True to a Lie: Two Perspectives on Moral Responsibility in “Return of the Soldier”

In two of the concluding paragraphs of “Return of the Soldier”, both Jenny and Margaret grapple with the moral dilemma of whether to or not to “cure” Chris. Although the women, while looking over Oliver’s toys in the nursery, convince one another that it is right not to force Chris to accept the truth, they both know that in the end fate, society, and duty will prevail over happiness and love, and they must tell him the truth. Although Margaret decides to “cure” Chris because she believes she is doing the right thing for him, Jenny decides that he must be cured because she realizes that her love for Chris will disappear over time along with his youth and masculinity; accepting reality and conforming to society, however, will never go out of style. Margaret wants to cure Chris for his benefit, while Jenny wants to do it for her own good.Although it is Margaret alone who takes his son’s ball and jersey to Chris and “cures” him, both she and Jenny decide simultaneously that this is what should be done, and they are both involved in the decision. Margaret does not act without mutual, if unspoken, consent. In the silence after Kitty leaves the nursery, both Jenny and Margaret come to the conclusion that they should cure Chris, but based on different reasons. The paragraph after Kitty’s departure describes Jenny considering the morality of curing Chris, and its ideas are not only central to her final decision, but to the message of the entire novel. While Margaret’s reasoning is simply stated, her conclusion also mimics the book’s central idea. In the paragraphs prior to Kitty’s entrance, both Jenny and Margaret acknowledge that society is at odds with their desire to “let [Chris] be” (86). Margaret thinks aloud that “nothing in the world matters so much as happiness,” arguing that her duty towards Chris is to make him happy, as that is all he has (86). Margaret has “lived a hard life,” meaning that she has lived in the dreary, “hostile, reasonable world” of reality, and she knows that all it holds are false rules made by a false society intent on stamping out love and happiness and holding its members prisoner to propriety and duty (86). She knows that what is waiting for Chris on the other side of the truth is Kitty, a woman “in tune with every kind of falsity” who symbolizes the falseness of society and reality (87). Chris, if cured, will be forced back into a world that cares not for true love or kindness, but only for men and soldiers. Margaret reasons that to “go out and put an end to the poor love’s happiness” will be to take away the only true thing Chris has, love and happiness, and replace it with “the falsest thing on earth” (86, 87).Even though she believes in Chris’ right to happiness, Margaret feels society’s dreadful pressure to cure Chris, even before Kitty enters the room. When Margaret tries to justify not curing him, Jenny observes that “there was a shade of doubt in her voice; she was pleading not with me but with fate” (86). After Kitty leaves the nursery, Margaret changes her mind and decides that it is right to make Chris accept the truth. Her reasoning for this change, however, can only be gleaned from the few words that she says to Jenny after Kitty leaves. At that moment, they both change their minds, and Jenny attributes their change in attitude to the fact that Kitty “reminds [them] of reality” (87). However, Kitty’s effect on Margaret is not quite what Jenny assumes it to be.Margaret does not change her mind because she is reminded of her duty to society and the necessity of confronting reality, but because she is reminded of her duty to Chris, and his duty towards society. We know that this is the case because of Margaret’s words and her past behavior towards Chris, as well as Jenny’s observations of her. When Margaret says, “I’ve lived a hard life,” we are reminded that she has experienced reality and the scant rewards that come to a person who does what she should in society, and that society has been hard on her (86). The reader gets the impression that Margaret has nothing to gain by conforming to society, and is no longer interested in doing what is considered “right”; this is confirmed when Margaret says, “I wasn’t sure if I ought to come the second time, seeing we both were married,” and then “I came again,” if effect meaning “in spite of what I ought.” (86).One thing, however, is certain: Margaret does feel a responsibility towards Chris because of their true, honest love. She feels that Chris, if he were not shell-shocked, would fulfill his duty to society, as he clearly did throughout his life – including marrying Kitty and going to war. The injustice of preventing him from doing something he would have done if he were in possession of his full faculties is not something Margaret can live with. Jenny observes Margaret’s change of mind when she says, “the rebellion had gone from her eyes and they were again the seat of all gentle wisdom,” meaning that the rebellion, Margaret’s conviction of the righteousness of love in the face of society’s opposing attitude, gives way to the “wisdom” that if she loves Chris she must let him conform to “the strange order of the earth,” even if it is empty and false (86).When Jenny changes her mind, it truly is because Kitty reminds her of reality. Unlike Margaret, Jenny has more to live for than love. Acceptance by society is very important to her, and she realizes that not curing Chris will cost her this acceptance, so she must choose between them. If Jenny chooses not to cure Chris, he will be able to “live in the interminable enjoyment of his youth and love,” and Jenny, in her “frenzied love” for Chris and his relationship with Margaret, will be able to be a part of it (86, 87). However, when she sees Kitty wandering about in grief, and finds herself hating “this strange ugly woman moving about among her things,” it reminds Jenny that society hates to see a strange and rebellious person “moving about” its ordered system; she thinks ahead to society’s reaction to Chris once he has grown old and senile. For even though at present Chris’ “youth and love” inspire “one’s eyes [to] follow…him caressingly as he [goes],” and there is a “physical gallantry about him,” this will not last, and it is when these charms fade with age, when his “smiling mouth [is] slack with age” and “his delusion turn[s] to senile idiocy” that society’s disapproval will begin to wear on Jenny (86-89). She realizes that she will have to look around “defensively to see that nobody…notice[es] the doddering old man,” and she sums up her fears of the disapproval of others when she realizes the change that will eventually take place, transforming him from the person he is now to the old man he will be in the future:Gamekeepers would chat kindly with him and tap their foreheads as he passed through the copse, callers would be tactful and dangle bright talk before him. He who was as a flag flying from our tower would become a queer-shaped patch of eccentricity on the countryside, the stately music of his being would become a witless piping in the bushes. (88)Jenny is more concerned about the effect Chris’ old age will have on her and her social acceptance than the effect it will have on Chris himself. Even when she says, “he would not be quite a man,” we can ascertain based on her previous concerns that this, too, is an expression of Jenny’s concern about how Chris will affect her (87). She cannot have a “frenzied love” for someone who is “not quite a man” (87, 88).Jenny also believes that “the divine essential of [Chris’] soul”, as well as his future, will be compromised if he does not accept reality and become acceptable to society (88). It follows that she believes the same about her own soul, which explains her choice of society over Chris.After Kitty reminds her of reality, Jenny begins to look at the idea of happiness that has recently inspired her to want to “save” Chris in a different light, preferring to discount the “interminable enjoyment of [Chris’]…love” as a “trivial toy of happiness” when compared to the importance of conforming to society (87-88). However, an examination of the opening passages of the book reveals that Jenny never truly understood what Chris loved, or what made him happy. Although he had lost the love of his life, Margaret, and taken over a business to accommodate Kitty’s spending habits, Jenny thinks about their home life and reminisces, “here we had made happiness inevitable for him…for there never was so visibly contented a man” (6). Further, she says that she knew that “he loved the life he had lived with us…this house, this life with us, was the core of his heart…he could not have been happier” (7). Out of touch with the true “core” of Chris’ heart, Jenny is only able to look at his relationship with Margaret from a distance. Although she sees it, she has never truly been a part of it, and it is easier for her to let it go at the end of the novel than it is for Margaret. Jenny even plans how she will ease the pain of the situation once she has taken away the only happiness and truth he knows: by going horseback riding more often with him. “‘We must ride a lot,’ I planned” (89).The prevailing dilemma posed by Chris’ shell-shock, and addressed in the two concluding passages, is whether Jenny and Margaret should succumb to the pressure placed on them by Kitty (and, by implication, society) to “cure” Chris, or whether they should follow their hearts, which tell them that Chris will be happier if left alone. In working through the problem, Jenny, Kitty, and Margaret illustrate a moral lesson present throughout the novel: those who do not care about others, but rather benefit from their loyalty, will not let them be true to themselves, but will force them to be what they are not. Conversely, those who truly care about others will sacrifice their own happiness so that they may be free to be themselves. Jenny and Kitty symbolize the false and superficial society that follows the first lesson, in that they benefit from Chris’ “love”, but nurture him only for their own sake; when the opportunity arises for him to be truly “happy”, they think only of themselves. Likewise, society nurtures its conforming members for the same reason that the government nurtures its soldiers: to ensure their continued loyalty. The “care” that the government and society shows their constituents is superficial at best, and, like Kitty, deceitful at worst. However, the impetus to conform remains unbearably strong, because its members have been following the status quo for so long that they have nothing else to turn to. Although Kitty and Jenny purport to care about Chris, it is only because they gain from him; by “curing” him, they only send him back to the battlefield. Margaret, on the other hand, truly loves Chris, and sacrifices her own feelings in order to let him be himself, even though she knows that by allowing him to make his own choices she is destroying the possibility of her love being reciprocated. The two passages, each centering on one woman’s mental journey on the path to a shared decision, illustrate the author’s disapproval of the current patriarchal system, in which people marry whom they ought to, and social classes are rigidly separated by money and prejudice; a society in which there is no room for true choice, true self-expression, or true love.