I'm teaching The Return of the Soldier in my class on Modern Fiction. It's a novella by Rebecca West--about 80 pages total--and it's about, as you can probably guess from the title, a soldier who returns from war. Specifically World War I (it was written in 1918). This soldier returns with a very peculiar, non-visible injury: shell shock that has given him amnesia. He has no recollection of the last fifteen years, during which he took over his father's business, took over management of his family's estate, married a beautiful woman, and had a son with her. Instead, he returns home thinking he is 21 years old and still in love with his girlfriend from fifteen years previously--a woman who is now married to someone else and living not too far away in near-poverty.
If you think you might want to read the book and don't want any plot spoilers, you should stop reading this now. But I have to say that even if you know the plot, the book isn't at all spoiled. The prose is beautiful and it's so fascinating to think about the way England clung to familiar social realities (like class snobbery) as a result of the anxiety and upheaval of their physical realities--mostly the shocking death count on the war front. I've read it at least five times now, and I love it every single time.
The book is narrated by Chris's cousin, Jenny, who lives with Kitty and him (and seems to have her own complicated love for Chris). She is certain that when he sees Margaret, how ugly and poor she is, how her hard life has aged her and blighted her former beauty, he'll come to his senses and remember his good life with Kitty. But she's wrong--he loves Margaret in spite of everything. The three women must decide together how to "cure" him--or whether a cure is even the best thing for him, since it would mean a return to himself, but also the squashing of his happiness and his likely return to the frontlines of the war.
In fact, Margaret remarks to a psychiatrist who is called in to consult, You can't cure him [...] Make him happy, I mean. All you can do is make him ordinary.
And the psychiatrist acknowledges that this is true. He's a true Freudian and he insists that Chris must be repressing some terrible, unhappy memory, which is what is causing his amnesia. Kitty finds this offensive (understandably, I think), and insists their life was perfect.
But then Margaret learns that Chris's son Oliver had fallen ill and died five years earlier at the age of two (in a heartbreaking twist of fate, Margaret also lost her two-year-old son). Kitty has repressed and denied this grief, but Margaret instantly realizes the depth of love Chris would have felt for his son. She knows how to bring Chris back to the present, and back to himself: take him a ball and an outfit that Oliver wore, remind him of his son. Jenny takes her the nursery so that she can be the one to break the news to Chris.
Margaret, grieving her own lost baby boy, is nearly overwhelmed as she sees Oliver's photograph amid all of his things, and as she realizes the pain that she will cause Chris when she tells him about Oliver and brings him back to the present day, which will include not only the trauma of war, but the death of his only child.
In seeing Margaret's reaction to Oliver's room and his things, the single, childless Jenny remarks, I thought, as I have often thought before, that the childless have the greatest joy in children, for to us they are just slips of immaturity lovelier than the flowers and with a power over the heart, but to mothers they are fleshy cables binding one down to such profundities of feeling as the awful agony that now possessed her.
Margaret makes a convincing plea to Jenny that they shouldn't tell Chris after all: I know nothing in the world matters so much as happiness. If anybody's happy you ought to let them be.
And Jenny agrees with her--let Chris live as he is, enjoying his youth and his love, unburdened by the reality of his heartbreaking life. How can they return him to grief and to war? To a life marked with disappointment and danger? It would be kinder and more loving, surely, to let him continue to live as he is, unburdened and happy.
But then Kitty appears in the nursery doorway, crying. Kitty is not a sympathetic character even though you'd think she ought to be. She comes across as selfish, materialistic, and self-interested (at least, from Jenny's point of view), and she's desperate to have her Chris back, even if he is a tired and broken-hearted man, instead of a laughing and light-hearted one. But somehow, seeing Kitty in the doorway of the nursery changes Jenny's mind:
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? 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 for ever queer and small like a dwarf. [...] He would not be quite a man.
This is the passage that makes me cry every time. And Margaret admits, The truth's the truth. And he must know it.
I asked my students today in class why it is that Kitty, whom Jenny openly dislikes and whom Margaret has no reason to like at all, changes their mind. One of my students--a thoughtful girl with beautiful red hair--raised her hand and said, "I'm not sure it has anything to do with Kitty. I think Margaret just loves her son so much, she won't deny Chris the memory of his son, even if it's sad."
I could barely breathe when she said that, although I think I covered pretty well, and quickly called on someone else. I just hadn't expected a nineteen-year-old to have such astute insight into that kind of mother-love. I don't think I would have known that at nineteen.
But I asked David last night, as I was re-reading the end of the novel, and asking myself the same question, if he could just forget about 2010 and 2011, but still function normally and just have the happy memories of the years before and after, would he take that deal?
In other words, would we trade Eliza herself, and the experience of being her parents for such a short period of time, for the happiness would we have felt (or, more accurately, the absence of sadness) if she had never lived and never died?
There was a time when I would have said yes. When my grief was so fresh and raw that it was nearly unbearable, when I didn't understand why she had to live at all if she was only going to die. But now I knew my answer would be no, even though I wasn't quite sure what had shifted or when it happened. So I really wasn't sure what David would say.
He thought for a minute and then shook his head. "No. Because that's a part of me, you know? She's ours."
Truth is more important than happiness, for us, and, I think, in Rebecca West's novel. You can deny it and push it down and not talk about it, but hiding the truth doesn't make it go away, and forgetting about it (or pretending it doesn't exist) makes you a fraction of the person you could be.
When it comes to real life, happiness is a by-product, but it can't be the purpose. There are too many things in life that are poignant and heartbreaking and honest and sorrowful, and that also hold more than their measure of good. And love is one of them. Love for a child who dies is one of them. And that truth still aches. It makes us heartbroken adults instead of carefree kids. It's etched grief lines around our eyes and changed us in other, less visible ways. But it's true. She's ours. And I do find now (with the breathing room of three years) that I value that truth of love and heartache more than I value a shallow and artificial happiness.
Of course I'd rather have her here, but if my choice were to have her dead or not remember her at all, I'd have to keep her. She's my baby. The love is the same. And given that choice, it's no choice for me at all. She's ours.