What Do the Letters Say?

Since there are not a lot of characters present in Rebecca West’s novel The Return of the Soldier, inanimate objects begin to play a more important role in character and story development. These objects give us insight into character relationships and background story to further explain why certain events are occurring the way that they are in the novel.

I found the letters to be of major importance in making the novel what it is. Putting in letters or notes seems to be a popular device used in British literature as we have seen letters in all three of the novels we have read this semester (Frankenstein, Lady Audley, and now The Return of the Soldier). There is one major difference between the letters from the other two novels and this one. In The Return of the Soldier, we are never shown exactly what any of the letters say. In chapter 1, Mrs. Grey is telling Kitty and Jenny of the letter she received from Captain Baldry when he is in the hospital. Again, in chapter 4 we hear about more letters from Chris to Margaret but never see them.

It is interesting that West chooses to never show us, the reader, what the letters say and only have a character from the novel relay what they said or merely bring up their presence. For starters, we don’t even know if these letter truly exist or if this is just Margaret making them up. Mrs. Grey could also be leaving out important details of these letters or twisting Chris’s words around when telling Kitty and Jenny what these letters say.

Since we do not get the actual letters in the novel, it becomes important to see how the characters respond to them. After Kitty sees the letter from Chris to Margaret explaining that he is in the hospital, she responds by saying “This is a likely story” (58). Kitty hasn’t believed Mrs. Grey’s story the entire time and getting physical proof that her husband is hurt doesn’t change her mind either. This shows Kitty’s untrusting nature towards Margaret and her belief that Margaret is trying to steal money from her just because she is from a lower class.

Jenny is the only other person present when Margaret talks about the other letters that she received from Chris when she returned to Monkey Island. Although Jenny doesn’t give us her response to these letters, we do see how distraught Margaret is over them. Jenny says that “She bowed her head and wept” (89). When I read this for the first time, I saw this as Margaret regretting not getting these letters sooner. It seems to me that she is pondering what life would be life if she had married Chris instead of her husband and if she had seen these letters sooner, maybe she would have ended up with Chris instead.

It’s interesting to see the importance that letters have taken in the novels that we have read this semester, but it is more so to see how characters respond to letters when we never get to see them. Although this is frustrating, feeling like you’re missing out on part of the story, it leaves you wondering what the letters actually said and doesn’t allow you to build bias towards anyone because they may react to the letters differently than you would have.

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