Rebecca West’s the return of a soldier gives a description, albeit not vivid of the impacts of war on the active participants as well as on the society at large. The book describes the lead character’s status after his engagement in war. While the war itself is only treated as an abstract phenomenon in the story, one from which most of the characters are detached, its impacts are described based on the negative outcomes that the society derives from the war. Individuals are affected differently based on the individual traits and their closeness to the victims of war. Such is the comparative case of Jenny and Kitty, who have been affected indirectly by the war, yet react differently to the situation at hand. In the story, one of the themes that come out starkly is that of trauma and its treatment. The person of soldier Chris Baldry portrays the elements of trauma as experienced in war as well as its impacts on the society and the treatments thereof as applied in the narrative; the present paper, explores how this can be translated into the society.
Trauma in the Return of a Soldier
The story of the returning soldier begins with a description of the Baldry estate where Kitty and the narrator, Jenny are sitting and doing their household chores. The story progresses into their preparation and expectation of his return despite having no information about his tentative date of return. During the first encounter between Jenny, Kitty and Margaret Grey, Mrs. Grey has come to report that she received news from the war office that Chris Baldry had been wounded by a shell during the war (West 24). Immediately, the two women diagnose the condition as shell- shock. The conversation that follows explains that he had lost his memory during the process (West 29) and that was at the hospital. The descriptions provided by West through Jenny the narrator about the condition match perfectly with the description attributed to shell shock especially among the victims of the First World War. Militants in the First World War are reported to have had frequent episodes of shell shock, arising from a wide range of trauma impacts. The condition is also linked to a wide range of post traumatic stress associated with the sufferings of war and which contributed immensely to the growth of concern over the psychology of war trauma victims (Loughran 94).
The return of a soldier describes various characteristics associated with the shell- shock, or rather the post- traumatic stress disorder which could be used to identify this condition in Chris. The first instance is through the report that Chris has lost his memory. An indication of this memory loss is the fact that Chris though he was still with Margaret and even gave the war office her address to contact her instead of his wife when he was in hospital. The letter from Frank Baldry to Jenny (West 34 – 39) also provides a more descriptive report on the condition of Chris Baldry during his hospital stay. Some of the facts that come out through the letter include the report that Chris had had a concussion earlier and also a confirmation that he had indeed lost his memory. Loughran (96- 97) affirms the fact that shell shock, though considered only as a destructive emblem of the first world war, arose due to high degrees of trauma to the head and also resulted in a variety of outcomes such as loss of interest in life, the confusion between the aspects of war and the historical life stories. Trauma also results in incoherence in reporting of its impacts to the society. On the one hand, the victim themselves do not clearly understand what is going on in their lives and thus are unable to clearly define what could be indications of memory loss in their lives. In Chris’ case, his cousin Frank, comments that he has lost his memory, but he insists that he still has his memory intact, an indication of his unawareness of his condition. The memory loss associated with war trauma in most cases is discriminative to the aspects or the life immediately before, during and after war.
West (45) describes the actual return of Chris, during which he says he does not know Kitty and that he is not married. He also says that the house is different, because the memories he has of the house are of more than 15 years earlier rather than the time he went to war. His cousins Jenny and Frank have also grown old, not 20 as he expected them to be due to his memory loss. The behaviors of Chris during his return help the reader to identify the impacts of trauma not only on the victim but also on their close friends and relatives. For instance, when Christ wanted to enquire who Kitty was, he realized that doing that would offend her. Similarly, Jenny felt embarrassed that she was way older than what Chris perceived him to be. The differences between the perceptions held by Chris and the expectations of the close family and friends are what create the frustrations on the family members. Kitty’s frustrations begin from the moment Mrs. Grey delivers information about Chris’ injury where she tries to assert that she would have received the message instead of Margaret. She also gets angry at Margaret for her confirmation that the war office had indeed contacted her instead of the soldier’s wife and demands to have the letter written to Margaret by Chris (West 39- 40).
The efforts to get Chris to regain his memory of his life with Kitty after marriage are also an evidence of what spouses and other close friends and relatives go through to be identified by their loved ones who suffer from post- traumatic stress. In a bid to enhance memory gain, Kitty puts on her bridal dress and comes with it to Chris (West 49). Other instances where Kitty feels frustrated include when Chris asks about Griffiths who has been dead seven years and when he says that if he does not see Margaret Allington he would die (West 58). The experiences held by Chris, Kitty and Jenny at this particular time all point towards the psychological and social impacts of trauma in the life of a soldier. On the one hand, Chris cannot control his memory. On the other hand, the memories he holds of his life more than 15 years earlier are hurtful to his family members who feel frustrated that he can neither recognize the changes in people nor remember some of the most basic elements of his life such as marriage to Kitty.
Loughran (106 – 107) describes trauma and shell shock in the context of war as the totality of the war outcomes including the frustrations that could be experienced when one soldier wounds or kills his colleague during a war; the depressive and post traumatic disorder related symptoms that appear after war and the entire range of hospitalized and non- hospitalized cases of war impacts in the past and in the present. Rebecca West’s story gives episodic occurrences and manifestations of trauma in the life of Chris and the responses of his family towards it. The main objective therefore, following diagnosis, is the treatment process, which adopts a psychoanalytical perspective.
Treatment of Trauma in the Return of a Soldier
The storyline clearly gives descriptive details from the beginning of the family frustrations with Chris’ condition, to the point of treatment of the condition. The healing process begins from the point where Chris is placed in contact with Margaret Allington as per his request and he seems visibly pleased. This begins the first step towards recovery as the family members see the potential of Margaret to make Chris happy. From the initial point of contact, Margaret as well as Chris’ family members is geared towards ensuring his full recovery through the use of all means possible. Margaret attempts to bring sense to him by informing him that she already married and that he too, is married to Kitty. Kitty’s frustrations with Chris’ inability to remember her and with Margaret’s visits lead to her diagnosis of Chris’ condition as psychotic and subsequent contact to Doctor Anderson who further diagnoses Chris with post- traumatic stress disorder. The doctor, through the support of Margaret, Jenny and Kitty herself, becomes a frequent visitor to the household and works towards helping Chris regain his memory.
The treatment procedure accorded to Chris is based on the Freudian psychoanalytic procedure, which attempts to explore underlying factors in his condition. Through the recognition that Margaret forms an essential part of the extant memory in Chris, the doctor works together with Margaret in bringing about the miraculous treatment of the psychological condition of Chris. This is accomplished by having Margaret act like Chris’ confidant, talking to him about his son and showing him evidence about his life before he had passed on. From the point of contact with his son’s life, Chris eventually recovers from his ‘shell shock.’ The process of psychoanalytic treatment process from the story is reflective of what is expected from the conventional Freudian based psychoanalysis process. In regards to the speed of recovery however, the story seems fallacious in that most of the psychoanalytic treatment processes occur over time and are also more effective when conducted on a stepwise basis. In the case of Chris however, it is observed that the healing was not only spontaneous but was also highly effective in the very first instant, as opposed to conventional psychological cases. The specific treatment approach applied by the doctor in the case is also described as Cathartic where the patient heals by talking about their condition and receiving advice from the psychologist and support from the close social units. In this case, Kitty and Jenny could have supported Chris in his efforts towards recovery.
Criticism of the Story
The return of the soldier was the first book authored by Rebecca West. Despite its relevance and influence by the Freudian psychoanalytic theories, earlier critics were mostly negative, citing it as an amateurish piece of writing. Most of its critics also posited that the story was wanting in terms of both psychoanalytic and stylistic reasons. One of the major factors mentioned by critics in response to Rebecca’s book is the neglect of Margaret Allington as an agent of recovery for Chris Baldry. While the book does mention the fact that it is Margaret who eventually led Chris through his son’s door and explained to him what happened in his life including the death of his son, she is not recognized in the context of the transferential impact that is characteristic of the psychoanalytical treatment process. As an agent of recovery in the story, Margaret plays the intuitive therapist despite the blatant absence of the corresponding literary treatment in the context of the psychoanalytic background (Pinkerton 1). Pinkerton also argues that the story lacks in both stylistic and psychoanalytic plausibility especially based on the level of indeterminacy of the conclusion described. Other critics have argued that as an amateur, Rebecca has not appealed to the key ethos of the psychoanalytic literary context, which not only follow through processes but also conclude on them based on clear, concise and extractable procedures.
Despite the earlier negative reviews, Rebecca West’s book is more recently described positively by various authors. Contrary to expectations, the focus on the psychoanalytic concepts in the treatment of shell shock is cited as the point of strength for the return of a soldier. This brings about perception that psychoanalysis is also a subject of relative consideration depending on the personality of the individual responding to the process. In most cases, the book is cited as an exemplification of the importance of psychoanalysis on the recovery of shell shock victims, given the prevalence of such forms of injury among soldiers and ex- militants. The paradigm shift in terms of the psychoanalytic theory can be deduced to have been founded on the precept of cathartic treatment as a strategy that works. Initially, the thought process could have been limited to the more elaborate psychoanalytical procedures such as cognitive behavior therapy hence the deduction that Rebecca’s description of the psychoanalytic practice principles as depicted in the book is wanting.
The return of the soldier was Rebecca West’s amateur novel. From this first book, the expectations could not have been established prior to the release. However, the story depicts the themes of trauma and treatment of trauma among victims of war, and does this efficiently through the use of stylistic as well as psychoanalytic descriptions. Although the agent of psychoanalytic treatment and recovery is not given as much attention as some critics would wish, the author does an exemplary job in creating the connection between the literary and the psychology fields. From the reading, arguing that the work is amateurish would be inconsiderate of the author’s contribution to these two fields. The themes are not only developed through visible exemplification but also based on an actual scientific theoretical framework. This deviates from the conventional fiction based works of literature which mostly focus on the literary devices that attract readership rather than the content which can also be informative.
Loughran, Tracey. Shell shock, trauma and the First World War: the making of a diagnosis and its histories. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 67, 1(2012). Retrieved from academic.oup.com/jhmas/article/67/1/94/763864
Pinkerton, Steve. Trauma and cure in Rebecca West’s “The Return of the Soldier.” Journal of Modern Literature 32, 1(2008): 1- 12. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/25511787?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
West, Rebecca. The return of the soldier. New York: The Century Co., 1918.