Love and Bondage: Lawrence's tired observations

Nina Strohminger'04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

In his chapter 'Theatre' from "Twilight in Italy", D.H. Lawrence gives us a lesson in the biology of the sexes:

That which drives men and women together, the indomitable necessity, is like a bondage of the people. They submit as under compulsion, under constraint. They come together mostly in anger and in violence of destructive passion. There is no comradeship between men and women, none whatsoever, but rather a condition of battle, reserve, hostility.

On Sundays the uncomfortable, excited, unwilling youth walks for an hour with his sweetheart, at a little distance from her, on the public highway in the afternoon. This is a concession to the necessity of marriage. There is no real courting, no happiness of being together, only the roused excitement which is based on a fundamental hostility. There is very little flirting, and what there is is of the subtle, cruel kind, like a sex duel...there is only the great reverence for the infant, and the reverence for fatherhood or motherhood, as the case may be; but there is no spiritual love. [emphasis mine] (57)

Lawrence's "observations" have been made before: that the very act of love is a fight, that there is a "battle of the sexes". For him, there is an irony in the courtship of these Italians-- he talks of unwillingness, of concessions, of necessity. Marriage, he postulates, involves not romance but crude Darwinian forces, subjecting all to the direness of the human condition: that is to say, our animal instinct to procreate. Resistance is futile. As we read on, it becomes clear that Lawrence has probably read his fair share of Freud:

The phallus is still divine. But the spirit, the mind of man, this has become nothing. So the women triumph...The woman in her maternity is the law-giver, the supreme authority. The authority of man, in work, in public affairs, is something trivial in comparison. The pathetic ignominy of the village male is complete on Sunday afternoon, on his great day of liberation, when he is accompanied home, drunk but sinister, by the erect, slightly cowed woman. (58)

According to Lawrence, the Italians suffer from excessive phallus worship; and from the weakness inherent in the flesh, in nature, and, by logical conclusion, in woman. Under normal circumstances, man tries to get away from maternity (and his Oedipus complex) by building up civilizations and occupying his time with intellectual pursuits. The act of sex, in contrast, is unmanly: it is an act of weakness and castration, Freud (and now Lawrence) tells us. Our poor Italian men, though, are not strong enough, and their patheticness is highlighted by their weekly attempts to drown the sorrows of bondage and unmanliness in drink, after which they are escorted home by their "erect" wives (phallic imagery is, I am sure, here intended). Lawrence adds that their only escape is emigration to America.

D.H. Lawrence has a habit of using "The Italian People" as a foil for humanity. Does this rhetorical device work? Why do you think he uses it? Bear in mind that his intended audience is probably not Italians.

In a similar vein, Lawrence argues that, in Italy anyway, female fertility overshadows and makes impossible "male divinity". He insists that the pitiable state of Italians is evident right down to the respective theater cultures of different nations-- as compared with, say, Scandinavia's "exciting" and "sensational" Ibsen. On what grounds can he justify these supposed differences in national temperament? Is Lawrence's nothing more than a cloying, vapid sentiment?

And finally, is Lawrence's view of the roles of the sexes in society enlightened or extreme?


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Last modified 26 October 2003