The short stories of D. H. Lawrence are many and varied; in the complete edition, they fill three volumes. If any one of these stories can be singled out as central to the art of Lawrence, however, one must invariably choose “The Prussian Officer.” It begins under the aspect of nature; its protagonists are soldiers moving down a German country road surrounded by thickets of trees, ripe and heavy crops, green meadows, and tall black pine woods. Everywhere there is a sense of ripening, and the men are at the mercy of a harsh and brilliant sunlight. The orderly and the captain are the principals of this story: the former moves slowly and painfully across the field of vision on foot, the latter moves quickly and savagely on horseback. The captain has the look of a man at odds with life. He is solitary, bitter, a figure of the soldier for whom there is no reality but war. Significantly, he is unmarried. Although occasionally he finds a mistress, he is sexually isolated; after the event, he goes back to duty—tense, hostile, and aggressive. However latent at this point, the captain is a sexual deviate. As the story unfolds, readers see that he is in fact a sadist.
In decided contrast, the orderly is one of Lawrence’s perfectly heterosexual heroes. He is in a sense the male counterpart of Lady Chatterley: strong, heavy, swarthy, and full of animal vitality. The orderly appears to be a figure of an ideal kind, perhaps of Laurentian nature. What evidently matters about him is that he is capable of giving and sustaining love. The great difference between him and his isolated superior is that he is in love, or perhaps the difference may be the fact that he is capable of experiencing and inspiring love.
It is this quality that motivates the hatred of his superior. With increasing fury, the captain senses the difference between the full humanity of his orderly and his own desiccated and withdrawn being. This realization drives him to a passion of hatred and to the action that is central to the narrative. In a passion of hatred both for the orderly and for himself, he beats the orderly furiously, kicking him until he collapses. The orderly is covered with enormous bruises but, even more pointedly, he himself experiences a kind of hatred foreign to him before that moment. From this point, the action of the story really begins. In a semidelirium of outrage and pain and under the terrific pressure of the heat of the march and his awakened hatred, the orderly attacks his superior and strangles him. The story is simply told: a principle of evil has attacked a work of nature; in turn, it is destroyed. The orderly himself dies after he has proved this point.
In many of the short stories, there runs this theme of the confrontation of primitive nature with civilized corruption. In these stories, character serves a double function, that of realism and that of symbolism. One story that serves to indicate this fact is “Daughters of the Vicar.” Here, there is no elemental confrontation of force against force, yet the opposing principles are the same. Love opposes hatred, fertility revolts against frigidity. The Reverend Mr. Lindley is the vicar of the story; he harms no one directly, but the terms of his life prove to be damaging in the extreme to those with whom he lives. He is what may be called a mechanical Christian; he tends his parish with care, respect, and objectivity. Nevertheless, he is careful at all times to maintain a distance not only between his social class and that of his coal-mining parishioners but between his sense of self and their very identities.
The Reverend Mr. Lindley is...
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