Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In this story of compulsion, Lawrence creates a mood of nearly intolerable tension, broken at last, suddenly and elegiacally, at the conclusion. He sustains this mood, at least in part, by symbolic use of three repeated words: neck (or throat), dryness (or thirst), and the color red (contrasted at times with black or green). The three symbols are presented together in the first section, when the orderly drinks a bottle of red wine, some of which spills on the tablecloth. Gazing with hatred at this innocent act, the captain subconsciously identifies the wine with blood, the neck and throat of the young man with erotic tenderness. Later, in part 2, the captain’s repressed sexuality is symbolized by the dryness of his own throat, which Lawrence describes as “parched.” While Schoner watches the captain drink, in a reversal of the earlier scene, his mind snaps, his repressions explode into furious action, and he springs for the older man’s throat.

Finally, in part 3, the horror of the soldier’s panic is represented by his own parched throat, “thirst burning in his brain.” The glistening, green corn that he views (contrasted against the image of a woman with a black cloth on her head) represents his decline into madness. Lawrence’s symbolism for green in this context is not, as is common in other writers (or, for Lawrence, in other contexts), luxuriant growth or vitality, but irrationality and terror (as in Vincent van Gogh’s green billiard table in The Night Café, 1888). In the final scene, the three dominant symbols come together. Schoner is discovered desiccated, “his black hair giving off heat under the sun.” His mouth is open, but not red with the promise of life; instead it is open (dry) and black. Through these persistent symbols, operating powerfully below the level of awareness, Lawrence unifies the conflicting emotions of the story and concentrates them with great force.