Book review: The Prussian Officer and Other Stories
The Prussian Officer and Other Stories by D. H. Lawrence. Edited by John Worthen with an introduction and notes by Brian Finney. Recommended.
In The Prussian Officer and Other Stories, D. H. Lawrence explores in short story form the themes that dominate many of his best-known novels. “The Daughters of the Vicar,” for example, echoes both Women in Love and Sons and Lovers, where one relationship is out of balance and the other shows some promise, and where a son is in near-complete subjection to his mother — even after her death. The question left unanswered at the end of “Daughters” is whether collier Alfred Durant will be any more successful at forming a lasting relationship with Louisa than artist Paul Morel was with Miriam. The answer would seem to be “yes” since he and Louisa are to be married soon — although in the other stories, marriage does not mean a meaningful or lasting relationship has been achieved. It’s up to reader speculation whether they will end up like the couple in “The White Stocking” or the couple in “The Odour of Chrysanthemums.”
Lawrence’s world is focused on dominance and subjection, whether sexual, social, or economic, and the resulting imbalances. For all their social loftiness, the vicar’s family is as poor or poorer than the uneducated colliers whom coal mining (ironically) elevates economically if not socially. As in the mines, there is a going down and coming up of the classes, with the declining rural gentry no better off than the rising class of miners and their managers. Lawrence experienced the mixing of these disparate groups in his own family, with his educated and domineering mother and his ignorant and brutal father. It’s not difficult to find the origins of Elizabeth and Walter Bates in “The Odour of Chrysanthemums.” In this story, Lawrence overtly articulates the alienation the wife feels from her husband, once death has given her the objective distance to realise it.
While compelling, this story demonstrates what I believe is Lawrence’s predominant weakness — a heavy handedness of the author’s voice in the narration of thought. Across all the stories (and the novels), his characters have similar thoughts and reactions, often expressed in similar terms that seem unlikely and unnatural for those particular characters. In many cases, you could lift entire sentences and even passages with little revision and transplant them seamlessly into any of his other stories or novels. While most critics, better informed about Lawrence’s social and cultural milieu and his artistic intent, understand this as part of his “metaphysic,” I find it artificial and tiresome. Reading so many stories together in a compressed time period highlights their similarities in theme, tone, and point of view.
As an example, this passage sounds less like the voice of the wife of a dead collier than that of Lawrence himself: “There were the children — but the children belonged to life. This dead man had nothing to do with them. He and she were only channels through which life had flowed to issue in the children.” At a certain level, many of Lawrence’s characters have no voice that is recognizable as their own — only as his. They are in subjugation to his dominance, which burdens and overwhelms this collection.
Two stories that stand out are set in the military: “The Prussian Officer” (originally “Honour and Arms”) and “The Thorn in the Flesh.” In the former, a young orderly revenges himself on his rigid and sexually sadistic captain, then dies blindly to restore the balance. In the latter, the runaway soldier and his country servant girlfriend find spiritual elevation and detachment from their mundane concerns in their sexual unification. They are free to face the repercussions of their respective transgressions with indifference. “A Fragment of Stained Glass” is memorable for its medieval setting, sadism, and eeriness, but is flawed by a particularly weak ending that adds nothing and detracts from the tale’s previous tone.
The Prussian Officer and Other Stories is a must for anyone interested in Lawrence and his development. Most of these stories are unforgettable, partly because of their symbolism and partly because they integrate pieces of Lawrence’s overarching metaphysic. As a side note, my favourite Lawrence story — indeed, one of my favourite short stories by any author — is not part of this collection: the haunting “The Rocking-Horse Winner.”
6 September 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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