Briony and her Dolls

Briony succeeds in weaving many convincing stories, and ultimately the overall novel. When she witnesses the events between Cecilia and Robbie, she takes up her role again as story writer–which is problematic.

Before this epic moment, Briony powerfully admits that she hadn’t considered the autonomy and reality of other people:

“Was everyone else really as alive as she was?…If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was.”

While this moment paints Briony as self-aware and able to see the consequences of actions on other, real people, we must consider how we get this moment. As we find out at the close of the novel, **SPOILER ALERT** Briony is the author and narrator of this dramatic story. Thus, we are seeing a grown woman remarking on her life and that may put words in the mouth of her child-like state. I propose this because Briony’s actions do not reflect an understanding of everyone else’s importance in life.

It would be unfair to say that Briony disregards the emotions of other people entirely, but her tendency to construct stories around them shows a disregard for their autonomy and ability to make their own decisions. In her version of Robbie and Cecilia’s time in front of the fountain, she has destroyed the character and life of Robbie in her attempt to write a story to make sense of the world.“Wasn’t writing a kind of soaring, an achievable form of flight, of fancy, of the imagination?” The problem with Briony’s beautiful imagination is how it impacts those around her. She interprets the events that she sees and crafts the most fantastical story. This event shapes her and creates a guilt that she later tries to assuage by changing the end of the story.

Ironically, Briony later states that unhappiness comes from “the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.” Briony finds that her young cousins make poor actors in the play that she puts on for her brother and thus subconsciously chooses new characters to write about and unintentionally changes the lives of everyone around her. Briony is not a bad person, though I can think of some who disagree, but she is guilty of being unable to understand what goes on around her and this inability to read the situation destroys lives.

Jenny, Jenny, Jenny

If West’s Return of the Soldier was a play, Jenny could be viewed as the director. It is her view and reading of the action that the audience ultimately sees. Jenny’s role as narrator is essential to the story because hers is the only voice heard; even Chris and Margaret’s stories are ultimately told to the audience through Jenny. So how do we read this novel because of Jenny? Because of Jenny’s self-awareness and empathy, we learn a great deal about the characters although a bias towards Margaret shouldn’t be ignored.

Focalization is the term for what Jenny offers; Jenny is the lens by which the story is transformed and told, like rose-colored glasses. Jenny focuses on what she chooses and ignores that which she doesn’t want to talk about. This focalization is why we may sympathize with Margaret over Kitty, because that is how Jenny feels. Jenny tells this story from the first-person perspective which helps the story to feel personal. It is easy to identify this POV because of her use of the word “I.” The benefit of this voice is that it allows the audience to feel like we are in the middle of the action.

Kitty is the wife of Chris and starts the novel as Jenny’s main companion. Most of what we read of her is her distaste for Margaret and her attempts to make Chris remember her. Rather than give ten quotes comparing Kitty and Margaret to show her self-obsession, Jenny gives a succinct assessment of the woman: “she could not have conceived that we could follow any course but that which was obviously to her advantage” (115). Kitty’s perspective is lost in this novel the moment she stops having Chris’ wellbeing as her foremost important goal. In anger Kitty remarks that Chris is “pretending” and this hurtful statement makes Jenny respond that “I was past speech then, who had felt his agony all the evening like a wound in my own body, and I did not care what I did to stop her” (70). Kitty’s perspective is lost when she Jenny finds herself unable to empathize with her position.

Chris, the soldier referenced in the title of the novel, is the subject of all the drama. His perspective is gained through the stories that he tells about his past to Jenny. However, we must keep in mind that these stories are still told by Jenny to us. Jenny does not focus on his perspective past her initial moment of trying to understand him. Jenny’s version of Chris, and thus the version we see, is a man who was so troubled by the war and the loss of a son that he reverted to the last time that he was truly happy. This is authenticated when the Doctor says much the same thing and Margaret’s cure of shocking him into remembering is successful.

And here we arrive at Margaret, the mysterious woman who arrives at the Baldry abode. Jenny’s initial assessment of Margaret is that she is trying to trick Kitty out of money so she thinks to herself that Margaret should “turn from our righteousness ashamed” (56). Jenny changes her tune when she sees how earnestly that Margaret cares for Chris. Jenny lovingly states that “this wonderful woman held his body as safely as she held his soul” (102). It is when Jenny

It is when Jenny successfully empathizes with and ultimately understands the character that we learn about their particular perspective. Selfish wife, traumatized soldier, and a sweet friend are revealed when Jenny gets close enough to understand their motives and emotions. It is this connection that establishes Jenny as a reliable narrator. A reliable narrator is a voice that the audience has no reason to mistrust and one we can depend on to tell us the truth. Jenny’s strength and success as narrator come from her continued attempts to understand and pursue what is right. “There is a draught” of truth that Jenny insists “we must drink or not be fully human” (115). It is this insistence on justice that truly teaches us that Jenny is trustworthy as narrator and thus the perspectives revealed by her storytelling are to be trusted.