The Fox by D. H. Lawrence. Recommended.
One of D. H. Lawrence’s fable-like tales addressing gender roles and relationships, The Fox is developed based on the symbol of a female-centric farm beset by a “demon,” a marauding male fox. Owned and run by two women, the “small, thin, delicate thing,” Banford, and “the man about the place,” March, the farm is remarkably unproductive. One independent-minded heifer refuses to stay put, and the women, afraid of birth and responsibility, sell the pregnant cow before she can produce a calf. Because “Banford and March disbelieved in living for work alone,” it is clear that their farming venture, the nature of which requires commitment and hard work, is fated to fail.
Into this setting, where “fowls did not flourish,” comes a fox, a symbolic male, that carries off not only the hens, but March’s consciousness. As a male intruder in this female world, “he knew her.” The imagery is deliberately sexual; “her soul failed her,” and, too mesmerized to fire her gun, “she saw his white buttocks twinkle.” Having encountered the male, she determines to hunt him down. “She was possessed by him.”
Months later, March again threatens to shoot the real fox, a young man who comes to the farm from the outside world of men and war. As with the fox, the other male, “March stared at him spellbound.” Again, the symbolism is not meant to be subtle; Lawrence writes, ” . . . the boy was to her the fox, and she could not see him otherwise” and “she need not go after him any more.”
The fox and the man change March, who in the man’s presence becomes “pale and wan,” anxious not to be seen, “a shadow in the shadow” — almost like a fox herself. Throughout the novel, the man, Henry, has the same effacing effect on her. She is no longer the “man” of the farm, but a shrinking, passive, mesmerized female, speaking in a “plangent, laconic voice” when the real man is around. In her dreams, the fox and the man are powerful sexual images that take away her ability to articulate; the fox “whisked his brush across her face, and it seemed this brush was on fire, for it seared and burned her mouth with a great pain . . . [She] lay trembling as if she were really seared.”
As the story continues and Henry and Banford vie for March’s attention and loyalty, it is easy to see Banford and March as a lesbian couple, incomplete in the way the French writer Colette viewed such relationships. Henry, the man, carries the gun, hunts, and watches; he is “most free when he was quite alone.” With Henry’s arrival, Banford becomes more stereotypically female, strong-willed but physically weak, querulous, and manipulative. March is in the middle, the man to one, the woman to the other. Banford says of Henry, “He’s a boy like you are.” March is always indistinct to the soft-spoken, courteous Henry, who wishes to dominate her and to bring her into focus. When Henry kills the fox, March dreams of burying Banford wrapped in the fox skin — a thought that leaves her with “tears streaming down her face.” She does not want to let go of either woman or man, or the feminine or masculine in herself.
Events and choices leave March with “nothingness at last”; having hunted for the fox and reached for happiness, she is left with a “realisation of emptiness” that can be resolved only by being “alone with him at her side.” To be female is to sleep, a form of death, while to be male is to keep awake, know, consider, judge, and decide. In The Fox, as in other Lawrence novels, the man-woman relationship is one of strain between masculine values of dominance and possession and feminine desire to “stay awake” and for autonomy and self-determination.
Unpolished, repetitive, obvious in its imagery, and blunt about its messages, The Fox is flawed and pales beside Sons and Lovers and Women in Love. As a short study of the ideas surrounding gender, roles, and relationships that predominate in Lawrence’s fiction, The Fox is worth the attention of both Lawrence student and aficionado.
8 December 2007
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf