A scene is painted by creating a very particular environment. To elaborate briefly, one puts a larger picture on the main wall of a room to draw attention to that particular location. It magnetizes one’s eyes in a manner that allows the painter to build an aura around this one centerpiece. This one item becomes more important than the story behind it, simply because it creates a story all on its own. Such is the manner in which Rebecca West creates her own scenes in the novel ‘The Return of the Soldier.’ As a reader progresses through the pagers of the novel, they note how it is teeming with descriptive imagery, often created by the mention of one essential item – or a group of items – in any particular scene. Whether West wants to describe the visceral feelings of characters such as Kitty or Jenny, or illustrate the power of love between two people, the mentioning and description of certain items in any particular scene is certainly her modus operandi.
Towards the beginning of the novel, West uses particular items worn by Margaret Grey to create a scene that highlights the emotions of Kitty and Jenny while simultaneously creating a darker, more awkward atmosphere. Even before Mrs. Grey begins her discussion with the two ladies of Baldry Court, West describes Jenny’s account of what she is wearing. The account is very dreary and makes Mrs. Grey out as someone who is very low in status, perhaps poverty-stricken: “She wore a yellowish raincoat and a black hat with plumes [of] sticky straw…she could turn her grey alpaca skirt well above her muddy boots and adjust its brushbraid with a seamed red hand” (West, 53). Compared to the ladies of Baldry Court, this was very unbecoming and twisted the scene in a manner which makes the reader either very wary of Mrs. Grey, or full of pity towards her. This mix of potential emotions is important as, by this point in the novel, we have not yet been introduced to the past of Mrs. Grey and cannot actually understand her role in the story. Juxtaposed with the very prim and proper adornment of Baldry Court, West uses this grey atmosphere to paint a scene full of mystery and the looming sense of the threat of change. Additionally, this description also allows us to understand the feelings of Kitty and Jenny at the time, before it was discovered that Chris had amnesia, and how they loathed Margaret’s company due to her appalling appearance. This same descriptive factor would come into play later in the novel when Margaret was being fetched to see Chris.
By the very end of the novel, similarly, a critical group of items, the ball and jersey of Chris and Kitty’s deceased son Oliver, surface that bring an impending sense of doom and threatening change. Two items that normally create thoughts of nostalgia and a faint sense of joy instead play the role of antagonist as the reader is force to understand that these items will force Chris to sacrifice all his bliss for a contorted sense of what is normal or just. With this in mind, West describes the items in the following manner: “[Margaret] nursed the jersey and the ball…she kissed them…and regarded them with tears” (114). Unlike the previous description, this one is short and sweet, as it should be. Where the reader may initially have the notion that these items will bring back Chris’s memory and all will proceed for the better, West very swiftly knocks the notion aside. With this quick mention of the reaction that the items create in Margaret, the reader understands now that this is a melancholy, stressful event, that will lead to Chris and Margaret’s downfall. As Margaret describes: “Put it like this…if my boy had been a cripple…and the doctors had said to me, ‘we’ll straighten [his] legs for you, but he’ll be in pain all the rest of his life,’ I’d not have let them touch him” (114). This analogy to the power of the items is powerful and alarming; the choice being to simply spare Chris or damn him. By the end, when we are told Margaret has shown him the items, the reader does not need to know what is written further to understand the conclusion. The dark and brooding description behind the power of these items allows one to understand that their heroes’ love story has come to an end.
In summation, one may come to understand the power of the items spread all throughout the novel by West. By simply describing the effects of one group of items, the scene is amply created and fulfills its role substantially, whether creating a sense of wonder or threatening inevitable downfall. I find it meaningful here to make one quick aside as I describe my own personal feelings towards one particular item, the mackintosh rug that Chris and Margaret rested on in the garden in chapter five. West allows Jenny to describe the rug and scene as such: the rug was “spread on [a] little space of clear grass…it lay quite smooth and comfortable under him…the woman has gathered the soul of the man into her soul and is keeping it warm in love and peace so that his body can rest” (100). This scene is the epitome of love and peace. West allows for the rug to be one small item isolated from the world on one clean square of grass where two people in love can go to escape and seek happiness in a universe so full of distress and darkness. West allowed for both the beginning and end of the novel to include items that created a gloomy atmosphere, but for one brief period in the middle, she allows for small pieces such as this rug to manifest themselves and create these all-too-short moments of peace. As West ends the novel by creating an ironic scene where a woman is bound by societal norms to damn herself and her lover to despair, it’s as if she uses this novel as a critique to society itself. What is the rationale behind sacrificing our own happiness to submit to a societal norm of complacent neutrality? Whatever one’s opinions might behind the writing of this novel, it is still a steadfast understanding that it is only through West’s masterful use of items and imagery that one is able to come to any understanding whatsoever.