(I could have sworn I posted something before this, but alas, I appear to have been derelict in my duty)

Sadly, I don’t have a ton to say about The Return of the Soldier. This is most likely because I’m a scrub at the game of Life (thus my inability to come to class), and so missed lots of-from what I can tell by the blog posts–really interesting and productive discussion.

That said, from what I’ve seen of the blog posts thus far, we haven’t talked about something I find very interesting about the construction of the novel: the viewpoint character.

In a somewhat more traditionally-constructed story, the viewpoint character and the “main” character (I hesitate to use protagonist in this situation, for reasons we’ll get to eventually) would be the same. This makes sense: if you’re going to be following the escapades of x person, would one not hope to see the perspective of x person? Or, if you’re not going to see x person’s viewpoint, should the perspective at least be that of someone very close to x person? To stop using math terms in a gawl-danged English class: Shouldn’t the viewpoint character in a story about a returned soldier either be the returned soldier, or said soldier’s wife (i.e. Chris or Kitty)?

The Return of the Solider doesn’t go that direction, though. Instead, we see the events of the story through Jenny’s eyes–quite possibly the least-attached character to the narrative, given that her only connection to the players involved is that she’s Kitty and Chris’ cousin. Why would West choose to have her narrator be the character with presumably the least stake in the events of her narration?

Personally, I think it has something to do with the themes of repression and detachment we’ve all been talking about thus far. To have the novel narrated by Chris would be make the narration hit too close to home for the repression-trained soldier, and the long paragraphs of Jenny’s internal monologuing would be impossible for such a fellow, lest the entire premise of the story fall apart around the readers’ ears once Chris first started thinking about his situation and the claims being made by those around him for more than a few sentences. Kitty might have worked as a narrator, but the story would have been very different if she were. Instead of the exploration of the feminine and its almost mother-maiden-crone sort of style that we have currently (to justify: it’s interesting that we have three women, one of whom–Kitty–is first presented as, hallucination or not, caring for a child, another–Margaret–who is immediately described as “middle-aged,” and a third–Jenny–who is given no indication of being married [unless I totally missed it]), we would instead have a story about one woman’s desperate journey to remind her amnesiac husband of their ~true love~

Except, we probably wouldn’t even have that, because even if Jenny isn’t the “main” character, she for darn certain seems to be the protagonist.

Allow me to explain: what is the protagonist of a story? I would argue it’s less the viewpoint character or the focus character, but instead the character who acts, who makes things happen (the antagonist, then, is the one who acts contrary to the protagonist–though this definition does not presuppose either side making first action, simply that the two forces act against one another). Who pulls Margaret back in to try and explain to Chris his delusions? Who asks Chris “what seems real to [him]?”

Jenny. Jenny does things, where Chris and Kitty talk and worry and sigh.

But why is Jenny acting so darn much, when she, as noted before, seems to have the least connection to the narrative? Again, we go back to the themes: repression and detachment. Chris is so busy repressing, even without realizing it anymore, that he can do little else. Kitty is too attached to what she views as the way things should be that she cannot pull back to consider how to get from point A (repressed Chris) to point B (memory-returned Chris). Jenny, however, is fully aware of the horrors of the war (don’t believe me? Just look at the sorts of things she talks about when she first thinks of Chris, of the soldier trodding through the “brown rottenness” of the battlefield and the like), and also just detached enough from the situation, while still caring about it, to be able to have the desire and will to make something happen.

-Eliot Sherman


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