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Digression/Revision as transgressive creative process

From Marching to Walking: Transgressing in "The Prussian Officer" and "The Thorn in the Flesh"

Elise Brault-Dreux
p. 23-39


Cet article aborde la question de la marche, de ses dérivés, ainsi que de l’évolution de ses diverses manifestations sémantiques à travers « The Prussian Officer » et « The Thorn in the Flesh ». Dans ces deux nouvelles, les deux jeunes soldats désertent la marche militaire (et les exercices militaires). Ils font ainsi l’expérience d’un rite de passage alors que chacun agresse physiquement son supérieur et fuit la marche militaire – qui contraint la progression dans un périmètre géographique, physique et hiérarchisé – en partant en courant (le mode de fuite le plus primitif), puis en marchant, passant au-delà des limites rigides et physiquement astreignantes de l’exercice codé. Ils marchent ainsi, en hâte et non sans douleur, en quête d’une vitalité authentique et, après une courte expérience d’aliénation salvatrice, se retrouvent finalement pris dans une impasse malheureuse. L’article s’interroge sur la façon dont ce mode de dé-placement au sein du texte, au-delà de la simple ambition de produire un récit réaliste, participe à la construction d’une tension. Ce dé-placement se reflète également dans le rythme et la sinuosité de la prose et, sur un mode métatextuel, dans les relations que le texte entretient avec le genre de la nouvelle : la prose de Lawrence ne suit pas les « lignes » de ce que l’on attend généralement d’un texte en prose mais elle réfléchit formellement la transgression et la fuite des soldats.
En d’autres termes, ce trait non-digressif qui est propre à la nouvelle, associé à la dimension paradigmatique de la poésie, d’une certaine manière cadre, contraint et, à la fois, rend possibles les digressions transgressives sociales et physiques. La conclusion tente de faire converger la prose lawrencienne et la marche des soldats autour de la notion de créativité. Auteur et soldats, en transgressant les limites des genres littéraires et de la marche militaire, ont produit l’un des nouvelles, les autres leur propre sens de liberté.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

David Herbert Lawrence

Texte intégral

  • 1 See “Introduction,” Poste Restante, edited by Harry T. Moore.

1A few months before Lawrence wrote “The Prussian Officer” and “The Thorn in the Flesh” (both written in 1913) he and Frieda undertook a walking tour across the German, Austrian and Italian borders. In 1956, the critic Mark Schorer accurately notes that the settings of Lawrence’s stories (referring more specifically to “The Prussian Officer”) “follow upon the march of his feet”1 (Kearney 113).

2Starting with Lawrence’s personal experience, this article actually seeks to address the issue of marching, walking and crossing the lines in both stories, each one staging a young submissive soldier who is first physically constrained by the military “march” and, who after an act of transgression and crisis when he assaults his superior, “walks away.” The various forms of marching or walking therefore appear as definitions and redefinitions of the soldiers’ position regarding their community and society at large. The soldiers’ being in the ranks, on the borderline, or outside the ranks, turns out to be highly dependent on whether they are “marching,” “walking away,” “stumbling” or “plodding.”

  • 2 “A markedly bounded genre.”

3Fed by his “antipathy to German militarism” (Kinkead-Weekes 76), Lawrence successfully leads the reader in a peculiar stroll, caught within the limits of what Pierre Tibi calls “un genre fortement borné” (23).2 The tension that stems from the narrated facts themselves is coupled with one deriving from the course of transgressive and digressive characters in the un-digressive genre of the short story. This tension between thematic expansion and generic restriction is to some extent a translation, at another level, of Pierre Tibi’s conception of the short story as the coalescence of the linear temporality of the novel with the spatiality of poetry (Tibi 14-15): the facts that narratively delineate, following the soldiers’ steps, have to fit within the textual space of the stories.

4To broach the issue of how an un-digressive genre stages digressive transgressive characters, I propose to analyse first how both stories stage the discipline of marching with the community, and then how both soldiers perform a transgressive (and subversive) rite of passage as they walk away from the community. The sense of closure at the end of both stories where the soldiers are both caught in a dead end is, as we will see eventually, combined with the poetic openness of a previous experience of the beyond.

The Discipline of marching with the community

5But for a long analepsis which gives an inkling of the causes of the tension, the whole story of “The Prussian Officer” takes place during a military march through the forest, towards mountains. “The Thorn in the Flesh” begins with Bachmann, a young soldier who is writing to his mother, and very soon the sergeant summons the company to march. They will march, rhythmically, to a moat of water.

  • 3 Keith Cushman makes the distinction between the “social man” and the “private man” in his analysis (...)

6The military march is stereotypical enough for the readers to picture it without being provided with too many details – an economy of words that actually suits the genre. Unlike walking, which takes countless forms and paces and rhythms, etc., marching is a specific mode of displacement which does not involve private but social men3 who march in the ranks and follow codified rules.

  • 4 PO will be used as the abbreviation for The Prussian Officer and Other Stories.

7The march is first and foremost collective, as the opening paragraph of “The Prussian Officer” renders with no reference to individuation: “They had marched more than thirty kilometres since dawn […]. And towards the mountains, on and on, the regiment marched” (PO 1),4 or later, “the company turned up the hill” which reads as an echo to the “sheep [that] huddle together under this fierce sun” (PO 11). Their bodies are likewise not singled out when reference is made to “the feet of the soldiers,” “their hair,” “their shoulders” (PO 1). A little later, when the scene is focalized through the Prussian officer’s consciousness, one reads that the soldiers march in “common subjection” (PO 12). The army then allows no individual transgression, nor any variation: “And the march continued, monotonously, almost like a bad sleep” (PO 10) and “Now they were to march to the attack in such and such a manner” (PO 16). In “The Thorn in the Flesh,” the barking sergeant summons the company “to ranks” and moves forward “marching rhythmically” (PO 23). Just as they later climb mechanically, the soldiers march like automatons, all going in the same direction. The Prussian officer’s position during the march, on horseback, above the ranks and trotting before them, reveals the strict hierarchy: “the officer was always aware of the tramp of the company behind, the march of the orderly among the men” (PO 2) – his ability to point out one among the several soldiers is a first hint at their unsettling special bond. Yet, such discipline, massive as it may appear by the sounds the reader imagines may be produced by the rhythmic tramp, by the collective movement forward, is subtly debunked by the use of the epithet “little”: “soldiers were moving in a little swarm” (PO 16), “the little company moved forward” (PO 23) and at the end of “The Thorn in the Flesh,” when Bachmann is caught, “the little procession went down the stairs” (PO 38). If, in the first example quoted, “little” may also be suggesting the focalizer’s distant empirical observation, its use also clearly belittles the potential grandeur of the battalion and what it may traditionally evoke. Such reduction of the grandeur of the march in favor of a promotion of its mechanical discipline makes it a mere monotonous exercise that constrains the soldier’s body. In being forced in the discipline of the most un-transgressive march, the body in the end exceeds its own limits, transgresses its normal physical abilities. Rosemary Davies, in 1984, devotes an article on “heat” in “The Prussian Officer” and declares that “the heat is associated with the valley through which the men are marching” (269). The orderly is actually suffering from heat and intense thirst. Moreover, while like the other soldiers his “feet grew hotter” and “sweat ran through [his] hair” (PO 1), he also suffers from “bruises” (1). The first occurrence of “bruises,” in the second paragraph of the story, is introduced by what comes close to free indirect speech:

What were they after all but bruises! He had looked at them, as he was getting up: deep bruises on the back of his thighs. And since he had made his first step in the morning, he had been conscious of them, till now he had a tight, hot place in his chest, with suppressing the pain, and holding himself in. There seemed no air when he breathed. But he walked almost lightly. (1)

8The character’s self-persuading attempt to belittle the bruises’ seriousness at the beginning of the quote is immediately after deflated by the narrative voice which gives an inkling of their depth, omnipresence and suffocating effect. The reader here also understands that the bruises have not been caused by the march, but by some event, still unknown to the reader, that precedes it. Marching with these bruises thus takes a punishing dimension, which, when read retrospectively, is the ultimate torture of the officer’s bullying. In the morning, before the march, “[the soldier’s] limbs, his jaw, were slack and nerveless” from being bullied, and yet “he would have to move his inert body and go on.” “He seemed to be a mass of inertia” (PO 9) but “slowly, economically, he got dressed and forced himself to walk” (10). He then “plodded uncomplainingly” (10), and “at the start, he had determined not to limp” (1). In thus being forced to march, the orderly is actually forced to inflict suffering upon his own self, to be the actor of his own torture: his awareness that “plodding” and “limping” are still not “marching” intensify the physical suffering into a sense of shame and fear. The two occurrences of almost the same phrase, “the long agony of marching” (10) and “the long agony of the march” (20) – where the active “ing” verb form significantly disappears in favor of the more static notional “the march” – reverberate the agony on the surface of the text: the repetition pages apart translates both the textual and physical persistence of agony.

9In “The Thorn in the Flesh,” the suffering caused by marching derives from Bachmann’s sensation of suffocation: “Bachmann, one of the inner file of four deep, marched in the airless ranks, half suffocated with heat and dust and enclosure” (PO 23). Like in “The Prussian Officer,” the heat is suffocating. And the claustrophobic physical organization of the march somehow traps Bachmann, thus unable to step aside. He is caught within the boundaries of the marching troop. If the reader is, like Bachmann, given a little respite soon after with “he marched with his usual ease, being healthy and well adjusted,” (s)he is immediately after told that such ease is made possible because of the disconnection between the soldier’s mind and body, a disconnection without which he could not go forward: “his body went on by itself […], his body worked by a kind of mechanical intelligence” (PO 23).

  • 5 The setting has been defined by both Keith Cushman and Martin Kearney as “expressionistic” (Cushman (...)

10This introductory linear progression in each story creates a form of mounting suspense, both on the textual and narrative levels. The reader and the soldiers feel, on different levels, a tension, and march together: where are the battalions leading each soldier to? And where is the text leading the reader? The effet de réel thus introduced is, in each case, strengthened by details about the setting.5 In “The Prussian Officer” temporal and spatial elements introduce the story:

They had marched more than thirty kilometers since dawn, along the white, hot road where occasional thickets of trees threw a moment of shade, then out into the glare again. On either hand, the valley, wide and shallow, glittered with heat; dark-green patches of rye, pale young corn, fallow and meadow and black pine woods spread in a dull, hot diagram under a glistening sky. But right in front the mountains ranged across, pale blue and very still, snow gleaming gently out of the deep atmosphere. (1)

11The march has started in the margins of the narration, in a pre-text that opens the text back: “They had marched” thus gives depth to the narrated events, inscribes the events to come in a process whose beginning precedes the text. If “thirty kilometers” then brings in a realistic detail, space is then evoked in terms of time – “occasional thickets,” “a moment of shade,” “then […] again” – thus suggesting a slight departure from realism and a step into the poetic. Contrasting lights coexist with color nuances in an omnipresent immediate heat which itself contrasts with the remote coldness of the snowy mountains: once again, the profusion of various details contributes to an effet de réel and, at the same time, outlines a highly poetic picture. Such coalescence brings in Pierre Tibi’s theory of the short story as the coalition of the narrative linearity of the novel with the spatiality of poetry. Though, according to Tibi, the short story is not the genre of the effet de réel, one may propose that here the latter is a starting point. The introductory march in the first sentence sets into motion what Tibi calls a “parcours narratif” (15): the text is starting its march (or more accurately its walk). The reader is thus dragged by the narration into a somewhat realistic setting which soon enough becomes a “spatial order” (Tibi 14) for poetic elaboration.

12The opening of “The Thorn in the Flesh” likewise shows concern with realistic details, notably with the reference to “the houses of the city of Metz” and:

Among the fields by the lime trees stood the barracks, upon bare, dry ground, a collection of round-roofed huts of corrugated iron, where the soldiers’ nasturtiums climbed brilliantly. There was a tract of vegetable garden at the side, with the soldiers’ yellowish lettuces in rows, and at the back the big, hard drilling-yard surrounded by a wire fence. (PO 22)

13This description fixes the limits of the immediate setting with well-defined solid lines (“tract,” “rows,” “fence”). Yet at the same time Lawrence weaves into it a clear poetic dimension with assonances, alliterations and long sentences. The text then opens up generically from prose to poetry and structurally with the proleptic subverted allusion to Bachmann climbing not as brilliantly as the nasturtiums. Once in the ranks, the soldiers then march “out of the wire-fenced yard to the open road […] pass[ing] in a single file down a path among trees” (PO 23). Their march, while it evokes codified constraint and solid reality, evolves in a “mysterious” setting (“All was silent and green and mysterious,” 23): “Occasionally a puff of mysterious wind made the flowers and the long grass that crested the earthworks above bow and shake as with signals of oncoming alarm” (23). The setting, stamped by the soldiers’ feet, acquires a symbolic foreboding dimension.

14In the opening of both stories, the syntagmatic flow – which combines the linear progression of both the marchers and the text – catches in its course a paradigmatic poetic intensity. In that sense Lawrence’s work fits the lines of Pierre Tibi’s theory of the short story as a complex alliance of both axes.

15So, from the onset of both stories, the march bears the seed of something beyond, some experience outside the limits of its ranks – and of its prosaic genre. Both narrative texts, in opening up poetically and not without tension and suspense, subtly prepare the reader for upcoming thematic transgressions.

Transgressive rites of passage: walking away from the community

16“The Prussian Officer” and “The Thorn in the Flesh” both revolve around a moment of crisis which stages two soldiers’ transgressive actions as they physically assault respectively the Prussian officer and the barking sergeant. Such crisis is the outcome of previous excessive pressure, fear and shame.

17Bachmann, in “The Thorn in the Flesh,” first feels fear by proxy when watching another soldier climb the ladder against the “slightly sloping wall-face” (PO 24). As he apprehensively identifies with the climbing figure, knowing that his turn will soon come, he starts feeling physical symptoms of fear (“his bowels turned to water,” 24). His fear of heights soon turns into a fear of actually showing such physical symptoms: from a mere feeling (“a great, sick, melting feeling took hold of him”), to an anxious hypothesis (“If once it melted all his joints and his belly he was done”), melting is intensely felt, first metaphorically (“he was melting weaker and weaker, in a horror of fear and lack of control, melting to fall”), before shamefully materializing (“His water had run down his leg,” 25). Bachmann is then reified when dragged over the edge “like a sack” and the previously marching soldier is submissively animalized when he “grovel[s]” “on his knees” (25). The escalating suspense at the moment of his climbing, mixed with an ensuing “deep shame and ignominy” (25), leads to a critical moment of transgressive release when the markedly shameful Bachmann brutally hits the sergeant who thus falls over the ramparts. The blow is instinctive, involuntary as, we are told, Bachmann “felt his forearm hit the face” (26). But later, when he reports the facts to Emilie he says: “‘It was an accident – but –’. And he grasped at the cherries” (28) – a hesitation that seriously questions the accidental nature of the altercation. Humiliation has caused the accident.

18In a more complex fashion, the orderly’s fatal assault of the officer in “The Prussian Officer” is likewise triggered by fear and humiliation. The long analepsis delineates for the reader the ambiguous and perverse connection between both men, paradoxically drawn to each other. Yet, this complex connection evolves into an intensifying form of bullying. The officer first strikes metonymically with a glove, then just as metonymically, with his belt, and then he kicked “again, and again” (PO 7). The succession and mounting intensity of the blows and kicks are all the more disturbing since they are subtly narrated as almost uneventful events. They somehow occur in the course of the narration as apparently normal consequences of the officer’s awkward passion for the young soldier – this is mainly due to the blurring of the extradiegetic narrative voice with the Officer’s: “At last he slung the end of a belt in his servant’s face” (6), and the officer’s feeling of relief is betrayed by “at last.” The recurrent kicks will then be the cause of the “bruises” referred to at the beginning of the story when the young soldier is forced to march. The end of the explanatory analepsis takes the reader back to the march. The orderly “plodded on uncomplainingly” (10), forced to stay in the ranks and to move on, while “it gave him a pain in his head to walk” (11) – physical suffering is intellectualized and thus translates the traumatic effect of bullying. Not even marching but merely “walking” is painful. The individual, and not just the soldier, is now affected.

19The orderly then feels “flashes” through his body as the officer, in an obvious dominant position on horseback, draws nearer and orders the young soldier to fetch something to drink for him. The ensuing scene pictures the soldier’s running very heavily downhill with his “military boots.” Synecdochic references to the army, the boots constrain the soldier’s movements: they block the individual’s transgression of the collective. The soldier’s feet are trapped in the ranks. Yet, at that point the reader is given an inkling of the subject’s division: “outside” he obeys mechanically, while “inside” is the accumulation of his young energy and life. Such tension is conveyed immediately after when he comes back, “plod[ding] quickly back uphill” (PO 13) with the oxymoronic “plodded quickly.”

20He then again “plods,” “tramp[s] towards his officer” and “stumble[s] forward” (PO 14). His previous enforced painful marching has evolved into a laborious telluric forward movement, forced down by weighty boots. But after a moment of extreme tension when the officer perversely drinks his beer before the exhausted, bruised, thirsty soldier, such restraining heaviness suddenly changes into the weightlessness of an assaulting jump: “He jumped, feeling as if he were rent in two by a strong flame” (14). The orderly leaves the ground and attacks the officer then, literally breaking his face and neck (“he shoved back the head of the other man, till there was a little ‘cluck’ and a crunching sensation,” 15).

21Both stories, then, are built around a similar moment of crisis with each humiliated soldier physically assaulting his superior. And the soldiers’ relief felt at the moment of transgression is soon translated in their escape as they each “walk away.” Each soldier actually leaves the tracks imposed by the military march: transgression thus involves digression.

22The eventual relieving nature of walking away had been previously foreseen on the first page of “The Prussian Officer,” after the officer has violently kicked the soldier: “It had made him sick to take the first steps, and during the first mile or so, he had compressed his breath, and the cold drops of sweat had stood on his forehead. But he had walked it off” (1). “Walk” here functions as a resultative verb through whose action “it” (a blurred reference to suffering) is cancelled. While in truth he is here actually marching in the ranks, his perception of it as “walking” is in fact enough to reduce the aching. After the assaults, the relief by walking is more obvious. Though differently, at different paces, they both run away, thus escape in the most primitive fashion.

23In “The Thorn in the Flesh,” immediately after the assault, Bachmann follows another soldier’s injunction – “you’d better clear” (PO 26):

And with immediate instinctive decision he started to walk away from the spot. He went down the tree-hidden path to the high road where the trams ran to and from the town. In his heart was a sense of vindication, of escape. He was leaving it all, the military world, the shame. He was walking away from it. (26)

24With no plan of action, he walks away, leaves the place, crosses the lines defined by the battalion. While marching constrained his feet in a definite perimeter, he now walks outside the boundaries, quite randomly (“But where was he going?” 27). Though he knows that he is heading to Emilie – his sweetheart – this appearance of random progression, after transgression, magnifies a sense of relief and sudden freedom. Later, when he tells Emilie about the event, he concludes with “I ran off” (28) – thus bringing in the idea of hasty departure but also, with “off,” that of an ending, of a definite and irretrievable transgression.

  • 6 “He must go, or they would overtake him” (PO 16).

25In “The Prussian Officer,” the post-assault escape is much more delayed. The orderly sits and looks, from a distance, at the soldiers who “were to march to the attack in such and such a manner” (16). His own attack has already taken place and was dictated by no “such and such […] manner.” Though at that point still motionless, he experiences the transgressive assault as a passage: “For him a change had come over the world. But for the rest it had not – all seemed the same. Only he had left it. And he could not go back” (16). He then grows aware of the necessity of his escape6 and mounts the officer’s horse. Shortly after, he falls from the horse and remains on the ground for a while, semi-conscious. When he comes to his senses again, he walks away:

Struggling to his feet, he lurched away. He went on walking, walking, looking for something – for a drink. His brain felt hot and inflamed for want of water. He stumbled on. Then he did not know anything. He went unconscious as he walked. Yet he stumbled on, his mouth open. (PO 18)

26Unlike Bachmann who shows a sense of lightness and energy as he moves forward, the orderly here struggles. The repetition of “walking” and “stumbled,” as well as the mimetic rendering of the occurrences of his thoughts (first “something,” only then determined after the dash by “a drink,” as an afterthought or a delayed understanding) give a metapoetic value to the passage: the text stumbles on, painfully moves forward. The struggling prosody is therefore narratively efficient.

  • 7 “He fell into the water. But it gave him a bad shock, and smashed his foot on the side of the moat” (...)

27If, traditionally, walking may sometimes be apprehended as a form of “quest” (De Certeau 155) or an initiatory rite (Le Breton 166), in both stories, it rather corresponds to its reversed principle – the soldiers are escaping. In both cases, the transgression – the assault and the escape – is readable as a subversive rite of passage. While in the case of a traditional rite of passage the individual joins the community who ceremoniously accepts him, here the passage is subverted into an exit from the group. The soldiers’ respective act of courage (thus seen by the reader) is not rewarded by a promotion inside the community but by instant marginalization – both chosen and culturally integrated – from it. After the attack, the orderly in “The Prussian Officer” feels that “he could not bear contact with anyone now […]. He could not get away from the sense of being divided from the others” (16). And Bachmann, hiding in Emilie’s bedroom, is physically marginalized. When there he hears the soldiers singing at night, he thinks: “But he himself was removed from it now […]. He waited in concentration in another world” (33). So, transgression of disciplinary marching leads to a marginalization from the community: to remain a comrade, one must march within the boundaries of the ranks. But unlike a normal criminal who is and feels excluded from the social group, here both assailants experience this marginalization as a deep relief. Interestingly enough, in “The Thorn in the Flesh,” if Bachmann eventually does not kill the sergeant, the latter’s foot is seriously harmed. In thus injuring the sergeant, Bachmann has destroyed all possibilities for the sergeant to ever “march” again in the ranks, with his community.7 He has pushed his superior outside the ranks, forced his irreversible marginalization.

28In each story, the experience of relief, more or less directly consequential to the transgressive assault, is narratively translated by an experience of the unknown where each soldier passes into the beyond. In “The Prussian Officer,” right after the killing,

the village and the white-towered church was small in the sunshine. And he no longer belonged to it – he sat there, beyond, like a man outside in the dark. He had gone out from everyday life into the unknown and he could not, he even did not want to go back. (16)

29A little later, after his fall from the horse and before he starts walking away, “now he had got beyond himself. He had never been here before. Was it life, or not-life?” (18). The end of the march and the assault are more than a transgression of the community’s codes. They give way to a transgression of the limits of the self and even of life. “He was outside” is repeated twice immediately after this quote. At that point, the orderly frees himself, somewhat ecstatically (Widmer 9) from the constraints of the march, of the community and of the officer’s perversion. Off the tracks, he has passed beyond all this, with no other specific purpose than that of escaping oppression.

30In “The Thorn in the Flesh,” when hiding in Emilie’s room, Bachmann likewise experiences a passage: “He was going to leave this land, this life. Already he was in the unknown” (PO 30). In both stories then, the soldiers, now individuals, have fled from the all too well-known, for all too organized and codified, tracks of the march towards an unknown whose nature they do not seem to really be concerned about. What matters is to have escaped, to have transgressed beyond the limits of the known. In “The Thorn in the Flesh,” the passage is coupled with a much more explicit experience of renewal, in Bachmann’s sexual intercourse with Emilie. Made possible by the escape, so a consequence of it, this sexual act is lived as a rebirth: he is “restored and completed” (PO 34) and his pride – so smashed by the shameful experience of climbing – is now recovered.

31The end of both stories, though staging inner freedom and liberation from constraints after moments of digression (walking away) and transgression, rests on a sense of narrative closure.

A Dead end

32Despite the walking digressions and transgressive actions, both soldiers are, at the end of each story, caught either by death or the army: the central movement of opening ends on one of narrative closure. If “The Prussian Officer” starts with the ghost of a pre-text, therefore a sort of open beginning (“They had marched”), its end is what Pierre Tibi defines as a “verrouillage maximum” with the main protagonist’s death (24). After his final escape walk, “He stood still” and then “He lay still” (PO 20): no further physical and narrative digression is now possible. Transgressions have been staged within the bounds of the story, but the diegesis itself cannot transgress the final limit of the text.

33In “The Thorn in the Flesh,” the protagonist does not die but is found out hiding by the army. This dead end was earlier foreshadowed when Fraulein Hesse asked him what he was planning to do: “‘I don’t know,’ he said, grasping at more cherries. He had come to an end” (PO 28-9). She further insists on the impossibility of his continuing transgressive walk when she tells him: “But you can’t walk over the frontier in a night” (29). Though, as we saw, in Emilie’s room he has passed towards a liberating unknown, Bachmann nonetheless remains caught in an impasse. And the first sign he is given about his being caught back by the army is interestingly enough given to him by the sounds of “voices and a tramping of feet. His heart gave a great leap, then went still.” This quickly interpretable sound is then shortly after heard by Emilie, downstairs: “she heard the tramp of feet” (37). The textual resonance mimics the amplifying threatening sound and renders the mounting tension. The synecdochic reference to the battalion by the “tramping of feet” once again gives prominence to the rigidity, monotony and lack of individuation in and of the march. Bachmann’s instant interpretation of the rising sound shows his awareness that he is about to be caught again within the ranks of the march. The soldiers enter the house, “they all tramped across the hall” (38), still not individualized. Then “the Baron marched swiftly upstairs,” with more speed and lightness, yet still “marching,” and not running or walking. Thus marching, the Baron clearly sides with the army against Bachmann. And quite significantly, the latter is found “bare footed” (38) in Emilie’s room, freed from the constraining marching boots and unfit for marching. The reader understands that the previously alarming “tramping of feet” was in fact produced by a mere two “common soldiers” and a lieutenant – this gives an idea of the heavy symbolic weight of the army: the sound of three mere pairs of feet acquires a whole symbolic resonance.

34Very calmly, for rich with his resurrecting and liberating experience in Emilie’s bedroom, Bachmann – or rather “only the shell of his body” – eventually follows them. He is back in the march:

The lieutenant gave the order to march. The little procession went down the stairs with careful, respectful tread, and passed through the hall to the kitchen […] Then the little file of men passed out into the courtyard.
he Baron stood in the doorway watching the four figures in uniform pass through the chequered shadows under the lime trees. Bachmann was walking neutralized, as if he were not there. The lieutenant went brittle and long, the two soldiers lumbered beside. They passed out into the sunny morning, growing smaller, going towards the barracks. (
PO 38)

35Undifferentiated from the others by his “uniform,” Bachmann is caught again in a military procession whose movements are dictated and ordered (“order to march,” “respectful tread”). And in this final scene, within the bounds of the marching battalion, the previous transgressive actions and digressive walk are somehow cancelled by a succession of four “passing” (“through” and “out”) “towards the barracks” – as though Bachmann were physically forced into a backward cancelling passage. But Bachmann, though in uniform, is not marching but walking, “walking neutralized” – absent, nullified, too much changed by the escape and sexual intercourse that his body can merely mimic the march but not incarnate it. By contrast, the soldiers embody it much too heavily as they “lumber” close to him.

36The Baron’s focalization on Bachmann’s leaving the stage of his emancipation gives the passage a very visual, almost filmic, dimension. Bachmann and the soldiers growing smaller complete the story, quite traditionally, with a closed ending. Narration marches towards its end, inviting the reader’s eye to follow the marchers on their predetermined tracks.

37In each story then, the soldier is eventually caught by and in the march for one, by death for the other. But the man has escaped when he walked away. The narrative dimension of the short stories follows the march of the soldiers, takes them to the final closure of the text: the reader is taken to the orderly’s death and to Bachmann’s final capture. Yet, the escape of both men, as individuals who have experienced the beyond in their digression and transgression, somehow also escapes narrative linearity. Their experience of the unknown is not possibly narrated (and is thus interestingly qualified with a negative prefix “un”) but only alluded to – in the periphery of the narrated text.

38In a passage quoted above which depicts the orderly’s final walk in “The Prussian Officer,” meaning is not conveyed by semantic precision, but by a stumbling prosody: “He went on walking, walking […]. He stumbled on. Then he did not know anything. He went unconscious as he walked. Yet he stumbled on, his mouth open” (18). The paratactic succession of short sentences, linked to one another by somewhat awkward “then” and “yet” (not really semantically justified), mimic the soldier’s mental exhaustion as he walks on. This is more interestingly coupled with a shift into an impossibility to narrate: the orderly no longer has any knowledge, nor any consciousness – an experience that cannot possibly be rendered with words, but by negative terms (“he did not know anything” and “unconscious”). This incapacity (deliberately sought by Lawrence) to put words on the experience of his final walk, he himself reveals with “his mouth open,” unable to tell. After a brief moment of energy somewhat regained, “he thought he was walking wonderfully swiftly and was coming straight to relief – or was it water?” – the distance between mind and walking body makes assertion impossible. The ending interrogation (whose dash marks a moment’s hesitation or even a blank) clearly questions the possibility of the previous supposition (“thought”). Nothing is stated. Words refer to something potentially beyond. Shortly after, the orderly finds himself in the midst of a surrounding radiant night: “During the night the lightning fluttered perpetually, making the whole sky white. He must have walked again” (PO 19). This unexpected epistemic modality gives “walking” an uncertain, or even somewhat oneiric, dimension. Walking – already “unconscious” in the quote above – has become uncertain, ungraspable, unsayable. In this sense, it has transgressed the limits of narration.

39In “The Thorn in the Flesh,” when Bachmann walks away right after the physical assault, the lightness he then experiences is likewise rendered beyond the mere narration of the facts:

So he turned along by the river to the public gardens. Beautiful were the heaped, purple lilac trees upon the green grass, and wonderful the walls on the horse-chestnut trees, lighted like an altar with white flowers on every ledge. Officers went by, elegant and all coloured, women and girls sauntered in the chequered shade. Beautiful it was, he walked in a vision, free. (PO 26)

40The freedom he feels after his departure from the “march” contaminates his focalization on the others’ stroll: “officers” do not march but “go by,” and girls are “sauntering.” The lightness actually pervades the text with alliterations (liquid and others in [g] and [w] for instance), and nature is given a transient immaterial aspect with the image of the “altar,” and at the same time a pregnant impressionistic immediacy with the juxtaposition of various colours (“purple,” “green,” “white,” “all coloured”): a sense of space is given prominence over time. And the recurring syntactic inversions which topicalize the adjectives (“beautiful” and “wonderful”) are quite traditional poetic devices that draw the reader’s attention to the texture of the text. Thus constrained, the syntax somehow impedes the definite linearity of the narration – just as the sauntering impedes that of the march. Here, the poeticity of the scene suggests that Bachmann has passed into the lightness of walking. So, the transgression from the march is here suggested in the margins of the narration, in its poetic dimension: the sounds of the signifiers, the simile, the syntactic dislocations, and the unsayable (“a vision”) all partake of a transgressive process as they make meaning exceed the narrative limits of what Tibi calls “un genre fortement borné.”

41In both “The Prussian Officer” and “The Thorn in the Flesh,” marching is like an initial situation, almost a literary pretext, or at least a frame, from which each soldier will depart in a transgressive digression. Likewise, on the textual level, the narration (and the effet de réel that traditionally goes along with it) is a basis, a sort of literary march dictated by writing conventions. But once the transgressions achieved (the assaults and the escapes), allusions, poetic references to some unknown beyond, to some unsayable experience, suggest a form of transgression which may read as a textual analogy to the soldiers’ walking away from their community. In that sense, the writing in this un-digressive genre is actually much more akin to walking than marching. Walking, that is going forward freely, is rhythmed by hesitations, turns, escapes and circumvolutions. Michel De Certeau, in L’Invention du quotidien, quite clearly exposes the analogy between walking and writing:

  • 8 "La marche affirme, suspecte, hasarde, transgresse, respecte, etc. les trajectoires qu’elle ‘parle. (...)

Walking states, suspects, tries, transgresses, respects, etc. the lines it “speaks.” All these modalities are at stake, changing at each step, and divided in proportions, successions and types of intensity that vary according to the moment, the route and the walker (my translation).8

42In both of Lawrence’s short stories, the recurrence of sentences starting with “But” is one instance among others of these countless hesitations, stammers or stumbling. “But” brings the narration further in its “parcours,” while it both interrupts and draws links, contradicts and adds arguments, highlights a point and cancels the previous one – like a succession of steps in a stroll.

43There is in walking then a sort of multidimensionality absent from marching and which relates it to the combination of the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes in writing – and even simply physically, walking combines the horizontality of progression with the necessary verticality of standing. Walking, as it is staged and exploited by Lawrence in both stories as a means of transgressive and digressive escape, then, here acquires a metatextual quality as it somehow reads as a demetaphorisation of writing: walking, for both transgressive soldiers, is creative. As both were previously merely following the tracks, the lines, they found and freed themselves as individuals when they escaped from the march and walked away. Likewise, the creative dimension of Lawrence’s writing in both stories is his ability to transgress the prosaic genre in bringing into it a poetic dimension – in bringing spatiality, depth, into the linearity of the marching narration. So in fact, the un-digressive genre does not so much contain the digressive transgressive protagonists as a theme as it inscribes their digressive transgressions in the very texture of the writing.


Cushman, Keith. “D.H. Lawrence at work: from ‘Vin Ordinaire’ to ‘The Thorn in the Flesh’.” Journal of Modern Literature 5.1 (February 1976): 46-58. Print.

---. D.H. Lawrence at Work – The Emergence of the Prussian Officer Stories. Hassocks: Harvester Press, 1978. Print.

Davies, Rosemary. “From Heat to Radiance: D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Prussian Officer’.” Studies in Short Fiction 21 (1984): 269-271. Print.

De Certeau, Michel. “Marches dans la ville.” L’invention du quotidien. 1. L’art de faire. Paris: Gallimard, 1980. 139-164. Print.

Kearney, Martin F. Major Short Stories of D.H. Lawrence – A Handbook. New York and London: Garland, 1998. Print.

Kinkead-Weekes, Mark. D.H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912-1922. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

Lawrence, D.H. “The Prussian Officer.” The Prussian Officer and Other Stories. Ed. John Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1983. 1-21. Print.

---. “The Thorn in the Flesh.” The Prussian Officer and Other Stories. Ed. John Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1983. 22-39. Print.

Le Breton, David. Eloge de la Marche. Paris: Métailié essais, 2000. Print.

Schorer, Marc. Introduction. Poste Restante: A D. H. Lawrence Travel Calendar. Ed. Harry T. Moore. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1956. 1-18. Print.

Tibi, Pierre. “La Nouvelle : Essai de Compréhension d’un Genre.” Cahiers de l’Université de Perpignan 18 (1995): 9-78. Print.

Widmer, Kingsley. The Art of Perversity, D.H. Lawrence’s shorter fictions. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1962. Print.


1 See “Introduction,” Poste Restante, edited by Harry T. Moore.

2 “A markedly bounded genre.”

3 Keith Cushman makes the distinction between the “social man” and the “private man” in his analysis of “The Thorn in the Flesh” (“From ‘Vin Ordinaire’ to ‘The Thorn in the Flesh’” 54).

4 PO will be used as the abbreviation for The Prussian Officer and Other Stories.

5 The setting has been defined by both Keith Cushman and Martin Kearney as “expressionistic” (Cushman, The Emergence of the Prussian Officer Stories 172; Kearney 123): the setting reverberates the soldiers’ emotions and own impressions.

6 “He must go, or they would overtake him” (PO 16).

7 “He fell into the water. But it gave him a bad shock, and smashed his foot on the side of the moat” (PO 33).

8 "La marche affirme, suspecte, hasarde, transgresse, respecte, etc. les trajectoires qu’elle ‘parle.’ Toutes les modalités y jouent, changeantes de pas en pas, et réparties dans des proportions, en des successions et avec des intensités qui varient selon les moments, les parcours, les marcheurs." (150)

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Elise Brault-Dreux, « From Marching to Walking: Transgressing in "The Prussian Officer" and "The Thorn in the Flesh" », Journal of the Short Story in English, 68 | 2017, 23-39.

Référence électronique

Elise Brault-Dreux, « From Marching to Walking: Transgressing in "The Prussian Officer" and "The Thorn in the Flesh" », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 68 | Spring 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2019, consulté le 21 août 2019. URL :


Elise Brault-Dreux

Elise Brault-Dreux is Maître de Conférences at the University of Valenciennes in France. She has published several articles on the work of T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and, especially, D.H. Lawrence, in Etudes Lawrenciennes, The D.H. Lawrence Review, Etudes britanniques contemporaines, etc. She is the author of a book on D.H. Lawrence’s poetry: Le “Je” et ses masques dans la poésie de D.H. Lawrence (Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2014).

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