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Literature’s Exception(s)

Against the Norm: Exception as a Disruptive Force in Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918)

Défier la norme : l’exception comme disruption dans The Return of the Soldier de Rebecca West
Alice Borrego


Dans The Return of the Soldier (1918), Rebecca West remet en question le besoin de conformité d’une société anglaise étouffée par les normes, les codes sociaux et les tensions entre classes, à travers Chris Baldry, un soldat touché par l’obusite. Il s’agira, dans un premier temps, d’explorer les tensions entre la ‘normalité’ et l’exception, avant de considérer cette dernière comme une source d’exclusion (en s’appuyant sur l’étymologie du mot exception, ex-cipio, exclure, extraire), alors que Chris rejette sa femme et sa cousine, Kitty et Jenny, figures d’une vie qu’il ne reconnaît plus. Cette segmentarité de l’exception nous conduira à analyser l’exception comme moteur d’une rhétorique de l’omission (excipio : omettre) qui met au jour la critique de West à l’encontre des discours normatifs et oppressifs.

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1When considering modernist war novels, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) is one of the first to come to mind. The imbricated stories of Clarissa Dalloway, a member of London’s high society, and Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran suffering from shell shock, have been considered as an epitome of modernist writing: Woolf’s aesthetic experimentation with narratology challenges both the conventional construction of 19th century realist novels and the conventional structure of English society as regards gender. Yet, Woolf’s enterprise was not new. In Modernism (2000), Peter Childs points out that Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918) already contrasted a feminine upper-class household with the return of an amnesiac soldier. Longing for her cousin Chris’s return from the war, Jenny Baldry introduces the reader to a lavish yet deceiving Baldry Court, inhabited by both Jenny and Kitty, Chris’s wife. Their insistence on pomp and decorum betrays their disorientation following Chris’s enlistment and their unspoken trauma after the death of the couple’s son. The appearances they desperately tried to maintain are eventually compromised, as a ghost from Chris’s past emerges into their lives. Margaret, a middle-class woman who had a relationship with Chris fifteen years earlier, comes to inform the Baldry women that Chris has been maimed on the battlefield and suffers from amnesia: Chris thus returns to a house and a wife he cannot recognise, proclaiming he is desperately in love with Margaret. The three women are confronted with the moral dilemma of bringing Chris’s memory back, while navigating the transformation of gender relations and the tensions of class politics.

2The Return of the Soldier is itself an exceptional work: if the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1697) or Wilfried Owen (1893-1918) offered a glimpse of the experience on the battlefield, West’s novel unprecedentedly accounted for the female experience of the conflict. One of the first novels to be written during the war, The Return of the Soldier is testament to Rebecca West’s commitment to feminist and socialist issues. When the novel was published, she was already an acclaimed journalist for The Freewoman and The Clarion (among others). The hiatus in the suffragist movement during the conflict delayed the conversation on women’s rights and women’s position in society, leading female writers such as Rose Macaulay to deplore women’s helplessness in Non-Combatants and Others (1916). However, West’s novel broke an implicit silence, as it denounces the asymmetrical gender relations which had been the rallying cry behind the New Woman at the end of the 19th century. The collapse of the male patriarch in The Return of the Soldier echoes the fragmentation of society and the redefinition of its structure in the wake of the First World War. West was not only one of the first war writers but also ‘one of the first English novelists to exploit psychoanalytical theory as a narrative device’ (Childs, 180). Her unprecedented take on shell-shock is probably one of the main reasons why critics devoted their analyses to Chris’s trauma. Wyatt Bonikowski (2005) draws parallel between West’s novel and Freud’s essay ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’ (1915) and one of his most renowned works, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), inscribing The Return of the Soldier as part of the legacy of psychoanalysis. This critical trend had already been developed by Kavka Misha in her article on traumatised masculinity in the novel, published in 1998. Bonikowski did lament the insufficient number of studies addressing the importance of psychoanalysis in the novel, but the years that followed his own work saw an important development of psychoanalysis-oriented research papers, such as Steve Pinkerton’s ‘Trauma and Cure in Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier.’ (2008) It seems that the criticism of the novel revolved around two main poles: psychoanalysis (mainly oriented towards Chris’s trauma) and gender relations. Recent studies have however achieved to combine the two axes by giving Kitty the same status as Chris, as Nicole Rizzuto (2012) and Rebecah Pulsifer (2013) do. Nevertheless, the analysis of trauma still overshadows other crucial aspects of the novel that have been barely touched upon. Only Christine Reynier (2015) considers West’s work to be a “state-of-the-nation” novel, a metonymy of the English nation during the war. The correlation between the events of The Return of the Soldier and those of the conflict has either been taken for granted or only perceived through trauma. Rebecca West’s depiction of class struggle echoes 19th century social realist novels while offering a new literary and social perspective both through stylistic fragmentation (addressed in the third part of this study) and the representation of unstable relationships, mirroring the destabilised nation. The Return of the Soldier is not solely a war novel, a trauma novel, or a gender novel but rather a state-of-the-nation novel that aims at resisting normative discourses and structures.

  • 1 ‘No life can certainly avoid being referred to normality. Its absence is embedded in bodies and spi (...)

3As Jenny plays the piano, she notices: ‘Through this evening of sentences cut short because their completed meaning was always sorrow, of normal life dissolved into tears, the chords of Beethoven sounded serenely’ (26). The Baldrys’ return to ‘normal life’ is here endowed with melancholy. In Vies ordinaires, Vies précaires, Guillaume Le Blanc states: ‘Certes, aucune vie ne peut écarter la référence à la normalité. C’est son absence qui s’incruste dans les corps, les esprits, les blessant irrévocablement et engendrant la mélancolie de la normalité’1 (2007, 55). The hegemony of normality leaves no possibility for non-conformity or exceptionalism, as it requires a submission to codes of conduct. Stéphane Legrand defines norms as follows:

  • 2 ‘What transforms a statement into a norm ? Nothing, except the function it receives, in a specific (...)

Qu’est-ce qui fait d’un énoncé une norme ? Rien, sinon la fonction qu’il reçoit, dans un certain contexte, pour autant qu’on rapporte l’exigence qu’il signifie à un état de fait réel auquel elle objecte et à un état de fait possible qu’elle réclame (ou l’inverse). Un énoncé n’est jamais par lui-même une norme, seulement en vertu de la fonction qui lui est attribué dans une conjoncture discursive et pratique.2 (3)

4Legrand here points out a tension between what is and what should be—the latter being determined by a set of moral and social codes characteristic of a given society and legitimised by institutions. Therefore, the dissolution of ‘normal life’, as experienced by the Baldrys, inevitably leads to a dissolution of the self, which can no longer fully exist as it used to. Chris’s amnesia reveals a divergence between self-development and compliance with such norms. The destabilisation of the self—and of the male patriarch in this regard—inevitably leads to shattered relationships with others and with society and its codes at large. Addressing the psychological and ethical complexity of shell-shock, The Return of the Soldier exceptionally navigates the disruption of ‘normal’ life and social expectations, through the eponymous soldier’s ‘extraordinary’ (18) condition. This paper will aim at showing how exception questions established norms in West’s novel: dwelling on the first definition of exception in the OED as ‘the abnormal, the unusual’, I will first focus on the tensions between what is considered ‘normal’ and the exception (i.e. Chris and his condition) as the First World War fractured the nation. Chris’s trauma brings chaos into Kitty’s perfectly arranged world, who yearns for the past’s stability (or at least for her lost control over her life). But as the past cannot be recovered, this desire for ‘normality’ reaches an aporia: Kitty’s norms and values are no longer those of Chris, making her attempt at reconnecting with her husband vain. The exception becomes a source of exclusion (looking here at the etymology of exception: ex-cipio to take out, to exclude), since Kitty and Jenny are ‘cut off’ (57) from Chris’s amnesiac life. ‘Home’ becomes devoid of meaning for Chris, along with its inhabitants, making Kitty and Jenny as destitute as he is. West’s shift of focus from Chris’s trauma to Kitty’s own struggle with identity reveals her exceptional stand against established discourses and suggests that through a rhetoric of omission, exception (ex-cipio: to leave out) becomes a tool against the insidious normativity evoked by Le Blanc.

The Invasion of the Abnormal

5The in medias res incipit of The Return of the Soldier sets the story and its characters within a fracture between past and present. Alexander Regier defines fracture as

a break that is located on the structural level. It is not a process, and does not encompass a temporal element in that sense. It might be historically or genealogically located, but that is not its deciding feature. Rather, it is a rupture of a structural and logical kind, a break that acts as an unbridgeable division between two spheres. (7)

  • 3 ‘A social fact is easily recognisable by its normative nature, insofar as it is not only a norm ass (...)

6The repetitive use of temporal elements by Jenny, the narrator, throughout the first pages of the novel, emphasises the disruptive power of the First World War as she laments the end of ‘the old days’ (3). The fracture in The Return of the Soldier is indeed located at the beginning of the war, ‘just a year ago when [Chris] went to the front’ (7), revealing a ‘historically-located’ fracture between the past and the present of the narration. But the ‘unbridgeable division between two spheres’ described by Regier goes further, as Chris’s departure and the beginning of the war entail a transformation of daily life. The past becomes synonymous with normality and habit while the present is forever transformed by his absence, at first, and his illness afterwards. The disruption of ‘normal life’ is referred to at the very beginning of The Return of the Soldier by Kitty Baldry: ‘If a woman began to worry in these days because her husband hadn’t written to her for a fortnight!’ (3) The gnomic value of Kitty’s exclamation suggests her conformity to what a woman should or should not feel or do, i.e. her conformity to social norms. In Les normes chez Foucault, Stéphane Legrand explains that: ‘Le fait social est bien reconnaissable à son caractère normatif, c’est-à-dire à cela qu’il n’est pas seulement une norme signifiant une certaine exigence, mais entraînant, ou tendant à entraîner le comportement conforme à cette exigence’3 (4). The reader’s introduction to Kitty’s conformity from the very first page of the novel not only foresees the numerous references made to her compliance with social codes but also creates the normative frame in which the Baldry family has evolved and which Chris’s condition is about to shatter. Before greeting Margaret, Kitty’s ambiguity towards norms emerges:

. . . Kitty took up the amber hair-pins from her lap and began swathing her hair about her head. ‘Last year’s fashion’, she commented; ‘but I fancy it’ll do for a person with that sort of address’. She stood up, and threw her little silk dressing-jacket over the rocking horse. ‘I’m seeing her because she may need something, and I specially want to be kind to people while Chris is away. One wants to deserve well of heaven’. (9)

7Jenny’s emphasis on Kitty’s pomp (‘amber hair-pins’, ‘silk dressing-jacket’) reinforces Kitty’s dismissive comment on Margaret, who does not deserve to be welcome with the latest fashion items. Through accessories and garments, Kitty establishes her social dominance over the lower classes, which reaches its paroxysm through her hypocritical devotion to the needy. The choice of hair-pins reveals her complete control and use of the social codes, while her utilitarian vision of social and moral responsibility reveals her scorn for those beneath her status. Chris’s return and love for Margaret are therefore to be understood as an extreme form of debasement for Kitty and as an insult to her rank as a wife and as an upper-class woman. She fails to grasp why her husband would love ‘that dowd’ (27) over her, therefore denying the very codes and norms Kitty stands for and adding to her incomprehension of his illness.

8As a matter of fact, Kitty cannot cope with her husband’s amnesia, which she refers to as madness: ‘He was not discontented till he went mad’ (72). The conflation of amnesia and madness illustrates both Kitty’s incomprehension and Chris’s inadequacy to conform to what a husband and a man should be, thus conferring on him the status of exception. Dr Anderson, who is at last in charge of curing Chris, notes this need for conformity: ‘It’s my profession to bring people from various outlying districts of the mind to the normal. There seems to be a general feeling it’s the place where they ought to be’ (72). The verb ‘ought to’ underlines the lack of tolerance for what goes beyond ‘the normal’, i.e. exceptions like Chris, and recalls the social patterns described by Legrand. Sanity and ordinariness become a requirement of society which goes beyond the welfare of the individual. If the normal seems to take precedence over the exception, ordinariness and conformity are nonetheless seen as a source of misery: whereas Kitty sees Chris’s condition as abnormal, Margaret, on the other hand, sees it as a source of happiness: ‘You can’t cure him . . . make him happy, I mean. All you can do is make him ordinary’ (72). Exception becomes bliss, insofar as amnesia has allowed Chris to free himself from his social expectations. Jenny recalls that

It was his hopeless hope that some time he would have an experience that would act on his life like alchemy, turning to gold all the dark metals of events, and from that revelation he would go on his way rich with an inextinguishable joy. There had been, of course, no chance of his ever getting it. Literally there wasn’t room to swing a revelation in his crowded life. First of all, at his father’s death he had been obliged to take over a business that was weighted by the needs of a mob of female relatives who were all useless either in the old way, with antimacassars, or in the new way, with gold-clubs; then Kitty had come along and picked up his conception of normal expenditure, and carelessly stretched it as a woman stretches a new glove on her hand. (8)

9Chris’s life was saturated with social responsibilities: as a son, as a husband and as a father. The structure of Jenny’s account (‘First of all. . . then. . . then. . .’) mirrors what she calls his ‘crowded life’: the accumulation of task and duties, only separated by commas and a semicolon, contrasts with the imagery of the first sentence which is progressively buried under Chris’s obligations—much like Chris’s chances of being happy. The supposed logical succession of his social responsibilities characterises the structuring and annihilating power of the norm, as Margaret’s opposition between happiness and ordinariness suggests. Moreover, Jenny’s narration betrays Chris’s melancholy, as she insists, throughout the novel, on the Baldry women’s success in making him happy (‘“If he could come back!” I said. “He was so happy here!” And Kitty answered: “He could not have been happier”’ [7]). The credit for Chris’s well-being truly reveals a process of appropriation, which denied the possibility of him being unhappy with the regulated and normative life designed by his wife, cousin and society as a whole. Amnesia thus allows for a repossession of the self, since Jenny Baldry suggests that it has turned Chris into an exceptional being:

It was our peculiar shame that he had rejected us when he had attained something saner than sanity. His very loss of memory was a triumph over the limitations of language which prevent the mass of men from making explicit statements about their spiritual relationships. (58)

10The word ‘triumph’ is a token of deliverance: Chris’s exceptionality is thus what both frees and alienates him from the rest of society. The superlative used by Jenny suggests that Chris has crossed the threshold of sanity in a new way: he is no longer defined by his irrationality but by his ability to go beyond the normative notion of sanity. He denies the ‘social fact’ described by Legrand by not complying to norms and expectations. The liminality of sanity is subverted by Chris’s illness, which suggests that what is considered sane actually denies the individual’s well-being. Yet, Chris’s liberation from norms and expectations seems to be responsible for his isolation and that of his family: his ‘rejection’ of Kitty and Jenny stands as a more symbolic rejection of a constrictive English society—an unconscious repudiation that inevitably reconfigures social dynamics.

The Dynamics of Exclusion

11The very etymology of ‘exception’ reflects its dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, as suggests the prefix ‘ex’, both meaning ‘coming from’ and ‘outside of’. The characters of The Return of the Soldier are especially submitted to this duality, insofar as Chris’s return from the war redefines the structure of the household. At first glance, Kitty and Jenny inadvertently form an entity that rejects Chris as he comes ‘home’, still affirming his status of exception: ‘. . . it was as though he were an outcast, and we who loved him stout policemen’ (25). The term ‘outcast’ mirrors that of ‘exclusion’ and ‘exception’ as it sheds light on Chris’s lack of belonging. The house itself—and therefore his home—becomes a symbol of his exclusion:

Through this brown gloom, darkened now by a surly sky, Chris was taking the skiff, standing in the stern and using his oar like a gondolier. He had come down here soon after breakfast, driven from the house by the strangeness of all but the outer walls, and discontented with the grounds because everything but this wet, intractable spot bore the marks of Kitty’s genius. (38)

12Baldry Court encapsulates a life which is no longer his own and that can no longer contain him—the family home becomes an unrecognisable memento or rather an overflowing one. ‘The marks of Kitty’s genius’ embody a constant reminder of his inadequacy with reality and of his inability to commit to his marriage. This is reinforced throughout the novel, as Jenny, the narrator, often refers to herself and Kitty as ‘we’: ‘we had made a fine place for Chris’, ‘we had nourished’, ‘we had made happiness inevitable for him’ (6). The constant repetition of the pronoun confines Kitty and Jenny in their role as wife and cousin and reveals that even before amnesia, Chris was already an exception, insofar as he and his needs were considered superior to that of the rest of the household: ‘Nothing could ever really become a part of our life until it had been referred to Chris’s attention’ (8). Their dependence on Chris is at the roots of a reversal of the dynamics of exclusion in The Return of the Soldier, which is evoked by Jenny: ‘Nothing could mitigate the harness of our dejection’ (57). Chris shuts out Kitty and Jenny, whom he no longer recognises as part of himself, thus denying their own identities and making them the exceptions, the excluded of what he considers his ‘normal life’.

13Even more so, the shattered marriage of Kitty and Chris plunges Kitty into the unknown as her social position as a wife is questioned. She falters over the pronoun ‘we’ when speaking to Chris, as if it now were an empty signifier with which she could no longer identify: ‘We—we’ve a lot of responsibilities you and I’ (26). Judith Butler explains this process of alienation entailed by the loss of the other:

It is not as if an ‘I’ exists independently over here and then simply loses a ‘you’ over there, especially if the attachment to ‘you’ is part of what composes who ‘I’ am. If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. (22)

14Chris’s inability to recognise Kitty as his wife constantly reminds her of her social destitution and therefore of her shattered identity. As they meet for the first time since his return, she loses all her attributes:

There was a rustle in the shadows, and he dropped my hands. The face that looked out of the dimness to him was very white, and her upper lip was lifted over her teeth in a distressed grimace. It was immediately as plain as though he had shouted it that this sad mask meant nothing to him. (22)

15Kitty appears almost distorted, as if she were a blurry image Chris could not fully discern. She is reduced to a meaningless ‘face’, a ‘mask’ which reveals both her personal and social annihilation as she becomes a stranger in her own house. The shattering of social codes and of the norms of marriage turns Kitty into an exception: she is no longer like the ‘other women’ (27) who would tolerate the debasement of their husbands but becomes as destitute as Chris, yet without being recognised as such. As she ‘lay about like a broken doll’ (55), one can perceive West’s criticism of asymmetrical gender relations: Chris’s trauma both denies her identity and supersedes her own trauma as a mother and as a wife, confining her ‘into the shadows’ (22). This duality of exclusion can be considered as a token of Rebecca West’s feminism and commitment, insofar as it reinstates women as victims of history and sheds light on their own trauma. Her depiction of a frail marriage based on social conformity reveals her desire to go against the norm, to go against expectations—an agenda that seems to reach its paroxysm through a rhetoric of omission.

Rebecca West’s Rhetoric of Omission

16Rebecca West’s take on trauma and amnesia gives way to a deft criticism of medical and scientific discourses that needs to be addressed and which allows us to define her work as exceptional. The aesthetics of omission at work in The Return of the Soldier aim indeed at debunking the normative power of such narratives. Their power and significance are better explained by Stéphane Legrand:

  • 4 ‘The transfer from the category of the legal norm to the category of the biological norm, from rele (...)

C’est dans le système de ce que Foucault nomme les relations de pouvoir que devient intelligible le passage, qu’opèrent constamment les discours, du registre de la norme juridique à celui de la norme biologique, de la pertinence dans le champ de la médecine mentale à la pertinence dans le champ de l’économie normative ; dans ce système que réside le secret des usages sociaux du discours de la norme ainsi que des pratiques sociales de normalisation . . .4 (23)

17The exception and the normal are defined by power plays and legitimised by institutions and agents who relay such normative concepts and behaviours. West subverts these practices by staging the inability of medical science to respond adequately to Chris’s condition. The doctors’ several attempts at curing Chris of his amnesia are characterised by failure: the first doctor who takes care of him in a hospital near Boulogne, ‘had known nothing of Chris’s delusions’ (19) while Dr Anderson ‘[doesn’t] know’ why confronting Chris with the loss of his son will matter in his recovery, but ‘it does’ (73). The banalisation of scientific and medical analysis is a way for West to shift her focus from normative and alienating discourses to the experience of the traumatised and his family. This subversion of medical discourse goes even further as all the doctors encountered throughout the novels are all men: Margaret is the one finding the solution to Chris’s amnesia (‘I know how you could bring him back . . .’ [73]). By putting Margaret in charge of Chris’s cure, West challenges the ‘social practices of normalisation’ evoked by Legrand. Not only does the medical profession fail, but the male medical profession fails. This dual failure makes of Chris’s story, and thus of West’s novel, an exception that resists normativity, as Chris’s story cannot be contained by medical or patriarchal discourse.

18This alternative story reaches its paroxysm at the very end of the novel, as West voluntarily leaves out (ex-cipio) the outcome of Chris’s cure:

‘He’s coming back’.
‘Jenny! Jenny! How does he look?’
‘Oh,’—how could I say it?—‘every inch a soldier’.
She crept behind me to the window, peered over my shoulder and saw.
I heard her suck in her breath with satisfaction.
‘He’s cured!’ she whispered slowly. ‘He’s cured!’ (82)

19The final omission confers to the whole novel the status of exception, insofar as it shatters both scientific and narrative codes: the reader is deprived of both the outcome of the cure and the outcome of the novel—there is no knowing what Chris’s return entails for himself and for his family, except for the fact that he is no longer a man, a husband, a cousin nor a father, but a soldier. Elizabeth Reeves Covington perfectly accounts for this unsettling ending:

Of all the modernist features of West’s debut novel, her decision to mask Chris’s cure is at once a repudiation of the appropriative methods of professional scientists and writers and a self-declaration of her place as a professional author of literature. . . . Thus, West’s narrative elisions place this text firmly within the parameters of modernist texts emerging during this period. West establishes her literariness by erasing from the narrative the very aspect of the text that is most significant from the perspective of scientific and realist fictional discourse. (66)

20Rebecca West thus places herself against the norm and denies her reader the right to a sense of closure and of resolution. The final omission superbly fragments the novel and resonates with the traumatic omissions at play in the rest of the narrative, whose analysis would deserve to be the subject of another entire paper. As a ‘modernist state-of-the-nation novel’ (Reynier), The Return of the Soldier’s ending refutes the possibility for hope that could be found in E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) for instance. According to Patrick Parrinder, 18th-century narrations of the nation ended on a marriage, while 19th century authors rather chose the ‘achievement of parenthood’ (294) as a token of hope and redemption for the old generation. This is where West becomes exceptional: her fragmented narrative does not allow for either a happy marriage nor for an auspicious child, like Helen Schlegel’s son. In this regard, West’s ‘narrative elisions’ go further than what Reeves Covington suggests: West not only erases the most important part of scientific and realist fictional discourses but she places the dead child at the centre of Chris’s cure and at the core of the novel’s irresolution. Her rhetoric of omission around Oliver, Chris’s et Kitty’s late child, transforms The Return of the Soldier into a paradoxical quest for hope and resolution.

21Through the course of the novel, Oliver is only mentioned three times at the beginning (pages 1, 4 and 8) and then never spoken of until page 52. The child’s nursery has remained as such, constantly leaving Kitty ‘revisiting her dead’ (4). She tells Jenny: ‘I wish Chris wouldn’t have kept it as a nursery when there’s no chance—’ (4). The dash is emblematic of West’s modernism, as she uses typological fragmentation to echo her character’s trauma. But her genius, her exceptionalism, lies in the fact that it is this very first omission which will paradoxically become the ‘antidote’ to Chris’s illness. The answer to his amnesia has been right under the Baldrys’ eyes but Kitty ‘didn’t think it mattered’ (73), thus shedding light on the crucial role of omission in the novel. Furthermore, it is because Margaret has lost a child herself that she is able to identify with Kitty’s and Chris’s own loss: ‘We thought he would be up and about the next day, he just—’ (69). The same technique is used at the end of the novel and resonates with the first pages of the story, as if the symbolic dash was the only way Kitty and Margaret could ever connect. Omission becomes the guiding thread of the whole novel and even permeates class barriers. Margaret reflects on the loss of her son and realises: ‘I thought perhaps my baby had left me because I had so little to give him. But if a baby could leave all this!’ (76) Class is overridden: all that is left is the absence of the child. The fracture is not only historical, medical nor social, but really is genealogical, regardless of gender or class. West offers an alternative end to Howards End, as the future of the nation no longer revolves around a marriage and a child but rather around the opposite: a dead child and a fractured marriage. She ends The Return of the Soldier with the fragmentation of both relationships and narrative, therefore ‘[taking] indeterminacy as a positive value and [resisting] closure in a struggle to the death to preserve space for alterities [modernist writers] could not even begin to imagine’ (Ross 56). Her rhetoric of omission places West at the heart of an exceptional modernist project which sought, after the war, to go beyond canonical literature and to defy expectations.


22The Return of the Soldier reveals that exception, if pluriform, is always disruptive. As an eruption of the abnormal in highly coded social structures, the exceptionality of Chris’s condition appears as a metonymy for the whole English nation during the First World War. The novel’s setting is the first blow dealt by West to old normative, and oppressive, structures: ‘disregarding the national interest’ (6) at a time of international turmoil, The Return of the Soldier sheds light on the role of the war as a catalyst of already existing social issues such as class, gender and the care of the ‘deviant’. Chris’s condition is the second foil of West’s crusade against normativity. If the dynamics of exclusion at play in The Return of the Soldier indeed allows for an acknowledgement of shell-shock and the intricacies of its cure, it is nonetheless a way to reverse the main historical narrative by putting Kitty’s own trauma to the fore, as she is not allowed to mourn the death of her son nor the metaphorical death of her husband. Nicole Rizzuto considers the novel to be a “counter-representation of British history”, one that

suggests that in the midst of its contemporaneous moment of international conflict, the nation is in danger of producing and perpetuating historical amnesia. Imperial policies and the uneven gendering and class structures subtending the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are social, political, and economic traumas that remain obscured when the state and the nation are literally and figuratively under attack. (9–10)

23West’s exceptionalism truly lies in her rhetoric of omission: she uses dominant scientific, social and historical discourses only to debunk them and to expose their ethical failure. The novel’s lack of resolution subverts the oppressive narratives that have silenced personal and intimate experiences of history. More than a ‘counter-representation’, The Return of the Soldier appears to be a counter-narrative which foresees Lyotard’s call for ‘petits récits’ (small narratives) against totalising metanarratives such as nationalism or patriarchal discourses. If exception can first appear as a source of exclusion and seems endowed with negativity, exception truly allows for a reassessment of established structures and for a shift of perspective on social, historical, scientific and narrative modes of expression. Exception stands against both conformity and comfort: its aim is to disrupt, to disturb, to disorient. Rebecca West’s novel is the epitome of modernists’ desire to shatter expectations. As Stephen Ross puts it: ‘. . . the modernist felt a massive discontent with the conditions in which they matured, and sought with near-manic productivity to produce real alter/natives, to imagine the unimaginable, to think the unthinkable, and above all to represent the unrepresentable’ (52).

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1 ‘No life can certainly avoid being referred to normality. Its absence is embedded in bodies and spirits and irrevocably wounds them, generating the melancholy of normality’ [my translation].

2 ‘What transforms a statement into a norm ? Nothing, except the function it receives, in a specific context, as long as its imperative is compared to an actual situation deemed unacceptable by the norm and to a foreseeable situation required by the norm (and vice versa). A statement is never a norm per se: it becomes one because of the function assigned to it in a practical and discursive context’ [my translation].

3 ‘A social fact is easily recognisable by its normative nature, insofar as it is not only a norm associated with a particular imperative but rather a phenomenon generating—or prone to generate—a behaviour destined to comply with this imperative’ [my translation].

4 ‘The transfer from the category of the legal norm to the category of the biological norm, from relevance in mental medicine to relevance in normative economy, is constantly operated by discourses. It becomes intelligible in what Foucault called power dynamics: the secret to both the social use of normative discourses and the social practices of normalisation lies in this very system’ [my translation].

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Alice Borrego, « Against the Norm: Exception as a Disruptive Force in Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 58 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2020, consulté le 22 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Alice Borrego

Alice Borrego is a PhD candidate at Paul-Valéry University - Montpellier 3 under the supervision of Professor Christine Reynier. She is a former student of the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon. Her research focuses on the correlation between the aesthetics of fragmentation and the notion of responsibility in state-of-the-nation novels of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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