After reading the first three chapters of Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, I was interested in the juxtaposition that West sets up between what is the original identity of the characters as perceived by Jenny versus the true identity of each of the characters that reveals itself to her later. The glimpses given to the reader and the interactions of characters show that the initial description cannot necessary be trusted and the mood of the narrator alters the image of the people in her life.
Kitty is introduced through the eyes of the narrator, Jenny, as a beautiful, polite wife. She keeps the house in great shape and remains polished and put together despite the absence of her husband and the loss of her child. Jenny says, “I tried to build about me such a little globe of ease as always ensphered her” (5). Kitty is presented to the reader as a calm, strong woman. This initial impression is challenged, however, after Margaret comes to the house to deliver the news about Chris’ illness.
Kitty reverts to insulting Margaret and claiming she is lying for money, but Margaret is telling the truth. Again when faced with her returning husband’s illness, Kitty is unwilling to help Chris. She lurks in the shadows and cannot stand his altered self. Even the impact of her appearance is lessened. This change in Kitty could be the result of the bad news about her husband, or it could be Jenny who is changing her own opinion of Kitty. Perhaps now that Kitty has seemingly lost a part of her perfection, Jenny can see past the original veneer that once surrounded the couple. She says, “I was amazed at Kitty’s beautiful act and more amazed to find that it had made her face ugly” (30). Perhaps West is choosing to use Jenny’s observed change in Kitty as a move to inspire the reader to see beyond the first impression.
Chris is first mentioned in the context of a rocking-horse that he purchased for his now deceased son. He is a caring father who tried his best to please his child. Jenny idolizes him and frames the existence of both Kitty and herself in the eyes of Chris. She says, “We were not, perhaps, specially contemptible women, because nothing could ever really become a part of our life until it had been referred to Chris’ attention” (8). They live their lives waiting for him to return. As a reader, Chris is immediately likable. He is imaginative, compassionate and loved. When he is discovered to have lost his memory, this first appearance is no longer applicable.
He is not this idolized man anymore, rather he is the prototype of this man. He maintains similar characteristics, but he is changed and dedicated to his previous life. He says to his wife, “[I]f I do not see Margaret Allington I shall die” (30). He is not phrasing his request in a way that saves her feelings or attempts compassion. Perhaps Kitty puts it best when she says Chris is now “broken and queer” (17). His story in chapter 3 also shows that his love for Kitty may not be as deep as may have been first assumed. Again, we begin to see this as readers as Jenny begins to see this as the narrator.
With Margaret too, the original image Jenny gives the reader is perhaps not the true image of this woman. She is described as animal-like, poor and cheap. Jenny says she “hated her as the rich hate the poor, as insect things that will struggle out of the crannies which are their decent home, and introduce ugliness to the light of day” (14). This woman is bringing bad news, which is perhaps why Jenny projects such a strong hatred onto her looks. Later, when she is told by Chris about the Margaret he loves, Jenny cannot see his Margaret as the same person she met. Perhaps it is because they both look at the woman from different prejudices, but it is also possible that if Jenny were to meet Margaret again, she would see a very different woman. She could see a woman that her idolized cousin loves.
Jenny does not mean to give the reader a false image of Kitty, Chris or Margaret, but ends up showing two separate identities for each character. Her feelings and experiences change her ability to see past the external, and it is when she learns more about who each of these people are that the reader is given the characters’ true identity.