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War Trauma and Madness in the Fiction of D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf

Marina Ragachewskaya

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1In the literary works concerning the First World War, the plight of men suffering from war trauma has acquired emblematic status. With the horrors of trench warfare, World War I induced in those who had been subjected to the ordeals of the front symptoms such as nostalgia, neurasthenia, emotional distress, and also the acute, quasi-neurological mental states known as “shell shock.” Psychiatrists note that following five weeks of sustained combat, 98 per cent of combatants manifested war neuroses (Van Der Hart, Brown 595). In the development of psychoanalysis in the 1920s, notably in studies by William H.R. Rivers and Wilfred R. Bion, the notion of “war neurosis”/“war trauma”/”shell shock” became common usage, as the vast range of psychological casualties treated after the end of the war made possible a comprehensive clinical description of the condition. Men inside the military system did however persist in their denial of a condition of psychological war trauma (Van Der Hart, Brown 595). Even Sigmund Freud was reluctant to single it out in his general theory of neuroses, defining it as a “parasitic double of the peacetime ego” (PWN 85).

2This term would however gain an increasingly widespread use, with the succession of 20th century wars. Dorit Szykiersky reports that:

During the American Civil War [war trauma] was designated as nostalgia or soldier’s heart, pointing to the idea that the breakdown was caused by homesickness. In World War I the term shell-shock indicated that the etiological factor was the neurological damage due to excessive exposure to shelling and bombing. After the Great War, the growing influence of psychoanalysis on psychiatry shifted the emphasis to unconscious conflicts as vulnerability-increasing factors expressed in the term war neurosis. (Szykierski 941)

3A few decades later, WWII brought into usage terms such as “combat exhaustion,” “combat fatigue,” and “combat stress reaction,” while Vietnam would further enlarge the clinical nomenclature with the introduction of the term “post-traumatic stress reaction” (PTSR). World War I was however unprecedented in terms of the numbers of psychological casualties treated, with the result that “war trauma” remains one of the most widely used terms.

4John Galsworthy’s literary prophecy about the impact of the war on literature thus proved to be remarkably perceptive: “That stress will most likely have a more ultimate and powerful influence upon literature than the war itself” (cited from Eksteins, “Memory…” 312). Writers of fiction, in their focus on psychological trauma and madness, understood as the symptoms of the crippling irreversible lesions inflicted on psychic health, helped the strictly scientific definition of war trauma to find its place in the general discourse of our culture. A fictional presentation of psychic damage may prove to be as significant as that of psychiatrists. In the discursive order of literary fiction, the ordinary soldier, often a minor character, may become the symbol of the mental and psychological catastrophe of the war. Sarah Cole writes: “The figure of the shell-shocked combatant almost immediately provided writers and other artists with a kind of paradigm for the modern condition.” She also points out that the writers “emblematized the war not in death or in physical injury, but in psychological wounds […]” (Cole 194).

5The “modern condition” clearly exhibits several characteristic features which are specific to war trauma. Among these, we may mention, first of all, the “silencing of combat experience,” evident in what are two parallel narrative processes observable in the immediate post-war period. On the one hand, there was the unprecedented influx of mentally damaged patients, the result of which was the scientific narrativization of the patient’s war trauma and psychic distress. On the other hand, there was the endeavour of the writer to produce a convincing fictionalization of the experience of the returned combatant. The result is an interesting similarity between the style and narration of the ordeal of World War I found in fictional texts (those by D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf in particular) and the contemporary psychoanalytical recording of the psychic effects of the war in those who survive. In her paper “German War memories: Narratability and the biographical and social functions of remembering,” Gabriele Rosental thus addresses the question of the “non-narratability” of the experience endured in the years of WWI. She identifies a clutching to the orientational parameters provided by what is most factual and external as a feature of the testimony of WWI veterans: dates of conscription, the military-bureaucratic numbers which identifies one’s army unit. Traumatized soldiers tend to offer:

[…] evaluations of experience (such as “one felt as if one was imprisoned”) rather than narration of stories of interactions. War operations – the entire time spent in the trenches – are blocked out, in contrast to the narrative working through of time before being sent to the front, during hospitalization, and at the end of the war. (Rosental 211)

6Helen Wussow, referring to the studies of war trauma by Eric Reed and F. Schauwecker, emphasizes the fact that “whoever comes home from the front is silent. He steps from a region ruled by the deed into a region where the word is everything” (cited from Wussow 86). Fiction would appear to abide by this inclination to avoid any direct references to combat, by way of the detailed memory and attempted verbalization of scenes which are explicitly shocking. This phenomenon will come in here for detailed analysis.

7Another important feature characterizing the practice of post-war artists, in their effort to address the ordeal of WWI, is the preoccupation with feelings which might replace traumatic memories. Bion observes: “[…] love had died. Love for anyone and anything” (Bion 202). Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1928) remarks: “When the guns fired in August 1914, did the faces of men and women show so plain in each other’s eyes that romance was killed” (ROO 15). D. H. Lawrence would repeatedly return to this same verdict through the words of his characters, who refer to love as being “panic-stricken” (BL 83) during the war, or who put it this way: “Is it possible that anybody forty years old should still be in love? Ach! I had thought it impossible any more; after the war!” (BL 77). As Keith Cushman has pointed out, “[…] nearly all the love relationships in [Lawrence’s England, My England collection] are battles” (Cushman 29). In the cinema, paradoxically, the year 1927 was to see the launching of 22 films with the word “love” in their title: Love on the Beach, Love at the Crossroads, Betty Peterson’s Love, and even Bloody Love (Eksteins 307). Thus the various possible depictions of love, whether in film or in literature (including its depiction as a battle), represented one of the ways through which to endeavour to deal with the trauma.

8The tension between these two features – the silencing of the pain and the preoccupation with love – is supplemented by another tendency: the resistance to memories and their replacement by other psychic tendencies, in accordance with a defense mechanism of reversal. Freud noted: “The Homeric ghosts come to life, for better and for worse, when they drink blood” (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams). This metaphor, which attempts to encompass the entire circuit of trauma, suffering and memory, implies, in the words of Leonard Shengold, a process of reversal and displacement, where what is pleasurable is the figurative and psychic token for what is painful and traumatic (Shengold 122). As a result, the dilemma of remembering or forgetting brings into play a whirlpool of conflicting emotions which sustain the dynamic of fictional narrativization.

9Apart from very few novels which glorify physical force and courage in battle, the artistic world of the 1920s and after – Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Richard Aldington, Ernest Hemingway and others – generally “denounced the war as a futile slaughter, a monstrous injustice, a political and social catastrophe” (Eksteins 313). Lawrence’s view of the war was fuelled by outrage and anger: “I hate and detest the war, it is all wrong, all foolish, all a wicked mistake” (Letters II 255). His direct contact with the war machine was limited to his summons to the conscription office. Richard Aldington wrote: “[…] it was this conscription threat which brought him face to face with the reality of the war” (Aldington 157). Carl Krockel interprets the case of Lawrence’s “Nightmare” in the light of the general clinical literature about testimony and trauma, arguing that it presents “the narrator’s revulsion of Britain and humanity in general as a consequence of the war” (Krockel 156). He interprets the text’s structural organization as a kind of traumatic flashback, arguing that as such it may represent “a repressed sense of helplessness and guilt from not being able to contribute to the war effort” (Krockel 174). Krockel’s argument is at the heart of my analysis here of Lawrence’s artistic representation of trauma.

10Virginia Woolf makes only passing comments on the war in her diaries and letters, expressing her dislike of patriotic sentiment and the senselessness of the militaristic mentality. Apart from this, she comments on air raids, guns firing, Lytton Strachey’s tribunal, Sassoon’s poetry and protest, and the Women’s Cooperative Guilds. Many members of Woolf’s circle were pacifists. She met German prisoners, an experience which in itself contributed to a mood of depression in her fiction. Tracy Hargreaves writes that “although the 1919 campaign medals bore the inscription ‘The Great War Fought for Civilization,’ there was a belief (popular with Bloomsbury) that, rather than upholding it, the war heralded the collapse of civilization” (Hargreaves 138). Woolf embraced her husband’s widely publicized view to this effect. During and after the war, however, Woolf admitted that she could not write about it, about something she did not know at all. What she did achieve through her writing was the creation of an impressive account of war trauma and madness.

11Through the fictionalization of trauma and madness, Lawrence strove to deal with the post-traumatic effects of the war, effects which were repressed and channeled into other activities, but which nevertheless managed to leak out, causing their vile Medusa poison to seep into everyday human relationships, into mental states, assuming the force of a destructive agent. As for Woolf’s Septimus Smith in Mrs Dalloway, I shall try to show how Woolf turns war trauma into a symbolic image and a vehicle which affects the way that subjectivity is constructed for others (in Friedman’s terminology), while also establishing the madness of Septimus as the sole truth against which the lies of the sane society can be given figural comprehension.

12Our aim is thus to examine – both literarily and psychologically – several characters of Lawrence’s and Woolf’s fictions whose function is to represent a range of psychic phenomena: witnessing, suffering, repression, and their inversions, remembering, re-creation, re-living, doing so through the reversal of the traumatic experience. My purpose is to show how as writers they depict the two stages in the formation of trauma in the psyche: during (or immediately before) and after the war. I have thus chosen to focus on stories where Lawrence presents the reader with two settings, proceeding in a non-chronological order. My aim is to show how Lawrence’s characters and those of Woolf chart the beginning of madness, then the actual manifestation of the various symptoms of trauma: speech impediments, silencing, non-narratability, etc., in the returned soldier. Rather than focusing on plot, the analysis focuses on the psychic symptoms manifested by the different characters, thus demonstrating a more universal truth of the human psyche, by way of the charting of the various signs of its slow degradation. What is psychological by nature is thus rendered by way of the discursive order of fiction, in an endeavour to bring home to the reader the troublesome condition of a war-traumatized soldier, and how the madness and trauma originate and function in the psyche. The choice of texts has been dictated by the focus on the psychic modality of the traumatic registration of experience.

War time: the roots of madness

13Although combat in general was not actually a widely-dealt with subject for the writers of the post-war period, a few powerful stories by Lawrence offer an exception. Freud discovered a similarity between his hysterical patients and those displaying the symptoms of shell-shock, while Lawrence projected the overall madness of the war onto certain individual characters. W. R. Bion exclaimed at Christmas 1917, “Had every one gone mad?” (quoted in Szykiersky 938), while Lawrence showed that madness, or a psychic dysfunction, clearly distinguishing man’s behavior from normality, is rooted in the war, whether the actual hostilities or the relentless routine of drilling. Celia Malone Kingsbury writes: “During the Great War, the madness submerged in Edwardian culture erupts full force into a major conflagration” (Kingsbury 102). As a result, the question “Am I going mad?” became universal. “Ford, Graves, and Lawrence all struggled to survive it, and, to the extent that they lived to tell the tale, they did” (Kingsbury 102). Woolf entrusts Septimus Smith with the task of voicing the same question: “And would HE go mad?” (MD 100) – and immediately exposes the hypocrisy of contemporary medicine: “Sir William said he never spoke of ‘madness’; he called it not having a sense of proportion.” (MD 107).

14In “The Prussian Officer” (1914) Lawrence looks at the extremes in the repressive confinement of emotional experience which only a military system can foster, and at the ensuing mental deterioration. The story’s setting accommodates both the beauty of the landscape, with the sublime, towering mountains, and the confinement of the military drilling range. The underlying homoerotic attraction of the Captain to his orderly is shown against the background of marches, orders, and severe discipline, which stifle any personal freedom. The image of the bruises on the young soldier’s flesh highlight the anomaly of the brutality being played out against the backdrop of the majestic landscape.

15The figure of the Captain, continually riding a horse, with his merciless eyes and trembling hand, has evoked various responses. “Madness” may still be a questionable word. The text does however provide some pointers. First described as the man who looks as if he “fights with life” (PO 87-88), the officer’s image gradually becomes more intense and more extreme, as he is depicted in terms of his uncontrollable flights of passion his tyranny – both physical and psychological. The narrative takes it for granted that bullying and torture all go unpunished. In the circumstances of imminent war, they are the signs of normality. It is as if the very spirit of militarism were embedded in the Captain’s consciousness, a consciousness increasingly prey to the unconscious fascination with everything that the military is not: warmth, the reception of life “straight from instinct” (PO 38), and shapely peasant hands. As the repression of any “unmilitary” emotion unfolds, the word “mad” and its synonyms increasingly accompany the descriptions of the Captain: “The Captain grew madly irritable” (PO 41); “But the officer seemed to be going irritably insane…” (PO 42); “The Captain perceived it, and was mad with irritation” (PO 42); “The hands of the officer twitched and seemed to be full of mad flame” (PO 43). This madness has been variously read as the expression of German militarism and as proof of the psychoanalytic theory of repression and denial (“He refused the event of the past night – denied it had ever been – and was successful in his denial” (PO 47).

16Against the historical background, with the disaster so ominously present in the air, madness can also be read as a pervasive disease of civilization. As Friedman observes, “But the madness even infects the witness” (Friedman 67). Thus, the orderly, having rebelled against violence, finds himself becoming affected. Lawrence will now apply the adjective “mad” to the young soldier: “But he was going mad with fever and thirst” (PO 10); “He stood still, mad with suffering, his hands crisping and clutching. Then he was twisting in a paroxysm on the grass” (PO 20).

17The narrow focus of the story (two consciousnesses, the virtual absence of any other characters) concentrates the reader’s attention. What is foregrounded is the immersion of human consciousness in the depths of imbecility and trauma. As Friedman puts it, “The interpersonal relationships depicted are themselves infected with obsession and madness” (Friedman 67).

18“The Thorn in the Flesh” (1914) is another story set in the military world which addresses the inner chronology of psychic disaster. Based on the textual contrast between the vital forces of nature and the restriction and closure of the military consciousness, the story highlights the way the militaristic order and discipline contradict human expression. Bachmann does not fit into a system whose end is the demonstration of extreme physical agility, unabated strength, intrepid, selfless service. On the contrary, his frailty of frame and heart fall short of the officer’s expectations. The collision between military expectations and individual frailties causes him to break down and leads to his sense of bodily shame: “Within his own flesh burned and shouldered the restless shame. He could not gather himself together. There was a gap in his soul. The shame within him seemed to displace his strength and his manhood” (TF 30).

19The key factors of trauma and psychic disorder – repression and shame – are given a subtle actualization in the imagery and psychological analysis of another of Lawrence’s stories. In “England, My England,” the focus is on the war itself and ultimately on a battle scene. The author charts the inner degradation of the psyche, under the pressure of mass feeling, mob instincts, and the will of superior officers. “It did not suit [Egbert] to be a modern soldier. In the thick, gritty, hideous khaki his subtle physique was extinguished as if he had been killed. In the ugly intimacy of the camp his thoroughbred sensibilities were just degraded” (EME 29).

20Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents describes pathology, or psychic disorder, as the “cases in which parts of a person’s own body, even portions of his own mental life – his perceptions, thoughts and feelings – appear alien to him and as not belonging to his ego” (CID 13). As if to prove the point, Egbert experiences a similar dislocation of the boundaries between his self and the external world. His family life, his wife Winifred and his pre-war concerns, become unreal and non-existent. The death feeling erases everything else:

But in the swinging of the pendulum of pain, swinging ever nearer and nearer, to touch him into an agony of consciousness and a consciousness of agony, gradually the knowledge emerged – he must be hit in the head – hit on the left brow; if so, there would be blood – was there blood? – could he feel blood in his left eye? Then the clanging seemed to burst the membrane of his brain, like death-madness. (EME 33)

21Keith Sagar, speaking of the central character Friedeburg in the story “The Captain’s Doll” (1923) points out that “In the army he is a puppet, the army holding the strings which keep him upright and putting him through the motions of life. It is, however, a life supported entirely from the outside. Those strings once cut, the puppet becomes a rag doll with no support or motive power” (Sagar 13). This characterization applies to all three protagonists mentioned above: the orderly, Bachmann, Egbert. A helpful psychoanalytic observation by Louis Breger substantiates the hypothesis of a mental breakdown: “Just being in the army and having to follow orders might be enough” (Breger 264). In the stories mentioned, military order and the controlling repression of the individual subject are clearly described as a process of disablement, depriving a man of his powers of reasoning and his faculties for conscious personal decisions.

The returned soldier: silenced trauma and “pseudo-military outlets”

22Sarah Cole states that “[…] The return of the soldier – each individual soldier as well as their accumulated returns – became a literary event, in itself a moment of disruption, which also transfixed an array of social changes and uncertainties” (Cole 191). One of the most emblematic fictional instances is Septimus Smith (Mrs Dalloway), who reenacts the unacknowledged psychic damage of the returned soldier. The figure of the war-damaged character looms over the narration of Mrs. Dalloway, mimicking the function of other canonical truth-telling lunatics in fiction such as Quixote and Hamlet. However the tragic aura of Septimus bears a greater weight than the irresolvable conflict of the archetypal lunatics of the literary tradition. “A literary experiment in madness is obliged to contain signs that point beyond madness, which differentiates it from a really insane discourse” (Thiher 266). Woolf, who was well-read in and personally familiar with the symptoms of war neuroses, depicts Septimus through the vivid signs of “impaired self-perception” (Wussow 124). In A Writer’s Diary, Woolf explains: “I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide, the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side” (Woolf, AWD 52).

23Woolf interweaves this character into the patchwork of other represented psyches. As Cole observes, “In addition to figuring the return from the war in terms of characters and plots, writers developed a symbolic language to express and capture the condition of the returned men” (Cole 191). In order to make Septimus’s traumatic discourse an artistic achievement, the symbolism must therefore venture beyond the immediate substance of war experience, even as it feeds on it. Septimus’s consciousness is thus, in its entire structure and its form of expression, a living trauma, unmistakably defined by the blending of the past and the present, wartime and peacetime life. The ghost of his soldier-friend, Evans, killed in battle, accompanies Septimus in his walks in the park, haunting the vision of the London cityscape. “There was his hand; there the dead. White things were assembling behind the railings opposite. But he dared not look. Evans was behind the railings!” (MD 28). “He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree. The dead were in Thessaly, Evans sang, among the orchids. There they waited till the War was over, and now the dead, now Evans himself —” (MD 78). Because of its persistent recurrence, and because of the total silencing of any other war narrative, the ghostly presence of a killed soldier is the metonymic figuring of the historical reality of war: a real, yet ghostly if ghastly, event, subject to a discursive taboo, due to its macabre quality, while persisting as a reminder to the reader of its subliminal presence, in other scenes or representations.

24Another symbolization the novel achieves is that of the numbing of love and human feeling in the afflicted soul. Septimus is immune to love and to compassion. His inability to feel reverberates through the text:

When Evans was killed, just before the Armistice, in Italy, Septimus, far from showing any emotion or recognising that here was the end of a friendship, congratulated himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably. The War had taught him. It was sublime. He had gone through the whole show, friendship, European War, death, had won promotion, was still under thirty and was bound to survive. He was right there. The last shells missed him. He watched them explode with indifference […]. (MD 96)

25Thiher’s argues that “Woolf created works that record the penetration of daily life by scientific knowledge. With less irony than Joyce, and without parody, Woolf speculates on the ways in which science permeates daily consciousness, and she seeks to show that knowledge affects sensibility as it orders the characters’ perception of the world” (Thiher 220). I have reservations about this claim, since in Mrs Dalloway the two doctors – Holmes and Bradshaw – stand in a parodic opposition to the acute sensitivity and reflexivity of Septimus’s consciousness. “Dr. Holmes examined him. There was nothing whatever the matter, said Dr. Holmes. Oh, what a relief! What a kind man, what a good man! thought Rezia” (MD 100). Furthermore, the doctors prove to be impotent and even ridiculous, when faced with the devious meandering of the war-damaged consciousness:

To his patients he gave three-quarters of an hour; and if in this exacting science which has to do with what, after all, we know nothing about — the nervous system, the human brain — a doctor loses his sense of proportion, as a doctor he fails. […] orders rest in bed; rest in solitude; silence and rest; rest without friends, without books, without messages; six months’ rest; until a man who went in weighing seven stone six comes out weighing twelve. (MD 109-110).

26Septimus’s war experience and his present psychic disorder elude the diagnosis formulated through the categories of any routine clinical psychology. Woolf’s fictionalization of an extreme psychic state takes the reader beyond the conventional boundaries of diagnosis, in the endeavour to arrive at an apposite qualification of the condition:

Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language — Antony and Cleopatra — had shrivelled utterly. How Shakespeare loathed humanity — the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidity of the mouth and the belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair. Dante the same. Aeschylus (translated) the same. (MD 98)

27Thiher argues that “Woolf, forever on the edge of sanity herself, gives due recognition in the works like Mrs Dalloway to the Pascalian heart’s power to construct, in the shadows of its desire, its own inferno; and in this novel’s depiction of insanity Woolf confronts science with a mad consciousness that challenges science in its foundations” (Thiher 222). The question about insanity is even, in a postmodern manner, self-reflexive. Ironically, Septimus ruminates about it, too: “[H]is brain was perfect; it must be the fault of the world then — that he could not feel” (MD 98).

28Septimus’s insanity borders on normality, thus challenging conventionally clear-cut definitions and diagnoses. It is set in a pure opposition to the outside world. Through its extreme sensitivity and its construction of additional meaning by way of the interpretation of signs in peacetime, it can be juxtaposed with the process of interpreting visual and auditory signs in the war, where often a noise or a change of scenery were omens of danger and the imminence of death. “The word ‘time’ split its husk; poured its riches over him; and from his lips fell like shells, like shavings from a plane, without his making them, hard, white, imperishable words, and flew to attach themselves to their places in an ode to Time; an immortal ode to Time” (MD 78).

29Breger points out that “Freud, committed to a theory that explained the war neuroses in terms of forces internal to each individual – the sexual instinct, primitive aggression – had no language for the dislocation of identity and social estrangements that deeply troubled so many former soldiers” (Breger 262). It is the writers of fiction who created this language, while at the same time “making a claim for the epistemic power of literature against science” (Thiher 224). Woolf thus elaborated the fictional prototype of a distinct kind of madness – the condition induced by the war, one not likely to be paralleled by other derangements, a madness which generates existential speculations about the meaning and implications of the ordeal of the war, setting off a process of phenomenological interrogation of the realms of axiology. The madness leads to an indictment of “human nature”: “Human nature, in short, was on him — the repulsive brute, with the blood-red nostrils. Holmes was on him. Dr. Holmes came quite regularly every day. Once you stumble, Septimus wrote on the back of a postcard, human nature is on you. Holmes is on you” (MD 102). Thus by giving voice to insanity and creating a vent for trauma, Woolf implies that the “portrayal of madness in fiction obliges the rationalist mind to hesitate in a facile affirmation of its mastery of the world, and to contemplate the limits that circumscribe the mind in its attempt to grasp its own nature” (Thiher 271).

30While the figure of the returned soldiers in Lawrence’s fiction deserves a thorough analysis and as, Tate puts it, “Nowhere do history and fantasy meet and clash more strongly than around the figure of the soldier returned from the war” (Tate 96), it is important to note that “Lawrence’s injured soldier is erect, virile, and powerful, and will stand in defiant (even perverse) opposition to representations of war-injured men in the following two decades” (Tate 106). Lawrence did not wish to sustain the conventional post-war image of the soldier as a helpless victim. Not that he presented the antithetical image. However in several Lawrencian texts trauma finds its verbal expression through the discourse of consciousness. Michael Bell, in his Introduction to the Penguin edition of the England, My England collection, observes that the “apparently casual narrative-shaping proves time and again to embody not just an external situation, but an underlying psychological structure which is often reinforced by mythic allusion. The narrative structure is the structure of an internal condition” (Bell, xiv).

31A prominent feature of Lawrence’s presentation of trauma is the identification of a character as “a soldier,” thus making his participation in the war a part of his identity. The character in “The Shadow in the Rose Garden” is always identified by his “gentlemanly, military voice” and as a “soldierly fellow” with a “compact, soldier’s head” (SRG 74). Hadrian in the eponymous story has his “soldier’s cap neatly on his head” (H 97). Lawrence addresses his characters as a “young soldier,” a “horse-soldier,” as if this is the character’s badge of identity, even when the war is over. The military uniform, almost everywhere singling out a character, functions as a kind of disguise, a forceful element in the visual image of a man, one which Winifred in “England, My England” loves in a kind of selfless abandonment, when her otherwise ne’er-do-well husband wears it during his war service. It also intensifies the love which the female character in “The Thimble” feels for her husband: “If you want to love your husband,” she said to her friends, with splendid recklessness, “you should see him in khaki” (T 190). She later realizes, that all “she had of him, vividly, was the visual image” (T 190).

32“The Thimble” epitomizes issues of trauma and the attempted return to ordinary life after the war. In its sparse description and its authorial orchestration of response, it encapsulates the essence of war trauma and the way it entered the fictional discourse, before finding an acceptable or conveyable psychiatric narrativization. Hepburn’s bodily disfigurement – the broken mouth, “the bottom teeth all gone, the side of the chin battered small,” a horrible seam of a scar in “the middle of the cheek,” the mouth “sunk at the bottom with half the lip cut away” (T 196) – offer a generic image of a war cripple. In the specific context of Lawrence’s symbolic representation, the wounded mouth stands as a symbol for the impairment of communication, for the unbridgeable divergence between someone who fought in the war and someone who didn’t. Wussow concludes that “Hepburn’s smashed jaw is indicative of what Lawrence saw as the difficulties of communication between men and women during the war. Newborn, the Hepburns are resurrected from the death of the war years. As Cole explains, “The soldier’s body came to offer a compelling visual vocabulary for the specific trauma of war, as well as a touchstone for cultural responsibility, and seemed to demand not only unique forms of attention, but also new linguistic practices” (Cole 189). The fictionalization of war trauma thus permeates the narration, changing the customary map of human consciousness: the marginalization of those wounded and traumatized is followed by their foregrounding. War trauma is not only “contained” within, it also disfigures the self for the rest of a man’s life, as it mutilates his body. Thus Hepburn’s white forehead and trembling hand lead to the awareness that “[H]is nerves were broken” (T 196). His “maimed” and “crippled” mouth and jaw parallel his failed effort to speak. The following is a depiction of the inner trauma which only war can inflict: “[…] his forehead was white, and his hair brushed smooth, like a sick man’s. And his eyes were like the eyes of a child that has been ill, blue and abstract, as if they only listened from a long way off, and did not see any more. So far-off, he looked, like a child that belongs more to death than to life” (T 197). The abstractedness of the man’s expression, the sightless eyes, the “dream-psychology” of his being, the imitation of Lazarus but “as yet unrisen,” – these are the essence of war trauma: alive, yet almost dead, looking, yet unseeing.

33As I noted at the beginning, the idiom of love is ironically disseminated through the trauma-ridden post-war consciousness. Statements by Woolf and by Bion regarding the death of love due to the war echo Lawrence’s conception of re-birth and resurrection. The two characters – Mr and Mrs Hepburn in the story “The Thimble,” voice this conviction:

“We’re going to love each other,’ he said.
“Didn’t we love each other before?” challenged her voice.
“No, we couldn’t. We weren’t born.” (T 199-200)

34It is as if Lawrence were offering a cure for the trauma caused by the impact on the senses of things seen and of sounds heard: the sight of the dead bodies and the noise of the bombing, the firing and the agonized cries of the wounded. Touch could possibly be the cure: “Am I going to love you?” asks Hepburn of his deeply shocked wife in “The Thimble.” “Again he stretched forward and touched her hand, with the tips of his fingers. And the touch lay still, completed there” (T 200).

35Another prominent feature in Lawrence’s depiction of war trauma is the complex relationship between past and the present, orchestrating that change in human nature which had Woolf proclaimed in 1910 – and Lawrence in 1915. Hepburn thus mentions two forms of life, knowledge, love: before and after the war. “Why, then – I don’t know what you were. I’ve had my head cracked and some dark let in, since then. So I don’t know what you were, because it’s all gone, don’t you see” (T 199).

36The past is not however always to be associated with the dead. It haunts Septimus in the image of Evans, it lurks in a metaphorical darkness, whose wall is impervious to the outsider (as in “The Blind Man”). Rosental thus concludes that the returned soldiers were to create a distance from the past, making it “impossible to experience the past as different from the present” and creating “an orientational problem in situations which require action” (Rosental 214).

37In his appraisal of Lawrence’s gallery of returned soldiers, Tate views many characters as serene and unruffled. However, if we turn to Clifford Chatterley, we learn that he was “shipped home smashed.” His paralyzed lower half represents, together with Lawrence’s symbolization of the impotence of those ruled by the dictates of pure mind and reason, the physical legacy of the war, a legacy which inevitably poisons the consciousness: “Slowly, slowly, the wound to the soul beg[an] to make itself felt, like a bruise, which only slowly deepens its terrible ache till it fills the psyche […] Now slowly it began to assert itself in a spread of fear, almost paralysis” (LCL 49).

38Joe, the character in “Monkey Nuts,” who also falls into Tate’s category of the “un-traumatized,” is a sort of mindless servant, capable of functioning only within a disciplinary and hierarchical order. For Cole, he is “a pure product of war. If the war has created new feminists, it has also formed a totally inassimilable breed of men, capable of functioning only within male communities, dedicated to military notions of leadership and obedience” (Cole 208).

39Sometimes the issue of trauma is resolved in a more vitalist manner. While Tate perceives an “absence of trauma in his war writings” (Tate 109), it is possible to argue that even the seemingly stable characters support Bion’s assumption that, whatever the modes of containment, the experience of war will make its way into consciousness in subtle ways – in other words, through a series of neurotic symptoms. Besides, Lawrence’s rhetoric alerts us to the absence of the empathy, pity and sympathy one might expect to find in the connotations of a writing seeking to address the war. The case of the “The Blind Man” supports such a reading, insofar as we never learn anything about Maurice’s war experience. His war narrative is a gap which the text blanks out. This exemplifies the non-narratibility of World War I experience, as mentioned earlier. Wussow points out that :

[t]he difficulties associated with language during the First World War, the “prostituted” use of words by governments and the popular press, are reflected in Woolf’s and Lawrence’s writings of the period. In the stories that comprise England, My England, the prominence afforded the written and spoken word suggests wartime concerns with language. Furthermore, the difficulties engendered by linguistic acts point to the disintegration of communication between individuals. (Wussow 78)

40What we have instead is the shield of Maurice’s blindness, which covers the memory of the war. “Psychic erosion and physical exhaustion caused fragmentation of memory” (Szykierski 947). Maurice’s words communicate truths known only to him. Reality and hallucination interchange with one another. If Maurice is partly a composite of returned soldiers and an epitome of separation and isolation, his fate suggests that society will never become a whole again. Maurice exemplifies a condition of mental vulnerability. However his mind resists the grip of madness as it struggles to survive. It is a mind learning from experience – not a mind that is broken. As the psychoanalyst Dorit Szykierski testifies, “an ability to endure the horrible truth about the reality of war is crucial to mental survival” (Szykierski 959). The blindness and the scar, as Tate suggests, have “an unexpected effect on his marriage, bringing him closer to his wife Isabel” (Tate 104). Even though the couple are defined as “blissfully happy,” this happiness is shadowed by Lawrence’s “but,” “yet,” “still.” Tate acknowledges that “Despite this mystical euphoria, the characters are assailed with madness and depression” (Tate 104).

41The suppressed verbalization of trauma takes on a further disguise when, in Robert Graves’ words, it achieves a “pseudo-military outlet” (Graves 188). The returned soldiers have a touch of aggression, sometimes blind and unjustified, sometimes unconscious. The wounded Lance-Corporal Goyte (“Wintry Peacock”) had “thought he’d like the life” (in the war), but the text tells us “he was sick of it” (WP 80). Now that he is back home, he smiles maliciously at the thought of his Belgian mistress, and he threatens “to do that blasted Joey in” (WP 91). Wussow observes that soldiers are “comfortable with obscenities” (Wussow 81). Thus violent acts, such as Alfred’s determination to kill the peacock, Henry’s secretly intended murder of Jill (The Fox) and similar tendencies found in other stories and novels featuring soldier characters – all represent vents for aggressive energy or for its displacement. In many of Lawrence’s texts, the mesmerizing power of a returned soldier almost blinds the woman he chooses. Sagar describes this scenario as a removal of a man from “the human frame of moral reference” and his release “into an amoral world of wilderness and predation” (Sagar 17).

42Both Lawrence and Woolf figure an extremity of experience that is traumatic and psychically damaging through the creation of a fictional space in which a new character type demands a place and a voice. The works we have analyzed “fit into a war-time paradigm of extreme passivity in the face of the other’s death” (Friedman 58). The analyses of such characters demonstrate that the “debilitating mental response to war could be both prolonged and delayed” (Cole 193) and that the absence of descriptive battle scenes goes along with the fact of the non-narratability of World War I experience, due to its unprecedented character: “a battlefield of invisible armies, a war in which the soldiers inhabited a blasted landscape, huddled in trenches, unable to move or act” (Breger 253). As a result, the sealed off, “contained” unconscious memories materialize in madness, finding “pseudo-military outlets” at the price of an inability to move beyond the military order and its camaraderie. War neurosis thus comes to represent a new modern condition, defined by alienation, the lapse into melancholy, the maiming of the soul and of the ability to love. As Lawrence and Woolf demonstrate, war is not a stepping stone to manhood, and a bodily wound is not a “badge of courage.”

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Marina Ragachewskaya, « War Trauma and Madness in the Fiction of D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 46 | 2015, mis en ligne le 12 novembre 2015, consulté le 03 décembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Marina Ragachewskaya

Minsk State Linguistic University, Minsk, Belarus

Marina Ragachewskaya is an Associate Professor at the world literature department at Minsk State Linguistics University, Belarus. She has published widely on D.H. Lawrence, psychoanalytic literary studies and contemporary British writers (around 100 articles in English, Russian and Belarussian). Her recent books are Desire for Love: The Secret Longings of the Human Heart in D.H. Lawrence’s Works (CSP, 2012) and Psychoanalysis in Fiction: David Herbert Lawrence – in Russian (MSLU, 2013). Her academic interests include fiction interpretation, psychoanalysis, modernism and postmodernism.

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