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“Love Your Enemy”: The Relativity of Absolute Love in D. H. Lawrence’s “The Ladybird”

Marina Ragachewskaya

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  • 1 “D. H. Lawrence and Christian Love,” in Etudes Lawrenciennes, 34, 2006: 173-190.

1Preaching the value of love is D. H. Lawrence’s most distinguishable hallmark, which, thanks to H. T. Moore, justly earned him the “title” of “priest of love.” The writer’s edifying philosophies are religious in scale, based on certain absolutes (as in any religion) and are scattered throughout such fictional and non-fictional works as Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), the essays “Love,” (1918) “Nobody Loves Me,” (1936) “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” (1930) and Women in Love (1920). Specifically, Lawrence also speculated about the Christian doctrine of love (namely in Apocalypse), a subject well-researched and substantiated by Pericles Tangas.1

2Love discourse in Lawrence’s works hinges on certain postulates that the writer reiterates from one text to another. Thus, he was never tired of offering metaphors for love, like that of a travelling, a flower or a river. “Love is a travelling, a motion,” he wrote in his essay titled “Love” (RDP, L 24). The most intense philosophical reflection on the notion of love occurs in the period 1915-1925, culminating in the collection of essays Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine (1925). It is there that Lawrence speculates on the very nature of love as one of the most fundamental human feelings and writes that “[b]ecause love is strictly a travelling, ‘it is better to travel than to arrive,’ somebody has said. This is the essence of unbelief. It is a belief in absolute love, when love is by nature relative. It is a belief in the means, but not in the end. It is strictly a belief in force, for love is a unifying force” (RDP, L 7). In Women in Love, through Birkin, Lawrence further expanded and amplified his concept: “Love is one of the emotions like all the other –and so it is all right whilst you feel it. But I can’t see how it becomes an absolute. It is just part of human relationships, no more. […] Love isn’t a desideratum –it is an emotion you feel or you don’t feel, according to circumstance” (WL 115).

3We can clearly see that Lawrence places love into the sphere of the relative refusing to treat it as something absolute. I find it most appropriate to refer to these categories through the philosophical lens of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. For, as Helen Wussow observes, “Although it is difficult to prove to what extent Lawrence read Hegel, […] [i]n ‘Art and the Individual’ (1908) Lawrence displays a familiarity with Hegel’s aesthetic concepts” (Wussow 185). The German philosopher explained at the outset of his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807): “[…] the Absolute is not supposed to be comprehended, it is to be felt and intuited; not the Notion of the Absolute, but the feeling and intuition of it, must govern what is said, and must be expressed by it” (Hegel 4). Hegel speculated about absolute knowledge and the absolute idea, which he came to understand as the unity of the Theoretical Idea and the Practical Idea (Hegel, lectures 140) –in other words, a dialectical “conscious practice,” when people act in true accord with their own nature.

4In this paper, proceeding from Hegelian aesthetics of the Absolute and Lawrence’s own belief in the relative nature of love, I will try to show that while Lawrence discredits the idea of absolute love, ironically, he replaces it with yet another absolute. The irony, however, is rather “grave” (Engel 96) in “The Ladybird” (1921), as Monroe Engel justly remarked. The novella is not only an epitome of Lawrence’s bitterness after the war, and his philosophizing about the issue of power; it is also a step towards a dialectical generalization of love.

5The final version of the novella is based on the preceding short story “The Thimble” (1915). As Melissa Partridge in her introduction to the Complete Short Novels (1989) observes, “[m]uch of Lawrence’s creative energy during the early part of the war went into philosophical writing in which he tried to clarify to himself what had happened in private and public life […]” (Partridge 21). Therefore, what the short story offers in terms of healing the wounds, is resurrection –not patching up the old life– but a completely new start. Pamela Kaye Wright says that the inspiration for “The Thimble” is “clearly the idea that compensatory gifts may result from wounds, disability or loss. In particular, Lawrence tries to turn the death and destruction of the Great War into something more understandable and hopeful” (Wright, 160). “The Ladybird,” though it proceeds from a similar plot line, goes further and plunges deeper into a darkness of almost absolute hopelessness where there is no chance of any healing. “It is also –to quote Wright again– a rejection of stereotypical ideas of ‘normalcy’ that were based on idealization and standardization” (Wright 162). Lawrence describes this condition through Daphne, the main character, “Never was anything more dull and bitter than Daphne’s affirmative of hope” (Lb 211). In both texts, nevertheless, what leads to resurrection –whether into a new life or into the mesmerizing underworld– is love.

6The plot of “The Ladybird” is built around the exhortation to “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27-36), cornerstone of the Christian Gospel. “Love your enemies” is tested against what is immediately perceived and experienced, and therefore –relative. In Hegel’s philosophy, absolute truth (the Understanding) lies beyond perception, because a perception is only one angle from which to judge a truth. This thought is elaborated throughout the whole of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

7Coming back to Lawrence, there are two factors crucial to the foundational matrix of the story in “The Ladybird,” and which are beyond the real of perception: Biblical (religious) motifs and mythological parallels. Myth is to be regarded as a great absolute of humanity, its status that of a crystallization, beyond the mode of ordinary time, of certain truths of experience. To quote Arvudas Šliogeris, the Lithuanian philosopher and essayist, “[…] myth is the absolute of the natural man. Myth is his only and true nature, his only and true culture, his only and true history” (Šliogeris 43).

8To begin with the first of the abovementioned absolutes, the “love your enemies” commandment is reenacted at the level of individual consciousness in the novella: “Lady Beveridge loved humanity […] in the human sense, she would love her enemies. Not the criminals among the enemy, the men who committed atrocities. But the men who were enemies through no choice of their own” (Lb 206). Such a beginning lays the foundation for the story’s general motif. F. R. Leavis ascribed “truth” and “love” to Lady Beverage (Leavis 70), hence locating her character firmly in the realm of absolutes. This absolute acts as a triggering stimulus setting the action in motion: Lady Beveridge decides to actually implement the “love your enemy” dictum when she goes to the German prisoner-of-war hospital near London to enquire if there is anything she can do for them. The “enemies” are all desperate, dreary, helpless, haggard, delirious, and therefore appear to be a perfect love object.

9However, as the narrative voice hints ironically, there are elements of relativity seeping into the otherwise quite edifying commandment. Lady Daphne in her turn, driven by an unexplained motive (“not born for grief and philanthropy” [Lb 210]), starts visiting the hospital as well. Her conversations with Count Dionys become more and more entangled and often close on personal details. Gradually the Christian commandment to love one’s enemies cannot withstand the critique which Lawrence levels against it; it is doomed to become something rather different. Philosophically speaking, conceiving the absolute is a matter of purely mental activity, while the relative requires perception of the immediate and the phenomenal. Psanek begins to question the absolute when asked by Daphne whether they are enemies still: “The most difficult thing is to be sure of anything,” (Lb 216) he says. Indeed, Lord Beverage points out with bitterness that “all men are beasts in some way” (Lb 259), agreeing about the fact that it was not just Germany that lost the war, but the whole of Europe, and thus the whole truth of loving one’s enemies is relativized through a generalization of the sense of defeat and loss.

10This conflict between the preconceived absolute love and its perceived relative embodiment is only one superficial way through which the notion of absolute love here comes to be questioned. Lawrence goes further to test other love forms by presenting their mental discursive parameters (as having to be proved or disproved) through pure perception and individual consciousness. The repository for the absolute in the novella is in classical mythology. Having designed the main characters in such a way that they seem to bear the qualities of their artistic Doppelgängers, Lawrence relies on the absolute to be found only deep in the unconscious mind. Lady Daphne is thus compared to Artemis and Atlanta, respectively the goddess of nature and the famous huntress, while her name (which, for Lawrence, is an explicit clue) stands for a desired object, the mythological laurel tree. In similar fashion, the discourse characterizing the Count also sets him firmly in the area of the absolute: he is the mythological Dionysus –both the fire-worshiper and the destroyed and resurrected god of the underworld. These mythological absolutes (also commonly referred to as archetypes) are, however, ambiguous and ironic. Thus, while Daphne was married to a good husband, she “needed a daredevil,” though “in her mind she hated all daredevils” (Lb 210). The first name of Dionys –that very daredevil of a lover– suggests the powerful god of darkness, and Psanek, his surname, might be derived from the Czech for “an outlaw.”

  • 2 Mark Kinkead-Weekes writes, “Basil believes, as the Lawrence of 1913-17 had believed, that the esse (...)

11Most of the dialogues are abstract considerations on love, and are split into absolute and relative components. Daphne’s husband, Basil, elevates her to the position of a goddess, calling her “divine,” “Cybele – Isis,” and the love between them he terms “worship” and “sacrament.” “She really felt she could glow white and fill the universe like the moon, like Astarte, like Isis, like Venus. The grandeur of her own pale power. The man religiously worshiped her, not merely amorously” (Lb 244). Basil in fact speaks through the medium of absolute concepts: “divine,” “slave,” “sacrament,” “worship.” Basil’s outpouring of his affection for Daphne is so forceful and eloquent, repetitive of the name of Isis, that it resembles Lawrence’s own concepts: “But the cause and the origin and the life impetus of all action, activity, whether constructive or destructive, seems to me to be in the dynamic contact between human beings” (Lb 252).2 However, this absolutism is immediately contested: “Touch me not, I am not yet ascended unto the Father” (Lb 243). It is in part consistent with the idea of resurrection that Basil has of war as a stepping stone to a “higher state of consciousness […] of life [and] a higher plane of love” (Lb 250).

12Curiously, such a love discourse is counterbalanced by a still different way of preaching love. Count Dionys Psanek also proclaims the absolute nature of the love about which he philosophizes in his Bible-imitating discourse. The first time the Count launches into speculations about love is while Daphne is visiting him in hospital. He, almost like a priest, proclaims love’s absolute quality: “If it were love, you would not ask me, why do you love?” (Lb 227). What he says bears no signs of concession or doubt (if we leave aside his remark about them being enemies), his speech remains straightforward and categorical: “No, no. I am a man, even if I am little. I am not a spirit that coils itself inside a shell. In my soul is anger, anger, anger. Give me room for my anger. Give me room for that” (Lb 227). His repetitions are eloquent, to the point of sounding like refrains. Many of his statements are short and terse, they have a hammer-like (Padhi’s term) discursive quality: “I know that;” “It will never […]” “Never. Never,” etc. (Lb 227-228). Jacqueline Gouirand refers to this narrative style as a “mythic ritual, in the sense that it is incantatory, full of repetitions and vocal echoes with the religious rhythm of rituals” (Gouirand-Rousselon, 129). If the discourse of love seems to sound so intense, it only because the discourse of anger is also equally intense –Dionys’ god of destruction being emblematic of Lawrence’s profound hatred of humanity.

13A further round of love preaching on the part of Psanek becomes even stronger and more assertive, and it does resonate with the tone of the author’s voice, its proselytizing discursive quality: “Now listen. The same with love. This white love that we have is the same. It is only the reverse, the whited sepulchre of the true love. True love is dark, a throbbing together in darkness, like the wild-cat in the night, when the green screen opens and her eyes are on the darkness” (Lb 231-232).

14Dionys Psanek, according to Leavis, is “a convincing dramatic presence as someone other than Lawrence himself” (Leavis, 71). As a result, in this very split of Lawrence’s own philosophy between two diametrically opposed characters lies relativism, the invitation for the reader to take either standpoint in the assessment of the nature of love.

15The novella’s critique of the power of absolute love reaches its apogee with the approach of the inevitable intimacy between Daphne and Dionys, its climactic moment after which it is doomed to disintegrate. Absolutes –mythological goddesses, notions of religious unconditional worship– are to be undermined, because they leave us in a state of terminal numbness, they make us dead. So the novella questions the function of the absolutes in human relationships and describes Daphne’s reaction to this love of Basil’s: “After his ecstasy of adoration-lust for her, she recoiled from him. Alas, she was not the goddess, the superb person he named her” (Lb 247). Later on we learn on the same page: “Of course, she began to dream about Count Dionys: to yearn wistfully for him” (Lb 247). Daphne probably realizes both the inadequacy of Basil’s kind of love and of her mother’s ideal love, too.

16Lawrence transforms the discursive rivalry in the novella between two opposing conceptions –that of the Major, Daphne’s husband, who took his degree in philosophy (we are told), and Count Psanek– into the deconstruction of absolutes. In order to foreground this deconstruction, he places Daphne in a position where she sides with Basil consciously while being drawn unconsciously to Dionys.

Merely to sit as a passive medium between two men who are squibbing philosophical nonsense to one another: no, it was not good enough! She almost hated the Count: low-browed little man, belonging to the race of prehistoric slaves. But her grudge against her white-faced, spiritually intense husband was sharp as vinegar. Let down: she was let down between the pair of them. (Lb 257)

17Daphne is repelled by both, torn between these two absolutist conceptions: “[…] While her sympathy at this moment was with the count, it was her husband whose words she believed to be true” (Lb 253). “She disliked his [the Count’s] words intensely, but she liked him. On the other hand, she believed absolutely what her husband said, yet her physical sympathy was against him” (Lb 253-254).

18On one plane, there is absolute love in its multifaceted manifestations, the absolute value of human contact, which Basil puts on a pedestal:

[…] there is really only one supreme contact, the contact of love. Mind you, the love may take on an infinite variety of forms. And in my opinion, no form of love is wrong, so long as it is love […] If you try to specialize love into one set of accepted feelings, you wound the very soul of love (Lb 253)

19This echoes Lawrence’s statement in one of the essays from the “Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine”: “Love is manifold, it is not of one sort only” (RDP, L 9). On another plane, Psanek, contesting this statement, reduces his opponent’s theories to the notion of the absolute: “But to a man something is absolute. His will, his good-will is absolute to him” (Lb 253). Philosophically speaking, Dionys plays the role of the “relativist” in this dispute. He brackets and questions proclamations that have claimed axiomatic force by way of questions, doubts, dialectic oppositions, e.g., “Do you think so? I thought that love assumed an equality in difference” (Lb 255). “The day of Judas […] ends with the day of love” (Lb 255). However absolute the nature of any religious instruction may appear, even the most categorical doctrines will falter, betraying its intrinsic relativity when questioned by a keen mind.

20To put it more dialectically, the relative and the absolute make up two parts of the same unity: one is the perceived and relative truth, while the other is the absolute truth. One can never put an end to the perception of and the striving to understand more and more about the nature of things; therefore the absolute is continually relativized. This seems to operate in the novella, too. While Basil’s notion of love claims to represent the absolute truth which lies beyond perception, Dionys’ love seems to invite perception, pure physical touch –not the abstract idea of it. This is what lures Daphne, as she is equally lured to “the lower, the unconscious classes” (Lb 264), because she realizes the extent to which they are better at feeling things. The realization of her own “fretful self-consciousness” and Dionys’ darkness and of the way he preaches it, bespeaks the need for the relative, for a point of departure through which to actually approach the absolute. That leads us to the realization that old perceptions, pre-mediated meanings, or “truths,” can be reversed and revisited. Perceptions may change; new meanings can be ascribed to the world of phenomena.

21The language that ascertains the absolutes, the fundamental and permanent notions not subject to qualification, is the language employing reiteration and intense rhythm, the rhetoric of succinct, well-wrought statements and parabolic narratives to foreground a point, a stylistic framing. Lawrence is undoubtedly a master of such language. These qualities are well revealed through such characters as Birkin in Women in Love, or Kangaroo in the eponymous novel. However, where the absolute needs to be subverted, Lawrence resorts to something quite different: a mode of free indirect discourse, emotive repetitions, repetitions with amplification, as well as short elliptical statements. Instances of such rhetoric are to be found throughout the novella, culminating in the episode where Daphne is overcome by the desire to meet Dionys in the dark:

So it was, in her upper spirit. But underneath was a wild, wild yearning, actually to go, actually to be given. Actually to go, actually to die the death, actually to cross the border and be gone, to be gone. To be gone from this herself, from this Daphne, to be gone from father and mother, brothers and husband, and home and land and world: to be gone. To be gone to the call from the beyond: the call. It was the Count calling. He was calling her. She was sure he was calling her. Out of herself, out of her world, he was calling her. (Lb 266)

22A curious working of the notion of the absolute becomes somewhat literal in the scene where Daphne sits with Psanek in his bedroom “motionless,” “speechless,” “thoughtless,” and the “distance between them seemed absolute” (Lb 269). However, when they finally fall for one another, into “the underworld,” into Hades, they are presented to the reader as Francesca and Paolo –this in itself being a diversion from the straight route of either Biblical or mythological absolute characters. This Dantean pair of lovers defies the absolute notion of love: what they may represent in this context is its relativity: while their love is perceived as something romantic, too human and therefore precious to the reader, it is undoubtedly sinful and condemned by those whose doctrines these two have trespassed.

23Similarly, Daphne and Dionys are the ones whose transgression is relative to the absolute. The duality of the transgression lies in the change of perspective: white or dark, depending on which side of the curtain one is standing. They take up “love as action,” in the Major’s changed estimation, while he himself abandons this kind, or form, of love –“I only ask of life to spare me from further effort of action of any sort– even love” (Lb 275).

24The novella’s ending is both puzzling and mystical. While Basil gives up “that other,” “the sexual part,” he also admits to having “pure love, which almost brings one to the Biblical absolute love celebrated in St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

25Basil is actually the embodiment of such an ideal, but by admitting that “love is action” (Lb 275) and simultaneously giving up on action, he would appear to have given up on the imperative of loving. But does he? This may be the case; we might contend that he also, in a way, loves his enemy.

26Thus, the author relativizes the narrative about love through a literal and ironic reenactment of the “love your enemy” postulate. On one level, Lady and Lord Beveridge try to act out this love. Melissa Partridge points to what she calls standardization: “[…] running parallel with the major preoccupation with individual human relationships and closely bound up with it, is Lawrence’s fear of the increasing degree to which life was becoming standardized, undifferentiated” (Partridge 20). It reads as yet another aspect of the notion of the absolute. I might suggest in this context that the need to generalize, to come to terms with the war trauma has its roots in the very core of the absolute: that is, the need to establish an unshakable ground on which to build one’s consciousness.

27On another level, Daphne ventures across the boundaries of the Christian love she had inherited from her parents, thus travelling into darker realms. Lawrence was ceaselessly trying to challenge Christian dogmas, including the concept of love, only to propose in their place his own ardent, albeit ironically absolutized, teaching. Nevertheless, the alternating voices in the novella coupled with the ideological connotations drawn upon in order to expose the putative absolutes of the concept of love reveal a more diverse and fluid mode of relativity and urge us to approach love intuitively and psychologically rather than dogmatically.

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Engel, Monroe. “The Continuity of Lawrence’s Short Novels.” Lawrence D. H. A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Mark Spilka. New York: Englewood Cliffs, 1963, 29-50.

Gouirand-Rousselon, Jacqueline. “Power, Will and the Phallic Order in the Fox and the Ladybird,” in Etudes Lawrenciennes, 40, 2009, 119-132.

Hegel, G. Lectures on the Philosophy of Spirit. Transl. by Leo Rauch. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983.

Hegel, G. Phenomenology of Spirit. Transl. by A.V. Miller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Kinkead-Weekes, M. D. H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912-1922: Volume 2. Cambridge: CUP, 1996.

Lawrence, D. H. “The Ladybird,” in Complete Short Novels. London: Penguin, 1989, 206-275.

. Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine. Cambridge: CUP, 1988.

. Women in Love. Cambridge: CUP, 1998.

Leavis, F. R. D. H. Lawrence: Novelist. London: Penguin, 1994.

Partridge, M. Introduction, in Lawrence, D. H. Complete Short Novels. London: Penguin, 1989, 11-25.

Šliogeris, A. Names of Nihil. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2008.

Tangas, P. “D. H. Lawrence and Christian Love,” in Etudes Lawrenciennes, 34, 2006, 173-190.

Wright, P. K. “Living Outside-In: The Role of Beauty and Disfigurement in ‘The Ladybird’,” in D. H. Lawrence Studies, 2007, 159-176.

Wussow, H. The Nightmare of History: The Fictions of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence. Bethlehem: Lehigh Un. Press/London: Associated Un. Press, 1998.

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1 “D. H. Lawrence and Christian Love,” in Etudes Lawrenciennes, 34, 2006: 173-190.

2 Mark Kinkead-Weekes writes, “Basil believes, as the Lawrence of 1913-17 had believed, that the essence of life lies ‘in the dynamic contact between human beings,’ in the many forms of love” (Kinkead-Weekes 694).

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Marina Ragachewskaya, « “Love Your Enemy”: The Relativity of Absolute Love in D. H. Lawrence’s “The Ladybird” »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 51 | 2020, mis en ligne le 09 juillet 2020, consulté le 21 octobre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Marina Ragachewskaya

Marina Ragachewskaya is a Professor at the World Literature department at Minsk State Linguistic University, Belarus. She has published widely on D. H. Lawrence, psychoanalytic literary studies and contemporary British writers (over 130 articles in English, Russian and Belarusian). Her recent books are Desire for Love: The Secret Longings of the Human Heart in D. H. Lawrence’s Works (CSP, 2012), Psychoanalysis in Fiction: David Herbert Lawrence – in Russian (Minsk, MSLU, 2013) and New Forms of Psychologism in the 20th-century British Novel – in Russian (Minsk, Novoye Znaniye, 2015). Besides, she has co-authored a student coursebook on philosophy. Dr Ragachewskaya’s academic interests include fiction interpretation, psychoanalysis and literature, modernism and postmodernism, contemporary British fiction, poetry interpretation and translation. 

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