illustrated portrait of English author D. H. Lawrence

D. H. Lawrence

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D. H. Lawrence World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4213

In an essay entitled “The State of Funk,” Lawrence discusses his moral vision as an artist:My field is to know the feelings inside a man, and to make new feelings conscious. What really torments civilised people is that they are full of feelings they know nothing about; they can’t realise them, they can’t fulfil them, they can’t live them. And so they are tortured. It is like having energy you can’t use—it destroys you. And feelings are a form of vital energy.

In Lawrence’s worldview, people either possess or lack vital energy—that is to say, anima, or spirit. Those whose vital spark fires into passionate energy are truly alive; the rest—those whose natural feelings are dulled by the mechanical routine of “civilization,” so that their responses are cerebral, not instinctive—might as well be dead, no matter how successful they may appear to be, no matter how attractive or wealthy or powerful they may seem.

Lawrence’s novels, short stories, poems, and miscellaneous writings advance the same moral vision: that men and women (indeed, whole cultures) must discover their true selves, a quality epitomized in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) as the “IT.” The IT, or essential self, was once, among primitive cultures, celebrated as a life force of vital energy. When Lawrence visited sites of Etruscan culture, in Etruscan Places (1932), he half described, half invented an archaic world during a period when its people took passionate pride in the human body, when they exulted the sacredness of the whole living universe. According to Lawrence, Etruscans and other old civilizations regarded the universe as an organism, a living whole, to which all living things, and even seemingly inanimate things, belong. Now, Lawrence believes, human beings have lost sight of their interconnectedness with the organic universe; they have lost their connection with anima, the vital spirit. Through constant mechanical repetition, their feelings, even their sexual feelings, have grown dull, repetitious, lacking spontaneity or natural warmth.

Rejecting the scientific positivism dominant in twentieth century philosophy, Lawrence urges instead a “religion of the blood,” a primitivistic belief in the power of instinct rather than mind. For him, the “dark gods” of the blood, of the subconscious intuitive self, not the light of cerebral rationality, must rule human conduct.

Yet how can modern men and women, forced to work in a mechanized, technologically complex world, tap their deepest feelings? For Lawrence, reared in a mining town that symbolized for him the mechanical horrors of a rigid, artificial, inhuman universe, the answer was both simple and complicated. On a simple level, they must learn to reeducate their native instincts, almost stultified by the repetitions of work, almost blighted by meaningless social intercourse.

To renew these instincts, Lawrence as an artist would educate the sensibility of people, so that they might confront their secret hearts. Typically, his stories concern confrontations or encounters in which characters discover their true sensual identity and either achieve fulfillment or fail. Because the sexual urge, in Lawrence’s view, is the last powerful human feeling that resists the mechanization of intellect, he usually shows how characters can reeducate their passionate selves in order to become authentic human beings. Thus, sex—usually identified in the public mind as the writer’s central theme—is actually the means, not the end, of vital education. Lawrence once complained bitterly about the vulgar image of him as a “lurid” propagandist for sexuality. His theme, indeed, is not sex, but love. In a sense, Lawrence is the most “romantic” of major twentieth century writers, for he believes not only in the redemptive powers of love but also that human beings have a narrow choice: They will either love or die—they will either become part of the vital flow of energy, or they will dry up, shrink in heart, and become part of the living dead.

If Lawrence’s moral vision is simple (or, to his detractors, simplistic), his purposes as an artist are often complicated. Although his plots are generally direct enough—he brings two or three major characters into direct confrontation—the means by which characters confront one another are calculated to expose their intrinsic psychological urges. Commonly, Lawrence will structure a plot around the conflict of three persons in a triangle confrontation. In this pattern, a woman has a choice between two suitors. One is inhibited, “civilized,” meticulous to a fault, often limited by a weak or ambiguous sexual drive; the other is virile, healthy, unaffected, but often coarse in manner. Stories such as “The Old Adam” and “A Modern Lover” are typical. Sometimes the pattern is varied, with a fastidious male character forced to choose between a prim, gentle, sexually undemanding (or unresponsive) potential mate and a more earthy, vital, but sexually assertive female, as in “The Witch a la Mode” and Sons and Lovers.

A second common pattern of Lawrence’s plots involves the mating of two couples, one seemingly more compatible or “lucky” in its robust sexuality, the other experiencing a serious, early complication in its romance. In this pattern, Lawrence usually shows how the members of the “lucky” couple actually are ill-suited to each other, whereas the problematic couple resolves its difficulties to achieve a measure of happiness as in “Love Among the Haystacks” (1930) and Women in Love.

Forced to confront their authentic natures, Lawrence’s characters either come to terms with their “blood,” their subconscious psychological urges, or fail—usually because they attempt to dominate their lover. For Lawrence, love’s psychology is inextricably connected with the psychology of mastery, the urge to control another person. When the impulse toward dominance is stronger than that toward eros, as in “The Prussian Officer,” the character will fail to achieve vital fulfillment. When one character succeeds in achieving ruthless domination over the other in spite of the partner’s resistance, the result is also tragic, as in The Fox (1923). Only when Lawrence’s love-partners acquiesce to a passionate relationship that is both sexual (phallic) and tender, is the pattern perfected in mutual love, as in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

As for characters who fail to achieve any vital connection with another human being, they are either humiliated, as Bertie Reid is in “The Blind Man,” or, like expiring vampires, decompose, as Pauline Attenborough does in “The Lovely Lady.” For Lawrence, the human vampires, those who feed off the vital energy of others to maintain a semblance, but not the reality, of life, are among the living dead. Lawrence’s characters are not so much good or evil as they are alive or dead, either life enlarging or life limiting, either those who worship the dark gods or those who worship the gods of machinery and of money.

Sons and Lovers

First published: 1913

Type of work: Novel

In this famous psychological novel, a sensitive Midlands youth cannot reciprocate the love of women of his class because of his Oedipal attraction to his mother.

Sons and Lovers, Lawrence’s third book, is an apprenticeship novel that, in many respects, defies the conventions of its genre. Among early twentieth century English apprenticeship novels that preceded Lawrence’s work, the main character usually undergoes an “education” or “apprenticeship” toward a meaningful life experience. As part of his (or, rarely, her) apprenticeship, the protagonist begins with innocent, often mistaken notions about the nature of reality; only after some painful experiences does he grow to mastery in the game of life. Specifically, he learns valuable lessons about himself, especially his limitations and illusions, but by the completion of his youth he often can answer three questions: What is the nature of love? What vocation is appropriate for me? What is the meaning of life?

In contrast with the main characters in earlier apprenticeship novels or in subsequent ones, Paul Morel, Lawrence’s protagonist, fails to find answers to any of these questions. By the end of his life apprenticeship, he has learned only that he is incapable of intense sexual feelings to sustain a relationship with a young woman, that he lacks a true vocation for his considerable talents, and that he cannot fathom the “meaning of life,” except narrowly in terms of his own sensibility.

Grappling with a modern version of the classic Oedipal problem, Paul loathes his father, the hard-drinking but convivial miner, Walter, and he attaches himself emotionally to his mother, Gertrude. As a result of this psychological conditioning, in Freudian theory, Paul has been crippled emotionally. Following his mother’s death from cancer, Paul is a “derelict,” isolated from all meaningful emotional contact with women. His proposal of marriage to Miriam Leivers, whom he had earlier seduced, is merely formalistic, and she rejects him. He turns back Clara Dawes, his paramour, to her husband, Baxter, for he knows that he cannot give her the fullness of love that she deserves.

Yet the clinical phrase “Oedipal complex” does not quite get to the heart of Paul’s dilemma. As Lawrence understands his protagonist, Paul has indeed been crippled in his vitality through his mother’s excessive love for him, for her identification of soul with his soul. In Lawrence’s variation on the Freudian paradigm, Paul has invested his vital force, his anima, so deeply into identification with his mother that they are truly one. He has no more vital energy to surrender to any other woman. Gentle, passive Miriam threatens him because, in his imagination, she wishes to absorb his soul, to destroy what is left of his independence. Although he loves her on a spiritual level, he subconsciously fears her physical sexual presence. His “test” on her sexuality has really been a test of his own capacity to feel erotic emotion through her stimulus—and he fails. His love affair with Clara, sexual enough to satisfy him physically, lacks a dimension of the spirit. In either case, he shrinks from being absorbed—from losing his independence through love with either a passive or an assertive woman.

Even as he fails in his quest for love, Paul also fails to discover a life’s vocation. Although he has dabbled in painting, has worked as a spiral clerk at a surgical supply factory, and has taught school briefly, he concludes his youth without ever selecting a foundation for his future labors. His vocation, by the end of the novel, is not to work at all, at least not to work at mechanical, dehumanizing tasks. In a sense, his work at Jordan’s—which symbolically manufactures artificial limbs and prostheses—prepares him for the larger world beyond Nottingham. He learns that every person is crippled to some degree, some obviously, like the hunchback, Fanny, others emotionally, like Paul.

Finally, he fails to solve the great mystery of the meaning of life. By the end of the novel, he has made only one crucial decision: to go on living. He has decided not to follow his mother in death, presumably by his own suicide. Yet this decision, considering the great emotional stress that Paul has endured, is no small victory of the spirit. The lights of the town that urge him onward are symbols of his renewed spark of vital force. By moving toward these lights “quickly,” he shows the reader that he accepts the challenge eagerly.

Women in Love

First published: 1920

Type of work: Novel

In this novel treating the mating of two sisters with their lovers, one couple is relatively successful, while the other concludes its relationship in tragedy.

Women in Love, begun as early as 1913, was tentatively entitled “The Sisters,” then later “The Wedding Ring.” As the sprawling manuscript began to take shape over the next two years, Lawrence published the first part as The Rainbow (1915). With considerable revisions and a complete rethinking of the material, he published a second Brangwen novel in 1920. In its final form, Women in Love is less a continuation of The Rainbow than an altogether different novel. To be sure, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen persist in their quest for happiness. Yet the Gudrun of The Rainbow was a minor figure; in Women in Love, she is a major protagonist, with a fully developed psychology. Ursula’s change is even more dramatic. In the earlier novel, she was a woman of passionate independence, whereas in Women in Love she is subdued—less impulsive, less heroic, more nearly domesticated.

Their lovers, Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin, complement the sisters’ essential temperaments. Like the fiery, strong-willed Gudrun, Gerald is a controlling, domineering sensualist—one as habituated to subduing horses to his iron command as to overworking his laborers in the coal mines. In contrast, Rupert (a Lawrence-like personality) is sensitive, introspective, emotionally fragile in spite of his intellectual vitality and his charm.

Unless one reads Lawrence’s canceled prologue to Women in Love, a chapter that can be examined in the author’s posthumous volume Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished, and Other Prose Works (1968), one cannot fully understand the reason for Rupert’s timorousness as a lover. Yet this prologue is an essential key to perceiving what follows in the novel. Even as Rupert was pursuing with dutiful but passionless zeal his affair with Hermione Roddice, he was attempting to put behind him a far more satisfactory emotional friendship with Gerald. Whether the men’s earlier relationship had become one of physical homosexuality is not entirely clear, although Lawrence seems to exclude the physical element. Nevertheless, Rupert is erotically stimulated more by men than by women and certainly not by Hermione, in spite of his frantic lovemaking or his earnest wishes to love her with tenderness:He wanted all the time to love women. He wanted all the while to feel this kindled, loving attraction toward a beautiful woman, that he would often feel towards a handsome man. But he could not. Whenever it was a case of a woman, there entered in too much spiritual, sisterly love; or else, in reaction, there was only a brutal, callous sort of lust.

As the novel itself begins, a reader ignorant of this complication in Rupert’s psychosexual orientation may not fully understand why the character experiences so much trouble in his relationship with Ursula. The couple, after all, seems to be well suited culturally, intellectually, even emotionally. The two share a similar background in education and social class, are both intelligent, sensitive, tolerant, and certainly “love” each other. Yet their love must be tested and refined. Many readers will wonder at the lengthy disputations between Ursula and Rupert—the continuing, often circular debates over the meaning of love, the subtle defining of roles that each partner must adopt to make the relationship work. Precisely this test is the core of Ursula and Rupert’s mating, for it results in compromises that make it possible for the couple to marry.

Ursula wisely and lovingly diminishes Rupert’s secret fear that women will dominate him sexually. He is actually more comfortable with the embraces of a man. In the chapter “Gladiatorial,” Rupert and Gerald release their tensions (and sublimate their repressed eroticism) by wrestling; more than that, for Rupert the touching is a sign of hope for “blood-brotherhood,” a deep friendship and binding between the males. When Gerald dies, Rupert is a broken man. Although he has mated successfully with Ursula and loves her as deeply as ever he can a woman, he regrets the loss of another form of fulfillment: bonding for life with a male friend.

If Ursula’s vacillating relationship with Rupert ends at last with bittersweet success, Gudrun’s passionate affair with Gerald concludes in tragic failure. Yet their love had seemed at first to be grounded firmly on their similar temperaments. Both are controlling, emotionally vehement, erotically charged persons. Yet their seeming “luck” in discovering passion so easily is, in fact, a cause for failure in love. Even as Gerald exerts despotic and capricious force to control his miners, so he tries to subdue the strong-willed Gudrun. Yet she is as defiant, independent, and proud a person as he: She battles him sexually for dominance, so that their lovemaking assumes the qualities of a battle, without tenderness or consideration for the other partner. Less cruel than Gerald, she is nevertheless as perverse in diminishing his self-confidence. Near the conclusion of the novel, his suicide seems inevitable.

Yet how can one explain Gudrun’s infatuation with Loerke, a physically unattractive homosexual? Why should this sexually vital woman follow after a man who seems to contrast with Gerald’s powerful, athletic virility? The answer is that Loerke is also, like Gerald, a willful, controlling, arrogant brute. He attracts Gudrun through both his magnetism and his dedication to art; in his drawings and sculpture, he achieves works that are mechanical, starkly industrial, rather than human. Through her servant-to-master role with Loerke, Gudrun will complete her destruction (in Lawrence’s image, her reduction), eventually to become as mechanical as Loerke.

For Lawrence, Gerald’s tragic fate is caused partly by Gudrun’s reductive energy, which corrodes his vital spirit, and partly by his own self-destructive egoism. In contrast, Ursula and Rupert are “lucky” in love because they nurture, rather than diminish, the vital energy of their partner. Artists such as Loerke—clever, manipulative, independent—may survive with their ego intact; but unless their lives, as well as their art, are established on human principles, they too fail to reach fulfillment.

“The Horse Dealer’s Daughter”

First published: 1922 (collected in England, My England, 1922)

Type of work: Short story

In this modern psychological fairy tale of rebirth, a desperate woman and her rescuer are redeemed by love.

“The Horse Dealer’s Daughter,” resembling such fairy tales or folktales of transformation as “Cinderella” or variations on themes of “The Ugly Duckling,” treats a sullen country girl whose condition is wonderfully altered from humble (or ugly) to attractive and marriageable. Mabel Pervin’s transformation also resembles that of tales concerning Princess Aurora or of Snow White, in which a maiden and her world are cast under a spell (or curse), only to revive, along with the revival of life everywhere, upon the magic of a lover’s kiss. As a psychological tale, Lawrence’s story also resembles coming-of-age rituals, in which the protagonist moves from sexual latency to mature fulfillment, from sterility to fecundity, from passivity to vitality.

At twenty-seven, with a fixed expression on her face described as “bull-dog,” Mabel first appears to be an unattractive spinster; worse, she suffers from a depression that brings her to the verge of suicide. Her mother dead, her father and her brothers indifferent to her, she is the drudge of an otherwise all-male household. The men enjoy a vital, jovial connection through their drinking and hearty companionship. Yet Mabel, symbolized by the draught horses tied head to tail, is as captive as a brute animal, in spite of her slumbering, subdued animal strength. Like the horses, she seems to be asleep—helpless to demonstrate her vitality.

When Dr. Jack Ferguson, a friend of the Pervins, especially of Mabel’s boisterous brothers, views her wading into the water moments before she submerges into the turgid, “dead” pond, he perceives at once that she wishes to end her life. He rescues her not simply as a physician but also as a concerned human being. In sinking beneath the cold water, he nearly drowns. In a sense, he has saved two persons, Mabel and himself. Yet the immersion, resembling baptism, is a renewal of life—from near death to rebirth—so that both persons are symbolically “reborn.”

Mabel’s confused words, when she discovers that Ferguson has removed her muddy clothing, challenge him: “Who undressed me?” Certainly it was the doctor, who had in mind only the welfare of his patient. Her next challenge, striking to the heart of her deepest yearning, arouses in him a response that is equally authentic: “Do you love me, then?” For many readers, this challenge appears to be illogical, even absurd. Before the incident, Ferguson had never indicated to her any feeling of love. Yet his response is affirmative. He is compelled to love her, not because of any particular quality in the woman, but because of his need to love. In a sense, his existence has been heretofore as devoid of vital force as hers. He, too, had been dying to his passional self, although he had not been aware of this reduction. In a leap of intuition, he “connects” with Mabel’s elliptical meaning. If he does not love her, she might as well be dead. Without intellectual reflection, he knows instantly, subconsciously, that his case is the same.

Ferguson’s insistence that the woman marry him at once, the next day if possible, is appropriate to his heart’s deepest needs, even as it is to Mabel’s. She fears only that his intense, fierce desire will overwhelm her. When she speaks of her “horrible” qualities, she is only human. To Lawrence, all people fear that they are “horrible” despite their exterior attractiveness or charm; only the power of love redeems them from their fears of incapacity. In this most explicitly romantic of Lawrence’s stories, his theme must be understood directly, without reading into it any sense of implied irony or satire: Lawrence truly means that Mabel and Jack must either love or die. Awakened into life by the enchantment of flowing vitality, these lovers, like those of fairy-tale romance, successfully complete their ritual of rebirth and are saved.

“Snake”

First published: 1921(collected in Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, 1923)

Type of work: Poem

From his encounter with a snake, the narrator confronts on a symbolic level his attitudes toward sex.

“Snake” can be understood on two levels, as narrative and as symbol. On the simpler level, a Lawrence-like speaker encounters a snake at “his” water trough. Rapt by nearly hypnotic fascination, he allows the snake to drink, without taking action. Soliloquizing like Hamlet, the speaker wonders whether he is a coward not to kill the snake, because in Sicily the gold snakes are venomous. The snake continues to drink until, satisfied, it climbs the broken bank of the wall face, puts its head into “that dreadful hole,” and withdraws “going into blackness.” At this point, the speaker throws a log at the water trough yet fails to hit the snake. Immediately, he regrets his “pettiness” and wishes that the snake would come back, for it seemed to be like a king. The speaker has missed his chance with “one of the lords of life.”

On the narrative level, the poem is perplexing because a reader cannot fathom why the speaker expresses his internal debate with such vehemence over the question of killing the snake. One is not necessarily a “coward” in avoiding a poisonous snake, nor is one “perverse” in longing to talk to one. What “voices” of his education demand that he kill the snake? Are they the voices of Judaic-Christian tradition concerning the serpent in the Garden of Eden? Are they the voices of scientific rationalism that define a venomous snake as dangerous? Moreover, why should the speaker feel such regret at the act of throwing a log at the snake? After all, the snake had escaped the blow. Why should the snake seem to the speaker to be “like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld”? To be sure, in non-Western cultures the snake (or, in ancient Egypt, the crocodile) is often worshiped as a divine symbol of fertility. In India and in Mexico among the ancient Aztecs, the snake has been revered as a god of sexuality and life. Yet why should a twentieth century European speaker suppose that the snake is “due to be crowned again” as a lord of life?

Answers to these questions can best be determined by analyzing the symbolic structure of the poem. The snake is clearly a phallic image—at least to the speaker. When the snake first emerges, reaching down from “a fissure in the earth-wall,” the speaker perceives, on a subconscious level, the male organ emerging from the female. Lawrence uses the vulva image of “fissure” or “earth-lipped fissure” deliberately. When the speaker, almost trancelike, stares at the snake “withdrawing into that horrid black hole,” he imagines on a symbolic level the act of sexual intercourse. As a result of his “education,” he has repressed his sexuality; his fears of the woman are expressed by the word “horrid.” By throwing a phallic-shaped log at the disappearing snake, he has suddenly snapped the tension. Now he regrets the voices of his “accursed human education.” Even as the Ancient Mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem suffered guilt after slaying the albatross, so the speaker feels guilt at his “mean” act. For the snake, in Lawrence’s symbolism, is indeed a lord of life. Like Pluto, who in Greek mythology ruled the underworld, the sexual force (phallus) rules the subconscious and is “due to be crowned again,” this time as king of the dark gods of the blood—of vitality. Because the snake inhabits two worlds—that of light and of darkness, of the consciousness and of the subconsciousness—it represents to Lawrence (as do “Bavarian Gentians”) a union or wedding of the opposing elements of the universe into a single symbol of the life force.

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