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Redefining borders as structures of resistance: modernist experiments

A Reluctant Awakening: Transgression and the Sleeping Beauty Motif in D.H. Lawrence's "The Thimble"

Maria Casado Villanueva
p. 81-97


Cette étude prend pour objet l’une des nouvelles de Lawrence les moins présentes dans les anthologies, “The Thimble” (1915), qui illustre différents schémas de transgression récurrents dans l’ensemble de son œuvre. En envisageant la nouvelle en tant que réécriture du conte de fée classique de « la Belle au Bois Dormant, » un motif fréquent dans les œuvres postérieures, notre approche souligne les mérites de cette nouvelle souvent réduite par les critiques et par l’auteur lui-même au rang d’ébauche de la nouvelle plus tardive The Ladybird.
S’appuyant sur des interprétations psychanalytiques et mythologiques du conte de fée, cet article examine comment le motif de la Belle au Bois Dormant se déploie dès lors dans “The Thimble” afin de symboliser une évolution du sommeil spirituel vers une prise de conscience existentielle qui s’énonce dans plusieurs récits lawrenciens postérieurs. De ce point de vue, la notion de transgression, l’une des fonctions du conte identifiées par Vladimir Propp dans son ouvrage fondateur sur les contes folkloriques (1928), se révèle également cruciale au niveau de la progression de l’intrigue dans la nouvelle de Lawrence. Dans « la Belle au Bois Dormant, » la curiosité et la désobéissance qui en découle sont nécessaires pour qu’un changement s’opère ; dans “The Thimble,” Mrs Hepburn inverse une telle progression et se montre peu disposée à transcender son sens narcissique d’autosuffisance. Le dé à coudre émerge en tant que symbole primordial de ses efforts pour se protéger de toute intrusion de son intimité, intrusion qui se révèle essentielle pour vouer sa vie à un engagement émotionnel sincère.
Enfin, l’étude explore comment, grâce au dialogue intertextuel établi avec « la Belle au Bois Dormant, » “The Thimble” transgresse les frontières du genre. Lawrence associe les caractéristiques de la nouvelle moderniste à la richesse symbolique du conte de fée conférant ainsi au récit une texture propre. Ainsi, “The Thimble” peut être lu en tant que conte de fée moderne qui répond à l’ambition mythopoétique de l’auteur de créer un corpus de récits archétypes pour le vingtième siècle.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

David Herbert Lawrence

Texte intégral

  • 1 This article is based on research made for my doctoral thesis “Enchanting and Disenchanted Narrativ (...)

1Lawrence’s short stories reflect his intricate (and ever-evolving) ideas on interpersonal relationships and on the tensions between man, society and nature.1 Often, the treatment of such conflicts relies on the evocation of fairy tale plots and characters, as well as elements of the fantastic. The use of mythical and fairy tale patterns becomes consistent from the publication of England my England in 1922 onwards (Cushman 30) and culminates in his later narratives in what has been termed Lawrence’s “fabular style” (Padhi 1985). Part of Lawrence’s literary ethos is to oppose the effects of a tendency towards idealistic romanticism which hinders the individual’s search for an authentic experience. Thus, fairy tale resonances are often accompanied by the subversion of well-known plots and symbolism through parody or transformation.

  • 2 Lawrence would write to his bibliographer, Edward McDonald: “There was a first (not very good) stor (...)

2An early example of this practice can be found in the short story “The Thimble” (1917), written in 1915 and published in The Seven Arts two years later. Lawrence would eventually rework it into the novella The Ladybird (1923), more sophisticated both in terms of plot and character development, as well as in the philosophical concepts inscribed in it. The shorter version was considered of little value by the author himself and, for a long time, it was left out of all anthologies and mostly ignored even by scholars who have specialised in Lawrence’s short narratives (see Widmer and Thornton).2

3This article is an attempt to restate the value of “The Thimble” and approaches the story as illustrative of different patterns of transgression recurrent in Lawrence’s work. First of all the story exemplifies some of the ways Lawrence’s narratives challenge the conventions of literary traditions by combining features of the modernist short story with elements of the fairy tale, since it is my view that “The Thimble” can be read as both appropriating and subverting plotlines and imagery reminiscent of “Sleeping Beauty” and other Western fairy tales. It also analyses the suitability of this practice for articulating Lawrence’s idea that transgression into the intimate space of the Other is essential to reach self-regeneration, an idea which is also recurrent in many of his later narratives. Indeed, as we shall see, in “Sleeping Beauty” curiosity and subsequent disobedience are necessary to trigger change; in “The Thimble,” Mrs. Hepburn’s fears overpower this curiosity for the Other and she is reluctant to transcend her narcissistic sense of self-sufficiency. The thimble emerges as a central symbol of her attempts to protect herself from any intrusion into the domain of her intimacy, intrusion which proves essential to grow into a life of sincere emotional commitment.

Lawrence’s transgressive uses of enchantment

  • 3 The female protagonist of “The Thimble” was conceived as a “character sketch” of his friend and wri (...)

4“The Thimble” narrates the encounter of the Hepburns, a married couple reunited after a long separation during World War I. It describes Mrs. Hepburn anxiously waiting hours in her London apartment before her husband’s return after a ten-month absence with his face disfigured by a war injury. The story renders her evolution from a life governed by the cult of physical beauty to an acceptance of the inconsistencies and shadows of the human condition.3 This process evokes motifs of the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” while also possessing undertones of “Beauty and the Beast.” The extent to which fairy tale subtexts were consciously used in “The Thimble” is difficult to determine; however, the themes of sleep and awakening emerge as articulating allegories for the denouement of the story, and the thimble seems to create a contrast with the motif of the pricked finger of “Sleeping Beauty.”

5It has recently been argued that the story can be read as an “anti-romance” which satirizes the convention of romance literature while, to a certain extent, also articulating the wartime ideology embraced by the genre (Iwai par. 9). A similar ambivalence applies to its relation with the fairy tale. The deployment of fairy tale structures and symbolism combines with a critical attitude towards some of the values that inform these narratives. The process of fairy tale literarization has often emphasized a conservative vision of romance and obscured mythical and social meanings ingrained in older versions of the narratives (Warner 169). Resulting from these embellishing transformations, many tales offer a conformist, cliché-ridden understanding of human relations which is at odds with Lawrence’s complex appraisal of what the union of men and women should be. At the time of writing “The Thimble,” Lawrence seems to endorse the idea of an equalized commitment: the perfect union between man and woman requires mutual transgression into the other’s soul.

6Nevertheless, since many of Lawrence’s narratives are accounts of epiphanic awakenings rendered through an allegorical enactment of the myth of resurrection, the plot and imagery of “Sleeping Beauty” become central in a number of them. Through this motif, Lawrence also explores those dimensions of transgression which bring about individual and social change. Often, characters need to transcend their own fears and limitations or the social conventions that suffocate them in order to free themselves. Like in “The Thimble,” the encounter with the other, namely the other sex, always emerges as a necessary catalyst for such a change. Paralyzed characters, often described as “spellbound,” can only be freed through spiritual communion with that other. In some cases, however, this development is thwarted, suspended or leads to ambiguous resolutions where the ideas of love and regeneration are closely linked to notions of suffering and death.

  • 4 See Vickery, Cowan and MacDonald.

7In “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter” (1922), for example, only love can lead Dr. Fergusson out of the dream-like state of aboulia that weighs him down. The process requires of him to step into deadly waters to be reborn and accept the darker dimensions of human nature. “The Princess” has also been regarded as a parodic refashioning of “Sleeping Beauty” exemplifying the protagonist’s inability to overcome her strait-laced upbringing and awaken to sexual desire.4 The motif is also deployed with great irony in “The Lovely Lady,” where Cecilia transgresses the limits of the ethical to rescue her sleepy cousin from his wicked mother’s spell-like influence. It also recurs in longer narratives: already in his 1912 novel The Trespasser, the character Helena is referred to as one of those “dreaming women” whose desire “was accomplished by a real kiss” (23). The novella St. Mawr (1925) has been analysed as illustrative of “The Sleeping Beauty example apologue” (Trebisz 59-61) and “an inversion of the tale of the enchanted princess who awakens only with the kiss of a prince” (Barker 76). Similarly, the basic structure of The Fox (1922) has been read as a re-elaboration of the same tale (Wolkenfeld 375).

  • 5 In a letter to Blanche Jennings Lawrence refers to Jacob Grimm as a “pal of [his]” (Collected Lette (...)

8“Sleeping Beauty” is a narrative of ancient origins mostly known through the literary versions of Charles Perrault (1697) and the Brothers Grimm (1812-15), and Lawrence probably became familiar with it through his childhood readings (Farr 195).5 In the most popular accounts of the tale, a princess, not heeding her parents’ advice, pricks her finger with a distaff and sleeps a one hundred-year sleep until Prince Charming wakes her up with a kiss or, in Perrault’s chaste version, with his sole presence. Although the linearity of “Sleeping Beauty’s” basic plot is distorted and its symbolism transformed in “The Thimble,” a number of elements in Lawrence’s story still recall this well-known tale. “Sleeping Beauty” has been regarded, among other things, as the story of an “interruption in time” (Goldberg 476), a long period of slumber which marks a transformative transition in the protagonist’s life. In “The Thimble,” a period of lethargy is also presented as a turning point in the narrative and the descriptions (sometimes ironic) of this interval abound in fairy tale imagery. During the months previous to the encounter with her husband, Mrs. Hepburn was physically immobile and confined to bed since she fell seriously ill with pneumonia. She spent her illness and convalescence in her bedroom in a castle in Scotland far from the social turmoil of her London life and had “thought, thought very much.” This period of introspection “lay between her and her previous life like a dark night, like a great separation” (“The Thimble” 191).

9The image of the lady lying in the room of a remote castle in the far north of the country resonates with fairy tale allusions and the distance and isolation evoke the briar-thicket which surrounded Sleeping Beauty’s palace during her century-long seclusion. Psychoanalytic readings of this fairy tale associate the protagonist’s slumber with a phase of introversion necessary for personal growth. Indeed, Bruno Bettelheim interprets this period as a seemingly passive “turning inward” essential for psychological development. The intensity of the “mental processes” taking place at this stage deprives the person of the energy required for external action, and gives the false impression of them “sleeping [their] life away” (225).

10This also seems to be the case for Mrs. Hepburn. The insights gained during her retreat make her aware of the meaninglessness of her previous life. The catalyst for such realization is the war breaking out and, as an epitome of the destruction that it brings about, the wound which results in the disfiguration of her husband’s face. Mrs. Hepburn had married him shortly before he was called up for duty, fascinated by his appearance and distant allure, but the shallowness of their relationship is emphasized by the fact that she still thinks about him as Mr. Hepburn.

11Her first name is never mentioned either and social roles emerge as essential for her self-perception. Her life has the quality of a ritualized performance: “she knew it was expected of her that she should create an impression of modern beauty” and she shows a growing dissatisfaction with a part which “at the bottom […] bored her” (“The Thimble” 192). A sense of amusement is derived from looking at her own life in terms of fairy tale romance but she regards the role she plays with cynical distance. Normally “She was always humorously ironical when she found herself in these romantic situations” (192). Looking at her own reflection while being helped to get dressed for her husband, she painfully realizes how unprepared she is for the part she will need to play this time. The reality of war, the disfiguring accident and her own illness have shattered the fragile balance of her illusory existence, allowing a glimpse into the frightening unknown:

Suddenly she realized that she knew nothing of the man she had married, he knew nothing of her. What she had of him, vividly, was the visual image. She could see him, the whole of him, in her mind’s eye. She could remember him with peculiar distinctness, as if the whole of his body were lit up by an intense light, and the image fixed on her mind.
But he was an impression, only a vivid impression. What her own impression was, she knew most vividly. But what
he was himself: the very thought startled her, it was like looking into a perilous darkness. All that she knew of him was her own affair, purely personal to her, a subjective impression. But there must be a man, another being, somewhere in the darkness which she had never broached. (191, emphasis in the original)

12Unable to “conjure up” again the glossy memory of her husband, Mrs. Hepburn’s gained awareness of the superficiality of her remembrances is described in terms which remind the reader of a broken spell: she has a “visual image […] fixed on her mind,” nothing but a “subjective impression.” The immobile representation of Mr. Hepburn echoes the characters of Sleeping Beauty’s entourage, frozen in time with their princess. Thus, the mere notion of a real person emerging in all his darkness is terrifying and annihilating for, like a mirror cracking in front of her, it is “something that would annul her own image of herself” (191). She had built that image upon an illusion of complete independence from everything and everyone, of “utter self-responsibility” (191) which had shielded her from true emotional commitment like an enchantment. Mrs. Hepburn’s considerations at this point are a prelude to the awakening which must ensue from the imminent encounter: she will have to transgress the boundaries of her sense of restrained self-sufficiency and be prepared to let her husband trespass on her well-kept private domain.

13Significantly, Vladimir Propp, in his seminal structuralist analysis of folk tales, mentions transgression (or violation) as a function working as a catalyst for plot development (27-28). The effects of transgression in these narratives are paradoxical: On the one hand, they may have a “normative function” when resulting in “punishment and rehabilitation,” thus asserting social conventions and practices. On the other hand, transgression may also lead to social transformation and the recognition of alternative “modes of behavior” (Stephens 985).

14In fairy tales, we find many instances of female characters facing socially enforced prohibitions aimed at curtailing their sexuality at the inception of womanhood, as is the case of “Sleeping Beauty,” where the interdiction is related to the motif of the Forbidden Chamber, present in those tales where a female protagonist is allowed to explore her surroundings freely with the exception of a specifically prohibited room. This motif is evidence of the ambivalent nature of transgression: such proscription is inexorably not respected and often brings about a form of misfortune combined with some frightful or awe-inspiring revelation. Related to the notions of “curiosity, cunning and confinement,” the forbidden room “represents the symbolic locus of knowledge that threatens to destabilize authority. This knowledge is often sexual in nature, and always transgressive” (Conrad 371).

15Both in Perrault and the Grimms’ versions of “Sleeping Beauty,” the protagonist felt the urge to explore an unknown wing of the castle despite her parents’ attempts to protect her, and the search leads her to prick her finger with the distaff. Such development towards sexual knowledge is interrupted by the curse which keeps her asleep, and reinitiated with the intrusion of another character in the domain of the princess’s intimacy, the prince who kisses her.

16In “The Thimble,” transgression is also key to the characters’ personal development. Mrs. Hepburn, aware of the fears which paralyze her, knows she will have to step beyond the limits of her conventional existence, face her disfigured husband, dare to explore her intimate feelings towards him, and let him step into her life even if this destroys her deceptive impression of independence. However, in this story, the confinement preceded the search, and Mrs. Hepburn’s pursuit in the anxious minutes before the encounter, although redolent of sexual meaning, possesses radically different connotations, as we shall see. While she sits apprehensively on the sofa “nervously, yet quite calm, almost static” and “in a sort of after death” (“The Thimble” 93-4), her fingers unconsciously dig between the cushions.

17Bettelheim underlines how Sleeping Beauty’s search, her expedition into the unknown, is rich in “Freudian symbolism” (Bettelheim 232). In the Brothers Grimm’s version, the girl, “after climbing up a narrow, winding staircase in the tower, [...] ended up in front of a little door with a rusty old key in its lock. As she turned the key, the door burst open to reveal a tiny little room, in which an old woman was sitting with her spindle, busily spinning flax” (Grimm 163). The vertical movement up the stairs towards the tower, the key penetrating the keyhole and the distaff pricking the flesh all have phallic associations. The sexual coming of age and the loss of virginity are both suggested by the bleeding.

18Lawrence’s description of Mrs. Hepburn’s actions while waiting for her husband, far from evoking sexual intercourse, points at female sexual self-exploration during her search:

Her hands began to move slowly backwards and forwards on the sofa bed, slowly, as if the friction of the silk gave her some ease […] her right hand came to the end of the sofa and pressed a little into the crack, the meeting between the arm and the sofa bed. Her long white fingers pressed into the fissure, pressed and entered rhythmically, pressed and pressed further and further into the tight depths of the fissure, between the silken, firm upholstery of the old sofa, whilst her mind was in a trance of suspense (“The Thimble” 194).

19Abbie Garrington’s study on touch and the tactile in modernism conceives the haptic as a typically modernist mode of perception, and one which allows to articulate tangentially implicit meanings. Specifically, she reads Lawrence’s representation of touch as a “corrective to what the author views as a specious valorisation of the visual sense” (156). In the contact between skin and cloth (and later the metal of the thimble she discovers), Mrs. Hepburn seems to find a reassuring fastness at a moment when her impressions of reality, the aforementioned “visual image[s]” of her mind, are crumbling. Nevertheless, this substitute of human contact does nothing but sink her again into spiritual slumber. The development of the Sleeping Beauty plot is thus subverted since this exploration represents a further retreat into dreamy contemplation.

20In this search, the symbolism of “Sleeping Beauty” is reversed, the upward movement being replaced by Mrs. Hepburn’s downward dive into the depths of the sofa. The crack in the sofa, far from being phallic, is a symbol of the feminine. Although masturbation, as a form of rebellion against a socially imposed heterosexual-reproductive regime, could be interpreted as transgressive, in this context it appears to be portrayed as a desperate attempt on the part of the protagonist to maintain her illusion of autonomy threatened by the arrival of her husband. Her sexual desire is outbound yet fruitless. This seems to be the view that Lawrence endorses in Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922), where this form of self-pleasure is deemed futile and even pernicious, in contrast with genuine intimate intercourse. “The great danger of masturbation lies in its merely exhaustive nature,” Lawrence writes. In absence of the reciprocal “give and take” involved in the sexual encounter, masturbation results only in “loss.” Energy is released but not returned, and the unchanged body remains “a corpse.” The heterosexual relationship may be mutually destructive, says Lawrence, but this outcome is preferable to the “null effect of masturbation” (119).

21Bettelheim explains in similar terms the tendency to recoil from potentially harmful experiences as presented in “Sleeping Beauty”: “Narcissistic withdrawal is a tempting reaction”; “but, the story warns, it leads to a dangerous, deathlike existence” if assumed as a form of escapism. This is the symbolic warning he reads behind the sleeping spell cast over everyone surrounding the princess, for “the world becomes alive only to the person who herself awakens to it” (234).

22What Mrs. Hepburn encounters at the end of her descent is a thimble, an object conceived of precisely to shield the finger from being pricked by a needle. The phallic symbolism of the distaff in “Sleeping Beauty” is substituted by the feminine concavity of the object in question. Lawrence’s condemnation of this narcissistic attitude is further developed through the scornful treatment of Mrs. Hepburn’s indulging reverie: through the contemplation of the thimble, Mrs. Hepburn falls deeper in a dream of decadent sentimentalism. Once again, in the same way she fell in love with her husband, she is dashed by the object’s appearance, even if its authenticity is dubious. The thimble, an obvious symbol of “separation-producing superficiality” (Steven 244), further represents the convention of romantic love, within which Mrs. Hepburn relapses to avoid facing a harsher but genuine experience. Thus, she fantasizes about the aristocratic “bygone woman” who had worn the thimble and, on seeing the old date engraved on it, she “trembled with the thought of [an] old romance” (“The Thimble” 195).

Into the unknown and beyond mortality

23In “The Thimble,” the couple’s encounter progresses from awkward small talk to physical contact and is described in terms of an evolution from slumber to awakening. In line with the vindication of physicality that Garrington’s study foregrounded, the act of joining hands (like the kiss in “Sleeping Beauty”) has a regenerative power, and the scene culminates with an image of revival.

24Initially, the presence of Mr. Hepburn accentuates his wife’s existential disorientation and she keeps burnishing the thimble as if attempting to invoke the genie of an idealized past. At the sight of his wound, she loses grip on reality. She becomes aware of the conventionality of language itself, which emerges as distorted, “disfigured” like the mouth that produces it, and as a precarious substitute of real experience (“The Thimble” 196). A torpor envelops her like a placenta, an image coherent with her previous attempts to journey back into the womb. Simultaneously, she feels spurred by the need to be, like a baby, delivered into the world: “All she was, was purely accidental. […] She was sick in the thin, transparent membrane of her sleep, her overlying dream-consciousness, something actual but too unreal.” (195-6).

25Unlike Prince Charming, Mr. Hepburn also needs to be rescued, and he demands of his wife to get over her trance-like state. Awakening ensues: “She lowered her eyelids, and for a second she sat erect like a mask, with closed eyes, whilst a spasm of pure unconsciousness passed over her. It departed again, and she opened her eyes. She was awake” (197). Bettelheim explains that in “Sleeping Beauty” “the spell of narcissism” is broken by the kiss, which awakens the “undeveloped womanhood” of the princess. The maiden needs to become a woman for life to continue (234). Similarly, Mr. Hepburn states that both he and his wife are “helpless babies” who should respectively grow into a “man” and a “woman” (“The Thimble” 199) but the thimble still stands in the way of their development as a symbol of restrictive conventionality. Mrs. Hepburn agrees to hand it to her husband when he asks for it in a scene sarcastically evocative of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1911). Wendy, awkwardly gives Peter a thimble instead of a kiss when she realizes that he, the eternal child, is not ready to comprehend the meaning of love:

“Surely you know what a kiss is?” [Wendy] asked, aghast.
“I shall know when you give it to me,” [Peter] replied stiffly, and not to hurt his feeling she gave him a thimble. (32)

26Mr. Hepburn will finally throw the thimble through the window, a gesture which signals his ultimate refusal to submit to an existence based on mere convention.

27The scene of the encounter between beautiful Mrs. Hepburn and her deformed husband also echoes the literary fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” published by Mme Leprince Beaumont in 1756. Significantly, Maria Tatar has reflected on the filmic versions of this tale produced after World War II in these terms: “[it] became a kind of foundational story, a point of departure for thinking about courtship and romance for a generation healing itself from the wounds of war” (90). “Beauty and the Beast” provided a darker version of Prince Charming and articulated female fear in face of the unknown sexual other at a time when the love and marriage models offered by other classical fairy tales were no longer valid. This happened in a context when, like in “The Thimble,” marital crises were common, women had often married men they hardly knew, and many returned soldiers were transformed by the trauma of their experiences.

28Furthermore, the personal drama playing against the backdrop of World War I enlarges “The Thimble’s” significance. Jae-Kyung Koh’s study on Lawrence and the war highlights the author’s capacity to put “the colossal horror of the war” into a wider and more constructive context. He regards it as an unavoidable part of an infinite “cycle of destruction and creation” necessary for cultural and individual evolution (18). Mr. Hepburn’s gained awareness of mortality places him in a liminal realm between life and death. He is both Beast and Prince Charming, embodying simultaneously the obscure dimension of the human condition and the power of restoring life. Disfigured, he has come back from the dead, transgressing another forbidden threshold, in search of the resurrecting power of human love to encourage his wife to see beyond appearances. Mr. Hepburn returns from his near-to-death experience with a gained knowledge about the emotional vulnerability of the human condition which needs to be acknowledged, and the strength to awaken to a new life is obtained through total commitment to the other.

  • 6 The role that Mr. Hepburn requires of his wife is also in consonance with the mythic substratum of (...)

29“Sleeping Beauty” works as a productive subtext in Lawrence’s narratives probably because the tale’s mythic and utopian message resonates more clearly, even in its literarily stylised and transformed versions, than in other tales similarly altered.6 Thus, although many critics acknowledge that a patriarchal discourse informs the most popular versions of the tale for they condemn female curiosity and assign women a passive role, Jack Zipes also states that:

“Sleeping Beauty” is not only about female and male stereotypes and male hegemony; it is also about death, our fear of death, and our wish for immortality. Sleeping Beauty is resurrected. She triumphs over death. As the eternal brier rose, she rises from the dead to love and to fulfil her desires. The rising from the dead is an uprising, an attack on the borders of mortality. After her uprising, Sleeping Beauty will know how to avoid danger and death […]. Once awakened, Sleeping Beauty is the knowing one, and we know too. (215, emphasis mine)

30The hopeful message of “The Thimble” is toned down by Mrs. Hepburn’s tentative attitude, by the earlier ironical treatment of this character and by the story’s open-endedness which is at odds with the characteristic happy ending of fairy tales. Whether the Hepburns truly manage to overcome the barriers that separate them from each other remains unclear, but the references to “Sleeping Beauty” highlight the author’s belief in the possibility of individual resurrection.

The Bounded Text Outbound: Challenging Genre Conventions7

  • 7 I have used here Julia Kristeva’s term “the bounded text,” which is also the title of her seminal 1 (...)

31It has been aptly argued that the transformation of “The Thimble” into the longer and more complex novella The Ladybird entailed a loss of the sense of personal intimacy contained in the brief story. The latter shows a more “cerebral” and “philosophic” approach to the topics discussed in a way which attempts to “universalize, and mythologize, the experience of ‘coming through’ to authentic life” (Steven 243, 252). Nevertheless, it seems also true that reading “The Thimble” as a text which interacts with the narrative of “Sleeping Beauty,” with its mythic resonances, opens it up to a more universal meaning without it losing that impression of intimacy. The re-elaborated The Ladybird is saturated with esoteric allusions and assimilated ideas from Germanic literature and philosophy (Scott 161) which obscure the references to the fairy tale and its underlying plot. The intertextual bond, which is more overt in “The Thimble,” serves the similar purpose of expanding the meaning of the text beyond the limits of realism. This is a practice which places this and many other short stories by Lawrence in an unusual position in the context of modernism.

32The modernist short story has been regarded as a response to the experience of modernity reflecting an appraisal of the self as “fragmented” and “dehumanized” (Head 8). These narratives tend to assert individual conscience and reflect its struggles to fit in a world in quick and perpetual movement. “The Thimble” shows a characteristically modernist preference to replace external action by the process of the psyche, and its plot revolves around an inner moment of crisis, which James Joyce termed “Epiphany” (211). Seen in this light, the modernist short story seems to share very little with the fairy tale, apart from its limited extension. Nevertheless, short story critics have also highlighted the intrinsic ability of short fiction to evoke its earliest origins, found in folk accounts and legends, as well as to renew seemingly basic literary material (Shaw vii, March-Russell). It has also been argued that the use of fairy tales by modernist authors goes beyond an experimental combination of genres since it can be seen as part of the active appropriation of literary tradition inherent in the modernist project (Martin 7).

33D. H. Lawrence skilfully exploits this evocative quality of the short story in his fiction and thus, what seem to be “slice of life” modernist stories driven by an interest in psychological inquiry could be read as part of a larger project to create narratives apt to encompass the experience of the modern individual on a wider scale. At a moment when many Western fairy tales had become too mingled with the conventions of popular romance, Lawrence attempts to restore their value and relevance for his contemporaries, and “The Thimble” emerges as an early and illustrative instance of this practice.


34“The Thimble” exemplifies how fairy tale references enrich the meaning of Lawrence’s stories by virtue of their evocative symbolism and the mythical meanings they encode. For Lawrence, fairy tales provide underlying archetypal plots which endow his realistic rendering of modern experience with a universal dimension. “The Thimble” can be interpreted as preluding Lawrence’s later directions towards more obvious uses of myth while articulating the author’s frame of mind without the need to resort to explicit philosophical references. Through the intertextual dialogue it establishes with “Sleeping Beauty,” this story illustrates Lawrence’s conviction that the transgression of personal and socially established boundaries is key to inner and communal development and, even if the story is inconclusive, the encounter of the sexes is presented as a transcendental experience which brings about physical and spiritual regeneration.


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1 This article is based on research made for my doctoral thesis “Enchanting and Disenchanted Narratives: Fairy Tales and Short Fiction of Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence” at the University of Santiago de Compostela.

2 Lawrence would write to his bibliographer, Edward McDonald: “There was a first (not very good) story, called ‘The Thimble,’ appeared in some out of the way American magazine —can’t remember its name—would rather like ‘The Thimble’ to disappear into oblivion —but confess to it” (Letters 5:104).

3 The female protagonist of “The Thimble” was conceived as a “character sketch” of his friend and writer Cynthia Asquith (Scott 1978, Steven 1986, Harris 1984), who went through a similar experience when her husband Herbert Beb Asquith returned from the war with a wounded face. Peter Balbert, in his exploration of the network of biographical references which inform Lawrence’s The Ladybird, points at the fact that Lady Asquith is often portrayed as the “prototypical dreaming and beautiful woman, mired in an unfulfilling and disturbingly ‘modern’ sex life that receives Lawrence’s full measure of scorn for its essential lack of passion” (Balbert 128). This is also true for the fictionalized Mrs. Hepburn. Nevertheless, whereas Cynthia “tolerantly accept[ed]” her portrayal in “The Thimble,” she refused to recognize herself in the main character of The Ladybird, where sexual references become more explicit and the plot revolves around the extramarital romance between Daphne and Count Psanek (129).

4 See Vickery, Cowan and MacDonald.

5 In a letter to Blanche Jennings Lawrence refers to Jacob Grimm as a “pal of [his]” (Collected Letters 53).

6 The role that Mr. Hepburn requires of his wife is also in consonance with the mythic substratum of “Beauty and the Beast,” concealed in the better known literary and filmic accounts. Christina Bacchilega underlines Beauty’s virtue and determination as the qualities which allow her to change the beast into a person: “Ancient and clearly related to our ability to produce new life, this belief in women’s transformative power has been reduced within patriarchal ideology to the popular ‘kiss a frog’ motif,” she writes (78).

7 I have used here Julia Kristeva’s term “the bounded text,” which is also the title of her seminal 1966 article on intertextuality.

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Maria Casado Villanueva, « A Reluctant Awakening: Transgression and the Sleeping Beauty Motif in D.H. Lawrence's "The Thimble" », Journal of the Short Story in English, 68 | 2017, 81-97.

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Maria Casado Villanueva, « A Reluctant Awakening: Transgression and the Sleeping Beauty Motif in D.H. Lawrence's "The Thimble" », 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 :


Maria Casado Villanueva

Maria Casado Villanueva is Associate Professor at the University College of South East Norway. Her research has focused on the short fiction of Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence, and the interplay between fairy tales and the modernist short story.

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