Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Modernism and the Contours of Violence in D. H. Lawrence's Fiction

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Modernism and the Contours of Violence in D. H. Lawrence's Fiction

Article excerpt

Today's defining phenomenon is the act of terrorism. In Amman, Jordan, the triple hotel bombings in 2005 are a single example. The world today faces unprovoked attacks, random shootings, suicide missions, and genocide. Such acts, though an appalling comment on our civilization, lie embedded in its fabric. Rarely do classic writers interpret them. Yet D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) has anticipated such acts in his writing. Beatings, shootings, suicide, murder, and a systematic use of language as hatred all define his work. The contours of violence in Lawrence's fiction, tracing Modernist preoccupations with the psyche's dark forces, assume forms that are emergent, aggressive, or infiltrative. Sequentially they culminate in dissonance at many levels of a text. The destabilizing Modernist forces-of violence in Lawrence's plots and language; of dissonant harmonic progressions in Berg's and Bartok's compositions; of colliding Cubist planes in Pablo Picasso's art, which alter a subject's identity--all reflect new forms of order that arrived in avant-garde culture about 1910. In Lawrence's work, the increasingly centrist place of violence has not been demonstrated.

Modernist departures from historical frames are well known and extend to much of Lawrence's work. Throughout his textbook, Movements in European History (1921), Lawrence implies that cycles of history always encode eruptions of violence. Historians agree that conditions that spawn systemic social disorder--such as threats to peace and prosperity or the sustained oppression of one group by another--also spawn personal disorder. However, Lawrence's posture on history's intersection with violence differs from what might be expected. Because his intuition and understanding go so deep, his writings resist, rather than embrace, historical pressures. Indeed, for most twentieth-century writers, history provides a rich set of possibilities out of which a character's identity--of entrapment, freedom, rootedness, and progress--may be fashioned. But Lawrence goes further. In his fiction, he offers a set of circumstances that his characters challenge; they demand neither social nor intellectual recognition but personal empowerment. Part of Lawrence's modernity is that-for his characters, as for Virginia Woolf's--history is registered as a set of inherited human prejudices that are antagonistic to instinct and intuition. These prejudices intersect with a panoply of options in the present, out of which an ambiguous future unfolds.

Departing from the idioms of nineteenth-century representation, Lawrence and Picasso (as a representative Modernist) choose strikingly elemental, then increasingly violent, forms to represent their vision. Indeed, Lawrence's characters often move toward a fateful or violent act linked in its contours to history, then shy away from it--rejecting, or repressing, or evading it. Young Ursula Brangwen, Gerald Crich, the Woman Who Rode Away, the Man Who Died, and Connie Chatterley illustrate this unexpected response. They take the events that befall them and, by personal force, subvert them, shaping their dissident response into a preference (early phase), a personal stand (middle phase), or an ideology (late phase) that will help complete their destiny. Sometimes, to relieve a character from the pull of historical events, that destiny requires a violent act as a catalyst, as it does for Captain Hauptmann, Jill Banford, and Domingo Romero, for whom death ends a protagonist's sexual entanglements. Lawrence's images of violence link the unfolding of historical events to the human struggle against them.

As might be expected, these forms of violence reflect Lawrence's own trajectory as a writer. In his early phase (1905-1915), violence typically images the disruptive class differences that alter human relationships, as when, in Sons and Lovers, Walter Morel hurls a drawer at his wife Gertrude. In Lawrence's middle phase (1916-1924), violence illuminates characters caught in roles they must alter in order to attain personal and spiritual fulfilment, as when Gerald Crich's fratricide shatters his inner self. …

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