Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430
Set in the Berkshire district of England during World War I, The Fox, like many of D. H. Lawrence’s other major works, treats the psychological relationships of three protagonists in a triangle mating-complex of love and hatred. Without the help of any male laborers, Nellie March and Jill Banford struggle to maintain a marginal livelihood at the Bailey Farm. A fox has raged through the poultry, and although the women—particularly the more nearly masculine Nellie—have tried to shoot the intruder, he seems always to elude traps or gunshot. Once Nellie confronts the fox, but his “demon” eyes hold her spellbound; she cannot fire her rifle. A symbol of masculine energy, the fox appears in Nellie’s nightmares as a dominating (and sexually threatening) force that both attracts and repels her. At this point of deadlock, Henry Grenfel, a soldier on leave who enlisted in the military forces in Canada, returns to the farm, which was once owned by his grandfather. Although he has no legal claim to this property, the women feel an obligation to take him in. Both are charmed by his boyish vigor, but Nellie, in particular, identifies him with the fox. In a troubled and symbolic dream, she psychologically submits to the mesmerizing willpower of the beast, to his sadistic sexual domination over her repressed instincts.
Henry’s sly presence on the farm upsets the affectionate harmony that previously existed between the two women. Motivated to court Nellie (in order both to take control of the property and to subdue her will to his desire), he breaks down her resistance to his proposal. She accepts—then, more coolly, in a letter rejects— his offer of marriage. Her reason is that she has deeper obligations to Jill. Henry, however, obtains another furlough, obstinate in his quest. Observing the women attempting, with little success, to cut down a tree, he offers to fell it with an ax, insolently taunting Jill to get out of the way. She is stubborn, as Henry calculated she would be; the tree—a symbol of the male phallus—falls upon and kills Jill. Witnesses to the act, including the horrified Nellie and Jill’s father, cannot hold the youth responsible. Having disposed of his rival, Henry continues his courtship of Nellie, successfully this time. She agrees to go with him to Canada, to start a new life together. Yet Nellie’s heart is not in the venture. The youth has captured her and subdued her will, but she has not given her heartfelt consent to his scheme. His victory is bleak.