Themes and Meanings

This story of elemental attraction and repulsion between two men of different temperaments can be understood on at least three levels of meaning. On the simplest level, the captain and his orderly are locked in a struggle for domination on one hand, for submission on the other. At the beginning of the story, the captain persecutes Schoner; his brutal will focused on breaking the spirit of the young man, he achieves his goal of mastery in the letter scene, but his victory leaves him depressed rather than elated. In the second section, Schoner, the former victim of persecution, turns about to strangle his adversary, but his brief triumph brings no joy, for in a vertigo of dizzying emotions, he falls prey to delirium and madness.

On a more complex level, the struggle between antagonists is a classic exposition of sadism and masochism, the two forces seemingly opposed but actually correlative. At first, the captain is the sadist; later, Schoner reverses his role to take the captain’s. Even so, can either man be understood as a masochist—one who takes psychological pleasure in abuse? Schoner’s suffering under the blows of his superior officer cannot be avoided; as a soldier, his power to disobey his leader is limited. Nevertheless, Lawrence allows the reader clues to perceive that, even in his misery, Schoner is mysteriously attracted to the captain. The older man’s domination touches in him the quick of his erotic energy. Similarly, Lawrence allows...

(The entire section is 428 words.)