Twin traumas color Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier: the front lines of World War I and the death of a young child. These traumas—one international and one domestic—shape the return of Chris Baldry, a shell-shocked soldier, to his home in England. His experience in war has left him unable to recall his marriage to his beautiful wife, Kitty, or the death of their son, Oliver. The novel’s portrayal of shell shock, trauma, and early psychoanalysis has prompted many critics to examine Chris’s traumatic symptoms. But critics have ignored the implications of the fact that Kitty has also lived through Oliver’s death, one of the novel’s central traumas.
Set in a claustrophobic and often lonely domestic atmosphere in which three women vie for Chris’s attentions, the novel is as much a study of women’s adjacent involvement in war as an account of male war trauma. One of the text’s ironies is that Chris remains blissfully unaware of his amnesia while his wife, cousin, and former lover negotiate his memory loss and attempt to restore the perceived security his masculinity offers. Jenny Baldry, Chris’s cousin and the novel’s first-person narrator, is horrified by the changes war has wrought on Chris, yet she is initially hesitant to cure his amnesia. Margaret Grey, Chris’s former lover, a working-class woman who ultimately repairs his memory by reminding him of Oliver’s death, remains calm and resourceful when she finds she is a central part of Chris’s fantasy world in the wake of his injury. But Kitty seems unable to cope with her husband’s amnesia, a shocking event that reasserts for her the trauma of Oliver’s death. Critics have characterized Kitty’s dissociation as selfish. Yet her grief and withdrawal closely resemble what [End Page 37] Cathy Caruth describes as the sense of possession that follows a traumatic experience (see 4–5). Rather than narcissism, Kitty’s detachment and short temper more closely resemble the state of being haunted by recurrent traumatic memories. Indeed, the memory of Oliver physically alters Kitty, leaving her “shiver[ing] and…cold” (82).
Reading Kitty as Chris’s traumatized equivalent implies that West’s novel exposes trauma’s diverse, gendered sources and records unequal responses to men’s and women’s experiences of trauma. This approach resolves some of the seeming discrepancy between West’s early nonfiction feminist writings and The Return of the Soldier, her first published novel. Critics have noted that while West’s early journalism favors an adamant, even a strident, form of feminism, The Return of the Soldier seems to retract some of her earlier demands for gender equality (see Schweizer 26–29). But the study of trauma, as Judith Herman notes, suggests that women’s experiences are as legitimate as men’s by “[r]ecognizing [that] the commonality of affliction may…make it possible at times to transcend the immense gulf that separates the public sphere of war and politics—the world of men—and the private sphere of domestic life—the world of women” (32). The Return of the Soldier calls for this transcendence by placing men’s and women’s traumas alongside one another.
Furthermore, the novel suggests that trauma is trivialized “[w]hen the victim is already devalued (a woman, a child)” because “she may find that the most traumatic events of her life take place outside the realm of socially validated reality” (Herman 8). The Return of the Soldier illustrates how Kitty’s traumatic symptoms, which result from a particular, domestic incident, are overshadowed by Chris’s experience of trauma in war. In fact, most previous critical approaches have approached Kitty’s traumatic symptoms in a similar way, by subordinating their narrative importance in comparison to Chris’s shell shock. But such readings replicate patriarchal discourses that respect war experiences while belittling domestic tragedy. In presenting a parallel traumatic representation in Kitty, the novel offers a feminist statement about traumatic experience that is in keeping with West’s early journalism.
In this essay, I argue that...