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The Flowing of Emotion. Sentiment and Ressentiment in The Trespasser

Olga Desiderio
p. 255-280

Texte intégral

  • 1 Colin Milton 231.

What ultimately determines the shape of our lives
is the flow of feelings, because our feelings are
instinctive judgements of what is useful and harmful
for us at particular stages of our growth, and originate
with those urges that currently dominate us.1

1According to Colin Milton, Lawrence and Nietzsche share the same idea of the self, conceived as a complex organism made up of a community of impulses, hierarchically disposed, whose basic features are dynamism and fluidity. The lack of stability within the human being determines a constant shift of values, which are governed and conditioned by the emotions, and are thus subjected to what he refers to as a “flow of feelings.” It follows that values and morality are related to the person, and develop and vary according to the changes in the individual at the emotional level. Therefore, Nietzsche’s relativistic view of morality shows a close similarity to Lawrence’s own conception of moral judgements as subjective and changeable views, which vary according to the persons and the circumstances, since both oppose the universal moral code imposed by Christianity.

  • 2 As Jessie Chambers reports, Lawrence started reading Nietzsche during his Croydon years. Cfr. Jessi (...)

2With the intent of highlighting Nietzsche’s legacy in D. H. Lawrence, especially regarding the question of morality, this paper aims at demonstrating the philosopher’s influence in Lawrence’s second novel by exploring a range of concepts, such as ressentiment, sense of guilt and bad conscience, borrowed from Nietzsche.2 What I propose here is a reading of The Trespasser in the light of Nietzschean philosophy, in which I analyse the concepts of ressentiment and bad conscience to explain the protean and fluctuating nature of the protagonists. I will particularly focus on Siegmund’s behaviour, in order to demonstrate that his final defeat, epitomised by his suicide, is a consequence of the transformation of his feelings into a negative sentiment, caused by the external repression of his instincts.

3Siegmund can thus be considered a victim of the tyranny exerted by a moralizing society, which hides behind the mask of a modern civilisation and aims at suppressing the individual’s creativity, making him a conformist and an undifferentiated being. All this takes a symbolic form in the novel, because, as I shall argue, social repression is embodied in the figure of Helena, who, playing the role of a spiritual feminine other, becomes an obstacle to their love relationship and causes Siegmund’s destruction.

Negative emotions

4In “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Lawrence maintains that real emotions, which he refers to as “higher emotions,” have been destroyed, since the individual forces himself to feel only those sentiments he is allowed to feel:

And by higher emotions we mean love in all its manifestations, from genuine desire to tender love, love of our fellow-men, and love of God: we mean love, joy, delight, hope, true indignant anger, passionate sense of justice and injustice, truth and untruth, honour and dishonour, and real belief in anything: for belief is a profound emotion that has the mind’s connivance. All these things today, are more or less dead. We have in their place the loud and sentimental counterfeit of all such emotion. (APLCL 312)

5The false emotions, which Lawrence talks about, are mental emotions, those upon which reason has imposed its control, and that have been deprived of their vitality. In “The Novel and the Feelings,” the separation between logic and emotion is once more emphasized, and the latter is seen as the manifestation of the dark continent that human beings have within themselves without being conscious of it (NF 205). However, it is from this hidden and repressed part of our soul that life springs, although man tends to hide this unknown side of his being. This attempt to suppress one’s source of vitality is due to man’s desire to tame himself, under the pressure of civilization, which imposes the denial of authentic feelings. All this leads man to insanity, since repression makes him degenerate like an enslaved animal.

6From the very beginning of his literary career, Lawrence showed signs of rebellion, or better, a reaction against a very repressive morality, which had been the basis of the education he had received as a boy. However, by the time he published The Trespasser, he was not completely free from the heavy inheritance of a post-Victorian society. A common feature of the early novels is, in fact, the ambivalent attitude the writer shows towards Victorian moralism. This is the result of a profoundly lacerated conscience, still divided between the respect for traditional ideals and an anxiety of renewal. Consequently, it is possible to distinguish in these early works some echoes of Nietzsche’s thought, which will constitute a solid influence throughout his œuvre.

7Lawrence’s attack on morality is especially directed towards Christianity, which, being accused of exerting a destructive power on the individuals’ consciousness is made responsible for a deformation of the instincts. The writer embraces Nietzsche’s opinion, according to which natural urges are not negative, but represent a creative power, something that is necessary to the fulfilment and harmony of the human being. The German philosopher sees, in the two aesthetic categories of apollonian and dionysian, the two essential ingredients of art, respectively the rational and the instinctive. For him, Greek tragedy, in which the perfect balance of the two elements is realised in a harmonic union, represents artistic creation par excellence. Nietzsche contrasts these men with his contemporaries, led to an extreme spirituality and forced to live an ascetic existence, with the fear of a life beyond death. Modern man has been tamed by the Christian religion, which, in order to find an explanation for the evils that afflict the world, has introduced the concept of sin, thus forcing him to a self-crucifixion and the humiliation of his own body, in the hope of reaching eternal redemption.

8Both Lawrence and Nietzsche agree on the definition of man as a repressed and corrupted creature. Thus the writer’s affirmation that instincts have been tamed and diverted in the great majority of modern men echoes the philosopher’s idea that man needs to free himself from what he calls the “morality of mores,” so that he may become a “sovereign individual, like only to himself, liberated again from the morality of custom, autonomous and supramoral (for ‘autonomous’ and ‘moral’ are mutually exclusive)” (GM 59).

  • 3 Schneider 120.
  • 4 Ibid.

9This definition suits Siegmund’s personality, as it is upon his great effort to achieve a creative individuality, like the Nietzschean Übermensch, that the novel is based. But he is unable to reach this ideal condition in the end. As Daniel J. Schneider claims, in The Trespasser, Lawrence “accepts the Nietzschean idea that the male fiercely desires to strive ‘beyond himself,’ to become a heroic soul, proud and brave in his manhood, able to act independently against public opinion and conventions.”3 However, the plot, which has its epilogue in the protagonist’s suicide, shows, on the contrary, the hero’s defeat, since “failure to follow this creative, purposive prompting entails psychic destruction; the inability to resist conventional opinion results in psychic death.”4

10The repression of emotions is the result of a stiffened spirituality that degenerates into mere asceticism; this implies the turning inwards of the instincts that cannot find an outlet. In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche defines this process as the“internalization of man”:

Those fearful bulwarks with which the political organization protected itself against the old feeling of freedom – punishment belongs among these bulwarks – brought about that all those instincts of wild, free, prowling man turned back against man himself. Hostility, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction – all this turned against the possessors of such instincts: that is the origin of the “bad conscience” (GM 85).

11Nietzsche underlines the metamorphosis that man underwent, when he was compelled to devalue and repress his instincts, in order to adapt himself to the laws of society, and considers this change as the origin of the “serious illness” that affects the human being (GM 84). Similarly, Lawrence emphasizes the destructive power of the process of civilisation, as it denies feelings in order to subdue man’s original wildness. This correspondence between the two writers is the starting point for undertaking a Nietzschean reading of The Trespasser, to show that the repression of feelings results in their degeneration, as they are transformed into negative sentiments, such as hate, revenge and ressentiment.

12The male protagonist in the novel is a man whose instincts have been denied. As a consequence, he is involved in the process of “internalization” that arouses in him the sentiment of bad conscience, the expression used by Nietzsche to indicate a guilty conscience. It is a long and gradual process which develops through the whole novel, its different phases coinciding with the mutations of the psyche that the characters undergo. Nietzsche ascribes the invention of bad conscience to the man of ressentiment, a sick and frail man who embodies the triumph of reactive forces and is set in contrast to “the active, aggressive, arrogant man,” who “is still a hundred steps closer to justice than the reactive man” and who “has in fact also had at all times a freer eye, a better conscience on his side” (GM 75). He is a suffering man, who is unable to find the real cause of his sorrows; therefore, he is led by an ascetic religion to search for them in himself and to consider them as a punishment for something he has done. This is how Nietzsche explains the origin of bad conscience.

Fluidity and stability

  • 5 Schneider 75.

13The sense of guilt, which leads Siegmund to commit suicide, is the result of the repression of instincts through a degenerate spirituality. To explain how the development of this feeling is presented in the novel, we will start with the analysis of the two protagonists, Siegmund and Helena, and of their troubled adulterous love affair. The novel was conceived with the intent of showing how the relationship between a man and a woman may result in destruction instead of fulfilment. According to Lawrence, the healthy sexual union represents a state which oscillates between the merging of the two beings into a complementary oneness, which implies the death of the self, and the instinct of separation in order to assert one’s individuality. To maintain harmony within the couple, these two aspects must be perfectly balanced, otherwise, as Schneider points out, “The natural rhythm of flowing together and apart is broken, and the terrible rhythm of ‘action and reaction’– from one extreme to the opposite (submission to tyranny) – results.”5

14In Study of Thomas Hardy, published after The Trespasser, Lawrence develops a conception of life based on the existence of two complementary aspects, the Will-to-Motion and the Will-to-Inertia, which he associates respectively with the male and the female principles. He states that woman, thanks to the static quality that characterizes her, gives man a sense of stability, as she represents a pivot around which he revolves. He would lose his balance if she were not there, and would even deny his existence if he were not sure of her permanent presence by his side. Woman is thus indispensable to give centrality to the movement that characterizes man and, conversely, the static principle inherent in her must be converted into motion, and this is possible thanks to man. Hence, the woman’s presence is important to the completion of man and vice versa, as neither principle can exist without its counterpart:

And these are the qualities man feels in a woman, as a principle. Let a man walk alone on the face of the earth, and he feels himself like a loose speck blown at random. Let him have a woman to whom he belongs, and he will feel as though he had a wall to back up against; even though the woman be mentally a fool. No man can endure the sense of space, of chaos, on four sides of himself. It drives him mad. He must be able to put his back to the wall. And this wall is the woman. (STH 58)

15It is likely that traces of a similar conception were already in Lawrence’s mind while he was writing The Trespasser, as it finds expression in Siegmund’s need for Helena and his fear of losing her. However, in the novel the obstacle to this ideal love relationship is represented by the absence of dynamism that undermines the balance within the couple, since Siegmund and Helena both appear essentially as two static beings, kept out of the eternal becoming of the universe. Nevertheless, their static condition, presented here as a spiritual and physical sclerosis that impedes the osmotic flow between them, is counterbalanced by the instability of their characters and the frequent changes in their psyche, which find an objective correlative in the rhythmical structure of the text and the fluidity of the narration, conveyed through the frequent use of water imagery.

16At the beginning of the book, we perceive a sensation of fluidity in the description of regular rhythmical movements, hinting at the rhythm of dance and music, as well as the flowing of the waves. The candle flames, with their waving motion, seem to dance to the rhythm of music; Helena’s dress oscillates in accordance with the notes coming out from her violin, and her sleeve follows the movements of the bow as she plays. Even the furniture in the room has a “transitory look […] all seemed uneasy, as if they might be tossed out to leave the room clear, with its green floor and walls, and its white rim of skirting-board, serene” (Tr 6). Furthermore, the use of motion verbs like “swing,” “float” and “flutter” strengthens the dynamic quality of the scene, which is contrasted with the figure of the girl, who seems to be motionless, looking out of the window at the frantic life in the street, a “vulgar storm of life [that] seemed shut out of Helena’s room, which remained indifferent, like a church” (Tr 8). The sense of apparent fluidity that pervades this scene represents an ideal frame for giving more relief to Helena’s rigidity. As Lawrence stresses, Helena’s way of playing the violin is mechanical; music comes out of the instrument as if it were broken, “lifeless, very hurting to hear,” deprived of its natural fluidity (Tr 6). There is something mechanical in Helena’s gestures: her body, in the act of playing, is compared to “the white stroke of a metronome” (Tr 6), to highlight the peculiarity of her movements, deprived of both naturalness and vitality, as if she moved by inertia.

17Notwithstanding the frequent use of dynamic images, clearly referring to the concept of becoming, an inheritance of both Nietzsche and Heraclitus, what Lawrence really wants to emphasise in this first chapter is the apathy that characterizes Helena. This feature is reflected in the absence of vitality in the inner space of the room, a sort of microcosm, wherein Helena is enclosed. Thus in the incipit of the novel the dual scheme it is based on is already delineated; in fact, as soon as the narration begins, we find an example of the opposition of motion and rest, a theme that is reiterated throughout the novel.

18As a matter of fact, the dialectical philosophy of Nietzschean inspiration is a central feature of Lawrence’s thinking, which he develops in his later works, especially in the essays; it is thus possible to say that The Trespasser, like the other early novels, contains in nuce many themes that the writer explores later in his major works. Lawrence thought of living existence as based on the balance of opposites, for instance: the strong and the weak, the masculine and the feminine, the body and the soul; all forces in nature must be balanced, so that to every action corresponds a reaction, if by reaction we mean an action which is re-acted, that is acted again. However, as it is clear after reading Nietzsche, reactive forces are given a negative meaning, since they are considered merely as non-action, that is passive forces. Hence, Helena’s apparent motionlessness in the first scene can be interpreted as a reaction to what has happened to her, to all her pains and sorrows which come to mind through remembrance.

19According to the etymology of the term, ressentiment is something that is felt again, so, it denotes a returning emotion. Nietzsche underlines the reactive nature of this feeling and identifies the awareness of mnestic traces with the source of the hatred that arises in the man of ressentiment, as a reaction to compensate the inability to free himself from remembrance. The Trespasser provides an excellent illustration of reminiscence of past events, since its circular temporal structure permits a fluctuation between past and present. The novel starts in the present, when Siegmund is already deceased. In the opening chapter, Helena seems to be living in the remembrance of her lover, a condition which entails her renunciation to life. Byrne, the other male character that appears in the novel, makes her notice the “passive existence” she has been living since the death of her lover, comparing her with a leafless tree in wintertime that needs the coming of spring to blossom to a new life (Tr 9). Nevertheless, Helena feels as if she had died with Siegmund, and shows no intention of flourishing again: “But I am not a bare tree. All my dead leaves, they hang to me – and – and go through a kind of danse macabre –” (Tr 10). The sunburn she has on her arm, which, strangely, has not yet healed, in February, since the previous summer, seems to be a permanent mark related to the endless sorrow she feels in her heart. It has a double function: first, it represents a somatisation of her pains, second, it re-evokes the time spent with Siegmund on the Isle of Wight, which was during a summer holiday. As a consequence of this incapacity to forget, Helena can be defined as a “dyspeptic,” in Nietzsche’s sense, her memory being compared to digestion, a very difficult and long-lasting process taking place at the psychological level, which entails the storing in one’s conscience of traces which continually resurface to the mind.

20The temporal structure of the novel also evokes the idea of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. The book is composed of a sequence of short episodes, in which the plot is articulated, following a cyclical movement that starts in the present and ends in the present again, after a long parenthesis in the past recreated in the form of a reminiscence, which constitutes the main section of the novel. This circular time structure represents the antithesis of the idea of becoming, replaced here by a sense of stagnation, both temporal and psychological. We cannot fail to notice the symmetry between the first and the last chapters, the postlude being a specular image of the prelude. The concluding chapter of The Trespasser is inserted within the same temporal frame as the opening scene: the only difference lies in the season, as it takes place during the summer, almost a year after Siegmund’s death. While taking a walk with Byrne, Helena’s incessant mechanism of remembrance is activated: “Exactly a year today, Siegmund and I walked here – by the day, Thursday. We went through the larch-wood. Have you ever been through the larch-wood?” The image of eternal recurrence is then reinforced by Byrne’s assertion: “History repeats itself’” (Tr 212). Their entrance into the “larch-wood” marks the separation between the frenzy of reality and the calm and tranquillity of the idyll, the same opposition found in the dual concept of the street and the room in the first chapter, as well as in the dualism of town and island upon which the novel is constructed. A sensation of natural peacefulness stems from the description of the surroundings: “the chill wind was changed into sound.” There is a similarity with the above-mentioned Lawrentian theory of Will-to-Motion and Will-to Inertia in Helena’s and Byrne’s behaviour, as “Like a restless insect he hovered about her, like a butterfly whose antennae flicker and twitch sensitively as they gather intelligence, touching the aura, as it were, of the female. He was exceedingly delicate in his handling of her” (Tr 213). However, it is inertia that prevails over motion, as the girl is characterized by the same rigidity and mechanicalness underlined in chapter one:

Helena stood still, gazing up at the tree-tops where the bow of the wind was drawn, causing slight, perceptible quivering. Byrne walked on without her. At a bend in the path he stood, with his hand on the roundness of a larch-trunk, looking back at her, a blue fleck in the brownness of congregated trees. She moved very slowly down the path. (Tr 213. Italics mine)

21Many elements enable us to see a continuation of Helena and Siegmund’s relationship in this scene. One can feel the presence of the dead man, as a spiritual entity interposed between Helena and Byrne who thinks: “‘I might as well not exist for all she is aware of me’” (Tr 213), even if, at the same time the dead lover appears to reincarnate in Byrne, who wonders “how much he was filling the place of a ghost with warmth” (Tr 214). However, this correspondence between the two men enables us to hypothesize on another potential failure within the couple formed by Helena and Byrne, since the novel suggests that women play a destructive role within the relation. There is no progression, only an eternal recurrence of events.

Dreaming woman and instinctual man

22This section will deal with the relation between Siegmund and Helena, and will demonstrate that the reason for the male character’s decadence lies in the two protagonists’ unbalanced love affair. Helena’s spiritual temperament constitutes an obstacle to the natural oscillatory motion of attraction and withdrawal upon which their relationship should be constructed. Her rational inclination is, in fact, set in contrast to Siegmund’s emotional nature, and, as I shall argue, it can be viewed as the reason for his feeling of resentment.

23Lawrence thinks of woman as a spiritual being who sublimates her own sexual instincts and transfers this physical repression onto man. In the novel I am analysing, Helena’s complex psychology testifies to this, as she appears to be in love with Siegmund even if she feels an aversion towards sexuality. She is anchored in an idealised concept of love, thus she opposes resistance to the sexual reality of the body, deliberately preventing her from having any physical pleasure. Helena’s frigidity is connected with Siegmund’s destruction, according to the logic that associates death and annihilation with the perversion of impulses, by which we mean a changing of direction of instincts that, instead of proceeding on the path to fulfilment, deviate towards the destructive path of repression.

24As has already been mentioned above, the main reason for the failure of the two lovers’ relationship is the unbalance in the living process of motion and stability, or of action and reaction. Stability and mechanicalness are not prerogatives of Helena’s character only. These contrasting aspects, both physical and psychical, are also found in Siegmund, who, when he is in town, seems to be a static being, deprived of his vitality, like a steady point in the incessant motion of the world surrounding him. The man is experiencing a period of crisis in his life; for a long time he has suppressed his instincts, accomplishing his moral duties, and now, the day before reaching the holiday place with Helena, he is ready to free them. This is how Siegmund is introduced to the reader in chapter two:

This was one of the crises of his life. For years he had suppressed his soul, in a kind of mechanical despair, doing his duty and enduring the rest. Then his soul had been softly enticed from its bondage. Now he was going to break free altogether, to have at least a few days purely for his own joy. This, to a man of his integrity, meant a breaking of bonds, a severing of blood-ties, a sort of new birth. In the excitement of this last night his life passed out of his control, and he sat at the carriage-window, motionless, watching things move. (Tr 13-14)

25Siegmund appears to be divided between a fluid and changeable universe in incessant becoming and a static reality dominated by a strict morality that dehumanises and annihilates the individual. This results in a split in his being that strongly undermines his psychic integrity.

26This is a theme which recurs in Lawrence’s next novels, such as The Rainbow and Women in Love: the effort of the human being to conquer his own individuality, which is achieved through the affirmation of his will to power. It is clear that the protagonist shows a deep division within his psyche, oscillating between an instinct of subservience to traditional values and a feeling of power, or self-assertion. The dialectical movement in his soul, hinted at through the shift between the servile subjection to moral virtue and the creative and vital impulse, contains an analogy with the Nietzschean concept of Wille zur Macht and the precepts expressed by the German philosopher in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. As Nietzsche asserts, the final goal of the Overman, the higher man who distinguishes himself from the uniform mob, is to liberate himself from the slavery of Christianity and its oppressing moral values, in order to achieve the full development of his human potentialities. However, the birth of such a powerful man implies, as a condition dictated by the law of opposing forces, the death of the old self.

  • 6 Schneider 121.

27Nietzsche’s theory bears a strong resemblance to what Lawrence writes, where the theme of resurrection and rebirth after death is expressed through the famous image of the phoenix. However, in this novel, the dialectical process of life and death is reversed, as the death wish that characterizes both Helena and Siegmund originates in their reactive attitudes, and, for this reason, is not directed towards a creative resurrection; it rather aims at the annihilation of the vital impulse in the individual. Hence, Siegmund, as a man of ressentiment, stands in antithesis to man as creator. Both Lawrence and Nietzsche appear to agree on this point: life is based on a continuous cyclical movement characterized by the alternation of creation and destruction, so that human evolution is achieved through a renovation of the old corrupted humanity. The newborn man is a lighter being because he is free, liberated from the evil sentiments of the old individuals, the feeling of revenge, the resentment of the oppressed mob. Nonetheless, The Trespasser presents a counterposed vision, as the male protagonist fails in his attempt to reach the perfect condition of the higher being. Siegmund thus belongs to that group of Lawrentian characters, including George Saxton and Gerald Crich, who are considered as living dead, because they are essentially reactive individuals, unable to act creatively. Therefore, the creative urge, a kind of Bergsonian élan vital, is denied in the novel, which shows in its tragic epilogue the impossibility for the protagonist to accomplish his task, that is, his failure to reach the state of “maximum of being.” As Schneider argues, in fact, Lawrence’s conception of life is “a creative striving towards individuation and light, an effort to escape the bonds of matter and death,” in order to achieve the “maximum of being.” The man who gives up the struggle to attain this condition fails, accepting “fatalistically his helplessness and insignificance in the cosmos.”6

  • 7 In “The Night Song” the condition of the unrequited lover is emphasised. Zarathustra’s unfulfilled (...)

28According to this theory, light represents the principle of individuation that enables man to reach the condition of single being, separated from the rest of creation. Man’s search for light is conceived as a manifestation of the voluntary urges, which results in a desire to assert one’s own individuality, separating oneself from the whole. In Lawrence’s symbology, inspired by that of Nietzsche, woman is associated with darkness, while man embodies light. This results in a complementary relationship, which is based on the alternation of opposing feelings. The oscillation between sympathetic love and the will to power is a central motif in this novel. In much of his psychological writing as well, Lawrence deals with the importance of a perfectly balanced couple, in which the male’s creative instinct must be strengthened by the woman, who represents the necessary complement to man that enables him to reach his wholeness. If we keep in mind the elemental symbolism of feminine darkness and masculine light, we find a similar conception of the woman in Nietzsche, whose Zarathustra embodies light, as a creator and a superior individual, but longs for night, the “female night” that should complete him.7

29The novel is focused on the psychology of the two protagonists, which is rendered through the recurrence of a symbolic pattern that makes it possible to create a link between the characters and the external world surrounding them. However, Lawrence’s use of symbolism is quite complex, as the ambivalence in the use of the symbols shows. Water and light are the dominant elements in the story, which is set mainly on the Isle of Wight, an idyllic place where the two lovers take refuge to spend some time together. The Trespasser is pervaded with references to the sea and the sun. Although Lawrence tends to associate water and light with the female and the male principle respectively, the symbols often present a double meaning. Siegmund hints at a similarity between the blue-eyed Helena and the sea, which is like her, “blue, beautiful, strong in its reserve.” (Tr 20). But Siegmund is also, in Helena’s words, “like the sea, blue and hazy in the morning, musing by itself” (Tr 36).

30Siegmund’s association with the sea implies a fusion both with the feminine other and the natural universe. When he dives, he seems to be involved in a kind of play with water:

He was a poor swimmer. Sometimes a choppy wave swamped him, and he rose gasping, wringing the water from his eyes and nostrils, while he heaved and sank with the rocking of the waves that clasped his breast. Then he stooped again to resume his game with the sea. It is splendid to play, even at middle age, and the sea is a fine partner. (Tr 40)

31The man’s intimacy with the sea reinforces the emphasis on the protean nature of his inner being. Helena notices the frequent changes that affect her lover, his continual fluctuations between the vividness of the body and the death-like stillness:

His muscles set hard and unyielding; at that moment he was a tense, vivid body of flesh, without a mind; his blood alive and conscious, running towards her. (Tr 29)

32For the last half-hour he had lain absolutely still, with his heavy arms about her, making her hot. If she had not seen his eyes blue and dark, she would have thought him asleep.

[…] She wondered at him; he was so different from an hour ago. […] Before, he was burning, volcanic, as if he would destroy her. (Tr 36)

33She perceives the instinctive nature of her lover as a destroying element, and this causes her withdrawal from him: “She sank away from his caresses, passively, subtly drew back from him.” (Tr 31).

34The girl notices the vibrant aspect of the natural landscape of which Siegmund is part and appears fascinated by it. She wonders about the existence of a heart of the world, considered as a divine presence, but, at the same time, she is frightened, since she cannot understand this dionysian God:

Had the world a heart? Was there also deep in the world a great God thudding out waves of life, like a great heart, unconscious? It frightened her. This was the God she knew not, as she knew not this Siegmund. It was so different from the half-shut eyes with black lashes and the winsome, shapely nose. And the heart of the world, as she heard it, could not be the same as the curling splash of retreat of the little sleepy waves. She listened for Siegmund’s soul, but his heart overbeat all other sound, thudding powerfully. (Tr 47-48)

35The image of the heart of the world evokes the systolic-diastolic movement hinted at in Lawrence’s essay “Love,” where the greatness of that feeling is associated with the perfect rhythm of the heart-beats and its duality (L 9). Nevertheless, there is a hint at mechanicalness in this description of cardiac activity, which recalls the repetitive tidal movements of the waves, and reminds us of the fixity and monotony of the two lovers’ relationship. The powerful mechanical sound prevents Helena from listening to Siegmund’s soul. She cannot understand her lover, who now seems to have lost his original form in a sympathetic fusion with the universe. The reason for this is that Helena is basically an inhibited character, contrasted with Siegmund’s mainly impulsive nature. Her knowledge of Siegmund is limited to his exterior appearance: she can carefully describe his features, but she is unable to penetrate his intimacy. She is like a sculptor, who moulds matter without giving it a soul, while Siegmund is the romantic poet, who establishes a mystical connection with the universe.

  • 8 Milton 209.
  • 9 Ivi 210.

36The beating of the heart, of course, also epitomises Siegmund’s emotional side, his interiority oppressed by the damaging feminine influence. The idea of women’s dangerous spirituality is a recurrent theme in Lawrence and has been emphasized by several scholars, notably Colin Milton, who asserts that “the values natural to them and appropriate for them are quite opposite to the ascetic, anti-natural attitudes they do, in fact, display.”8 The critic thus makes a comparison between two Lawrentian female characters: Helena is compared to Miriam, the protagonist of Sons and Lovers, because both of them aim at repressing the physical and emotional aspect of their respective lovers.9 This process, which is directed towards the suppression of the sexual urges, consists in instilling into men’s minds the belief that their sexuality is something to be disdained, an impulse that has to be destroyed. This is what happens to Siegmund, who, deeply undermined by this external repression, breeds a sentiment of guilt, which is the symptom of modern man’s illness, the expression of his anxiety. This kind of feeling cannot arise from the soul of a healthy man; it rather develops within a sick body, weakened by repression and prone to reaction.

37Helena and Miriam are thus included in a class of women, referred to as “‘dreaming women’ with whom passion exhausts itself in the mouth” (Tr 30). This definition epitomizes Helena’s way of expressing her physical desire, as she does not really appreciate the sexual act. According to the definition that Hampson, Siegmund’s friend and Doppelgänger, gives of them:

“The best sort of women – the most interesting – are the worst for us,” […] “By instinct they aim at suppressing the gross and animal in us. They are supersensitive-refined a bit beyond humanity. We who are a little gross as need be, become their instruments. Life is grounded in them, like electricity in the earth, and we take from them the unrealised life, turn it into light or warmth or power for them. The ordinary woman is, alone, a great potential force, an accumulator, if you like, charged from the Source of life. In us her force becomes evident. (Tr 84).

38The women belonging to this group are considered a menace to man. Helena aims at suppressing the instincts that dwell in Siegmund, as in every individual’s soul, thus becoming unconsciously guilty of her lover’s weakness. Compared with Siegmund’s personality, Helena appears to be more autonomous. She is “like the sea, self-sufficient and careless of the rest” (Tr 43). On the contrary, he is dependent on her, who represents his source of life, from which he draws his energy:

She seemed to connect him with the beauty of things, as if she were the nerve through which he received intelligence of the sun and wind and sea, and of the moon and the darkness. Beauty she never felt herself, came to him through her. It is that makes love. He could always sympathise with the wistful little flowers, and trees lonely in their crowds, and wild, sad sea-birds. In these things he recognised the great yearning, the ache outwards towards something, with which he was ordinarily burdened. But with Helena, in this large sea-morning, he was whole and perfect as the day. (Tr 44)

39In this passage, the pivotal role of the female in the relationship is clearly explained. She is the necessary vehicle for the male to reach fusion with the universe, the “nerve” which connects man with the rest of creation and engenders in him a sense of wholeness; however, Helena represents at the same time an obstacle to Siegmund’s individual growth. In contrast with her lover, she is “an extremist, and a dangerous one” (Tr 44). He thus perceives the girl’s Puritanism as a threat, and this feeling fills him with a strong anguish.

40During his individuation process Siegmund undergoes psychic fluctuations, which show an analogy with the tidal movement of the sea. The encounter with the sea represents the moment when Siegmund shows his will to power. This is how he appears through the filter of Helena’s puritanical vision: “He was looking out to sea, screwing up his eyes, and smiling brutally. […] He was like the heart and the brute sea, just here; he was not her Siegmund. She hated the brute in him” (Tr 51). However, this condition is soon reversed as it appears that “[h]e could not take part in the great battle of action” (Tr 51).

41In chapter VIII, the two protagonists’ symbolic characterization becomes clearer. Siegmund seems to triumph over Helena. On a symbolic level, this is made evident through the union of the two elements, water and sunlight, which results in a liquefaction of the latter, giving the waves a golden colour. This time, it is Helena who lies in the sea, re-establishing a contact with her element. The sea, sunk in this bright atmosphere, loses the violence that characterized it before, when it was Siegmund who bathed, and becomes quiet, so that Helena can experience a feeling of pleasure when the water runs over her skin. Although the woman is portrayed in the feminine element, the scene is dominated by the morning sunshine, whose power makes even the sea surrender, diminishing its force: “It was a wonderful night to him. It restored in him the full ‘will to live.’ But she felt it destroyed her. Her soul seemed blasted.” (Tr 56). By virtue of his supremacy over the sea, Siegmund is now able to be master of it. He feels satisfied by his triumph, which, actually, represents the achievement of his power over Helena, who appears destroyed after the night of intense passion spent with him, while the man, on the contrary, gains strength and vitality. Sexual intercourse is here described in terms of a fusion of twoness into oneness, in which individuality is lost, and one of the two parts must be cancelled and melt into the other. Nevertheless, this condition, where the balance of opposites is eliminated, implies destruction, and the two characters, like other Lawrentian couples, are doomed to annihilation.

Guilt and self-punishment

42The last section of this paper will focus on the process of decay that Siegmund undergoes. I would like to suggest that the anti-climactic development of this character is associated with the arousal of a sense of guilt in his soul; therefore, I will study the significance of self-sacrifice in the novel.

43The episode in the church introduces a reference to the theme of Christian redemption. The two characters show different attitudes towards the image of Christ: Helena is filled with “the yearning and pathos of Christianity,” while Siegmund seems to support a Nietzschean anti-ascetic vision. He reflects on the “Christ-tragedy” and even compares it to his own “small, futile tragedy” (Tr 79) as a man. Neverthless, he perceives his own condition as different from that of the Redeemer. Christ’s sacrifice finds justification in the necessity of liberating mankind from sin, while here this man’s sacrifice just implies the negation of life, because all human beings are sinners.

44In contrast with the position of dominance he seems to have achieved in chapter VIII, Siegmund is still far from being a fulfilled man, as he shows the signs of a tormented psyche even more than before. When Siegmund feels a compelling necessity to dive into the water to wash away the sand from his body and be perfectly clean, he appears to be in need of purification and the sea assumes the aspect of a baptismal font, into which he plunges in order to wash away “all the years of soilure” (Tr 59), and he becomes lighter, free from the heavy burden of morality. Siegmund’s self-sacrifice can thus be interpreted as a reaction against the ascetic behaviour that life had imposed on him. As a consequence of Helena’s denial of instincts, he has internalised, in the Nietzschean sense, his repressed feelings, which are not at all destroyed, but converted into negative emotions. This condition, which is the cause of the man’s suffering, does not involve the disintegration of the will to power, which survives in him, even if it changes its direction, moving against the individual, towards his own annihilation. Therefore, his instinctual urges are transformed into bad conscience, and he starts to feel guilty, even about the failure of his relationship with Helena: “In his heart he felt that in this love affair also he had been a failure. […] he had failed as a lover to Helena” (Tr 122).

45In chapter twelve the sense of guilt that troubles Siegmund is more strongly perceived. When he sees the carved Christ, he “felt his heart very heavy, sad and at fault” (Tr 79). The signs of a psychophysical weakening begin to show, since he is unable to control his body and feels separated from the earth, from the concrete things surrounding him, with which he had seemed to be living in unison up to that moment.

46He now foresees the tragic epilogue of his life, which, on the symbolic level, is represented through an escape from light. Far from being “a happy priest of the sun” (Tr 59), Siegmund now seeks shelter from the sunlight under a tree. A few pages later, Helena, looking at Siegmund lying asleep in the sun, finds a similarity between her lover and the figure of Adam, clearly hinting at original sin. The man, who is lying “helpless, abandoned to the charge of the earth and the sky” (Tr 92), gives the impression of undergoing a punishment and the sun appears as the instrument to perpetrate it, as it beats upon his face and forehead, which become inflamed with the sunscalding. However, it is possible to suppose that the mark caused by the scalding, which symbolises the evidence of his guilt, will remain on his face for a long time, like the sun-inflammation on Helena’s arm, which is still there one year later, since, to use her own words “‘some scars don’t seem to go’” (Tr 216). The idea of the eternality of guilt, which is hinted at in this novel through the circular construction of the plot, is also expressed by Nietzsche, who, in the “Redemption” chapter of his Zarathustra asserts that “No need can be annihilated: so how could it be undone through punishment! This, this is what is eternal in the punishment ‘existence’: That existence itself must eternally be deed and guilt again!” (Z 122).

47When the two lovers leave the island and separate, another change takes place in Siegmund, an evolution that could better be referred to as an involution, since it reaches its climax in his death. From this moment on, his psychical decline seems more evident, as the description of his last night in chapter twenty-seven shows. All the gestures he accomplishes before going to bed are mechanical, and even the act of sleeping is characterised by a shifting motion between consciousness and unconsciousness:

Immediately he lapsed into a kind of unconsciousness. He would have called it sleep, but such it was not. All the time he could feel his brain working ceaselessly, like a machine running with unslackening rapidity. This went on, interrupted by little flickerings of consciousness, for three or four hours. Each time he had a glimmer of consciousness he wondered if he made any noise. (Tr 182)

48Siegmund here experiences a division between body and mind, since they both seem to act separately and beyond his control: he cannot fall asleep because “his brain was irritably active,” and, at the same time, he is not able to discipline his body, which he perceives as “a separate thing, a terrible heavy hot thing over which he had slight control” (Tr 182).

49Being now far different from the man who fought with the waves and lived in harmony with the universe, Siegmund starts experiencing a detachment from everything, his wife, his children, Helena, his music, feeling “as if he were a limb out of joint from the body of life”(Tr 185), unable to restore the link with it. The more he goes on, the more he feels convinced that all he needs to do is to depart, “to cut himself off from life,” and his awareness of culpability is clearly evidenced when he quotes from Scripture: “If thine hand offend thee, cut it off” (Tr 185).

50Many elements provide support for the initial hypothesis upon which this essay is constructed. The reactive transformation of Siegmund’s instinctual urges into bad conscience makes him develop a sense of guilt that leads him to commit suicide. He thus stands in antithesis to the Nietzschean hero, since the creative will to power typical of this individual gives place here to a destructive behaviour. The resentment Sigmund feels towards life, morals and religion is directed against himself, making him feel guilty about his failures. All he has to do now is to undergo his final act of self-punishment.

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Lawrence, D.H. “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Lady Chatterley’s Lover, London: Penguin, 1994: 305-335.

—. “Love.” Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays. Ed. Michael Herbert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988: 5-12.

—.“Study of Thomas Hardy.” Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985: 3-132.

—.“The Novel and the Feeling.” Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985: 199-120.

—.The Trespasser (1912). London: Penguin, 1975.

Milton, Colin. Lawrence and Nietzsche: A Study in Influence. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1987.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On The Genealogy of Morals. On the Genealogy of Morals; Ecce Homo. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967.

—. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Graham Parkes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Schneider, Daniel, J. D.H. Lawrence: The Artist as Psychologist. Kansas: Kansas University Press, 1984.

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1 Colin Milton 231.

2 As Jessie Chambers reports, Lawrence started reading Nietzsche during his Croydon years. Cfr. Jessie Chambers, A Personal Record, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 120. There is an explicit reference to Nietzsche in the novel, where he is mentioned at the beginning of chapter V.

3 Schneider 120.

4 Ibid.

5 Schneider 75.

6 Schneider 121.

7 In “The Night Song” the condition of the unrequited lover is emphasised. Zarathustra’s unfulfilled craving for love, as well as his longing for obscurity, originate in the solitude caused by his independence. His wish to be a receiver instead of a giver is due to the necessity of completing his singleness, so that he looks for darkness to compensate the light he emanates, and night takes the form of a feminine complement in which he would like to find both a response to his need for love and a maternal protection.

8 Milton 209.

9 Ivi 210.

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Olga Desiderio, « The Flowing of Emotion. Sentiment and Ressentiment in The Trespasser »Études Lawrenciennes, 42 | 2011, 255-280.

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Olga Desiderio, « The Flowing of Emotion. Sentiment and Ressentiment in The Trespasser »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 42 | 2011, mis en ligne le 20 janvier 2014, consulté le 02 décembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Olga Desiderio

University of Salerno, Italy

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