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The Return of the Soldier Brings Death Home

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 51, Number 3, Fall 2005
pp. 513-535 | 10.1353/mfs.2005.0052

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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 51.3 (2005) 513-535

Wyatt Bonikowski

While Rebecca West's work and the critical attention paid to it have seen a significant revival in the last twenty years, her first novel, The Return of the Soldier, has received little of this attention. This lack is nothing new in the history of the novel's criticism. Until recently, it has been both faintly praised and curtly dismissed, usually on the grounds of its status as an apprentice work, the novel of a young woman indebted to Henry James for her style and technique, who had not yet found her mature voice as a writer, or as a not very subtle and too neatly resolved elaboration of a few Freudian ideas. Most of these latter critiques focus on the character of the psychoanalyst Dr. Anderson, whose comments about "wishes" and dreams seem to be a pastiche of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, and on the cure of the soldier, which many critics describe as a pat ending. The same critics who judge the novel based on West's literary association with these two men often fail to recognize the central female consciousness of the novel, the narrator Jenny, and West's subtlety in her portrayal.

A few recent scholars, though, have begun to correct the oversights of previous critics by bringing attention to the novel's complexity, finding in it a feminist analysis of World War I (Cowan); an elaboration of West's figure of the "parasite woman" in a patriarchal order reinforced by war (Norton); a questioning, through a representation of war and trauma, of the fantasy of the father (the Lacanian imaginary other) that guarantees social stability (Varney); and an exploration of traumatized masculinity in the context of war (Kavka). Only these last two critics, Susan Varney and Misha Kavka, have devoted more than a cursory glance to shell shock and psychoanalysis in the novel, despite the fact that the novel's plot and narrative structure (the novel begins with shell shock and ends with the cure) are organized around these themes. Not only has the novel's relationship to psychoanalysis been the object of dismissive critiques and insufficient analyses, but West herself made a point of distancing her novel from psychoanalysis, vehemently denying that Freud's theories had inspired her story. In denying the connection to psychoanalysis, West may have been attempting to turn critics away from what had most distracted them, psychoanalysis, and toward what they had been most blind to, the heart of the story, the effect of the soldier's return on the women at home.

In this essay, I will trace a parallel movement in the development of Freud's theories of traumatic neurosis and the death drive over two principal works, Freud's essay "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" and Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and the metaphors of penetration and shattering around which West structures Jenny's narrative. I will pay particular attention to the chiasmatic crossings of dichotomies in these texts—especially the external and the internal, visible and invisible, surface and depth, body and mind—which the metaphors of penetration figure. These works by Freud and West were conceived and written over approximately the same period of time, so it would be foolish to suggest any deliberate or conscious cross-pollination. But in these works there is a convergence of two themes: the soldier returning damaged from the war and the attempt to understand trauma and one's own mortality in the face of the death of the other. The figure of the returning soldier leads both Freud and West to a similar conclusion about the significance of the First World War: namely, that war is not only something out there, happening in another place; rather, war, like death, is present within the subject. The First World War, for Freud and West, breaks open the protective shield the ego develops to defend itself against what seeks to undermine its stability, revealing the action of what Freud calls the death drive and what West calls "the strange order of this earth" (Return 88. ). Further, by elaborating the stakes of a feminine identification with war trauma...

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