Courage at the Border-Line: Balder, Hemingway, and Lawrence's the Captain's Doll

By Balbert, Peter | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Courage at the Border-Line: Balder, Hemingway, and Lawrence's the Captain's Doll


Balbert, Peter, Papers on Language & Literature


"To achieve his own soul's wholeness and integrity is the life-work of every man."

D. H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious

"Things might not be immediately discernible in what a man writes and in this sometimes he is fortunate, but eventually they are quite clear."

Ernest Hemingway, to the Swedish Academy

"So exact is the resemblance of the manikin to the man, in other words, of the soul to the body. ..."

James Frazer, The Golden Bough

I

Sustained commentary on D. H. Lawrence's The Captain's Doll essentially began more than fifty years ago with F.R. Leavis's extolling and extensive essay on the novella, which he first published amid his innovative series of Scrutiny articles on Lawrence and then reprinted with revisions in his pioneering, full-length study of the writer in 1955.1 Leavis views the work as a supreme example of Lawrence's genius at demonstrating "a sure rightness of touch in conveying the shifts of poise and tone that define an extremely delicate complexity of attitude" (D. H. Lawrence: Novelist 197). Such praise for the subtle changes in character development and narrative perspective in this fiction reflects nothing less than "the range of a truly great dramatic poet" (198), and his strong endorsement of The Captain's Doll has evolved in the academic community into the consensus judgment--with which I agree--of Lawrence's considerable success in this short novel. While later critics find many reasons for praise of its achievement, they generally convey minimal support for Leavis's confident formulation of its central theme, which he defines as Hannele's "education sentimentale" during her affair with Captain Hepburn, a process concluding with a "denouemont" that amounts to her "tacit recognition of her own deepest desire or need" (202-03) to accept finally the distinctly partisan terms for marriage proposed by her lover.

In no way does Leavis's discussion ignore or underestimate the impressive wit, energy, and independence manifested by the Countess, even comparing aspects of her strength and feistiness to the intriguingly similar traits in Lawrence's talented and often uncompliant wife. (2) But he still regards Hannele's capitulation as dramatically credible in the context of her recent love-life and as admirably consistent with Lawrence's visionary doctrines in the postwar years. Much of the criticism after Leavis variously questions the persuasiveness of Hannele's acquiescence to Hepburn's demands, disagrees with the implications of Lawrence's sexual politics, or counter-asserts the ultimate primacy of Hannele's corrective influence on the Captain. (3) The latter approach has strong support in recent years, as it offers a clear if not wholly convincing way to understate the praise for a brilliant novella that presents an uncomfortable problem for many readers today: the work is unapologetically infused with a patriarchal ethic that finally achieves a strong measure of victory in its dramatized battle between the sexes. Many critics search for grounds to praise the novella by somehow denying the fact of its masculinist bias. Among the most extreme versions of invested attempts to diminish the authority of Hepburn and enhance the stature of Hannele, the late Mark Spilka wonders if the Captain killed his wife to eliminate the major complication of his passionate connection to the impatient Countess. (4)

Related to this growth in revisionist discussions of the work is the increasing tendency to emphasize its comedic aspects, an approach that often highlights a comment made by Lawrence, in a letter written by him as he nears completion of the novella, that The Captain's Doll is "a very funny long story" (Letters IV 109). (5) Despite interesting attempts to buttress this letter with analyses of allegedly humorous moments in the work, Lawrence's comment must be examined from the perspective of the fiction's more pronounced texture of pained reflection on doctrinal and personal issues of high importance to him.

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