D.H. Lawrence and Shame

D. H. Lawrence is one of my favorite novelists. He was consummately talented in delving into the human soul and exploring its intricacies. In The Rainbow, he eloquently describes the vulnerable subjective world of a female toddler, Ursula, who is enthralled with her father. And on a particular day this enthrallment came to an excruciating end as he brutally crushed her delicate little world by abruptly introducing his own. (I quote an extensive excerpt from ch. 8; but you might appreciate the set-up even more and you can readily obtain it free on the internet.)

And she played on, because of her disappointment persisting even the more in her play. She dreaded work, because she could not do it as he did it. She was conscious of the great breach between them. She knew she had no power. The grown-up power to work deliberately was a mystery to her.

He would smash into her sensitive child’s world destructively. Her mother was lenient, careless The children played about as they would all day. Ursula was thoughtless-why should she remember things? If across the garden she saw the hedge had budded, and if she wanted these greeny-pink, tiny buds for bread-and-cheese, to play at teaparty with, over she went for them.

Then suddenly, perhaps the next day, her soul would almost start out of her body as her father turned on her, shouting:

“Who’s been tramplin’ an’ dancin’ across where I’ve just sowed seed? I know it’s you, nuisance! Can you find nowhere else to walk, but just over my seed beds? But it’s like you, that is-no heed but to follow your own greedy nose.”

It had shocked him in his intent world to see the zigzagging lines of deep little footprints across his work. The child was infinitely more shocked. Her vulnerable little soul was flayed and trampled. Why were the footprints there? She had not wanted to make them. She stood dazzled with pain and shame and unreality.

Her soul, her consciousness seemed to die away. She became shut off and senseless, a little fixed creature whose soul had gone hard and unresponsive. The sense of her own unreality hardened her like a frost. She cared no longer.

And the sight of her face, shut and superior with self-asserting indifference, made a flame of rage go over him. He wanted to break her.

“I’ll break your obstinate little face,” he said, through shut teeth, lifting his hand.

The child did not alter in the least. The look of indifference, complete glancing indifference, as if nothing but herself existed to her, remained fixed.

Yet far away in her, the sobs were tearing her soul. And when he had gone, she would go and creep under the parlour sofa, and lie clinched in the silent, hidden misery of childhood.

When she crawled out, after an hour or so, she went rather stiffly to play. She willed to forget. She cut off her childish soul from memory, so that the pain, and the insult should not be real. She asserted herself only. There was not nothing in the world but her own self. So very soon, she came to believe in the outward malevolence that was against her. And very early, she learned that even her adored father was part of this malevolence. And very early she learned to harden her soul in resistance and denial of all that was outside her, harden herself upon her own being.

She never felt sorry for what she had done, she never forgave those who had made her guilty. If he had said to her, “Why, Ursula, did you trample my carefully-made bed?” that would have hurt her to the quick, and she would have done anything for him. But she was always tormented by the unreality of outside things. The earth was to walk on. Why must she avoid a certain patch, just because it was called a seed-bed? It was the earth to walk on. This was her instinctive assumption. And when he bullied her, she became hard, cut herself off from all connection, lived in the little separate world of her own violent will.

I don’t think this father had any idea what he was doing when he insisted on his values and rules. He was just very angry and lashed out, oblivious to how devastating the fury appeared to his beloved, vulnerable little girl. The resulting shame caused her to retreat into a shell, into “the little separate world of her own violent will.”

Shame is one of the most basic human emotions, possibly the most primary experience we have as our ego begins to formulate. There is some sense in which we all get “shamed” into reality, into the “common-sense” world of everyday reality. But though it is “common-sense” to the world, to the little child who has yet to accept its proffered terms, it is a strange and bewildering world.

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2 thoughts on “D.H. Lawrence and Shame

  1. Pingback: The Other Side « Stories in 5 Minutes

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