As I read this novel, I could not wrap my head around Jenny and Chris’s past relationship. It did not make sense to me because it does not make sense to her. It was not until looking back and reflecting on the book that I came to understand her feelings for him and why I could not make sense of them previously.
Jenny first mentions Chris on the very first page when she is describing the nursery and sees the rocking horse Chris had picked out for his son that had died. We learn on page three that this man both Jenny and Kitty seem obsessed with is Jenny’s cousin. Any confusion I had experienced during the first two pages about who Chris was had been immediately cleared up (or so I thought). Chris is Jenny’s cousin and therefore she loves him as a cousin or perhaps a brother since their relationship seemed especially close. This assumption is why I could not understand the true depth of Jenny’s obsession with Chris. I thought it made sense for her to love and miss him, but many of her descriptions and thoughts of him do not correlate with the typical feelings of filial love. It was not until the second half of the novel that I truly grasped Jenny’s feelings for Chris, although I do not pretend to understand them, partly because they are unnatural but also because Jenny does not understand them herself.
The feelings one would expect from Jenny would be that of a protective sister at most and at some points, that is what her emotions seem to be. When he first comes home and they are sitting together after Kitty leaves, Jenny encourages him to “be a pal” (30) as they sit “in the warm, friendly silence” (29). This scene suggests that the two had been close friends in the past but we do not yet realize Jenny’s true feelings for him. Chris is a major part of her identity and the fact that he has come back so changed seriously affects Jenny. She is mortified by his distance from her, which causes her much more pain than the fact that he can’t remember the last fifteen years. To Jenny, those fifteen years lost would not have mattered if she and Chris could still have enjoyed the closeness she had previously felt towards him.
After allowing myself to accept the truth Jenny could not, I realized that Jenny does not love Chris as a brother or a cousin but loves him as one would a husband or lover. She never marries, probably because she could not love another man as deeply as she loves Chris. Her observations of Margaret bring out Jenny’s true love for Chris, whether she realizes it or not. When Margaret first comes to visit Chris, Jenny is “so physically jealous of Margaret that is was making [her] ill” (54). This reaction of jealousy relates to Jenny’s romantic view of Chris. While he was away at war, she had imagined him coming home to her and loving the way she had kept his house as a sanctuary for him. Instead, the only thing Chris cares about is Margaret, making Jenny’s already forbidden love more unbearable due to his lack of attention. Her assertion that “even to [her] he would give no trust, because it was Jenny the girl who had been his friend and not Jenny the woman,” (27) reiterates the fact that she feels more separated from him now than she did when he was at war. At least when he was at war, she could imagine him and idealize him. Now he is home and she must face the harsh reality that not only will she never be with him as she secretly desires, but he no longer feels any strong connection with her aside from a sad remembrance that she is no longer part of his world.
It is only Margaret that gets to enjoy Chris in his current state of mind, therefore encouraging Jenny to connect with Margaret in an attempt to hold on to Chris through her. Jenny’s pain and love for Chris is made apparent through Jenny’s constant fluctuations in her narration and interactions with Margaret. The passage, “Then, as our hands touched, he was with us, invoked by our common adoration. I felt his rough male texture and saw the clear warmth of his brown and gold coloring; I thought of him with the passion of exile” (61) is far from a sisterly remembrance of Chris. Despite Jenny’s jealousy of Margaret, she seems to realize that it is better to connect with her and experience Chris second-hand than to be cut off completely. When Margaret is going to bring back Chris’s memory and end his state of happiness, Jenny is conflicted as she yearns for Chris to remember and cherish her but does not want to see him suffer. She narrates “Through the feeling of doom that filled the room as tangibly as a scent I stretched out to the thought of Chris” (86).
Jenny loves Chris and does not know how to acknowledge this love. She represses her romantic feelings and acts as a devoted cousin or sister would, but her narration shows much deeper feelings, even though she probably doesn’t mean to reveal these since she cannot face them herself. West masterfully explores this theme of love and its different forms within the novel without allowing it to take over. Instead, Jenny’s repressed yet eminent love remains a theme that is hinted at but never brought to the forefront because as the narrator, Jenny refuses to let it be openly admitted or discussed.
*I have a different copy of the book so my page numbers will be different. I apologize for the inconvenience!