London, a night of late ‘800. The conformist-bourgeois Alan Hervey returns to his beautiful Victorian home. Scandal is waiting for him: his wife left, she wants to leave him, and the imminent separation will pop the bubble of appearance. Hervey is shattered.
We need to better understand the life of this couple… The author clears any doubt:
[…] Alvan Hervey and his wife for five prosperous years lived by the side of one another. In time they came to know each other sufficiently well for all the practical purposed of such an existence, but they were no more capable of real intimacy than two animals feeding at the same manger under the same roof, in a luxurious stable.
Benedetta Bini, curator of the Marsilio edition we’ve read, explains that part of the incredible modernity and strength of this text lays in the fact that Conrad goes beyond the realistic novel: the voice of the narrator changes style concealing himself, venturing in the abyss of the psyche, increasingly crumbled, of the protagonist.
The wife abandons the house after leaving a laconic message to her husband, but she returns back right after Hervey’s arrival – that’s where the title comes from – and the debate between the two begins:
He saw her arm make an ample decided movement – and he stopped. She had lifted her veil. It was like the lifting of a vizor.
In the visionary and atrocious final part of the book, the woman without a name is no longer part of the reality, she becomes a symbol: she is the enigma of femininity, the mystery that Hervey desperately tries to solve.
An expressionist story. The text is strongly characterized by lights, sounds and symbolic colours, for example the red that inflames the third part of the novel. The drama develops in a crepuscular then nocturnal atmosphere, in which reality is distorted, and the interior world of the protagonist is vehemently poured inside.
Caution is needed while comparing different artistic languages, nevertheless visualizing the text of The Return leads to imagine scenes that could have been shot by Weine or Murnau, or painted by Munch.
Examples? Here’s what the protagonist feels when, after reading the message, perceives that somebody is entering into the room:
The door-handle rattled lightly. It seemed to him that the walls were coming apart, that the furniture swayed at him; the ceiling slanted queerly for a moment, a tall wardrobe tried to topple over. He caught hold of something, and it was the back of a chair. So, he had reeled against a chair. Oh! Confound it! He gripped hard.
Or else again, a waitress walks up the stairs around midnight, Hervey foreruns her, but doesn’t want to come across her, hence he hides nearby and watch the woman and her nocturnal shadow pass by:
He saw her come up gradually as if ascending from a well. At every step, the feeble flame of the candle swayed before her tired young face; and the darkness of the hall seemed to cling to her black skirt, followed her, rising like a silent flood, as though the great night of the world had broken through the discreet reserve of walls, of closed doors, of curtained windows. It rose over the steps, it leaped up the walls like an angry wave; it flowed over the blue skies, over the yellow sands, over the sunshine of landscapes and over the pretty pathos and over the pretty pathos of ragged innocence and of meek starvation. […] It came nearer. The cluster of lights went out. The girl ascended facing him. Behind her the shadow of a colossal woman danced lightly on the wall. He held his breath while she passed by, noiseless and with heavy eyelids. And on her track the flowing tide of a tenebrous sea filled the house, seemed to swirl about his feet, and rising unchecked, closed silently above his head.
The end is perhaps the most extraordinary part of the story…that I leave to you to discover.
Words: Berenice Dentis