Return of the Soldier, Commentary on the Rebecca West Novel


Posted on 8th June 2008 by Gordon Johnson in Uncategorized

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Editor’s Note: I owe my discovery of the issues with respect to Shell Shock in the World War I literature to a good friend, Kara Harton. Kara wrote the following paper while attending Yale.

Shell Shock in Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier
History 255 – The Experience of War in the Twentieth Century
Professor Bruno Cabanes
7 March 2007

Kara S. Harton

Shell Shock in Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier
Set in 1916 at the Baldry family estate outside London, Return of the Soldier is the fictional story of Chris Baldry, a veteran of The Great War, who is discharged from the military due to shell shock-induced amnesia. His only memories are expressed as flashbacks of his pre-war life. After leaving the front, Chris returns home to Kitty, Jenny, and Margaret, the most important people in his life. Kitty, Chris’s wife, is an extremely poised, genteel English woman who is perfectly content maintaining the household. During the war, she remains confident that as soon as her husband returns home, they will resume their comfortable, pre-war lifestyle. Kitty’s life seems to be dictated by her social obligations, and she cannot accept anything which intrudes upon her perfectly cultivated, socially-acceptable world. Chris’s cousin Jenny is Kitty’s companion at Baldry Court during the war. Jenny is probably the character with whom it is easiest for the reader to identify, and as the narrator of the story, Jenny has the most influence over the readers’ perception of the other characters’ actions. Her façade – that of a well-mannered English woman – is quite similar to Kitty’s, but she seems much more understanding of Chris’s difficult situation.

Kitty and Jenny become acquainted with the other major character, Margaret Grey, during the course of the novel. Margaret is Chris’s old flame and, apparently, his first love. Oddly, Chris’s amnesia seems to have erased all of his memories, with the exception of the recollections of his relationship with Margaret, which occurred many years before. Margaret is of a lower class than the Baldry family, which adds a significant amount of tension to her interaction with the Baldrys. These three women are linked by their connection to and concern for Chris, and together, they must decide how to handle his enigmatic condition and come to terms with the way that his role in their lives has changed as a result.

Clearly, Return of the Soldier is not the typical “war novel.” There are no battles or images of warfare. In fact, the reader never sees the enemy. However, this novel still makes a provocative statement about World War One. Although the novel takes place on an English estate, far from the trenches of the Western Front, it offers a vivid portrayal of the war by illustrating one of its most important themes: the phenomenon of shell shock. West’s portrayal of shellshock in The Return of the Soldier highlights two key aspects of the condition: the medical and psychological explanations of the phenomenon, and the way that it forced British society to adjust.

The idea of shell shock is introduced in the novel before the main character actually appears. Kitty and Jenny are at Baldry Court, nostalgically reminiscing about the past, when Margaret arrives with news about Chris. She informs the women that Chris has experienced some sort of misfortune on the battlefield but is somewhat hesitant to reveal the details. When Kitty asks if he is wounded, Margaret responds with, “Yes . . . he’s wounded,” but soon corrects herself by explaining, “I don’t know how to put it, he’s not exactly wounded. A shell burst –.” “Concussion?” Kitty asks. Margaret clarifies that Chris has shell shock and is “not dangerously ill.” After her explanation, the women share an awkward silence; they are obviously uncomfortable, and it is clear that neither of them is certain of the implications of the news. (23)

This scene is extremely important because it introduces the idea of shell shock in the novel and serves as an important illustration of the uncertainty with which shell shock was discussed during and after the War. Just as the characters of Return of the Soldier are not quite sure how to classify this condition, most Europeans, including medical and psychological experts, were unsure of the exact cause and characteristics of shell shock. There was an extensive debate about whether the nature of the condition was physical or mental, and whether it could legitimately be classified as a “wound.” The inability to pinpoint Chris’s injury in the previous passage is an excellent illustration of this uncertainty. It is not a tangible injury, and no one can decide exactly how to refer to it. The women seem uncomfortable using the term “shell shock,” which shows their lack of familiarity and understanding of the condition.

This theme reappears numerous times throughout the novel. Kitty has an extremely difficult time accepting the authenticity of Chris’s amnesia. After his first dinner back at Baldry, Kitty becomes extremely upset about Chris’s behavior. Jenny attempts to console her by reminding her that she is “taking things all the wrong way,” and that his conduct is due to the fact that “Chris is ill.” However, Kitty insists that Chris is merely “a man like other men,” and asserts that, “This is all blind. . . He’s pretending.” (60) Instead of accepting that Chris suffers from a condition which is beyond her comprehension, Kitty would prefer to assume that he feigning amnesia in order to continue an extramarital affair with Margaret. Kitty’s refusal to accept the authenticity of Chris’s wound reflects society’s hesitation to accept shell shock as a legitimate injury.

In order for the condition to seem more valid, the stigma of psychological disorder had to be surmounted – a significant obstacle to a society in which the mentally ill were considered outsiders. Therefore, it could not be attributed to fear or nervous breakdown due to the atrocities of war; medical experts had to assert that shell shock was caused by proximity to an exploding shell. This explanation was offered by British physician Charles S. Meyers in 1914 when he first observed shell shock in France, and it was accepted for the duration of the war. (Mosse 103) According to Colonel J.F.C. Fuller, “the sapping of morale by sudden or prolonged fear subordinates a man’s power of will to his instinct of self-preservation and ultimately reduces him to a state in which he cannot control his emotions.” (103) German medical experts agreed and tended to associate “war neurosis” with lack of will rather than concrete trauma, but this explanation was unacceptable to British society at the time. (103) In order to be considered a valid war wound, shell shock had to be attributed to something tangible.

In addition to providing an excellent illustration of the uncertainty with which people approached shell shock, Return of the Soldier also contains numerous examples of the way that this condition disrupted society during and after the War. After Chris’s return, Kitty wants their lives to return to normalcy because as members of the upper echelon of society, they both have important responsibilities and obligations to fulfill. Jay Winter, a notable World War One historian, calls shell shock “a code to describe the shock of the war to the ruling elite, whose sons and apprentices, being groomed for war, were slaughtered in France and Flanders.” (Winter 10)

In this war, unlike other wars, the higher a man’s socioeconomic status, the greater his chances of becoming a casualty. This fact was very real to the social elites, and the phenomenon of shell shock provided “a symbol . . . of the effect of the war on both their own social formation and British society as a whole, which many of them took to be interchangeable.” (10) Officers were expected to be shielded from the danger of emotional breakdown by their superior competence and judgment, their position of responsibility, and the need to set an example for their inferiors. The awareness that officers were more likely to become casualties (both due to shell shock and more conventional injuries) was an uncomfortable reality for society.

The way that shell shock is presented in Return of the Soldier also highlights another important aspect of the condition: the way that it forced reconsideration of accepted stereotypes, particularly those concerning accepted gender roles. Mosse points out the rigidity with which masculinity and manhood were defined at the time; in most of the Western world, there was an undisputed understanding about the function that a man was expected to fulfill as “exemplar and guardian of the society’s values and coherence in an age of accelerated change.” (Mosse 101) He should be dispassionate, controlled, and moderate, both physically and psychologically. Mosse points out that men whose behavior placed them outside the bounds of ideal manhood were relegated to the ranks of “outsiders, on the margins of established society.” (102) These were men who were nervous or unstable; criminals, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals were often placed in this undesirable category. Nervous disorders, often referred to as “hysteria,” were typically considered women’s afflictions, but now, society had to decide what to do with men who were exhibiting the same symptoms.

This theme is not presented explicitly in Return of the Soldier, but it is certainly implied. The Chris that Kitty knows is strong, organized, masculine, and stoic. He is a perfect example of the ideal upper-class British man: responsible, balanced, hard-working, and self-controlled. When he returns to Baldry Court, he is extremely polite, which shows that he still understands the importance of etiquette. Yet much of his conduct is now governed by emotion rather than logic. Instead of behaving rationally and dutifully taking his place in society, he has become emotional, compulsive, and needy. It is suggested that before the war, Chris is not entirely satisfied with his life, especially after the death of his son Oliver, but his emotional expression is stifled by his obligation to manage a comfortable, efficient manor. When he is affected by amnesia, he reverts to a time when he was less refined – before his manhood had fully developed. When he returns to Baldry Court, Kitty and Jenny are taken aback by his passion and depth of emotion; it seems as though they have never seen him express such strong feelings. His “wound” has forced him to revert back to the behavior of his boyhood. Many Europeans of this era, particularly those in the middle and upper classes, considered war “a true test of manliness,” and after World War One, society was forced to decide how to cope when many of its men were unable to “pass” this test. Mosse explains that this was extremely traumatic to British society because “shattered nerves and lack of will-power were the enemies of a settled society and because men so afflicted were thought to be effeminate, [which] endangered the clear distinction between genders which was generally regarded as an essential cement of society.” (103)

Although West’s Return of the Soldier is entirely fictional, it has an immeasurable degree of historical relevance, particularly in its depiction of shell shock. Even though West never presents scenes of battle and destruction, this book still presents an accurate picture of the disastrous effects of World War One, both in the military and the home front. This novel presents shell shock as a legitimate war injury without overlooking the uncertainty of its nature and diagnosis. Because the events in the novel occur within a few days, West’s focus is not the narrative, but the interaction of its characters. Therefore, it is crucial to analyze their relationships, and not the characters themselves. A careful analysis of these relationships reveals a great deal about the nature of shell shock, and the way that it affected soldiers, their families, and wartime society as a whole.

©2007, Kara S. Harton