West’s commentary on reality

by Alex Tellez

When Mrs. Grey visits Kitty to notify her of Chris’ condition, RebeccaWest sketches a very puzzling picture of Mrs. Grey.  There seems to be a lot of confusion in her portrayal.  At first impression she is described as a poor, lowly, insignificant middle-aged woman.  Then the narrator concedes that she does have a “noble squareness of the shoulders” with eyes that are “full of tenderness”, yet remarks hastily that “she was bad enough” (West 10).  Jenny and Kitty heavily judge her in terms of her inferiority, which is “as repulsive as a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff” (10).  There is a contrast between her stature which is noble and her attire which is inferior and disgusting.  Her inferiority is emphasized when she is metaphorically described as the insect prey of Mrs. Baldry, the “noble bird”, yet it also suggests that she is possible a victim, as well as insignificant (12).  Jenny does however notice that the Kitty’s perceived superiority is somewhat degrading and that “there was something about the physical quality of the woman…which preserved the occasion from utter baseness” (12).   Jenny does not seem to have one concrete opinion of her.

In addition to the contradictory portrayals of Mrs. Grey, there is confusion in whether or not Jenny believes what Mrs. Grey says.  At first she is in agreement with Kitty that this woman is a fraud and then somehow forgets that they “had ever disbelieved her” and thinks that she is telling the truth (16).  She even repeats Mrs. Grey’s words that “Christ is ill” (16, 17). 

It becomes very unclear as to how Mrs. Grey is revered and the reader is left uncertain as to what is true about her and what isn’t.  This entire portrait of her in the first chapter greatly contrasts with how Chris describes her in chapter 3.  The entire scene from Chris’ memory, though it is through the lens of a mentally unwell man whose memory is affected, seems to describe Mrs. Grey in a more sound manner.  His account does not change and although his memory seems heavily romanticized, the reader as well as Jenny can visualize her much better.  The entire scene, in fact, feels calm, serene, and comfortable which conveys truth with the absence of contradictions.  Jenny even asserts that his account “is the truth” (33).

The trend is that West’s romantic sketches from Chris’ memory are more real than that of Jenny who is not suffering from shell-shock.  The distinction between what is real and what isn’t is very grey and conveys the chaos and uncertainty of identities in times of war.

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