Issues of identity and repression are very prevalent in Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier. Each character’s identity is shifted by Chris’ loss of memory after returning home from the war. Chris does not recognize his wife as his spouse and is in love with another woman, leading all the characters to question their place in Chris’ new perception of his life. This also leads to the repression of emotions as some situations become too difficult for certain characters to bear. In the work, West conveys that identity in the 20th century was crucial to one’s position in society, and that repression helped people give off a desired and “acceptable” appearance.
At this time, appearance dictated one’s place in society, and consequently, people shaped their identity around the norms of society. Kitty is a character who is particularly concerned with others’ perception of her and her. In fact, she notes that “in order to fit into the pattern one sometimes has to forgo something of one’s individual beauty” (71). It is not enough for one to embrace their individuality and be comfortable with who they are. Rather, one must conform and compromise their identity to fit into society’s expectations, which can often lead to individual unhappiness. Similarly, when Chris, Kitty, and Margaret are going to meet the Doctor to try to revive Chris’ memory, Kitty thinks to herself that “she [does] not want Margaret to meet the specialist in those awful clothes” (75). With everything else in Kitty’s life falling apart, the one thing she has left to cling to is the image she and her associates give off to others. Thus, she obsesses about maintaing her image in society by holding anyone with whom she is seen to her high standards.
The high levels of confusion and possible catastrophe cause the characters to repress their thoughts and emotions, which does nothing to alleviate the situation. When Chris, Margaret, and Kitty go to visit the Doctor, all the repressed thoughts and actions of each character are recognized. The Doctor explains that “there’s a deep self in one, the essential self, that has its wishes…those wishes are suppressed by the superficial self-the self that makes…efforts and usually makes them with the sole idea of putting up a good show before the neighbours” (79). This idea is especially relevant to Kitty, who quite understandably desires Chris to regain his memory and embrace the fact that she is his wife. However, Kitty outwardly makes bitter comments about Chris and Margaret, and represses her feelings to give off the appearance that everything is going to be alright to the outside world. The Doctor goes on to make a very interesting observation about Chris’ memory loss. His analysis is that Chris “‘quite obviously… has forgotten his life here because he is discontented with it,’” for “‘one forgets only those things that one wants to forget’” (80). This observation reinforces the idea that compromising your true identity and suppressing emotions to fit into societal norms only leads to discontent. This discontent in turn causes one to repress their memories of unhappiness upon the first chance they receive, as Chris has done with the memory of his life with Kitty.
Through a tragic episode caused by the war, issues of repression and identity surface leading the characters to question what they have known to be true. The 20th century was not conducive to allowing everyone to expose their true personalities. However, this ultimately leads to unhappiness and confusion, and therefore, it is better to embrace individuality, regardless of society’s perceptions of what is considered “normal.”