Discuss the thematic treatment of authority and/or power in The Odour of Chrysanthemums and The Prussian Officer

The words power and authority are often used interchangeably. Both may enable a person to influence another person in a way that can be at odds with what the individual uninfluenced would wish for themselves. But a powerful person can influence us for good as well as ill. It is from this direction I am approaching the texts, in particular to consider the part roles and social position play in the processes and shifts of power and authority.

When we approach any object, its shape and size appear different according to our position and nearness. In a similar way the role a person plays may have many shapes. Elizabeth Bates in The Odour of Chrysanthemums is at the same time in the role of woman, mother, daughter, wife, daughter in law, and at the end of the story a widow. In each of these roles her degree of personal and social ability to influence shifts, as it does anyway in the changing events of the story. This situation is slightly less complex in The Prussian Officer, as the roles are not so varied although the soldier/orderly is suggested as also having the roles of lover and peasant farmer, but these roles are not as much in the forefront of events. Nevertheless although the role of the officer doesnt shift from being the person with given authority, he becomes a victim.

In both the texts, Lawrence quickly indicates the standpoint his characters are going to take in the story he is telling. Elizabeth for instance is described as a woman “of imperious mien”. The Oxford dictionary defines the word imperious as “overbearing, domineering, urgent, imperative.” The definition goes on to give the origins of the word as relating to command and authority. Lawrence strengthens this by immediately putting Elizabeth in a position of exercised power in relationship with her son and father.

With her son, there is the suggestion of an ongoing struggle as the son is described in several ways as resisting as far as he can the woman he depends upon – as for instance, “The lad advanced slowly, with resentful, taciturn movement.” Somehow Lawrence manages to give the impression the boys attitude of non-responsive resentment is one he has absorbed from his father.

Just as the son is dependent upon his mother, and resents the authority she gains from this, so I believe the social and economic scene described places Elizabeth, in the role of wife, as being in resentful dependence on her husband as the wage earner. Lawrence suggests by events that Elizabeths means of finding some measure of power in the situation is by withdrawal of emotional warmth or sympathy from males a potent weapon in most close relationships. He does this in several places. With the son the word conciliated is used where Elizabeth softens toward her son after a small confrontation about whether he is playing in the nearby brook. Then her father is described as wincing under her verbal attack, and it is this retreat from what appears to be her natural warmth, that she is depicted as using in her power struggle with her husband.

The husbands weapon is the way he stays late in the pub and spends money his wife and children need. Through the weapon of emotional and perhaps sexual withdrawal, Elizabeth attempts to maintain the power to influence her husband. This is shown in the mention of her anger “When she rose her anger was evident in the stern unbending of her head.” “and her heart burst with anger at their father who caused all three such distress.” and also with her mention of letting her husband sleep all night on the floor if he were brought home drunk.

The futility of their stance to each other is highlighted by the husbands death. The two roles wife and husband are then both seen as lacking the power to find personal or mutual satisfaction. Their unconscious involvement with their roles has led to a misapplication of their power to achieve what they wanted. She was imprisoned in the role of mother/wife who stayed at home with limited power regarding choice and resources. He was captive in the role of working in the most awful of conditions with only drunkenness as a release. What power they did have as individuals was directed largely against each other and the children.

The use of power in a role is in many ways different in The Prussian Officer. Being an officer in the army immediately defines a certain type of authority. A large and organised body of men stand ready to back the orders and decisions of the officer. Only in mutiny or revolution is this situation sometimes reversed. So in facing the officer the orderly is not pitting himself against a single man, but against a massive force. The restraints the soldier feels in standing his ground are very real, not simply habits of discipline. Elizabeth Bates faced this only in the sense that organised society with its accepted ways of relating to situations has a great power to influence.

As in virtually every scenario of power, the dominant role often owes some or all of its authority to the non-dominant individual(s). Lawrence carefully sculpts his characters to enact a particular and shifting struggle around these inequalities. In the first scenes the soldier, despite obviously being subservient, nevertheless has protective and well defined boundaries to guard him. His length of service still to finish offers him a certain sort of strength. He also has a type of native freedom despite being in servitude “There was something so free and self-contained about him.”

This freedom is built upon by Lawrence as the counter power of the orderly, and it is compared with the officers external power but internal weakness. This comparison of different sorts of power in these two men carries on through the text, and regarding the officer is summed up in the sentence “He was a man of passionate temper, who had always kept himself suppressed.”

Because of this weakness the orderly unwittingly gradually gains power over the officer through an internal influence, but the officer attempts to destroy this is violent acts against the orderly. In one sense this is explainable in the commonly observed personal, political and religious action in which what we repress or deny in ourselves, we attempt to deny or even destroy the expression of in others. The persecution of those holding forbidden political or religious beliefs is an example.

The officers means of persecution is through sadistic attack on the orderly, and Erich Fromm describes clearly how such a dependence and struggle for dominance might come about. He says:

“There is one factor in the relationship of the sadistic person to the object of his sadism which is often neglected and therefore deserves especial emphasis here: his dependence on the object of his sadism. . the sadistic person . seems so strong and domineering, and the object of his sadism so weak and submissive, that it is difficult to think of the strong one as being dependent on the one over whom he rules. And yet close analysis shows that this is true. The sadist needs the person over whom he rules, he needs him very badly, since his own feeling of strength is rooted in the fact that he is the master over someone.”

This need to master and totally dominate the orderly, is at the same time a need to dominate his own repressed and perhaps painful self. But it is all aimed at the soldier. To quote “he was infuriated by the free movement of the handsome limbs, which no military discipline could make stiff.”

I dont think the degree of violence is explainable without the acceptance of massive internal pain, perhaps due to the officers own feelings of inadequacy. As Lawrence says, “the conscious man had nothing to do with it.”

Once the violence had been done, and it is understandable to us, accepted by us as a real possibility due to the roles and the situation, then Lawrence embarks on an extraordinary and clear description of the personal forces at work in the two characters. Both of them are deeply threatened by the power of the other man over their person. But they react to it differently.

The fundamental response of fight or flight is denied to the soldier due to the power of the collective and personal threat against him in the form of army discipline. Lawrence puts this into words as “It (the body of the officer) represented more than the thing which had kicked and bullied him.” The soldier has therefore embarked on repression of himself for the first time, and suddenly feels “disembowelled” “a gap among it all.” Holding back his own drive to protect himself, causes him to effectively to fell he has ceased to exist. At this point the orderly loses all power and for a while is lost. If that had continued he might have become a completely passive victim.

The officer was “prouder and firmer with life”. He was living his old life of denial as usual, a denial which gave him the authority over another persons body and feelings. This enhanced his otherwise weak sense of himself.

The murder that follows seems a likely outcome if the orderly is to survive intact – at least within the story and the period. Without this the orderly would have completely lost himself, and as in the way of sadistic relationships, would have been totally dominated by the officer.

Taking both texts together it seems the power and authority a person has shifts radically as circumstances and the moods of a relationship change, and as new events impinge. With Elizabeth Bates, at the death of her husband she is immediately faced by a new role, widowhood, and wonders if she has the means, the power, to deal with it. This shift is described by Lawrence in the words, “If he was killed-would she be able to manage on the little pension and what she could earn?-she counted up rapidly.”

A major shift also occurs in the balance of power between the officer and the orderly when the orderly regains his wholeness and thereby overcomes the restricting power not only of the officer, but also of the army. This occurs as he sits on the hill “Submissive, apathetic, the young soldier sat and stared. But as the horse slowed to a walk, coming up the last steep path, the great flash flared over the body and soul of the orderly”

Lawrence doesnt spell it out for us, but we can assume from our own knowledge of authoritative organisations, that running away was not an option for the soldier. He would only be brought back again, perhaps for even further maltreatment. But Lawrence does hint at this in the officers thought “and his veins, too, ran hot. This was to be man to man.”

Perhaps the statement of the texts is that finally, the most fundamental levels of authority and power are experienced in forms of dependence, group power, and physical confrontation.

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.

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.

Escape From Freedom, by Erich Fromm. AVON BOOKS, NEW YORK, 1941. ISBN: 0-380-01167-0


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