The Fragility of the Mind
Unquestionably, people are shaped by their past experiences, which is why many Modernist writers understood memory to be an integral part of one’s identity. Two early twentieth-century novelists who explored memory in their works are Rebecca West and Virginia Woolf, who wrote The Return of the Soldier and To The Lighthouse, respectively. Both of these stories represent Modernist anxieties about the “fragmentation” or splintering of human nature itself. For West and Woolf, it seems, the mind is not a concrete and unified entity. Rather, a person’s sense of self is, like memory, malleable and unreliable. In The Return of the Soldier and To The Lighthouse, one’s memory is closely linked with one’s identity—and since memory in the novels is shifting and nebulous, identity becomes likewise uncertain.
The relationship between memory and identity is critical to West’s The Return of the Soldier, in which the central conflict surrounds Chris, the titular soldier who, after suffering memory loss, begins to feel out of place in his own life. When Chris first leaves for war, he stops to take in the sight of his house one last time, and the novel’s narrator Jenny surmises that he “desired to carry with him to the dreary place of death and dirt the complete memory of everything about his home, on which his mind could brush when things were at their worst” (West 7). Chris’s memory-making is an attempt to stay connected to his life, to his values, and even to who he is as a person. Further, his mental memento is likened to a physical “amulet” (7) —meaning that it becomes something to which Chris can cling, but, tragically, it is something that can be lost or broken as well. By making memory into something that we “carry” with us, West also, necessarily, makes it vulnerable. Identity, of course, is therefore made fragile as well. Since Chris self-identifies so strongly with memories of home, to lose those memories is to lose himself and to lose his conception of his place in the world.
However, Chris’s amnesia disrupts more than his own identity. Indeed, through Chris’s wife Kitty, West shows that one’s sense of self relies greatly on the memories of others—perhaps even as much as it does on one’s own memories. Strictly and legally speaking, Kitty and Chris remain married for the entire story. That is a verifiably true fact, but upon his return home Chris has forgotten the marriage, and worse, has fallen back in love with a woman from his past. When Kitty entreats him to recognize her as his wife, her voice carries a “weak, wailing anger” (24). The question remains unsaid, but the implication is loud: is she still his wife? Can she truly be his wife if he does not know her? Kitty undergoes an identity crisis as a result of her husband’s amnesia, and through this portrayal, West demonstrates how our identities exist not only in our minds but also in the minds and the memories of others. Kitty relies on Chris to validate her own social role as a spouse, and when he is not able to honestly do so, her place in the world is called into question almost as severely as his.
West’s complication of memory in The Return of the Soldier culminates in the story’s bittersweet conclusion. Chris apparently has his memory restored, but this is no occasion for celebration; instead, the decision to “cure” his amnesia is quite morally grey. In order to bring his memory back, Chris has to be confronted with his most painful memory, that of the loss of his child. Not only that, but the forced recollection also returns his mind, as Jenny puts it, “to that No-Man’s-Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead” (90). Chris’s amnesia is painful for all involved, but it does spare him from reliving both the horrors of war and his more personal tragedy. Kitty does not seem to consider this, but Jenny’s concern raises the question of whether there are memories that one would be better off without. To “cure” Chris is, in a way, cruel—but what would have been the result had they left him untreated, in a mental state that was incompatible with reality? Would that have been any better? Would he have lived a happier life? These questions remain pointedly unanswered by the open-ended conclusion, as they are ultimately unknowable. With the return of Chris’s memory comes a dramatic change in personality, once again marking the connection between memory and identity. Jenny watches as Margaret breaks the news, and sees Chris bearing change as his life as a soldier comes flooding back to him. But again, whether this is a change for the better is ambiguous. If memory changes who someone is, then by reintroducing Chris’s memories, Kitty effectively forces him to become a different person—to become the person that she thinks he is supposed to be.
Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is another Modernist novel that explores memory and its relationship to identity. One character in particular who reflects upon this topic is Mrs Ramsay, who makes a profound and contemplative rumination at the end of the dinner party: “[Mrs Ramsay] waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, and then, as she [. . .] left the room, it changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past” (Woolf 78). In this passage, Mrs Ramsay expresses a truth that is, frankly, self-evident: every moment in time becomes “the past” the instant after it occurs. This notion is fundamental to our basic understanding of time, but what makes it so remarkable is that it is so rarely considered. Everything that happens, save the single ever-moving instant we call “the present,” immediately becomes “the past” and exists, therefore, only in memory. This phenomenon is happening constantly, but when Mrs Ramsay actively realizes it and looks back in an attempt to watch it happen, her reflection is tinged with melancholy, even dread. If memory comprises such a majority of one’s very existence, and if memory is, as we understand it to be, terribly unreliable and impermanent, then ultimately one’s own life and identity have no solid foundation on which to rest. As the room changes shape and the past incessantly devours the present, Woolf vividly describes how moments and memories are fleeting—how they are being constantly lost to time.
As in The Return of the Soldier, in To The Lighthouse Woolf also examines the importance of identity and its formation within the memories of other people. Mr Ramsay, for instance, expresses great concern about leaving behind a legacy and being remembered, as when he remarks bitterly that “the very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare” (23). Here, Mr Ramsay reveals frustration and fear at the idea of one day being irrelevant and forgotten. He appears fixated on this concept of living on within the memory of others, but he reluctantly recognizes that even if he could achieve renown to rival Shakespeare, it would not grant him true immortality. Eventually, Mr Ramsay knows, there will be no one left to remember. Eventually, therefore, he will cease to exist entirely.
A similar idea is explored in “The Lighthouse” section of the novel, in which Lily Briscoe, as she tries to finish her painting, summons a “ghost” of the now-deceased Mrs Ramsay from her memory (130). This imagined Mrs Ramsay obviously has no physical presence, and yet she seems to speak aloud at times, appearing to have as profound an effect on Lily as the living Mrs Ramsay did. In this passage, Woolf complicates the very notion of what a person is; a Mrs Ramsay that exists only in memory is made as tangible as the Mrs Ramsay that lived in her own body. In doing this, Woolf emphasizes that an individual’s identity is not truly “individual” at all—rather, it is multiple, an assertion which is perhaps even reinforced by the novel’s mobile and disjointed style of narration. Woolf argues that identity exists, and is possibly equally “real,” in every mind and memory that it inhabits.
To the Lighthouse and The Return of the Soldier are two pertinent examples of Modernist views on the complexities of memory. Interestingly, both West and Woolf deal with not just one’s own memory, but also with one’s representation in the memories of others. The stories’ characters consistently show anxiety about their identities in relation to memory, and they are not wrong to do so. Memory is imperfect, inaccurate, and incomplete. To entrust one’s identity to memory is to admit that identity itself is inconstant, as West and Woolf understood well; this idea goes hand in hand with larger Modernist themes of fragmentation, alienation, and existential self-awareness. However, we must rely on memory to inform our understanding of the world. These works convey that, though our memories are flawed, it is in a sense memory which enables us to exist at all.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Ware, Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Classics, 1994. Print. West, Rebecca.
The Return of the Soldier. Penguin Classics ed. Westminster: Penguin, 1998. Print