illustrated portrait of English author D. H. Lawrence

D. H. Lawrence

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D. H. Lawrence Short Fiction Analysis

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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...

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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 relationship.

“The Horse Dealer’s Daughter”

In contemporaneous stories of heterosexual love, physical contact has the opposite effect. A woman is, like Sleeping Beauty, awakened by physical touch to know and accept, usually gradually, her unconscious desires. In “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter,” a doctor rescues a drowning girl, takes her to his home, and strips off her wet clothes. When she awakens, she embraces him and stirs him into love for her. (Lawrence develops the same plot in a longer version in The Virgin and the Gipsy, 1930.)

“You Touched Me”

“You Touched Me” also explores the theme of touch, complicated by an additional motive of inherited wealth. The lower-class male, ironically named Hadrian, has been adopted from a charity house. After wartime service, he returns to his adoptive father, Ted Rockley, a dying invalid cared for by his two natural spinster daughters, Emmie and Matilda. One night, Matilda goes into Hadrian’s room, genuinely mistaking it as her father’s, and caresses his face before discovering who he is. The touch stirs Hadrian’s desire and determines him to conquer the proud Matilda. Ted Rockley approves Hadrian’s offer to marry and threatens to leave his estate to Hadrian if Matilda refuses. Matilda’s reason for agreeing to marriage is not the point, though it adds a realistic, common touch. The point is that her touching Hadrian validates his desire and gives him rights.

“You Touched Me” shares its plot with a longer work of this period, The Fox. In both narratives, a young man returns to England from Canada and falls in love with an older woman. In The Fox, the plot complication is not inheritance but a romantic and economic liaison of the loved one, Nellie March, with another woman, Jill Banford. As he does with other homosexual characters, Lawrence simply kills Jill: The young man, Henry Grenfel, cuts down a tree so that it falls where Jill is standing. Henry’s repeated warnings to Jill to move and her refusal to do so leave vague whether the act was suicide or murder.

Homoeroticism in stories such as The Fox and the subject of sexual awakenings in all his works elicited the popular view of Lawrence’s works as being pornographic. It was a charge against which Lawrence vigorously defended himself. His narratives were erotic, designed to awaken readers to their sexuality when they identified with his characters, but they were not pornographic, designed for genital arousal. Pornography offered a life-denying and self-consuming masturbatory release; the erotic stimulated the need for fulfillment with another. According to Lawrence, the British public was not accustomed to the open treatment of sexual relations as healthy. Instead, earlier writers had denied normal sexuality and reduced virile male characters to enervated victims of accidents or war. Nineteenth century readers could accept such vital characters as Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) only when they were physically ruined or subjugated to a feminine domesticity. The impotent characters, Lawrence believed, that recur so often are both cause and effect of the decline of modern British civilization. In 1917, hoping to flee to the United States, Lawrence wrote to Bertrand Russell, “I cannot do any more work for this country there is no future for England: only a decline and fall. That is the dreadful and unbearable part of it: to have been born into a decadent era, a decline of life, a collapsing civilization.”

“The Crown”

Even a dying civilization has its beauty, Lawrence decided, but it was a demonic and apocalyptic one. In the most important essay for understanding his credo, “The Crown,” Lawrence characterized modern society as the end of a civilization. It was self-indulgent, self-destructive, sensuous, power-seeking, monotheistic, and light-denying. A new and balanced society would eventually follow. Meanwhile, for generations caught at the end of such epochs, the only way out of a narcissistic egoism was to indulge demonically in sex or bloodlust. Destruction, like creation, required vitality. Lawrence hoped that demonic vitality, spent at last, would lead to a new civilization. Even if it made things worse, it was preferable to apathy.

Lawrence always saw correspondences between individuals, the kinds of societies that they fostered, and the religious myths that they created. The most cogent interpretation that Lawrence gives of the Christian myth is an oedipal one recorded in an unpublished foreword to Sons and Lovers:The Father was flesh—and the Son, who in himself was finite and had form, became Word. For form is the uttered Word, and the Son is the Flesh as it utters the word, but the unutterable Flesh is the Father. And God the Father, the Inscrutable, the Unknowable, we know in the Flesh, in woman. She is the door for our ingoing and our out-coming. In her we go back to the Father.

Much of this echoes Jung’s “Psychological Approach to the Trinity.” For both Lawrence and Jung, father and son constitute polarities in the male psyche. At the personal level, Lawrence has been separated from his father by the mother’s interventions. The only way back to the father was to reject the mother and replace her with another female object of desire. The wife replaces mother and restores the son to the father.

Like civilization, Christianity had hardened into meaningless dogma. Lawrence’s travels were undertaken not only to avoid a dying British culture but also to discover the nature of other, pre-Christian religions. In the Native American culture, Lawrence found, for a while, what he was seeking: the “oldest religion,” when “everything was alive, not supernaturally but naturally alive.” The Native Americans’ “whole life effort” was to “come into immediate felt contact and, so derive energy, power, and a dark sort of joy.” Their efforts to become one with the cosmos, without intermediation, was the “root meaning” of religion. Such rapturous description suggests an equivalence to Lawrence’s “blood-consciousness” as an attempt to revive a vital religion. The stories and short novels set in the American Southwest and Mexico blend religious vitality and demonic indulgence. Many readers, unaware of Lawrence’s metaphysical framework, disparage the stories for what they see as his approval of brute, male force against women. At the naturalistic level, the stories are gratuitously violent, but in the context of Lawrence’s credo, they become fabulistic, not realistic. Character and action should be interpreted as symbolic. The presentation of a scene does not necessarily indicate the author’s approval.

The juxtaposition of characters in three stories of the Southwest—“The Princess,” “The Woman Who Rode Away,” and the short novel St. Mawr—recalls the structure of earlier stories. Egotistical, haughty, coddled but unfulfilled American and European women come under the sway of dark-skinned heroes who embody Lawrence’s ideal. Lawrence’s male Native Americans are distinguished from even the most intuitive British men, like Maurice in “The Blind Man” or Henry in The Fox: They have rejected a white culture, including religion, which threatens to demean and confine them. Having escaped the coming Christian apocalypse, they are neither self-indulgent nor spiritual but living embodiments of a phallic mystery, the “only mystery” that the female characters have not unraveled. Their attempts to “know” that mystery leads to their alienation or destruction.

“The Princess”

In “The Princess,” Dollie Urquhart travels, after her aristocratic father’s death, to a dude ranch in New Mexico. There, she is drawn ineluctably to Domingo Romero, a guide at the ranch and the last of a line of great Native American landholders. Romero is himself unfulfilled and waits for one of two Lawrentian fates: to die or to be “aroused in passion and hope.” One day, Dollie arranges a trip, with a female companion and Romero as guide, over the Rockies to a spot where animals can be observed in their “wild unconsciousness.” Even though the companion’s horse is injured, Dollie and Romero continue the trip. The cold mountains both terrify and seduce Dollie, as Lawrence makes the mountains represent what she is seeking, in perhaps his most successful use of settings as symbols. The guide and his charge spend the night in a miner’s shack. Frightened by dreams of snow, a symbol of spiritual death, Dollie goes to Romero for “warmth, protection” and to be “taken away from herself,” and Romero obliges. The next day, when Dollie tells him that she does not like “that sort of thing,” Romero is broken and angry. Like Hadrian in “You Touched Me,” he argues that Dollie’s coming to him has given him the right to marry her. When she refuses, he strips her and violates her repeatedly, but she refuses to relent. Romero had successfully reached some “unrealised part” of her that she had never wanted to feel. Soon, rangers rescue Dollie and kill Romero. Unable to find her old self, “a virgin intact,” she goes “slightly crazy.”

“The Woman Who Rode Away”

In “The Woman Who Rode Away,” the knowledge sought by the unnamed woman is much more profound. She wants to visit a remote tribe of Chilchuis and “to know their gods.” She does not know that for years the Chilchui have waited for a female sacrificial victim to appease their gods. The woman uses the ploys that society has taught her to engage the Chilchuis, but they remain indifferent. They “were not human to her, and they did not see her as a beautiful white woman no woman at all.” Instead, she sees in the dark eyes of her guard a “fine spark” of derision. In a masterful confusion of object and metaphor, Lawrence has the Chilchui ask if the woman will “bring her heart to the Chilchui.” Her affirmative response convinces the Chilchuis that she was sent in fulfillment of the prophecy. An aged Chilchui appears, drugs her, cuts away her clothes, and touches her body with his fingertips, which he has moistened at his mouth. At the dawn of the winter solstice, four Chilchuis lay her on a stone and hold her legs and arms. At her head, with knife poised and one eye on the sky, the old priest figure waits for the moment to strike.

St. Mawr

In St. Mawr, Lawrence uses not a Native American or even a human figure but a red stallion to symbolize ideal maleness. Lou Witt’s husband, typically for Lawrence, has lost his sense of what it means to be a man. The other two male characters, the grooms Phoenix and Lewis, a Navajo and a Welshman respectively, retain some of their fierce male separateness. None of them, however, measures up to the horse, who “stands where one can’t get at him” and “burns with life.” When St. Mawr throws Rico, an event full of symbolic suggestion, Lou plans to sell the horse. Then she discovers that the new female owner plans to geld him. To avoid that fate Lou moves with the horse to New Mexico. St. Mawr thrives in the new, stark, mountain landscape, but Lou feels thwarted and diminished. As in “The Woman Who Rode Away,” Lawrence ritualizes Lou’s quest and transforms her into another mythic sacrificial figure. “She understood now the meaning of the Vestal Virgins. They were symbolic of herself, of woman weary of the embrace of incompetent men.” So she turns to “the unseen gods, the unseen spirits, the hidden fire” and devotes herself “to that, and that alone.”

The Man Who Died

In Lawrence’s last major story, Lou’s character and function as the waiting Vestal Virgin are transformed into the mythological figure of Isis, although with a peculiarly Lawrentian twist. The Man Who Died is Lawrence’s ultimate revision of Christianity’s emphasis on the Crucifixion. The work is divided in two parts. The first, published with the title that Lawrence wanted for all editions, “The Escaped Cock,” follows the traditional story of Christ’s rising and healing. He perceives intellectually the life around him but laments, “The body of my desire has died and I am not in touch anywhere.” In 1927, when Lawrence wrote “The Escaped Cock,” he may have seen the ending as incomplete, but he did not return to create a second part for two years.

In part 2, Lawrence recasts Christ as the dismembered Osiris whose parts are reassembled by Isis. Reborn in part 1, Christ can function only as a pagan male seasonal deity, dying in winter, while the eternal feminine, symbolized in Isis, waits for his rebirth in spring to reanimate her. Lawrence thus effectively unites two themes that obsess all his works: the renewal of the sexes and the concomitant discovery of a revitalized religion. At one level, Christ and Isis are merely man and woman, but as both deity and human, this new Christ integrates the physical and the spiritual. Lawrence is not advocating a return to paganism, as a facile reading might conclude, but a return of Christianity to its archetypal origins. The new Christ says, “On this rock I built my life,” the rock of the living woman. It is not the rock of Saint Peter, of masculine control, but of phallic marriage.


D. H. Lawrence Long Fiction Analysis