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Reading Kitty’s Trauma in Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier
Rebecah Pulsifer
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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 Kitty’s apparent irritability and numbness can be read as her own traumatic symptoms, which are analogous to Chris’s own. I first examine West’s early feminism, locating the relationship between The Return of the Soldier and her journalism in the 1910s. Next, I discuss how Jenny’s unreliable narration has contributed to inconsistent readings of Kitty. Finally, I foreground Kitty’s traumatic symptoms and examine the novel’s unstable temporality in light of Chris’s and Kitty’s traumatic memories. By moving Kitty from the margins to the center, I aim to demonstrate that The Return of the Soldier offers a broader exposition of trauma than has previously been acknowledged and reveals how women’s experiences of trauma are often subordinated to those of men. [End Page 38]

Rebecca West’s Early Feminism

Situating The Return of the Soldier among Rebecca West’s early writings is complicated by the apparent contradictions between the novel and her contemporaneous feminist journalism and by West’s different approaches to feminism throughout her long career. Her earliest writings in feminist publications such as The Freewoman and Time and Tide vituperatively advocate for equality between the sexes. Jane Marcus characterizes West’s feminist politics in the 1910s in terms of self-reliance: “A woman must no longer choose the role of…the muse and become mistress of her own art, her own science, herself” (3). Yet, as Bernard Schweizer observes, West’s politics and feminism shifted significantly during her lifetime. Indeed, some recent feminists reject West’s gender politics on the basis of her “perceived gender essentialism, her celebration of heterosexuality, and her admiration of virility” (27). He suggests that some critics, viewing West’s early feminist ideals through the lens of her increased conservatism in later years, have a cynical outlook on her radical feminism in the 1910s. Meanwhile, Ann V. Norton’s thorough study of West’s feminism finds it to be “paradoxical,” attributing the inconsistent representations of gender in her nonfiction and fiction to West’s dissatisfaction with her personal life and the shifting political paradigms through which she lived. West’s seemingly unbalanced feminism is further disrupted by The Return of the Soldier, which—as Laura Cowan observes—“portrays Jenny and Kitty’s subordination to Chris with a sure hand” (288).

Troubled by West’s apparent retreat from her early feminist values, some critics conclude that West depicts separate spheres in The Return of the Soldier with subtle irony, exposing patriarchal paradigms to call for revisions to the existing order (see Cowan and MacKay). Yet this type of tempered rhetoric does not seem characteristic of West, who wrote for The Freewoman in 1912 that “a strong hatred” is “the best lamp to bear in our hands as we go over the dark places of life, cutting away the dead things men tell us to revere” (Marcus 23). Misha Kavka also reads The Return of the Soldier as a step back from her earlier political writings. “[I]n wartime the ground of gender politics shifts,” Kavka reasons, “since no feminist’s denunciation of men will protect women from the traumatic reaches of war” (151). But, unlike many of her peers, West does not appear to have compromised her call for equality between the sexes in wartime. Historian Susan Kingsley Kent notes that even after World War I, when many “new” feminists accepted the home as the proper place for women, West’s was one of the only remaining voices that continued to advocate for sex antagonism and unlimited gender equality (136). In sum, The Return of the Soldier does not seem to fit in what was otherwise a radical decade for West’s gender politics.

Certainly much of this seeming discrepancy lies in the intersections between West’s personal life and the novel’s textual history. West wrote The Return of the Soldier shortly after giving birth to an illegitimate son. She [End Page 39] carried on an affair with the boy’s father, H. G. Wells, for a decade. During that time, she occasionally criticized his wife, Jane Wells, for disregarding his happiness and pleasure. Thus, paradoxically, while West rallied against men and the limitations of patriarchy in her writing, she sustained a romantic relationship that abided by patriarchal conventions.

The occasion of a nurturing, supportive mistress in The Return of the Soldier has led several critics to read Margaret as a semi-biographical representation of West herself. In this biographical paradigm, Kitty represents Jane Wells. Although critics increasingly distance themselves from the problematic mode of reading women’s literature biographically, this framework continues to cloud criticism of West’s first published novel. Readings of The Return of the Soldier that dismiss Kitty exhibit the residual effects of using an author’s personal life to evaluate the merits of her fictional characters. As Margaret D. Stetz eloquently demonstrates, reading Kitty as an “ungracious portrait” of Jane Wells overlooks West’s own belief in the importance of aesthetics (“Rebecca West” 161). West clearly did not condone the somber attire and drab utilitarianism she attributes to Margaret, her supposed double, but, like Kitty, enjoyed the contemplation of beauty. Indeed, West’s description of Margaret’s home in The Return of the Soldier, which I discuss below, recalls the dour village home for young girls she condemns in her 1912 article “A New Woman’s Movement: The Need for Riotous Living”:

It was a very ugly place.…There was not a fleshly vanity in the place. There were no pictures on the walls; no lost ladies of old years to kindle the imagination with their beauty…And the austerity of the furniture passes description; in its gauntness it reminded one of the ribs of a London ‘bus horse.

In this article, West urges women to guiltlessly pursue sensuality and beauty in order to confound the constraints of patriarchy, which shame women into avoiding pleasure.1 Margaret’s plain and selfless maternalism hardly echoes the active fight against sexism West advocated. It is a mistake to continue attributing biographical traits to Margaret—or to other characters in the novel—which at best represent only a sliver of West’s own experiences and ideas of feminism.

Though it is beyond my scope to address West’s feminism throughout her career, I contend that reading The Return of the Soldier as an exploration of female and male traumatic experience offers a more cohesive understanding of West’s feminism in the 1910s. Rather than reversing her earlier claims for gender equality, West seems to assert in the text’s fictional universe Chris’s and Kitty’s parallel suffering. While Chris’s traumatic war experiences and Kitty’s experience coping with their son’s death clearly diverge from one another in scope and context, the characters exhibit similar traumatic responses. Both [End Page 40] Chris and Kitty orchestrate returns to the past as their experiences of time become distorted through the effects of trauma. The similarities between these two modes of suffering are, however, obscured by the deception that characterizes Jenny Baldry’s narrative perspective.

Jenny’s Narrative Deception

The Return of the Soldier’s complex narrative style disguises the source and symptoms of Kitty’s trauma because it is replete with ambiguities. Many critics have acknowledged the text’s biased narration. Norton, for example, notes that “[a]s a narrator, Jenny is no more direct or strictly truthful than The Good Soldier’s John Dowell” (10). These ambiguities emerge from the covert love Jenny obviously feels for her cousin; as Jane Gledhill observes, Jenny’s dislike of Kitty is fueled by jealousy and the “love for Chris [hidden in the narrative voice] that would be more appropriately expressed by his wife” (183). Jenny terms her own jealousy “as ugly and unmental as sickness” (64). Her narrative biases and intrusions disrupt not only Chris’s relationships with other women, but also the novel’s seemingly straightforward narration.

While critics accept that Jenny’s narrative ambiguities affect readings of Chris and Margaret, they seem to take her representations of Kitty at face value. Consequently, Kitty’s critical reception has been profoundly negative. Melissa Edmundson reads the character as “a calculating and vengeful taskmaster” who exhibits “despotic behaviour” through her management of Baldry Court (492). Stetz sees Kitty as “spiteful,” implying that she “has failed in her responsibility to protect either [her] child Oliver or [her husband] Chris” (“Drinking” 67). Though Stetz asserts that Kitty embodies the love for beauty that she notes “dominates West’s early narratives,” she also writes that Kitty represents “a chilly and loveless feminine ideal” (“Rebecca West” 161–62). Kavka’s interpretation is the most common: she reads Kitty as a narcissistic benefactor of Chris’s benevolence, “desir[ing] Chris for what he can give her” (164). Many critics regard Kitty as “both ignorant of money and as free with it as if it were air to breathe,” acting as a “classic parasite[]” to Chris’s patronage in the sexual economy of marriage (Norton 9). Yet these interpretations read the novel’s narrative biases selectively. West’s complex narrative style demands nuanced interpretations of the characters Jenny describes, particularly Kitty, of whom Jenny is the most envious.

Kitty’s negative critical reception stems in part from her obvious materialism and classism, which affect, in particular, her interactions with Margaret. For instance, when Margaret arrives at Baldry Court to notify Kitty and Jenny of Chris’s shell shock, Kitty—glancing at herself in the mirror before going to meet her guest—snobbishly comments, “[l]ast year’s fashion…but I fancy it’ll do for a person with that sort of address” (9). Kitty values fine things: her underclothing is “frail luminous silk” (62), her car is “deliberate[ly] delica[te]” (49), and she owns a great deal of jewelry (26). Indeed, she [End Page 41] appreciates the financial superiority her marriage to Chris affords her. Yet her obvious elitism should not cause critics to assume that she cannot feel pain or experience trauma. In addition, we should notice that the most egregious examples of Kitty’s classism and materialism appear not as dialogue spoken by Kitty, but through Jenny’s narration. Jenny—though she too enjoys the benefits of wealth—is so critical of Kitty’s materialism that she sarcastically observes one might expect to find “a large ‘7d.’ somewhere attached to her person” (4). At times, Jenny is awed by the potential power of Kitty’s beauty. She believes “[women of her type] are obscurely aware that it is their civilizing mission to flash the jewel of their beauty before all men, so that they shall desire it and work to get the wealth to buy it, and thus be seduced by a present appetite to a tilling of the earth that serves the future” (75). But, more often, Jenny enviously condemns Kitty’s expensive elegance.

Jenny’s jealousy of Kitty and, after Chris declares he loves her, Margaret, forms the basis of her narrative ambiguities. These ambiguities frequently appear as parenthetical asides. For example, early in the novel, Jenny thinks, “I had not meant to enter [the nursery] again after the child’s death, but I had come suddenly on Kitty as she slipped the key into the lock and had lingered to look in at the high room” (3). But later, as Jenny recalls Chris’s departure to war, she remembers, “[f]rom [the nursery] window I had spied on him” (7). This comment contradicts her claim that she avoided the nursery after Oliver’s death. It turns out that she has not only entered the nursery, but has used it to “spy” on the cousin she secretly loves. Later, when Margaret nurses Chris in the garden at Baldry Court, Jenny again watches from afar: “as a dead bough dropped near she made a squalid dodging movement like a hen. She was not so much a person as an implication of dreary poverty, like an open door in a mean house that lets out the smell of cooking cabbage and the screams of children” (68–69). Here, Jenny’s voyeurism contradicts her earlier assertion that she cannot bear to imagine Margaret and Chris loving one another (63). Likewise, her claim that Margaret seems “not so much a person” reveals how fickle her allegiances are. Earlier, in Margaret’s modest home, which is full of the sights and smells of domestic labor, Jenny thinks that Margaret and Chris are the “only two real people in the world” (46), a belief seemingly reinforced by Margaret’s simplicity. Similarly, when Kitty cries outside the nursery as Margaret and Jenny search for items to restore Chris’s memory, Jenny believes her expression of grief shows “that she hated to see this strange ugly woman moving about among her things” (87). This accusation is inconsistent, however, with the fact that Kitty gives permission for Jenny and Margaret to enter the nursery a few pages earlier (82). Jenny’s characterizations and descriptions are dappled by her jealousy and bias.

Because she is driven by her parasitic love for her cousin, it is not surprising that Jenny misrepresents Kitty. Her narrative voice is so partial that some critics seem to be drawn into her hatred. Kavka, for instance, calls Kitty’s [End Page 42] maternalism “unnatural” and figures her use of the nursery to dry her hair in the novel’s opening as “heartless” (163). Yet Kitty’s actions and attitudes call for more subtle readings. In particular, there is no textual evidence that supports reading Kitty as an emotionless or tainted mother. Rather, the text clearly shows she continues to suffer five years after the trauma of her son’s death. Jenny describes Kitty’s repeated returns to Oliver’s nursery as “Kitty revisiting her dead” (4), clearly suggesting a mourning process. Later, when reminded of Oliver’s death, Kitty “shivered and looked cold as she always did at the memory of her unique contact with death” (82). Physically affected by the trauma that continues to haunt her, Kitty appears to experience maternal grief deeply. Margaret, the other mourning mother in the text, receives more sympathy from both Jenny and the novel’s critics. Like Oliver, Margaret’s son died from “the merest cold” (77). The similarity between these two deaths prompts Margaret to exclaim, “each had half a life” (77). Jenny, overlooking Kitty, sees Margaret’s loss as a source of transcendent connection between her and Chris. For instance, as Margaret admires Oliver’s day nursery, Jenny notices, “it was so apparent that she was a mother that I could not imagine how it was that I had not always known it” (83). She believes Margaret resembles images of miraculous women “who could bring God into the world by the passion of their motherhood” (83). While Jenny believes that Margaret’s maternalism grants her extraordinary abilities, she discounts Kitty’s experience of motherhood. It is odd that though the text meditates intensely on Margaret’s maternal bonds, Kitty’s maternal role is dismissed by the narrative voice and by critics. While Margaret’s and Chris’s experiences with parental loss verify their spiritual compatibility, Jenny suggests that Kitty is unworthy of sympathy. Though Jenny admits, “to mothers [children] are fleshly cables binding one down to…profundities of feeling” (78), she does not acknowledge that Kitty feels these same “bindings.”

Even the narcissism that Jenny frequently attributes to Kitty seems fueled by her jealousy. For example, although Jenny insists that Kitty is a “manufactur[er] [of] malice” (31), the text also shows that Kitty sews “[c]lothes for one of the cottagers” (29), acknowledging the responsibility that comes with owning “all the land…[on which] there’s ever so many people to look after” (29). Though disturbed by the letter they have received that confirms Chris’s shell shock, Kitty—who is obviously involved in Baldry Court’s domestic operations—“took [Jenny] down after lunch to the greenhouses and had a snappishly competent conversation about the year’s vegetables with Pipe the gardener” (22). These moments trouble readings that posit Kitty as narcissistic or inscribe her as a character “who can see only surfaces” (Bonikowski 526). Several passages point to ways in which Kitty and Jenny diverge in terms of their prejudices. One significant example takes place after Margaret brings the news of Chris’s shell shock to Baldry Court. A plain, middle-aged woman, Margaret represents “the red suburban stain which fouls the fields three miles [End Page 43] nearer London than Harrowweald” (9). Kitty and Jenny regard her presence at Baldry Court as a breach of their polished sanctuary and her announcement about Chris as “a fraud as one sees recorded in the papers” (11). When Margaret says that Chris has written to her from the hospital, both Kitty and Jenny react at first with disbelief. But Margaret’s news does not present a new reality; instead, it reveals that Chris has concealed the truth of his past, a fact that Kitty quickly realizes.

“Oh, I know you think I was rude,” [Kitty] petulantly moaned, “but you’re so slow, you don’t see what it means. Either it means that 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….It’s queer he should have written such a message, queer that he shouldn’t have told me about knowing her, queer that he ever should have known such a woman. It shows there are bits of him we don’t know. Things may be awfully wrong. It’s all such a breach of trust. I resent it.”


Jenny thinks of Margaret as “a spreading stain on the fabric of our life” (16), a disturbance that disrupts the otherwise tranquil Baldry Court. For Kitty, Margaret reveals that their peaceful existence was founded on omission: a socially constructed amnesia that represses the past to live peacefully in the present. This is the “breach of trust” that Kitty resents. Jenny insists that Margaret’s news means Chris is “ill”—implying he suffers from a temporary condition that can be cured (17). But Kitty believes that “[i]f he could send that telegram he isn’t ours any longer” (17); in other words, even if Chris can be cured, he will not be the same person she believed he was prior to his injury. He can never be restored to what he never was. What Jenny—and Wyatt Bonikowski (523)—reads as a denial of his shell shock can be read as Kitty’s sense that the “stain” Chris’s trauma reveals cannot be removed because it was always present.

Though some critics see their marriage as empty or incompatible (for example, see Rollyson 25), Kitty’s earlier faith in Chris’s safety in war is figured more as her belief in marital partnership than as a dismissal of his potential danger. She tells Jenny, “if he’d been…anywhere where the fighting was really hot, he’d have found some way of telling me instead of just leaving it as ‘Somewhere in France’” (3). Kitty seems confident that Chris will disobey military protocol to warn her if he is in danger. Later, when she finds it “queer that he shouldn’t have told me about knowing [Margaret]” (17), Kitty again alludes to her sense of her marriage before the news of Chris’s shell shock.

Significantly, Jenny responds to Kitty’s comment about Chris’s “breach of trust” with distaste: “I was appalled by [Kitty’s] stiff dignified gesture that seemed to be plucking Chris’ soul from his body. She was hurt, of course. But there are ways pain should not show itself…” (17). Jenny implies that Kitty should temper her pain; more importantly, she feels her pain is expressed [End Page 44] inappropriately. This moment reveals how Jenny’s narrative voice censures Kitty.2 Unlike Kitty, Jenny recognizes the seriousness of Chris’s trauma only much later, when she and Margaret catch sight of Kitty moving past the nursery:

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? 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 that we must drink or not be fully human?


Jenny’s contradictory assertion that Kitty is “merely suffering” underscores the prejudiced descriptions and inconsistent reality that cloud her narration. Indeed, Jenny admits that in her “frenzied love” she has drifted from the truth. She attempts to reverse her inconsistencies by encouraging Margaret to recall Chris’s memory, a process that serves as much to restore Jenny’s own sense of reality as Chris’s.

Ultimately, the “cure” that Jenny and Margaret orchestrate revives not Chris, but the soldier he has become—the only part of the past that can be salvaged. After her intense suffering during Chris’s amnesia, Kitty views his military appearance “with satisfaction” (90), but the novel suggests that his return to normative mental health is as incomplete as his return home. Indeed, his restored memory assures that he will once again return to war. The cure revives a simulacrum of the past, but in doing so leaves Kitty traumatized. Kitty’s inability to recognize the danger of Chris’s cure suggests that the process of restoring Chris’s memory has left her as unable to acknowledge the horrors of the present as Chris was when he first returned to Baldry Court.

Shock in Baldry Court

The home in The Return of the Soldier proves to be neither a shelter from the outside world nor the blissful sanctuary it seems at the start of the novel. At first glance, Baldry Court is “a meditation on the Wildean ideal of the House Beautiful” (Stetz, “Rebecca West” 160)—a haven maintained with money for Chris’s pleasure. The women, like the home, exist solely for Chris. Even in their moments of classist condescension, Jenny thinks, “[w]e were not, perhaps, specially contemptible women, because nothing could ever really become a part of our life until it had been referred to Chris’s attention” (8). Chris and the power of his masculinity protect the women from the outside world and from taking responsibility for their classist prejudices. Yet the novel reveals that this protection is illusory because trauma is already present in the domestic sphere and in the psyches of the women who watch over it.3

In fact, before Chris’s return, Kitty’s actions already suggest that she has experienced trauma. Trauma is intrinsically connected to the perception [End Page 45] of temporality because, as Ruth Leys notes, “[p]ost-traumatic stress disorder is fundamentally a disorder of memory.…The experience of the trauma, fixed or frozen in time, refuses to be represented as past, but is perpetually re-experienced in a painful, dissociated, traumatic present” (2). Being traumatized, then, is the sense of continually experiencing the past and the state of experiencing the past and present simultaneously. This disruption of the perception of time forecloses the possibility of articulating the traumatic event, even while the traumatized person compulsively seeks to do so. Like Chris, who represses the horrors of the present to reexperience his memories of his youth with Margaret, Kitty returns repeatedly to the nursery, signaling that her experience of the present has been interrupted by the trauma of Oliver’s death.

The first sign of this disrupted temporality appears in the opening scene, which takes place in Oliver’s former nursery, a disturbing room that interrupts the tranquility of the home. Maintained by Chris “as though there were still a child in the house” (3), the unused nursery perpetuates a false chronology that denies Oliver’s death. The room faithfully preserves objects from Oliver’s childhood, which cannot help but reassert the fact that he is dead. Its details suggest a painstaking attention to literality that is characteristic of Bessel A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart’s theory of traumatic nightmares, in which “traumatic scenes [are] reexperienced at night over and over again without modification” (172). The menagerie of objects stored in the nursery pretends an uncanny false reality. Jenny notes with concern that “[the sunlight] fell on the rocking-horse which had been Chris’ idea of an appropriate gift for his year-old son…it picked out Mary and her little lamb on the chintz ottoman.… Everything was there, except Oliver” (3–4). Kitty too finds the room troubling. She tells Jenny, “I wish Chris wouldn’t have it kept as a nursery when there’s no chance—” (4). But Chris, the protector of this disturbing space, is absent. Instead, it is Kitty who repeatedly returns to the nursery. She “always come[s] in here when Emery has washed [her] hair” because “it’s the sunniest room in the house” (4). Although the static nursery halts the process of integrating her memories of Oliver, Kitty continuously interacts with the cenotaph Chris insists they maintain for their son. Indeed, the nursery is a physical embodiment of a traumatic memory to which Kitty continually returns. Kitty’s returns, which repress the knowledge of Oliver’s death, suggest that Kitty resists remembering her son, a resistance she emphasizes by articulating her desire for the nursery’s removal. Significantly, when she tells Jenny that she wishes Chris “wouldn’t have it kept as a nursery,” her rationale for her desire dissolves in an ambiguous dash. Prior to Chris’s return, Kitty appears to repress her memories of Oliver even as she revisits the empty nursery. Kitty’s departure and return to the nursery continually reassert the painful fact of Oliver’s death. What I would like to emphasize here is that Kitty dislikes the nursery and wishes Chris would remove it, but continues to enter it anyway. Her visits to the nursery, [End Page 46] therefore, signal returns that do not allow her to cope with her memory of Oliver’s death. Indeed, because of Chris’s implicit control over the home, Kitty cannot choose how to negotiate her traumatic memories. Unlike Chris, who elects that communion with Margaret will be the method of his cure, Kitty cannot make this choice—in fact, she cannot even insist that the nursery be removed. This discrepancy highlights the imbalance of power between men and women attempting to negotiate trauma.

By illustrating the specificity of Kitty’s trauma, which is caused by Oliver’s death and which manifests in her incessant returns to the nursery, The Return of the Soldier asserts the subjective experience of trauma. While it is tempting to attribute greater importance to the horrors that Chris has witnessed in No Man’s Land because of their quantity, in presenting Kitty’s loss of Oliver, The Return of the Soldier exposes how trauma is subjective and unquantifiable. Moreover, the novel suggests that approaching trauma quantifiably inevitably conceals women’s traumatic experiences, which often arise from particular events in the domestic sphere. By offering Kitty’s specific experience of trauma as a corollary to the unspoken breadth of Chris’s traumas in war, The Return of the Soldier grants equal importance to men’s and women’s experiences of trauma.

Correlating war neurosis in The Return of the Soldier with the death drive, Bonikowski observes that in the figure of the returning soldier, “war is not only something out there, happening in another place; rather, war, like death, is present within the subject” (514). Baldry Court marks a similar transgression of boundaries because the home preserves a memory of the death that Chris forgets in war. Indeed, the home’s prior contamination by death—the memory of which is preserved in the nursery—will be important for uncovering the source of Chris’s trauma and restoring his memory.4 Reflecting on Chris’s amnesia, Jenny slights the nursery’s horrors, which continually signal the absence of Oliver’s “fat fist” (3) by recreating the precise atmosphere of his short life. She suggests that the traumas of the nursery are negligible when compared to those of war, asking, “[w]hy had modern life brought forth these horrors that make the old tragedies seem no more than nursery shows?” (30). By belittling the past’s tragedies as mere games compared to those of the present, she asserts that in light of war, other tragedies are unimportant. Yet her use of the word “nursery” recalls Baldry Court’s frozen memorial to Oliver. The nursery, like traumatic memories, cannot be integrated fully into the domestic space. Jenny’s question implies, despite her disavowal, that nurseries, which often conceal women’s experiences of trauma, may be analogous sites to the battlefields of modern war. Both of these gendered spaces threaten to render individuals powerless, which, as Elaine Showalter notes, can “lead to pathology” (190). In this sense, these sites share a similar potential for trauma.

As her habitual returns to the nursery reveal, the source of Kitty’s trauma is Oliver’s death. However, the memory of this death is intertwined with Chris’s return because his return reawakens the pain of her earlier traumatic [End Page 47] loss. As van der Kolk and van der Hart note, “[p]reviously traumatized people are vulnerable to experience current stress as the return of the trauma” (174). Kitty’s deterioration after Chris’s return signals that the stress of his arrival has brought the memory of Oliver’s death closer to the surface of her consciousness. Chris’s return exacerbates Kitty’s traumatic symptoms, which include emotional inertia and the gradual enervation of her body, by erasing and denying the social component of her traumatic experience. Current trauma theorists emphasize the importance of community or partnership in traumatic recovery, but Chris’s amnesia and his love for Margaret rob Kitty of the partner with whom she shared the memory of their son’s death. Indeed, the memories to which Chris clings suggest that this partnership was not as genuine as she believed. Her mourning process increasingly gives way to traumatic expressions that reflect Kitty’s inability to cope with trauma in the absence of partnership.

After hearing from Margaret that Chris has suffered from shell shock, Kitty and Jenny receive clarification from Chris’s cousin Frank by mail. His letter confirms that Chris is shell-shocked and that he wishes to see Margaret as soon as possible. Hearing the news of Chris’s trauma for the second time, the women relive a shock they have already experienced. Narratologically, this retelling of Chris’s injury mirrors traumatic recurrence: in Herman’s words, “[l]ong after the danger is past, traumatized people relive the event as though it were continually recurring in the present” (37). In his letter to Jenny, Frank corroborates Margaret’s story about Chris’s “very strange state” (19). Relating the details of Chris’s “raving” (21), Frank clarifies Margaret’s report: Chris’s shell shock has entirely erased his memory of the last fifteen years. In Kitty’s place, Chris desires his former lover. Chris rejects Kitty—“I don’t like little women and I hate everybody, male or female, who sings” (21)—in favor of Margaret, a “shy country thing” (20). The question of whether Chris’s amnesia has temporarily erased his love for Kitty or instead revealed an ongoing passion for another woman lingers over the text.

Besides Margaret, Frank is the only character who sympathizes with the emotional violence that the news of the amnesia might cause for Kitty. Frank warns Jenny “to prepare Kitty for this terrible shock” (22); however, neither Jenny nor the novel’s narrative structure follows this advice. When Kitty, reading the correspondence over Jenny’s shoulder, demands Chris’s return, the text avoids any sense of preparation. Instead, a chronological fissure jarringly welds Kitty’s shock to Chris’s arrival: “And so, a week later, they brought Chris home” (22). This fissure reflects the discontinuity of traumatic memories, which by their nature “[l]ack…proper integration…into the memory system” and therefore last longer than ordinary recollections (van der Kolk and van der Hart 163). One’s sense of the passage of time alters in the matrix of trauma; the novel’s recursive form records this sense of disruption. [End Page 48]

Frank’s letter names and validates Kitty’s “shock” at the discovery of her husband’s amnesia. Kitty’s “shock” echoes and parallels Margaret’s grave identification of Chris’s trauma: “Shell-shock” (12). While a few critics, such as Bonikowski and Stetz (“Drinking”), have recognized some of the diversity of traumatic experience in The Return of the Soldier by asserting that Jenny experiences trauma, they have overlooked the significance of the fact that, like Chris, Kitty experiences traumatic “shock.” The word “shock” linguistically asserts the similarities between Chris’s and Kitty’s experiences. Trauma in West’s novel is a dense web of interconnected wounds, for Chris’s shock contributes to Kitty’s: like child abuse and domestic violence, the double trauma of psychological wounds caused by supposed protectors or partners intensifies Kitty’s emotional distress. Chris’s and Kitty’s traumas are formed by loss, and the word “shock” balances the importance of their overlapping experiences.

Ironically, Chris’s desire to return to an unattainable past destroys the past that Kitty hopes will be revived with his return. After reading Frank’s letter she “crie[s] in a possessive fury, ‘Bring him home! Bring him home!’” (22). But the pasts they yearn for are irreconcilable. Later, she realizes that because of his amnesia, “something as impassable as death lay between them” (61). This “death” is both the symbolic death of their marriage and the actual death they experienced together. Kitty’s shock records not only the loss of her connection with her husband, but also is the moment that reignites her ever-present memory of Oliver’s death.

Chris, Margaret, and Kitty have all experienced the loss of a child, and Chris has also witnessed death in war, yet Kitty’s experience with Oliver’s loss is described as “[Kitty’s] unique contact with death” (82). Despite Jenny’s dismissive tone, this description emphasizes that Kitty’s somatic response to the memory of Oliver is so intense that Jenny cannot ignore the physical change that overtakes Kitty when she is reminded of Oliver. This description reveals how The Return of the Soldier proposes two types of traumatic experience: Kitty’s, caused by an exceptional event that lingers in the domestic sphere, and Chris’s, caused by the multiple and ongoing horrors of international war. While quantifiably incomparable, these two forms of traumatic expression offer analogous records of traumatic shock, suggesting that men’s and women’s experiences of trauma are of equal importance.

Traumatic Symptoms and Temporality

The Return of the Soldier acknowledges that traumatic memories mark the passage of time inconsistently and irregularly, or interrupt understanding of the past altogether. Significantly, the discordance of traumatic temporality exists at Baldry Court before Chris arrives. Kitty’s compulsive visits to the nursery signal that the home is already disrupted by traumatic memories, which are ever present but unacknowledged. Steve Pinkerton observes, “Chris’s amnesia [End Page 49] articulates perfectly the paradox of being locked in a continuous knowing— which is simultaneously an unknowing—of an event that never stops happening yet never really occurs” (4). I suggest that this sense of continuous (un)knowing exists beyond Chris’s psychology; it is inherent in the space of Baldry Court, and it is recorded in Kitty’s own traumatic symptoms. Though Pinkerton finds it “appropriate” that Chris’s cure remains unwritten at the end of the novel (9–10),5 it seems rather that this omission means the cure has not been performed effectively, since Kitty’s traumatic memories remain untouched. Herman argues that “[r]emembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual patients” (1). By reminding Chris of Oliver’s death, Margaret helps him remember and tell the truth about his traumatic memories. But Kitty does not have access to this cure; in fact, she asks Jenny to interpret for her what happens outside the window. Trauma, then, will still inhabit Baldry Court even as Chris departs once more to war.

The novel plays on the distinction between normal memory and traumatic memory when Chris recollects Monkey Island, the site of his earlier romance with Margaret. This blissful memory is untouched by trauma. Though Jenny questions whether she remembers his story correctly,6 for Chris, the memory of Monkey Island is “real” (33). As Marcella Soldaini notes, while “Monkey Island symbolises a utopian dimension of reparation, a mythical timeless world where the mind can recover, Baldry Court is the temporal and decaying world domesticated by human rationality” (112–13). Unlike the untraumatized, “timeless” past of Monkey Island, the discordant temporality of Baldry Court ties it closely to human subjectivity and traumatic memory. This discordance is embedded in the very landscape of Baldry Court, where Kitty and Jenny “had proved [them]selves worthy of the past generation that had set the old house on this sunny ledge, overhanging and overhung with beauty” (6)—the same beauty that fades inconsequentially in comparison to Monkey Island. The novel represents Baldry Court in unusually threatening terms. The trees surrounding it are “minatory gauntnesses” (4) and the garden’s “bare boughs” stand out “against the hard, high spring sky” (62). One tree “had been torn up by the roots in the great gale last year, but had not resigned itself yet to death and was bravely decking itself with purple elm-flowers” (62–63). Though the “past generation” founded Baldry Court amidst beauty, that beauty, which is “controlled” by Kitty and Jenny (55), reveals itself as insidious despite, or because of, their efforts.

After learning about Chris’s shell shock, Kitty, too, appears drastically altered. Jenny notes that her beauty is “as changed in grief from its ordinary seeming as a rose in moonlight is different from a rose by day” (22). Though still involved with household affairs, Kitty’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic as she realizes that in his traumatized state, Chris is unable to move beyond the past. At first, despite his deliberate distance, Kitty tends to her [End Page 50] husband with practical maternalism: “I’ve ordered dinner at seven. I thought you’d probably have missed a meal or two. Or would want to go to bed early” (25). Jenny scorns Kitty’s efforts, thinking Kitty “said it very smartly…as if she were pleading that he would find her very clever about ordering dinner and thinking of his comfort” (25).7 Though Chris regards her with cold politeness, it becomes clear that he thinks of Kitty “not at all save as a stranger who had somehow become a decorative presence in his home and the orderer of his meals” (65). By the end of the novel, Kitty retreats almost completely from the life she maintained in Chris’s absence. After giving her approval that he should see Margaret “as much as [he] like[s]” (30), Kitty fades from the narrative. As Kitty sets into motion the resolution of Chris’s trauma, she relinquishes her role in Chris’s recovery and retreats from her own routines.

In fact, Kitty’s body, which captivates Jenny throughout the text, alters as she recognizes the extent of Chris’s amnesia. When Chris informs Kitty that— through Margaret’s instruction—he recognizes their marriage but continues to love Margaret, she begins to “[lie] about like a broken doll, face downward on a sofa with one limp arm dangling to the floor, or protruding stiff feet in fantastic slippers from the end of her curtained bed” (61). No longer intent on adorning her body or presenting a veneer of amiability, Kitty becomes an awkward caricature of her earlier, graceful self. Her body’s “doll”-like angles and her “fantastic” clothing are inharmonious with the elegant beauty she values.

Kitty’s body becomes increasingly wasted and reduced by the stress of Chris’s amnesia. While waiting for the news of Chris’s psychoanalytic consultation with Dr. Anderson, Kitty’s face reflects her distress, seeming “like a mirror hung opposite a window” (75). Later, when Kitty appears outside the nursery as Margaret and Jenny look through Oliver’s things, Jenny notes “[t]he poise of her head had lost its pride, the shadows under her eyes were black like the marks of blows, and all her loveliness was diverted to the expression of grief” (87). Though Jenny disparages Kitty’s ability to mourn, these images of sleeplessness and anxiety imply that her trauma alters her with the intensity of physical abuse. At the end of the novel, Kitty’s form recalls for Jenny a “fretting” quality that is “more tiresome than a flickering light” (89). Completely changed from its earlier grace, Kitty’s beauty vanishes in her suffering.

The Return of the Soldier plays on the reader’s (dis)belief in the unstable narrative voice just as it toys with the stability of the past. Ironically, in a text focused on returning, there can be no return to what the characters have known before. One of the text’s greatest anxieties is that it is impossible to restore the stability of the past because history itself was not what it seemed. This knowledge marks Kitty’s and Jenny’s divergent realities early in the novel: while Jenny believes Chris’s illness can be cured, Kitty suspects the discrepancies between the past and the present mean that nothing can be restored. Only later, after her [End Page 51] body has been wasted by trauma, does Kitty wish for a cure that will restore some sense of the partnership she shared with her husband before his amnesia. Though Kitty’s initial response to the news of Chris’s shell shock suggests that she believes he cannot be cured, she later invites the psychoanalyst Dr. Anderson to Baldry Court to try to restore his memory. Perhaps she does so because, as Kavka points out, traumatic cure functions in the text to restore the safety of “the masculine order” (162). In other words, what is at stake with Chris’s cure is not only the resurrection of normative mental health, but also a shoring up of the past’s security. Pinkerton—paraphrasing Françoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudillière—makes the point that “madness can subside only when the trauma is allowed to speak for itself; the untellable must be told” (5). He thus reads Chris’s love for Margaret in his state of amnesia as an example of the “seemingly preternatural knack for seeking out and finding a person with…a shared history” that Davoine and Gaudillière suggest often manifests in traumatized people.8 Finding this person “effect[s] a curative transference somewhere beyond the bounds of language” (5–6). What I suggest is that Kitty’s desire to end Chris’s amnesia stems from a similar impulse: to regain the husband with whom she has lost a child. Yet the cure cannot resurrect the past’s security because the past itself operated through traumatic omissions. Thus, in the end, Chris returns not as a husband, but as a soldier.

At the end of the novel, Jenny accepts that Chris should be cured, although restoring his memory will force him to confront the pain of the past and cause him pain in the future. Summoning up the repressed memory of his son’s death makes him “[e]very inch a soldier” (90), ready to return again to the No Man’s Land of war. As Margaret puts it, “[t]he truth’s the truth…and he must know it” (88). But Kitty’s presence in the text affirms that the cure will resurrect not the truth, but the truth’s omission: the “stain” that Margaret represents for Jenny at the beginning of the novel cannot be removed because it was always there. Tellingly, Chris’s “forgetfulness” began before his loss of memory. Dr. Anderson points out “that the reason the War Office didn’t wire [home] when [Chris] was wounded was that he had forgotten to register his address” (80). As Kitty suspects when she first hears about Chris’s shell shock, memories—or pasts—cannot be revived if they were not true in the first place. In recalling Chris’s memory, Jenny and Margaret reinstate not the “truth,” but the particular sort of frozen memory that maintains the traumas of Baldry Court.

Chris’s cure restores an aspect of the past, but the novel still avoids a narration of Oliver’s death, which continues to haunt both Kitty and Baldry Court. Pinkerton addresses the critical objection that the novel’s ending is “too tidy, too pat, too gimmicky, yet also unsatisfying in its indeterminacy” (1) by arguing that Chris’s unwritten cure “articulates the extra-linguistic power of [curative] transference” (9). Reading Margaret as Chris’s traumatized counterpart,9 Pinkerton contends that the cure is an apt resolution of the novel’s traumatic memories that—operating under the paradoxical logic of the Freudian [End Page 52] death drive—destroys the characters (Margaret and Chris) who benefit from this resolution. I propose that the novel does not offer the cure as a resolution at all; rather, by presenting the knowledge of this cure through Kitty’s recognition of her husband’s stiff, military step, the novel suggests that uncanny returns, like those performed in Chris’s amnesia and in Kitty’s visits to the nursery, will continue as long as traumatic experience is prioritized in terms of gender. After all, Chris’s cure at the end of the novel leaves the traumas of the past not uncovered, but simply deferred.


Fundamentally, a trauma is a wound. As a political essayist, feminist, and novelist, Rebecca West was concerned with trauma’s diverse potential sources throughout her career. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the travel memoir and sprawling history of the Balkans she wrote about touring Yugoslavia between the world wars, West recalls the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. “So was your life and my life mortally wounded,” West writes to her Western audience, emphasizing that the traumas of the First World War extended beyond the battlefield (350). The symmetry of West’s statement—“your life and my life”—implies that she believed the trauma of this assassination similarly affected those who served in the consequent war and those who remained outside it. Reading Kitty as traumatized suggests that, by placing two gendered experiences of trauma side by side, West offers a similarly balanced representation of traumatic experiences in The Return of the Soldier. Though Chris’s war neurosis offers room for compelling investigations into psychoanalytic traumatic cures, Kitty’s suffering calls to mind Herman’s observation that “the most common post-traumatic disorders are not those of men in war but of women in civilian life” (28). The Return of the Soldier reveals how men’s war experiences are often read as more important than women’s experiences of trauma, even as these traumas appear alongside one another.

Chris’s return marks only one event in the traumatic network mapped by The Return of the Soldier, a novel that exposes the unequal treatment of men’s and women’s experiences of trauma. By presenting these two wounds alongside one another, the novel suggests that women’s traumatic experiences are as legitimate as men’s. Though the narrative censure of Kitty’s symptoms insinuates that women’s trauma is not yet fully acknowledged, the complex register of trauma in the novel opens up the possibility for a model of traumatic equivalence. [End Page 53]

I would like to thank Maren Linett, Slaney Chadwick Ross, and the anonymous reviewers from Studies in the Novel for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this essay.


1.  In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West suggests that attuned appreciation of sensuality and beauty is “an instruction necessary for the mastery of life” (299).

2.  Jenny censures Kitty both psychologically and physically. When Kitty, distrusting what Margaret tells them about Chris’s amnesia, asks her guest to leave, Jenny “check[s]” her response and “reconcile[s] her in an undertone” (14–15). When Kitty insists that Chris is faking his amnesia, Jenny attacks her: “I gripped her small shoulders with my large hands and shook her till her jewels rattled and she scratched my fingers and gasped for breath” (31).

3.  Bonikowski argues that the incomprehensibility of death appears at Baldry Court with Chris’s return. But the home is already charged with memories of Oliver’s death.

4.  The text does not disclose the precise source of Chris’s trauma. While critics frequently approach Chris’s traumatic symptoms as those of shell shock, his blissful amnesia is atypical. Instead, traumatic symptoms frequently manifested as “paralysis, blindness, deafness, contracture of a limb, mutism, limping” or “nightmares, insomnia, heart palpitations, dizziness, depression, or disorientation” (Showalter 174).

5.  West does not write the scene of Chris’s cure. At the end of the novel, Kitty and Jenny watch from a window while Margaret speaks to Chris; upon catching sight of him, they know he has been “cured” (90).

6.  Jenny confesses, “I have lived so long with the story which he told me that I cannot now remember his shy phrases. But this is how I have visualized his meeting with love on his secret island. I think it is the truth” (33).

7.  When overhearing that Margaret has prepared a meal for her husband, Jenny appears to approve, thinking Margaret “keep[s] loveliness and excitement alive in his life” (47). Yet she disapproves of Kitty’s similar efforts.

8.  The “shared history” to which Pinkerton refers is the death of Margaret’s son, who died at the same age as Chris’s son. Pinkerton does not explore the possibility that Oliver’s death accords Chris and Kitty a shared history, though he does note that both Margaret and Kitty engage in “prudent elisions” (8) that render the narratives of the children’s deaths unknowable.

9.  Pinkerton observes that Kitty is “another traumatized soul,” but he does not examine the source or implications of this trauma; instead, he reads her appearance outside the nursery as a device that “apparently succeeds in reminding Margaret of the collateral damage…that can come of prolonging one man’s synthetic happiness” (8).

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———. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. New York: Viking, 1941. [End Page 55]