Time plays a significant role in the first three chapters of Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier. It serves to twist and challenge the realities of both Jenny and Kitty’s memories of Chris and his own memories of his life.
Jenny talks about how happy and content Chris was, and recalls the day he left for the war. She notes that he “loved the life he had lived with us and desired to carry with him…the completest picture of everything about his home, on which his mind could brush” (7). This passage becomes more interesting as the plot progresses, because Chris ends up losing his memory of that home the way it was and the life he lived with Kitty. A “picture” that one can “carry” with them is, if taken literally, an object that can easily be dropped out of a pocket and disappeared in the mud of the war. This is representative of what happens to Chris.
For him, all the time that is so real and factual in the minds of Jenny and especially Kitty, simply doesn’t exist in his memory. Jenny hears him say on page 21 that “his body and soul were consumed with desire for [Margaret] and that he would never rest until he once more held her in his arms.” To Kitty, this all seems unfair to her, and can’t see beyond her own selfishness of the moment to the bigger picture, which is the tremendous effect time can have on people. If Chris loved Kitty and loved his life with Kitty and Jenny, then where, in all those fifteen years, was his love for Margaret which has come back to him in the forefront of his mind? If time is supposed to allow people to be able to heal, erase, and progress, what are the implications of one sudden moment (like the bomb exploding) having the power to erase the time itself? Were those feelings toward Margaret ever truly gone or were they just suppressed under those fifteen years? All these questions arise from Chris’s condition and his romance with Margaret.
This romance, as we come to understand, has evaded time as well (at least in Chris’s memory). Jenny relays the story Chris tells about Margaret and himself, and he speaks ideally and poetically about her and their time together, “as though one had all the rest of one’s life in which to carry on this conversation” (36). Later, Jenny reports that she is not exactly sure of the nature of “the end of his life, the last day he could remember” (38). This is interesting because these two ideas, the ending of his life and the last memory, are placed on equal ground. In a way then, Chris did indeed carry on his “conversation” with Margaret for the rest of his life if it figuratively ended for him on that day.
The end of chapter three reflects this idea as well, when the cousins finish talking and Jenny narrates that “he brought down on our conversation the finality of darkness” (42). This sentence shows their “conversation” coming to a close with Chris ending his memory and Jenny ending her story with the “finality of darkness,” which represents death (of his marriage to Kitty, of his real self, of his love for Margaret, etc). The power of time is shown to be both a force of destruction, as of his marriage and his memory, and of reconstruction, as of his love for Margaret and his carefree life before war.
– Rachel A. Ringgold