D. H. Lawrence Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

D. H. Lawrence’s early stories are set, except for “The Prussian Officer,” in the English Midlands; their plot and characters are a thinly veiled autobiography and are built on incidents that Lawrence would develop at length in other forms, notably the novels and plays that he was writing concurrently. Some readers prefer the stories over Lawrence’s longer forms, which they regard as too insistent and repetitious; his stories, like his poems, are more structured, their images more intense. Like the longer works, however, the stories reveal Lawrence’s central belief in a “fatal change” in the early twentieth century: “The collapse from the psychology of the free human individual into the psychology of the social being.” Lawrence tried always to see unity in the behavior of human beings and the historical changes through which ages lived. In the longer works and in many essays, he developed a didactic style appropriate to his sweeping interpretation of human history and types of personality. In the stories, he lyrically and more intimately explores how the quality of individuals’ lives is affected by their human relationships.

“Odour of Chrysanthemums”

A majority of the stories more frequently treat the failure of human relationships. “Odour of Chrysanthemums” is one of five accounts of such a discovery of lost human possibilities; other versions appear in three novels and a play, The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (1914), from this period. A proud miner’s wife, Elizabeth Bates, waits with her two children for her husband, who is late coming from the pits. At first, she angrily surmises that he has gone to a pub; as time passes, the anger changes to fear. The husband has been killed in a mining accident, and his fellow colliers bring his body home. The climax of the story is one of Lawrence’s best scenes, as the miner’s mother and wife wash the corpse. In early versions of the story, from 1911, Lawrence treated the mother’s and wife’s whimperings and reveries equally; in the collected version in 1914, however, he added the powerful dramatic epiphany of Mrs. Bates’s feeling of shame for having denied her husband’s body. “She had denied him what he was refused him as himself.” The discovery is also liberating: “She was grateful to death, which restored the truth. And she knew she was not dead.” The symbol of flowers is a derivative, almost gratuitous device. Their fragrance equates to memory, as the wife recalls the events of her married life: birth, defeat and reconciliation, and death.

Before Lawrence’s own fulfillment with Frieda Weekley, it is problematic whether he could have known, or treated so honestly, the complex nature of human sexuality or the separateness of lovers. Without the revisions, the story is successful only as an account of lost love and patent realizations, much like others in The Prussian Officer, and Other Stories. “The Shadow in the Rose Garden” and “The Shades of Spring” are stories about return and realization, but they lack dramatic climaxes. In “The Shadow in the Rose Garden,” an unnamed woman returns on her honeymoon to the town where she first fell in love. There, she discovers that her first lover, whom she believed a Boer War casualty, is alive but confined to an insane asylum. In an unresolved ending, her husband learns that she is still attached to the soldier and concludes that it “would be violation to each of them to be brought into contact with the other.” In “The Shades of Spring,” Hilda Millership—rejected by a cultured suitor, John Syson—gives herself to her gamekeeper, Arthur Pilbury, on Syson’s wedding night. Later, still foppishly attached to Hilda, Syson returns to her farm, learns about Hilda’s affair, and is taunted by the gamekeeper for not having seduced her.

Both stories lack the dramatic structure of “Odour of Chrysanthemums.” They exemplify a style that Lawrence told his literary agent in 1914 he wanted to outgrow: a method of “accumulating objects in the light of a powerful emotion, and making a scene of them.” Nevertheless, these early stories use situations, characters, and symbols that one finds in all Lawrence’s work. At the end of “The Shades of Spring,” for example, a bee stings Pilbury, and Hilda sucks the wound and smears his mouth with bloody kisses. This gesture is one of the first symbolic statements of a Lawrentian paradigm: Blood symbolizes natural, unconscious life, in contrast to the mechanically intellectual and socially correct existence of Syson.

“The Blind Man”

These two ways of living are also represented in a contrast between feeling and seeing, between intuitive knowledge and acquired, social knowledge. “The Blind Man” is Lawrence’s most powerful treatment of both the necessity and the consequence of intimate physical contact. Isabel Pervin is married to Maurice, who was blinded and scarred in World War I and is completely dependent on her. The focus of the story is not their love but Maurice’s sudden passion for his wife’s cousin and former admirer, Bertie Reid. Maurice asks Isabel’s to invite Bertie for a visit, hoping that he can become his closest friend. Isabel’s ambivalent feelings about Bertie, fond yet contemptuous, derive from her knowledge of his lifestyle. “He had his friends among the fair sex—not lovers, friends.” She knew that he was “unable to enter into close contact of any sort.” This failure at relationships, Lawrence bitingly asserts, made him a “brilliant and successful barrister, also a litterateur of high repute, a rich man, and a great social success”—in short, the epitome of the aristocratic Englishman. The story, however, is more serious than it is satirical. At the electrifying climax, Maurice first runs his hand over Bertie’s face and body, and then, to Bertie’s horror, puts Bertie’s hand over his scars and into his eye sockets. Maurice tells Isabel of the experience, which he regards as a ritual of undying friendship, but she sees Bertie’s revulsion and his urge to flee such intimacy.

In his own life, Lawrence was attracted to the ritual of Blutbruderschaft, in which two male friends mix their blood from self-imposed cuts, and he used that ritual, along with a nude wrestling scene, in Women in Love (1920). The equivalent contact in “The Blind Man,” heightened by Maurice’s disfigurement, shows the failure of male relationships as a corollary of failed sexual love. Lawrence had been reading Carl Jung’s “Psychology of the Unconscious” and “found much truth” in the oedipal “mother-incest idea.” At times, Frieda could become for Lawrence the devouring mother: A man “casts himself as it were into her womb, and the Magna Mater receives him with gratification. It is awfully hard, once the sex relation has gone this way, to recover. If we don’t recover we die.” Lawrence professed to “believe tremendously in friendship between man and man, a pledging of men to each other inviolably.”

“The Prussian Officer”

While male friendship remained for all Lawrence’s life an ideal, he was never able to produce an account of successful male relations, whether the bonds were sexual or not. “The Blind Man” symbolically rejects male friendship as a way out of an unavoidable sexual regression, despite what Lawrence professed to believe. In an earlier story, “The Prussian Officer,” Lawrence had not yet acquired the skill of using symbolic gestures. He thus treats more directly the destructive nature of suppressed desires—in this case, for an overtly sexual male relationship. Originally entitled “Honour and Arms,” the story’s title was changed by an editor, much to Lawrence’s dismay. While the revised title focuses on the dominant character and necessarily minimizes another, it removes the pun and limits Lawrence’s intent to show how repressed or unconscious desires can erupt in sadistic violence in any relationship. The Prussian captain, attracted to his young orderly, Anton Schoner, vents his forbidden attraction, first in sadistic assaults and then by refusing to let the orderly see his sweetheart. The orderly’s “normal” heterosexuality eventually yields to unconscious responses toward the captain, which drive Schoner to murder him. Lawrence treats the murder like a rape: “It pleased him to feel the hard twitchings of the prostrate body jerking his own whole frame. ” The theme common to both “The Prussian Officer” and “The Blind Man” lies in the similarity between otherwise dissimilar characters. Anyone who has avoided his feelings, or acknowledged but repressed them, on being forced to recognize them, destroys himself—or, more usually, as in Bertie’s case, flees to avoid entrapment in any permanent sexual...

(The entire section is 3617 words.)