This article takes a disability studies approach to Rebecca West's 1918 novel, The Return of the Soldier, the story of an amnesiac soldier returned from the Front. Such an approach highlights the extreme sanism of the novel's ending, where the characters agree that if Chris were left in his amnesiac state, he "would not be quite a man." This essay argues that although the novel initiates an incisive critique of sanism as a set of patriarchal and class-bound behavioral norms, it is unable to follow through on that critique. West's ableism overrides the novel's concern with the injustices of class, gender, and war, prompting the novel's insistence that the "mad" soldier, Chris Baldry, be involuntarily cured.
Rebecca West's 1918 novel The Return of the Soldier, centered around a shell-shocked soldier returning to his country estate, returns us to a historical moment when the general public was being introduced to issues of mental health which many had never considered. According to Joanna Bourke, the British army dealt with roughly 80,000 cases of shell shock by the end of the Great War (109). West's novel, both written and set in wartime, stages a timely dialogue about how to interpret "madness" and how much to value "sanity." With its portrayal of an amnesiac soldier and the involuntary cure that will return him to the Front, its frequent metaphors of disability, and its focus on the contrast between the unruly and the controlled, the novel invites, avant la lettre, a disability studies reading. The Return of the Soldier demonstrates brilliantly how tightly intertwined ableism and sanism are with classism and sexism. It contains a devastating critique of class and gender norms. And it could be read as proposing an equally incisive critique of sanism itself, were it not for the fact that with its ending, the novel abruptly turns its back on this critique.
The plot of the novel can be outlined briefly: a wealthy soldier, Chris Baldry, returns from the Front having forgotten the last fifteen years of his life, including his marriage to the elegant, upper-class Kitty and the birth and death of their only son Oliver. He believes himself still romantically involved with the daughter of an innkeeper, Margaret Grey, née Allington, who is now married to the ineffectual working-class William Grey and, in the words of the narrator Jenny, "ravaged by squalid circumstances" (43). Jenny Baldry is Chris's unmarried cousin and childhood playmate, now living with Chris and Kitty, and harboring a suppressed passion for Chris that motivates her untrustworthy narration. Chris asks melodramatically to see Margaret ("if I do not see Margaret Allington I shall die" ) and Kitty assents. Margaret, whose love for Chris coexists with her maternal tenderness toward her husband, then begins to visit Baldry Court regularly.
The novel traces the reactions of Jenny and Kitty to Chris's forgetting them and to his undiminished love for Margaret. They grieve, they rage, Jenny cultivates a bond with Margaret in order to re-triangulate her relationship with Chris, and they call in doctors to attempt to cure him. Finally a Dr. Anderson arrives, talks to Kitty and Margaret, and learns of the death of Chris and Kitty's son. Margaret suggests that giving Chris some objects beloved by Oliver might shock Chris back to his memory of the last fifteen years. This proposal is put into effect: Margaret goes to Chris on the grounds of Baldry Court with the child's ball and jersey, and with Kitty and Jenny waiting at a window, sacrifices her own happiness and his in order to bring him back to "sanity."
In spite of portraying this cure as a sacrifice of Chris and Margaret's happiness and a risk to Chris's life—he will now have to return to the Front—the novel endorses it in ways I will describe below. Critics have followed suit: though it is universally acknowledged that there are negative aspects to the situation, several critics agree with Jenny when she rationalizes the cure by harping on the spiritual value of "reality" and "truth." 1 They view the cure as necessary or, at worst, a necessary evil. A disability studies reading views it as an active harm.
My reading of the novel is influenced by a key tenet of Thomas Szasz's work: that society has no more right to impose psychiatric treatment on a person who does not consent than it has the right to impose medical treatment on a person dying of cancer who does not consent. Szasz writes that "one of the most threatened" rights in our society is "the right to be ill—that is, the right to reject treatment, the right to suffer, and the right to die unmolested by interventions imposed upon us by the state acting through its medical (or psychiatric) agencies" (7). Chris is repeatedly described as "ill," a term which helps make "curing" him seem the only sensible thing to do. But his madness is also described in positive terms, as an apprehension of a more real reality. While the novel walks a thin line between a medical model of psychiatric "illness" and an aesthetic and epistemological appreciation of an alternate reality, its insistence on the cure exemplifies Szasz's claim that our "right to be ill" is endangered.
Madness as "Genius"
When Margaret Grey first comes to Baldry Court to give Kitty the news of Chris's shell shock—he has sent Margaret, not Kitty, a telegram from the hospital—Kitty and Jenny jump to classist conclusions, assuming she is attempting to scam them into giving her money. Soon it becomes clear to Jenny that Margaret is telling the truth, but after Margaret leaves, Kitty still has her doubts. She outlines two possibilities: "Either it means he's mad, our Chris, our splendid sane Chris, all broken and queer, not knowing us…I can't bear to think of that. It can't be true. But if he isn't…" The second possibility is that he is faking his memory loss, and all along has been leading a double life. She concludes that it doesn't matter which it is, because "[i]f he could send that telegram, he isn't ours any longer" (17). Kitty describes "madness" as that which "breaks" the formerly "splendid" Chris, removing him from the community of normates, turning him "queer." 2 And when Kitty responds to Jenny's protest that "Chris is ill" by saying "What does that matter?" she aligns this broken queerness with the deceit of the second possibility. Whether Chris has practiced deceit or is in the grip of a genuine "madness," Kitty effectively renounces her husband in the guise of feeling herself rejected: "he isn't ours any longer."
Kitty is portrayed quite negatively by Jenny, who is in the process of distancing herself from Kitty in order to align herself more closely with Margaret, the beloved of her beloved. Unlike Kitty, who focuses exclusively on the insult of being forgotten, Jenny alternates between feeling rejected and identifying with Chris. She idealizes Chris and his love for Margaret, casting their history in idyllic terms. Through her idealization, the novel critiques the norms of class, gender, and imperialism that require Chris to return to his masculine, upper-class, English identity. 3
Jenny describes Chris as having had, since childhood, an extraordinary "faith in the imminence of the improbable. He thought that the birch tree would really stir and shrink and quicken into an enchanted princess, that he really was a Red Indian and that his disguise would suddenly fall from him at the right sundown" (7). She further explains that "it was his hopeless hope that some time he would have an experience that would act on his life like alchemy, turning to gold all the dark metals of events, and from that revelation he would go on his way rich with an inextinguishable joy" (8). The novel suggests that Chris's "madness"—his return to his life of fifteen years before—is that experience, that it has given him back the kind of joy usually sacrificed to responsibility in adulthood. Jenny tells us that Chris only seems vibrant, and indeed, only able, when he is with Margaret: "There was nothing to say when all day, save for those hours of the afternoon that Margaret spent with him, he sat like a blind man waiting for his darkness to lift" (61). The metaphor of blindness simultaneously conveys the idea that Chris is disabled by his madness and that his "darkness," or disability, is socially constructed: if he could be with Margaret all day, he would be able all day.
Three other sections of the novel paint Chris's madness as the transformative experience in which he has always believed. In one passage, Jenny meditates on the meaning of the word "madness."
[I]f madness means liability to wild error about the world, Chris was not mad. It was our peculiar shame that he had rejected us when he had attained to something saner than sanity. His very loss of memory was a triumph over the limitations of language which prevent the mass of men from making explicit statements about their spiritual relationships…. I was even willing to admit that this choice of what was to him reality…, this adroit recovery of the dropped pearl of beauty, was the act of genius I had always expected from him. (64-5)
Chris's "delusion" is here viewed as "something saner than sanity" and a "triumph over the limitations of language." Chris has refused to accept the slow dissolution of meaning and recovered the "dropped pearl of beauty." Here the novel expresses a view common to James Joyce's "The Dead" and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, where the protagonists make similar comments about men who died young. 4 Chris Baldry has managed to preserve the thing "that mattered" without dying; instead of "flinging" his life away, he has merely forgotten part of it (Woolf 201). And by so doing, he has committed an "act of genius."
In another scene, Margaret confronts Dr. Anderson. "'You can't cure him… Make him happy, I mean. All you can do is to make him ordinary'" (81). When placed alongside Jenny's description of Chris's belief in alchemy, Margaret's assertion implies that to cure Chris would be to reverse the transformation and return Chris to "the dark metals of events." The doctor agrees: "'I grant you that's all I do,' he said…. It's my profession to bring people from various outlying districts of the mind to the normal. There seems to be a general feeling it's the place where they ought to be. Sometimes I don't see the urgency myself'" (81). This conversation undermines the urgency with which Kitty desires to bring Chris back to "the normal."
The third scene that describes Chris's madness as positive comes after Margaret has suggested the cure, the doctor has agreed, and she and Jenny have gone up to the child's nursery to choose items that might shock Chris back to the memory of the present. At this point Margaret confesses to Jenny that she has no intention of carrying out the cure.
"Either I never should have come," she pleaded, "or you should let him be." She was arguing not with me, but with the whole hostile reasonable world. … "I know nothing in the world matters so much as happiness. If anybody's happy you ought to let them be….
"Put it like this….If my boy had been a cripple—he wasn't; he had the loveliest limbs—and the doctors had said to me, 'We'll straighten your boy's legs for you, but he'll be in pain all the rest of his life,' I'd not have let them touch him…. After the time he's had, the war and all. And then he'll have to go back there! I can't! I can't!"
I felt an ecstatic sense of ease. Everything was going to be right. Chris was to live in the interminable enjoyment of his youth and love. (86)
This passage pits happiness against reasonableness. If Chris is returned to the "hostile, reasonable world" he will be in emotional "pain all the rest of his life." Margaret argues by analogy with physical disability that there are cases, of which Chris's is one, where the cure is worse than the impairment. His happiness, she claims, is more important than whether he meets the standards of the normate world.
Margaret's argument is compelling. As Judi Chamberlin points out, "If we are truly concerned with protecting people we may deem to be incompetent, surely we must zealously protect their right to pursue happiness as well as their right to be safe. Otherwise we are prescribing one standard for so-called normals, which allows (and even celebrates) the primacy of the pursuit of happiness, and another, more sober and more severe standard for those for whom we presume to decide their 'best interest'" (406-7). Kitty and Jenny's attempts to cure Chris aim to do just this: impose on Chris a severe standard of what he must sacrifice, while allowing themselves the freedom to pursue a life of elegance and material beauty.
Another way in which the novel critiques norms of sanity is metaphorically, by describing landscaping as excessively controlled and nature as endearingly unruly; controlled spaces are aligned with the upper classes, while natural spaces, especially Monkey Island, where Margaret used to live, are aligned with lower classes. Acceptance of natural unruliness is portrayed as a virtue, and the desire to control them, a vice.
When she describes the grounds of Baldry Court, Jenny notes that the land shows not "the wild eye of the artist" but the "knowing wink of the manicurist" (4). Baldry Court has been "massaged" (4) into an estate worthy of inclusion in magazines. Jenny notes that the gardens are as "well-kept as a woman's hand" (6). Since Jenny and Kitty are repeatedly appalled by Margaret's "seamed red hand[s]" (10), it is clear that this well-kept hand is that of an upper-class woman and that the beauty of the estate is a marker of class. As Debra Rae Cohen puts it, "[c]lass antagonism expressed as space, Baldry Court is defined by what it excludes…. But the very 'insolence' of that privacy is in a sense a hysterical symptom, based on the spatial repression of unpleasant realities" (67).
Although at first Jenny revels in their well-kept estate, she begins to alter her valuation of the manicured grounds when Chris, unfamiliar with the renovated house and grounds, feels out of place. He looks around furtively when he thinks he is not noticed, and Jenny's heart sinks. "Was Baldry Court so sleek a place that the unhappy felt offenders there? Then we had all been living wickedly and he too" (28). It is significant that what Jenny pinpoints as the cause of Chris's unhappiness is the sleekness of the estate, an aspect of the larger manicured character of Baldry Court.
When Jenny is driving to Baldy Court with Margaret, she views the estate in a new way. When she notices Margaret gazing at the "strip of turf…that runs between the drive and the tangle of silver birch and bramble and fern" she analyzes its purpose: "There is no aesthetic reason for that border; the common outside looks lovelier where it fringes the road with dark gorse and rough amber grasses. Its use is purely philosophic; it proclaims that here we estimate only controlled beauty, that the wild will not have its way within our gates" (55). The clear implication of this is that Chris's wild mind will be similarly suppressed, controlled into the type of beauty—sanity—that is esteemed within their gates. Jenny further sees that the beautiful house is a "vast piece of space partitioned off from the universe and decorated partly for beauty and partly to make our privacy more insolent" (70). She understands, that is, that the beauty of Baldry Court is not merely a matter of aesthetics but of politics; it supports their class privilege and makes "the unhappy [feel] offenders there." When Chris is cured at the novel's end, he returns to the house "not loose-limbed like a boy…but with the soldier's hard tread upon the heel" (90). This stark image of a natural, loose-limbed body being restrained by a soldier's tread aligns nicely with Jenny's descriptions of nature being shaped and controlled for political purposes.
A motif of imprisonment contributes to this sense that the order valued at Baldry Court is motivated by a classist and imperialist politics. When Chris notices the renovations which he oversaw but which are now unfamiliar to him, he says "'This house is different.' If the soul has to stay in his coffin till the lead is struck asunder, in its captivity it speaks with such a voice" (25). Jenny's description of his tone aligns their current reality with both entrapment and death. She worries that the blackout curtains that protect them from the clanking "skeleton" of a Zeppelin will make "his home seem even more like a prison" (26). She feels his furtiveness in looking about the now-strange house "heartrending; it was as though he were an outcast and we who loved him stout policemen" (28). She describes Chris moving his shoulders "uneasily, as if under a yoke" (29). And she knows she is implicated in this new reality: "All the inhabitants of this new tract of time were his enemies, all its circumstances his prison bars" (29). These images of captivity intensify the metaphorical critique of sanism, casting order, sleekness, and even reality as modes of imprisonment. 5
The novel also uses metaphors of disability to describe people and objects, implying another level of reality—a more real reality—where imperfection is the norm. Several inanimate objects are described through images of ill-health and unfitness: the outbuildings on Monkey Island look "knock-kneed" (35). When Chris's father shows doubt in his son, "It was an appalling admission, like the groan of an old ship as her timbers shiver" (52). Jenny imagines a neighborhood where, "past a church that lacks its tower, stand a score of houses, each hideous with patches of bare bricks that show like sores through the ripped-off plaster and uncovered rafters which stick out like broken bones" (66). When Jenny tries to improve Margaret's hat, she concludes that "it was, as surgeons say, an inoperable case" (77).
Living beings are described through images of brokenness and disability as well. In her grief, Kitty lies about "like a broken doll" (61). Jenny describes the people of Wealdstone (Margaret's village) as "feeble" because of their poverty: they "tapped their upper lips with their forefingers and made other feeble doubtful gestures as though they wanted to buy something and knew that if they did they would have to starve some other appetite" (44). She relates a story about a swan who broke the back of a locksmith, "mad as swans are in May" (37). Since we also hear of a swan "swank[ing] to the empty reach that it would protect its mate against all comers" (39), it seems the madness of swans is also linked to loyalty and love.
Such love, at least for Margaret, does seem to characterize Chris, who is accepting of human imperfection. When he describes Margaret to Jenny, he says "[s]he is a little near-sighted; you can't imagine how sweet it makes her look" (36). He describes Margaret rowing with "rather stiff movements" (36) and remembers fondly how the reflections of the water made "a bright vibrant mark upon her throat" (36-7). He feels that his love for her "in this twilight which obscured all the physical details which he adored, seemed to him a guarantee that theirs was a changeless love which would persist if she were old or maimed or disfigured" (38). These images suggest that disability is everywhere, part of both the natural and human world, and that desire for an ordered perfection in living beings is mere fantasy.
Indeed, complementary images of human perfection show ableism as fantasy. For example, when Jenny plays a "sarabande by Purcell" on the piano, she describes it as "a jolly thing that makes one see a plump, sound woman dancing on a sanded floor in some old inn with casks of good ale all about her and a world of sunshine and May lanes without" (29). She also imagines an old man, representing "the soul of the universe," who, though scarred and "repulsive with dirt," is nevertheless "magnificent by reason of the Olympian structure of his body" (66). That these images of soundness and magnificence are part of Jenny's imagination highlights their status as fantasy. In nature, imperfection is the rule.
Jenny's classist and misogynist comparison of Margaret to a sculpted nymph in a black bowl serves to cap the novel's insistence that human imperfection is natural. First Jenny describes Margaret's movements as "spasmodic" and worries that she will knock the bowl off its table. Then she compares Margaret unfavorably to the nymph:
[B]eside that white nymph, eternally innocent of all but the contemplation of beauty, her opaque skin and her suffering were offensive; beside its air of being the coolly conceived and leisurely executed production of a hand and brain lifted by their rare quality to the service of the not absolutely necessary, her appearance of having but for the moment ceased to cope with a vexed and needy environment struck one as a cancerous blot on the fair world. (56)
As this passage demonstrates, Jenny equates ability ("a hand and brain lifted by their rare quality") with luxury ("the not absolutely necessary"). Margaret's disability in this passage, described as a "cancerous blot," is caused by her poverty, her "suffering," her having to "cope with a vexed and needy environment." With this comparison to a perfect art object, Jenny inadvertently shows that to be human is to be imperfect and that disability is often socially constructed—in this case by class. Ableism and classism are interwoven in Jenny's condemnation of Margaret as hideous compared to "a potter's toy" (56).
Sanism and the Cure
While Margaret and Jenny are basking in their decision to leave Chris as he is, just as they would leave a "crippled" boy alone rather than cause him a lifetime of pain, Kitty walks by, holding a formerly neglected dog. The sight of her prompts both women to change their minds, to decide that in spite of the sacrifice it will mean for Margaret and for Chris, he must be "cured." The passage that describes this decision is rife with sexist, classist, ageist, and ableist language as it privileges a particular version of reality over all else.
The passage begins, "Now, why did Kitty, who was the falsest thing on earth, who was in tune with every kind of falsity, by merely suffering somehow remind us of reality?" (87). Though the line asserts a paradox wherein truth emerges from falsehood, it leaves open the possibility that the "reality" of which Kitty reminds them is not objective truth but a class-bound set of normative conventions. Jenny continues, "Why did her tears reveal to me what I had learned long ago, but had forgotten in my frenzied love, that there is a draught we must drink or not be fully human?" (87). This line expresses the essence of ableism: that full humanity is not compatible with disability, so that Chris's humanity is at risk in his altered mental state.
Jenny then launches into an extended metaphor of religious communion.
I knew that one must know the truth. I knew quite well that when one is adult one must raise to one's lips the wine of the truth, heedless that it is not sweet like milk, but draws the mouth with its strength, and celebrate communion with reality, or else walk forever queer and small like a dwarf. Thirst for this sacrament had made Chris strike away the cup of lies about life that Kitty's white hands held to him, and turn to Margaret with this vast trustful gesture of his loss of memory. And helped by me she had forgotten that it is the first concern of love to safeguard the dignity of the beloved, so that neither God in his skies nor the boy peering through the hedge should find in all time one possibility for contempt, and had handed him the trivial toy of happiness. (87-88) 6
One odd thing about the beginning of this passage is that Chris does "know the truth"—that is, he now understands that there is a gap in his memory; he knows the actual date and the actual situation—that he has married Kitty and been to the war and that fifteen years have passed since he courted Margaret. He simply cannot remember the events of those fifteen years. But the passage insists that it is knowledge of the truth Chris is lacking so as to spiritualize his disability, or, to be more accurate, to unspiritualize it. By comparing the truth to wine as opposed to milk, Jenny's discourse infantilizes Chris; by asserting that he is excluded from "communion" she is removing him from the realm of the spiritual. Worse, the passage assumes not only that Chris cannot be dignified in his altered mental state but that God himself would feel contempt for someone with a psychiatric disability. The metaphor of "walk[ing] forever queer and small like a dwarf" translates Chris's memory loss into a physical disability that Jenny can similarly disdain. This prejudice against the "queer…dwarf" brings together sexism, sanism, and more general ableism in an image of unmasculine inferiority.
Even within her celebration of the "sacrament" of reality, however, Jenny describes Chris's loss of memory as an act of "strik[ing] away the cup of lies about life" from Kitty's "white hands." This imagery undermines Jenny's insistence that Chris must "drink the wine of truth" and return to reality; after all, that "reality" is a "cup of lies." Jenny is unwittingly suggesting here—as she does more purposefully when she calls his memory loss an "act of genius"—that Chris lost his memory in search of a reality more real than that made possible by his life at Baldry Court. Since he is now living in that reality, why should he return to the "cup of lies"?
But Jenny, heedless of the contradictions that falsify her claims, continues:
We had been utterly negligent of his future, blasphemously careless of the divine essential of his soul. For if we left him in his magic circle there would come a time when his delusion turned to idiocy; when his joy at the sight of Margaret disgusted the flesh because his smiling mouth was slack with age; when one's eyes no longer followed him caressingly…, but flitted here and there defensively to see that nobody was noticing the doddering old man. Gamekeepers would chat kindly with him, and tap their foreheads as they passed through the copse…. He who was as a flag flying from our tower would become a queer-shaped patch of eccentricity on the countryside, the full-mannered music of his being would become a witless piping in the bushes. He would not be quite a man. (88)
Jenny takes on here the responsibility for Chris's soul, reiterating the claim that people with psychiatric disabilities cannot themselves access God. Though she calls Chris's current mental state a "magic circle" she relies on ageist assumptions that the bodily weakness that comes with age is something to be disgusted by and that an old man cannot with dignity experience romantic love. She foresees Chris becoming "doddering," sliding into "idiocy," and even becoming "witless." 7 Here Jenny, to cast Chris's disability in as negative light as possible, elides the difference between psychiatric and intellectual disability, employing a common prejudice that views intellectual disability as the "lowest" form of disability. 8
In this passage, ableism's reliance on classism and sexism also becomes obvious. The image of the "flag flying from our tower" indicates both that as an upper-class man Chris must serve as a marker of superiority to the surrounding tenants. A gamekeeper must not be allowed to look down on a member of the upper classes. The word "queer" returns, indicating that Chris would lose his masculinity as he fell from his high position of a flag on a tower to the lowly position of a "patch of land." And the last line of the passage concludes firmly that if his disability, combined with age, is allowed to render him "queer" and "witless," he "would not be quite a man."
Susan Kingsley Kent quotes a nurse at the Front who similarly said of her patients, "Certainly they were men once. But now they are no longer men…. Once they were real, splendid, ordinary, normal men. Now they mew like kittens" (67). David Gerber notes that many veterans organizations themselves viewed their programs of rehabilitation in terms of restoring their masculinity, or, in the words of a publication of the Blinded Veterans Association, becoming "men again" (33). Indeed, the idea that disability impaired one's masculinity was so entrenched that during World War I it was concretized financially. Bourke demonstrates that at the beginning of the war, men who were injured were compensated for lost earning power, but that quickly changed. Compensation was soon granted not for lost earning power, but for lost masculinity (65). 9 Jenny and Kitty both revel in their subordination to Chris (Jenny says proudly that "nothing could ever really become a part of our life until it had been referred to Chris' attention" ). The image of his madness as degradation—from a "flag flying from [their] tower" to being not "quite a man"—corresponds nicely with their patriarchal views: a "man" can only be defined as able, sane, and dominant.
Though this justification for "curing" Chris is narrated by Jenny, Margaret seems to follow the same train of thought. Just as Jenny considers how to convey her thoughts to Margaret, she notices that "the rebellion had gone from [Margaret's] eyes and they were again the seat of all gentle wisdom. 'The truth's the truth,' she said, 'and he must know it'" (88). That Margaret comes independently to this conclusion demonstrates that the text itself sanctions the cure. Unlike Kitty and Jenny, Margaret has much to lose from bringing back Chris's memory, and nothing to gain. Her love for Chris is portrayed throughout the novel as generous and true, even at times maternal. That she repeats, "the truth's the truth" (88), and goes out with the ball and jersey to shock Chris with his grief entails an endorsement by the text, in a sudden reversal of its anti-sanist message. 10
Two metaphors used to describe Chris's happiness in his altered state support my contention that the novel has abandoned its critique of sanism as a class-bound set of behavioral norms. When Jenny and Margaret plan to leave Chris happy rather than cure him, Jenny says: "Chris was to live in the interminable enjoyment of his youth and love. There was to be a finality about his happiness which usually belongs only to loss and calamity; he was to be as happy as a ring cast into the sea is lost, as a man whose coffin has lain for centuries beneath the sod is dead" (87). This passage illogically removes Chris from time, implying that he will be frozen in a single moment, instead of simply having a fifteen-year gap in his memory. The idea that he will be stuck "interminably" in his youth infantilizes him and casts his mental state as unnatural. The imagery of loss and death indicates that the decision they have just made is the wrong one. Misha Kavka writes of this passage, "The stasis involved in the happiness of amnesia…makes of happiness a terminal disease" (165).
Several critics have agreed with Jenny and Margaret about the necessity for curing Chris. Cristina Prividori describes the process of the cure as "a reliving, a reoccurrence of the traumatic event [through which] West restores Chris's integrity as a person" (102). Steve Pinkerton, though he raises the question (in parentheses) of whether the cure is what "Chris really needs or desires" (2), avoids answering the question and implies his approval of the choice by characterizing Chris's happiness, which is destroyed by the cure, as "synthetic" (8). 11 Similarly, Margaret Stetz writes, "At last, Jenny reaches the conclusion that happiness is not an end in itself, but merely a 'trivial toy'.… Indeed, it is an obstacle to higher ideals, such as the ones Jenny now names—'truth' and 'dignity.' … [T]o continue the fantasy would be to violate Chris's right to independence. Thus, 'He would not be quite a man'" (73-4). Sharon Ouditt more circumspectly notes that the kind of happiness Chris has with Margaret, who represents "the repository of genuine values," is
the happiness of innocence—or of the psychotic. It cannot be integrated into the cultural and social structures that construct meaning for the majority. Whether or not this is ultimately beneficial to mankind is left open; but the process of distinguishing reality from romance, depth from decoration, is seen as being crucial to mental health even if it involves a brutal dismissal of an alternate value system and an equally brutal return to the barbarities of war. (110)
Other critics, such as Suzette Henke, Marina MacKay, and Laura Cowan, criticize the cure as classist and antifeminist; they point out that the cure enables Chris to return to a position of dominance over the women and contributes to the war's continuance. As Gerber asserts about other texts featuring disabled veterans, what is at stake in stories of rehabilitation is the return of "symbolic male dominance and heterosexual intimacy"; "national vigor and power," he writes, "are made to seem dependent on the health of conventional masculinity and femininity" (11). About The Return of the Soldier, Cowan writes that "West does not suggest that Chris can do anything less [than return to "normality"], but she is highly critical of the necessity and excruciatingly critical of the world he has to enter" (305). 12 But if West's novel is as thoroughly critical of the sexist, classist, and imperialist world as Cowan claims, it seems odd that the novel endorses the cure. Indeed, Ann Norton gestures toward the strangeness of the ending by describing it as "puzzling" (12) and asserting that "[o]ne of West's main messages, then, seems to be that the women are the ones who maintain this harmful cycle of overworked men and dependent women, but that somehow a man is not doing the right thing if he flees it" (13, italics added). My contention in this article is that in spite of West's efforts to critique the social norms that require Chris to maintain his masculine and class dominance, ableism overrides that critique, leaving the ending a "puzzling" reversal.
In fact, in her essay "On The Return of the Soldier," written in 1928, West herself comments on the cure. Her primary aim is to explain that she knows that the cure is not realistic from a psychoanalytical perspective. "This is not by any means orthodox psycho-analysis; in fact, I doubt if any pyscho-analyst would believe in a cure so sharply effected" (68). West acknowledges, that is, that the end of the novel is a literary conceit. The point for West is not whether the cure is realistic, but whether the story has integrity. But of course from a disability studies perspective, the cure destroys the integrity of the story by using Chris's disability as, in Mitchell and Snyder's terms, a textual prosthesis. As Mitchell and Snyder write, "[T]he erasure of disability via a 'quick fix' of an impaired physicality or intellect removes an audience's need for concern or continuing vigilance" (8).
In the process of discussing this "quick fix," West makes clear that she, like the characters and several critics, also approves of the "cure."
Now, there are drawbacks about following this course. It means that [Margaret] loses him: and it means that he has to go back to his wife Kitty, whom he does not like, and to the war. On the other hand, one does not want one's loved one to live in a land of illusion and infirmity. Nobody realises all this but Margaret. Now she might have turned this over and over in her heart, and suddenly been conquered by the latter and graver consideration. But I had been obliged to tell the story in the first person, in the character of Chris's cousin Jenny…" (68)
West describes the reality to which Chris must return as containing unfortunate elements, but paints those "drawbacks" as far less significant than the "graver consideration" that "one does not want one's loved one to live in a land of illusion of infirmity." 13
That West could write such a passage about a novel which so brilliantly critiques sanist attitudes and that the novel could turn its back on its own critique by insisting that Chris be brought back to "normalcy" are the most striking facts about this text. Even though Chris's "madness" is described as "genius" and "reality" as a "cup of lies," and even though his memory loss is protecting his very life, the characters, the critics, and the author are so inculcated in ableist norms that they cannot follow the novel's thread, in which Chris's genius frees him from the classist, sexist, over-controlled atmosphere of Baldry Court, to its logical conclusion.
In the issue of the journal Adbusters on Mad Pride, the editors comment that "Mad Pride…is a signal that we will allow ourselves our deep sorrow, our manic hope, our fierce anxiety, our imperfect rage. These will be our feedback into the system'" (qtd in Lewis, 173). By "curing" Chris without his consent, the characters in The Return of the Soldier silence his "triumph over the limitations of language" which sought to communicate deep sorrow over the war and over Oliver's death; they silence his manic hope for a life-giving union with Margaret, his fierce anxiety about the state of the war-torn world, and his rage in the face of a world that will "not allow magic circles to endure" (78). Wyatt Bonikowski writes, "Perhaps West's novel is a kind of cautionary tale about the inability to acknowledge that which presents itself as a limit to knowledge" (531). With the word "perhaps" signaling West's failure to carry her critique to its logical end, Bonikowski indicates what could have been the defiant message of this powerful novel.
I would like to thank John Whittier-Ferguson and two anonymous readers for this journal for their helpful and insightful comments on this essay.
- Atkinson, Helen. "Introduction." The Return of the Soldier. The Authorized EBook. Open Road Media, 2011. Web. Accessed Jan 12, 2012. http://books.google.com/books?id=ioctKodUo7YC&dq=introduction%2Bfor%2BReturn%2Bof%2Bthe%2BSoldier&source=gbs_navlinks_s
- Bonikowski, Wyatt. "The Return of the Soldier Brings Death Home." Modern Fiction Studies 51.3 (Fall 2005): 513-535. Print.
- Bourke, Joanna. Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain, and the Great War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.
- Chamberlin, Judi. "Citizenship Rights and Psychiatric Disability." Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 21.4 (Spring 1998): 405-408. Print.
- Cohen, Debra Rae. Remapping the Home Front: Locating Citizenship in British Women's Great War Fiction. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002. Print.
- Coleman, Emily Holmes. The Shutter of Snow. 1930. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1997. Print.
- Cowan, Laura. "The Fine Frenzy of Artistic Vision: Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier as a Feminist Analysis of World War I." The Centennial Review 42.2 (1998): 285-308. Print.
- Gerber, David A., ed. Disabled Veterans in History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Print.
- Henke, Suzette. "Modernism and Trauma." The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women Writers. Ed. Maren Linett. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.
- Joyce, James. Dubliners. 1914. New York: Penguin Books, 1967. Print.
- Kavka, Misha. "Men in (Shell-)Shock: Masculinity, Trauma, and Psychoanalysis in Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier." Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature 22.1 (1998): 151-171. Print.
- Kent, Susan Kingsley. Making Peace: The Reconstruction of Gender in Interwar Britain. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. Print.
- Lewis, Bradley. "A Mad Fight: Psychiatry and Disability Activism." The Disability Studies Reader 3rd edition. Ed. Lennard Davis. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
- MacKay, Marina. "The Lunacy of Men, the Idiocy of Women: Woolf, West, and War." NWSA Journal 15. 3 (Fall 2003): 124-144. Print.
- Mitchell, David T. and Sharon Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Print.
- Norton, Ann. Paradoxical Feminism: The Novels of Rebecca West. Lanham, MD: International Scholars Press, 2000. Print.
- Pinkerton, Steve. "Trauma and Cure in Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier." Journal of Modern Literature 32:1 (2008 Fall): 1-12. Print.
- Stetz, Margaret. "Drinking the 'Wine of Truth': Philosophical Change in West's The Return of the Soldier. Arizona Quarterly 43.1 (1987): 63-78. Print.
- Szasz, Thomas. The Medicalization of Everyday Life: Selected Essays. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007. Print.
- Tylee, Claire. The Great War and Women's Consciousness: Images of Militarism and Womanhood in Women's Writings, 1914-1964. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990. Print.
- West, Rebecca. "On The Return of the Soldier." Prefatory note by G. E Hutchinson. The Yale University Library Gazette 57.1-2 (1982): 66-71. Print.
- —. The Return of the Soldier. 1918. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. Print.
- Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1997. Print.
- Other critics, as I discuss below, do view the cure negatively for feminist or anti-war reasons, but no one has pointed out the ableism or sanism it entails.
Return to Text
If Chris were wounded physically, like the men in Jenny's recurring nightmare (5), Kitty would surely not respond with such disdain. David Gerber explains that during and after World War I, veterans with psychological disabilities were still often seen as "shirkers or psychotic" (21), though by World War II, there was greater recognition of "the inevitability and legitimacy of neuropsychiatric disability" (23).
Return to Text
Joseph Valente pointed out to me that since Chris's unhappiness began when he had to leave Margaret for Mexico to keep the mines running during the revolution, the novel's critique targets imperialism as well as class and gender.
Return to Text
Joyce's Gabriel Conroy thinks with jealousy about his wife Gretta's first love, who died young: "Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age" (223). Similarly, Clarissa Dalloway, musing on the suicide of that other modernist madman, Septimus Smith, thinks, "A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved" (Woolf 201).
Return to Text
West's great niece, Helen Atkinson, writes that West was "poking fun at the anachronistic restrictions and joyless mores of a society from which she had, in significant and painful ways, been excluded all her life."
Return to Text
The Penguin edition I am citing is missing several words at this point ("she had forgotten that it is the first concern of love"), making the lines nonsensical and ungrammatical; I have therefore added the words found in both the Broadview edition of The Return of the Soldier (116) and the google ebook of the 1918 American edition published by George H. Doran Company.
Return to Text
It is possible, as John Whittier-Ferguson has pointed out to me, that Jenny is projecting her own sense of disability—she feels she is aging without attaining wholeness because she lacks the experience of sexual love—onto Chris, and that her self-loathing animates the cruelty of this passage. There is indeed ample evidence in the text that Jenny feels inferior to Margaret because Margaret has known "requited love."
Return to Text
In Emily Coleman's experimental 1930 novel The Shutter of Snow, for example, the protagonist tells her doctor, "I may be insane, but I protest Im [sic] not feeble-minded" (88).
Return to Text
Burke quotes the Chairman of the Home Office Committee on Workman's Compensation questioning the principal medical officer of the Ministry of Pensions: "In effect he gets his pension because he is disabled?" "Yes." "Qua man?" "Yes." "And not qua worker?" "Yes." Bourke comments, "What was being compensated was 'loss of amenity'… Each part of men's bodies was allocated a moral weighting based on the degree to which it incapacitated a man from 'being' a man…" (65).
Return to Text
As a reader for this journal rightly points out, there is one aspect of the "truth" that it does seem Chris does not know, and ought to know: that he had and lost a son. The reason this does not, in my view, override my argument is that the characters do not seem particularly concerned with this aspect of "reality." They use evidence of Oliver as a means to an end, but the "wine of truth" passage shows no urgency that Chris should know about Oliver; rather, it shows excessive concern with returning him to a normate status.
Return to Text
Pinkterton writes, "The sheer violence of Kitty's grief…apparently succeeds in reminding Margaret of the collateral damage…that can come of prolonging one man's synthetic happiness" (8).
Return to Text
Note that Cowan implies that leaving Chris as he is would be something "less" than curing him. Claire Tylee disagrees with the claim that the novel critiques patriarchal marriage and militarism, writing that "Chris's return to sanity is a resumption of the materialist values of the bourgeois marriage, which have never really been at risk. Margaret also accepts those values. The war is never questioned, and neither is the social inequality on which the novel is founded" (145).
Return to Text
After reading this passage, it is impossible not to agree with Tylee when she writes that by the end of the novel the "gap" between Jenny's values and West's "has decisively closed" (144).
Return to Text