Kitty was probably the one who suffered the less, protected by her selfishness.

        It isn’t told why Jenny lives with them. I wondered too. I assumed that she never marries because she was so in love with Chris and then had no other place to go. Jenny made me think of Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

        The better match was probably Chris and Jenny : same social class and same personal qualities.

        • True, there is something of Fiona in her. It seems that most people of the family are dead, maybe Chris and Jenny were the only ones left.
          Kitty really is so selfish. She never really wonders what happened to Chris. I wonder now whether West deeliberately left out Chris’ experiences to say that the women didn’t really care. They were only interested in theîr realtionship with Chris, jenny being the exception.

  3. I don’t know much about the Freudian theories, so I didn’t see that in the book. I also didn’t have an introduction, so I went into the book blind. The book certainly makes for interesting discussion. Thanks for hosting this readalong!

    • It’s a book I might have found difficult without an introduction as I was focused on the war aspects. I think it is worth digging deeper with this author. I’m glad you joined and am looking forward to the next one that is completely different. I have a feeling you might like it.

  4. Pingback: Review: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West | Alex In Leeds

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