West’s Use of Kitty’s Appearance

In Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, Kitty symbolizes high class, grace, and pure beauty. However, this perfection is undone by the return of her soldier, who suffers insomnia and no longer wants to be with the woman he married years earlier. West utilizes Kitty’s outward appearance to demonstrate the identity crisis she undergoes when her husband returns, transforming from the epitome of grace and beauty to a woman enveloped by childish tendencies and a jealousy that turns her beauty into ugliness.

The first description of Kitty exudes perfection; however, she seems almost untouchable. Jenny narrates, “And when I looked at her again I saw that golden hair was all about her shoulders and that she wore over her frock a little silken jacket trimmed with rosebuds. She looked so like a girl on a magazine cover that one expected to find a large “7d.” somewhere attached to her person” (4). After reading Jenny’s description, Kitty does not seem natural. The fact that she is sitting in her deceased child’s room adds another aspect of eeriness to her demeanor. The untouchable, inhuman character that Jenny describes portrays her as a woman of high society.  She is concerned with her social status, and the appearance she gives off to the world. Her obsession with her social status is even clearer when Margaret Grey comes to visit.

West makes the contrast between Chris’ two women blatant. After Kitty hears of Mrs. Grey’s arrival, she makes no effort to impress her when she hears of where she lives. She tells Jenny as she scrambles to do her hair, “Last year’s fashion…but I figure it’ll do for someone with that sort of address” (9). There is no need to scramble to make her hair look fashionable, when someone of Mrs. Grey’s class is coming to visit.  Even Jenny, another character who judges Mrs. Grey, observes, “tt was beautiful so plain a woman should so ardently rejoice in another’s loveliness” (10). Neither Jenny nor Kitty believed what Mrs. Grey told them because of how she dressed and where she came from. The contrast between the two women’s appearance demonstrate West’s emphasis on Kitty’s obsession with appearance and social status.

After Chris comes home, Kitty has to try to impress him with her appearance in order to make him fall in love with her and out of love with Margaret. She puts her wedding dress on before their first dinner together, adorned with jewels and perfected hair. However, her image comes off as more eerie than beautiful. There is something about her being in her wedding dress that makes her seem out of place, and once again inhuman. Jenny describes her as looking “cold as moonlight, as virginity, but precious; the falling candlelight struck her hair to bright, pure gold” (26). She thinks that her beauty will make Chris remember his beautiful, perfect life with her. However, his love for Margaret is too strong and Kitty’s beauty does not help her. After dinner is over, Chris tells Kitty that he will die if he does not see Margaret and Kitty gives him permission to see her. Yet, when she does this, Jenny notes that she “was amazed at Kitty’s beautiful act and more amazed to find that it had made her face ugly”  (30). Her jealousy and frustration with the situation had transformed her perfection into ugliness. Chris’ shellshock has unraveled her perfect, beautiful life. When she goes up to bed, Jenny describes her as “a child who hasn’t enjoyed a party as much as she though she would” (31). Kitty has become childish because she is frustrated that her life is out of her hands and there is nothing she can do to change it.

In these chapters, West uses Kitty’s outward appearance to demonstrate the transformation of Kitty. She changed from a woman who radiated perfection to one that has reverted to childish behavior and selfishness. Her personality truly becomes ugly, or maybe it always has been.

 

-Frances Sisson

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