When first reading D H Lawrence’s short story, The Prussian Officer, the text doesn’t appear to be overtly Modernist. The most defining aspect of Lawrence's work that distinguishes him from his Modernist contemporaries is his use of narrative voice. Lawrence chooses to use an omniscient narrator, a style indicative of the Victorian writers, rather than one of the ‘modernist’ forms of writing, such as free indirect discourse. Conversely, Lawrence attends carefully to themes and issues prevalent throughout Modernist fiction, with particular focus on consciousness and the fragmented individual. Lawrence appears to conflate a traditional style of writing with modernist themes to produce an innovative piece of work that distinguishes him from his fellow writers.
The Prussian Officer appears to experiment largely with the suffering and deterioration of the human psyche, something that is symptomatic of the Modernist’s; however, the use of an omniscient narrator holds the reader at a distance from the character. The reader isn’t invited to engage with the character’s dysfunctional psyche, as they are with Woolf’s Septimus or Joyce’s Daedalus, but to observe it. When Lawrence’s narrator states, “A hot flame ran in his [the Officer’s] blood” he is not provoking an empathetic response in the reader (Lawrence The Prussian Officer). The reader is not invited to feel the inflamed emotion of the Officer, but is exposed to an image of a character who was “a man incensed” (Lawrence The Prussian Officer). Interestingly critic Shirley Rose suggests, “If anyone learns through suffering, it is neither the victim or the victimizer, but a bystander, and, of course, ultimately the reader.” (Rose 75) A notion which isn’t only vindicated through the language Lawrence uses to construct his characters, but by the tumultuous environment of World War 1 which Lawrence was subject to.
Lawrence places the characters of the Orderly and Officer in a hierarchal structure associated to the war, however, it is interesting he shouldn’t allocate his characters specific names (aside from a brief reference to the Orderly as Schöner). Consequently, the individualisation of the character is reduced. The lack of individual identity allows Lawrence to look at the role suffering plays in the deterioration of consciousness and transformation of one’s perception. The juxtaposition of the Orderly and Official is of utmost importance concerning this point. On a number of occasions, suffering causes the mindset of the Official to collapse and transcend into that of the Orderly. Likewise, the mindset of the Orderly becomes subject to suffering and transcends into the same state as the Official’s, turning both characters into the thing which they hate, each other. The most poignant example of this can be found when the Orderly murders the Official. For instance, “Heavy convulsions shook the body of the officer, frightening and horrifying the young soldier. Yet it pleased him, too, to repress them.” (Lawrence The Prussian Officer) The Orderly has transgressed from his original nature of a man whose “instinct was to avoid personal contact, even definite hate”(Lawrence The Prussian Officer) and has become comparable with the aggressive state of the Officer: “a man of passionate temper”(Lawrence The Prussian Officer).
This could be considered a profound comment on the nature of war. The Orderly and Official work as a microcosm to explore the effect war had on both enemy and ally alike. Suffering unites all soldiers in combat; the actions of one soldier mimic that of his enemy. As one man kills his enemy, he embodies everything he was fighting against. Lawrence expresses the Orderly’s feelings concerning the dead body of the official by writing, “[the Official] represented more than the thing which had kicked and bullied him [the Orderly]” (Lawrence The Prussian Officer). The body came to represent the Orderly himself.
Returning to Rose’s point, it is necessary for the reader to become a ‘bystander’ in the act of suffering, as Lawrence shows, suffering is paired with the deterioration of conscious action. If the reader should empathise with the deteriorated conscious of the character, their perception too would become distorted, causing a failure to learn from the suffering Lawrence depicts. In Lawrence’s words, ““They are all so brave, to suffer, but none of them brave enough, to reject suffering [...] none of them can demand happiness” (Lawrence Collected Letters 459). It is the reader’s position to learn from the Official and the Orderly and reject future suffering. Consequently, the way in which Lawrence pairs an omniscient narrative with themes exclusive to the Modernists provides us not only with a representation of the depreciated self, but, a philosophical discourse on the implications of suffering on humankind.
Lawrence, D. H. The Collected Letters of D. H. Lawrence. Michigan: Textbook Publishers, 2003.
Lawrence, D. H. The Prussian Officer. [online]. Available from: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lawrence/dh/prussian/chapter1.html, 2003. [Accessed 1 Feb 2010]
Rose, Shirley. “Physical Trauma in D. H. Lawrence’s Short Fiction” Contemporary Literature. 16.1 (1975): 73-83.