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Gender and Sexuality in Lawrence’s The Fox

A text can represent something by way of a setting. Objects, creatures or even people, can be used to intimate or directly refer to something other than their face value. Also, the interactions between people themselves can suggest even where it does not directly display something. Lawrence appears to use all of these means of representation in the story of The Fox(1), and gives the impression of doing so very consciously.

A setting is something like a stage backdrop, which can immediately, and without any word from the characters, tell us whether it is night or day, safe or dangerous, abroad or near at hand. In The Fox the backdrop has several layers. First to be presented is the farm and the animals, then later the World War and the army camp.

In introducing the reader to the farm, Lawrence carefully puts details into this setting. He tells us that March and Banford, in connection with the chickens kept “were disgusted at the chickens tendency to strange illnesses, at their exacting way of life, and at their refusal, obstinate refusal to lay eggs.” And regarding two cows, Lawrence says, “Then, just before the other beast was expecting her first calf, the old man died, and the girls, afraid of the coming event, sold her in a panic.”

Because the women had already been described as unmarried, childless, and living without male company, the female animals, and the comments about them, suggest particular qualities in the two women themselves. They represent or suggest a rather seedy, neurotic and non-productive aspect of womanhood behind the capable exterior. The dispatch of the cow prior to delivering its calf adds the idea of anxiety in dealing with birth and responsibility for offspring. Lawrence gives us a clue this may refer to March in particular by saying, “Her mouth, too, was almost pinched as if in pain and irony. There was something odd and unexplained about her.” This idea of her strangeness is deepened later by descriptions of her “lapsing into this odd, rapt state, her mouth rather screwed up. It was a question whether she was there, actually conscious present, or not.”

So altogether the farm and its animals seem to represent a distinctly female situation, along with anxieties about difficulties that may attend the function of childbirth. This added to the relationship of the women living alone, may even point to something Lawrence doesn’t say directly, but portrays in events, that there may be a difficulty in relating to men as sexual partners. This I will deal with more fully later.

Into this portrayal of a very female environment, and into the lives of the two women themselves comes the fox. Apart from two old and fatherly men – Banford’s father and the grandfather who died – this is the first potent male figure in the story. We are assured of its gender in the first mention of it – “Since the war the fox was a demon. He carried off the hens under the very noses of March and Banford.”

The fox signifies something that touches March deeply. Through its “sly” “impudent” and exasperating manner, it becomes a focus for March of urges and feelings which arise in her, placing her on a borderline at once exciting and dangerously unknown. The dangerous unknown is maleness outside of her own self. The fox depicts a male-related sexual relationship. This gradually becomes apparent as Lawrence describes the appearance of Henry, and shows how March sees, even smells him as the fox – “She became almost peaceful at last. He was identified with the fox-and he was here in full presence. … She could at last lapse into the odour of the fox.” This says clearly that through the fox the male was present but not clearly so. At Henry’s arrival however, what had been unclear was now real.

The fox as a symbol of maleness – or at least March’s feelings about a male – has the same beauty many symbols have. They awaken us, they frighten us, they suggest strange and wonderful things, but they are never themselves the things they represent. They are wonderfully ambiguous. We can therefore remain slightly distant from the reality.

So in hunting the fox, March is hunting the male. Or at least she is hunting her own feelings, “her consciousness held back” as Lawrence puts it. This act is depicting once more something other than itself – March’s sexuality and her manner of dealing with it. Does she want to kill it? Or does she wish it to live? She is herself uncertain. When she confronts it in the fox she doesn’t even raise her gun till it has casually run away. It is Henry who kills the fox, and if Lawrence is using the creature to represent March’s barely allowed sexual desires, her fantasy of a relationship with a male, then Henry kills this, confronting her with the reality of his desire for her.

Coming more directly to March and Banford, they too may be representations. As characters in dramas so often do, they can be seen to depict different character types. Banford is a more traditional female, frail and needing someone else to care for her, to sympathise with her weakness and needs. She at first has a sisterly relationship with the male – Henry – who appears. March is described as the one who “would be the man about the place.” Gradually she emerges as a woman who has developed greater self sufficiency than Banford, someone who has female warmth and longings, but can also make her own decisions without depending on a male in what had been the traditional female role. So these two women can be seen as representatives of two aspects of character that many a woman found perhaps competing in herself, during and after the first world war. Through earning her own wage, making her own decisions while the husband was away, not simply in the home, but in the environment of work and business, a woman might find herself in conflict. The attitudes and responses she had unconsciously learnt in childhood about being a woman, could be at variance with the new person she was becoming. Therefore the two women are not only of a particular gender, but they also represent different conditions of gender at the time of the story.

If we accept this, the relationship between Henry Grenfel and the two women can be seen as the working out, the portrayal, of a traditional male female relationship within a new social and economic setting. To emphasise what this might do in ones personality Lawrence makes much use of the process of sleep and fighting to stay awake as an image of the competing drives. The following sentences capture this – “March looked back from the door. ‘Jill!’ she cried in a frantic tone, like someone just coming awake. And she seemed to start towards her darling. But the boy had March’s arm in his grip, and she could not move. She did not know why she could not move. It was as in a dream ….”

The struggle between staying awake and falling asleep is depicted as the swing between Banford and Henry, between being a traditional or a new woman. But Lawrence uses this imagery to refer to Henry also. For instance in a passage where Henry first kisses March, Lawrence writes, “When the curious passion began to die down, he seemed to come awake to the world.” Then in the same paragraph the description turns to March and says, “It made her feel so young, too, and frightened, and wondering: and tired, tired, as if she were going to sleep.” At the end of the text the image of sleep is played strongly, with emphasis on what it depicts – “He wanted her to commit herself to him, and to put her independent spirit to sleep.”

In attempting to fit these various parts together, the three way relationship stands out as representative of the difficulties and conflicts faced when a woman of that time developed a new independence. This new self is symbolised by being awake or waking up. March only feels sleep claiming her when she starts to be drawn into a traditional male/female relationship with Henry, or symbolically with the fox. Henry kills both the fox and Banford because they are escape routes for March. The fox was an escape into fantasy, and Banford was an escape into a traditional male/female role – March playing the psychological male. As the drama focuses fully on March and Henry, the imagery of sleep is used to depict March attempting to stay awake – to keep hold of her newly found ability to think for herself and remain independent of the sort of emotional, physical and social ties marriage at that time involved many women in. To remain awake becomes imperative. That Grenfel chose March suggests he too wants something more than a woman like Banford.

Lawrence therefore appears to be dramatising the situation many women and men faced at that period, or were about to face. The message is that a woman would need to remain alert against falling ‘asleep’ – dropping back into the attitudes and responses so ready-made for her. The man would need to remain aware of his own unconscious drive to have the woman ‘yield’ and ‘sleep’ in him – for Henry too fell asleep into his passion for March.

If this alertness were not attended to, conflict would result. I therefore conclude that Lawrence was well aware of this emerging problem, and that he used not only the images of the farm, the farm animals and the fox to depict it, but also the characters of the people involved, and the powerful influence of sleep to take away resolve and awareness when it is most needed.

(1)

D. H. LAWRENCE – Short Stories -Selected and introduced by Stephen Gill, Lincoln College, Oxford. Published by J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London, EVERYMAN’S LIBRARY. 1992. ISBN 0 460 87127 7.

Comments

-Leah Anthoney 2016-10-18 17:04:04

When was this article accessed?

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    -Tony Crisp 2016-10-19 12:48:06

    I have no way of knowing when or how often it was accessed. There is only one comment logged, and that was yours

    But it was written between 1997-98.

    Strange thing, when I first tried to access it the page wouldn’t load, but after searching it did.

    Why did you ask?

    Tony

    Reply

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