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increasing fury, the captain senses the difference between the full humanity of his orderly and his own desiccated and withdrawn being.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 not only a fierce snob but also a person devoted to extinguishing the unconscious needs and passions of all life. In this, he may be compared to another moral invalid, Sir Clifford Chatterley. His household is a monstrosity: his wife becomes a neurotic invalid, he himself is a kind of machine, and his daughters are slowly squeezed into the inhuman mold of his design. They enter, unwillingly to be sure, the same life of obedience to all the codes, rules, customs, and negations he imposes. One daughter, like the orderly of “The Prussian Officer,” however, breaks through to reality. In this story, too, the effort is not without its cost. She falls in love with a collier and, in a scene that is a triumph of domestic hatred, she is exiled from her family and her class to live with him. The severance, however, is a kind of liberation. Her mother cries out that the daughter thinks only of herself, while the daughter thinks at this moment of the love that has enabled her to do just that. It is love in action, she realizes, that has made her awaken. In this case, as in LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER, the protagonists are forced to live for a time under the normal conditions of society, circumstances that, conceived in terms of rules and regulations and carried out under the sanctions of family, caste, and class, reduce individuals to extensions of withered ideals. It is love that brings them back to individual life—not the traditional love of things spiritual, but, in Lawrence’s cosmology, the love that is primitive, dark, and bodily. They awaken to life after they awaken to their bodies.
The short stories of Lawrence, like many of his novels, serve the overriding purpose of demonstrating certain of his convictions. They may be narratives, and they may have strong elements both of Realism and Romanticism, but they center on the predicament of those who are in a sense prisoners of the outside world. Like the heroine of “Daughters of the Vicar,” the woman Katherine of “The Border Line” lives in a state of suspended animation. Although she is the picture of the sensual, feminine type, she is tied to a husband who is thin, ill, and feebly constituted. She is described as soft-fleshed and voluptuous, while he, in a kind of aesthetic and ultimately existential opposition, is physically inconsequential. In actuality, this opposition is one of Lawrence’s moral categories. His protagonists are another version of the Sir Clifford-Lady Chatterley opposition, and what represents good in the mind of the novelist is the act that separates them rather than the sanctions that bind them together. Katherine begins to live only after her husband dies, and with a logic and boldness peculiarly his own, Lawrence writes of the death scene that the departure of the husband is the release of the wife. The sick man does not awaken pity but only contempt for not being strong and sexually potent. As he dies, the woman is drawn to another bed by her lover. It is an immoral act, but one symbolic of Lawrence’s conception of reviving life.
What is important to Lawrence is not the morality/immorality contrast, or the indecency displayed: he thinks only of the symbolic oppositions. The husband is for him simply useless, while the lover is a carrier of the life force. What matters ultimately is that one man stands for the force of death and the other for that of life. Lawrence’s male characters stand or fall insofar as they are committed to his own gauge of moral action.
The Reverend Mr. Lindley, the Prussian officer, Sir Clifford Chatterley, the dying husband of “The Border Line,” are all the creatures of life as readers know it. Their contrasts and enemies—the gamekeeper in LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER, the coal miner in “Daughters of the Vicar,” the orderly of “The Prussian Officer,” the lover in “The Border Line”—are creatures of another kind of life. Their virtues are not moral but simply existential. It is intentional that the lover in “The Border Line” comes from out of the rocks and the forest. The first adulterous love takes place among the rocks, and the woman finds there an experience she had never known before. What unites these existential heroes is the fact that they do come from out of the “real” world of nature. They have, so to speak, absolutely no intellectual dimensions. Like the woodcutter hero of THE FOX, they are signalized by a stubborn refusal to abide by rules and a terrible cleaving to the flesh. The heroines of these stories are inevitably attracted, repelled, and eventually transformed by these men. A good deal of implicit social commentary is involved because the men are invariably from a class below that of their women. The union is symbolic, perhaps too evidently so. A Freudian might put it this way: the Ego becomes fully constituted only by accepting the burden of the Unconscious. In order to do so, it must first reject the artifices of the Super-Ego.