"Out of It": Alienation and Coercion in D. H. Lawrence
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 183-203



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"Out Of It":
Alienation and Coercion in D. H. Lawrence

Anne E. Fernald


I have, then, given my hostages [. . .]. Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence: the great tradition of the English novel is there.

—F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition

In Fantasia of the Unconscious D. H. Lawrence writes: "But remember, dear reader, please, that there is not the slightest need for you to believe me, or even read me" (33). Lawrence gambles with his audience here, daring them to leave him alone. In the case of Fantasia, he seems to have lost: Lawrence's books do not enjoy anything like the secure reputation that F. R. Leavis and other early admirers predicted for him. Still, the kind of gamble Lawrence takes with his audience—even if it fails—deserves attention, for it challenges the existing ideas of how modernist texts model conversation to elicit a response from the reader. That gamble, which appears most obviously in the more abrasive moments of his nonfiction, has two forms: harangues that pick a fight with the reader and expressions of alienation—which Lawrence labels being out of it.

Picking a fight and walking away lie at the extremes of conversation; each tests the boundaries of social life. Stanley Fish argues for the use of such behavior, which may yield "a realignment" (356) of the prevailing discourse. Lawrence's commitment to the power of language to realign opinions is as intense as and less cynical than Fish's; as Lawrence says, "I can't help it. It is my passionate instinct" [End Page 183] (Fantasia 115). Since Lawrence values ideas as much as he values relationships, scenes of coercion and alienation emerge as signs of the struggle to change people's minds; the importance of this struggle is matched by its difficulty.

Margery Sabin argues that "the interplay of speech" in Lawrence's fiction and his travel writing checks his didacticism and offers imaginative renewal (139), and Carol Siegel shows how many of these conversations develop his notion of "female nature as essentially oppositional" (16). But how does his commitment to conversation, to interaction, affect how he expresses his political ideas? This is an important question for Lawrence in particular and for modernist writers more generally, for it is precisely modernist politics that most trouble readers now. Rather than focusing on the clearly ugly fascism of Wyndham Lewis or Ezra Pound, which remains interesting precisely because the error is clear, this paper proposes an approach to even more unsettling texts, the ones that are only sort of distasteful and that implicate the reader more fully in the political dilemma. By continually challenging us to fight back or cease reading, Lawrence forces the questions: Does reading mean assent? How far are we willing to follow? What kind of resistance can the reader mount?

In order to answer these questions, I have focused on Women in Love and on Fantasia of the Unconscious, which Linda Ruth Williams has described as a "highly systematized but certifiable schizo-rant" (Sex in the Head 12). Fantasia was almost universally panned and, despite the admiration of Leavis and W. H. Auden, has been largely ignored by critics and readers since. Still, this psychology book and the fiction of Lawrence's middle period (especially Women in Love) show how Lawrentian conversation offers a model of political engagement—on the part of both author and reader—that has been overlooked by most commentators on modernist politics.

Lawrence completed revisions of Women in Love in September 1919. He wrote his first psychology book, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, during the following January and composed Fantasia in June of 1921, completing it just as the unexpectedly hostile reviews of the first book appeared. Both Fantasia and Women in Love are important texts for Lawrence's middle period, when his interest in argument is both intellectually substantive (as it often is not in the fights among the colliers of his early fiction) and written so as to appear...