Analysis of D. H. Lawrence’s Daughters of the Vicar

This novella contrasts life-giving and life-denying attitudes, key themes in D. H. Lawrence’s stories. Salient details of Midlands country life give this story its realism: A miner’s widow plans brussels sprouts, meat, and apple pie for dinner; moleskin trousers smell of mining; snowflakes on a train window and the mining lift entrance viewers. Fabular elements appear, too: A proud, dark, and beautiful eldest daughter (Mary) trades her body for status, marrying for money; the stubborn, blond, and plain second daughter (Louisa) vows to marry for love. Written in 1911 as “Two Marriages,” Lawrence revised the story in 1913 and 1914 before publication in The Prussian Officer and Other Stories to focus on emotional and erotic life.

Lack of money and admiration appear as barriers to happiness for the vicar and his wife, who move from Cambridge when an influx of miners swells the population of Aldecross. Despite a meager income, the couple instill their sense of superiority and their bourgeois values in their children. The vicar’s ill health brings a young clergyman to town; he represents the amassing of learning, perhaps money, at the cost of vitality. Slight in build, Mr. Massy seems “an abortion,” “infantile,” and defective in masculinity. He physically repulses the older daughter, yet she admires his “abstract goodness” and morality. Because of her impoverishment and because her father considers it “not a bad match,” Mary accepts Massy’s proposal. She “paid with her body” and “bought her position,” she thinks. A domineering husband, Massy becomes an obsessively anxious father, endangering his wife’s health. Children force Mary to recognize that she cannot deny the body.

A mining family also exhibits warped sexuality. The Oedipal situation echoes Paul Morel’s plight in the novel Sons and Lovers, itself autobiographical. Widowed Mrs. Durant binds her youngest son to her: Alfred feels ashamed, incompetent, and unmanly. Enlisting “makes a man of him,” yet after returning, nearly 30 years old, he still cannot leave home. When cancer kills his mother, his grief is reminiscent of Morel’s. As Keith Cushman shows, earlier versions of the story portray Louisa as a substitute mother. In the published version, Louisa breaks through class difference, social conventions, and self-consciousness to a transforming passionate connection with Alfred. Deferential, distant, and nearly mute, Alfred cannot respond to her initial overtures. Impassioned “beyond herself,” she declares that she wants to stay with him. A transfiguring “agony” bares their “souls” and leads to lovemaking. The 13th of 15 sections ends with their laughter about the smudges on Louisa. Louisa’s father calls their engagement “unseemly” and wants to avoid as much “loss of prestige as possible,” so the couple plan to emigrate to Canada.

The crucial scene of washing a man’s body appears in Sons and Lovers, Aaron’s Rod, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Written earlier, “Odour of Chrysanthemums” uses the washing of a corpse to show essential separateness and a failed marital connection. In Daughters of the Vicar, revelation of male beauty galvanizes Louisa’s desire; washing and a mother’s death unite a vicar’s daughter and a mama’s boy.

Like Middlemarch in its focus on two sisters, Daughters treats issues raised in The Rainbow (written concurrently) and anticipates Women in Love. Carol Siegel sees the story as a reimagining of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss in which Mary’s similarities to Maggie challenge Eliot’s view of renunciation. Siegel notes connections with Katherine Mansfield’s story “The Daughters of the Late Colonel.” Janice Hubbard Harris identifies a reversed “Sleeping Beauty” motif: A strong woman awakens a sleeping (or “Oedipally paralyzed”) prince. Like Cushman, Mara Kalnins examines the revisions of the story; she argues that the representation of Louisa’s sensual awakening constitutes a linguistic breakthrough. In its vocabulary of passion instead of pure social realism and its contextualizing of erotic love within familial dynamics, “The Daughters” exemplifies Lawrence’s visionary mode of short fiction.

Analysis of D. H. Lawrence’s Stories

Cushman, Keith. D. H. Lawrence at Work: The Emergence of the Prussian Officer Stories. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978.
Harris, Janice Hubbard. The Short Fiction of D. H. Lawrence. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1984.
Kalnins, Mara. “D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Two Marriages’ and ‘Daughters of the Vicar.’ ” Ariel 7 (1976): 32–49.
Lawrence, D. H. The Prussian Officer and Other Stories. Edited by John Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Siegel, Carol. Lawrence among the Women. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis, Short Story

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