The Prussian Officer by D. H. Lawrence, 1914
THE PRUSSIAN OFFICER
by D. H. Lawrence, 1914
Whether "The Prussian Officer" is, as some critics claim, one of the world's masterpieces of short fiction," most agree that it is one of the best stories of D. H. Lawrence. It is representative of his favorite theme of so-called blood consciousness and of his customary narrative technique of combining the realistic with the mythic. The plot of the story is so simple and its two characters are so stark as to be archetypal. An aristocratic Prussian captain becomes obsessed with his uncomplicated young orderly but deals with the obsession by repressing it, humiliating and physically mistreating the young man. The story reaches its climax when the orderly kills the officer, an act that destroys the world of everyday reality for the young man, launching him into an alienated psychic state that eventually leads to his own death. Just as the officer seems driven by forces outside his control and understanding, the orderly responds in a primitive, unthinking manner. In fact, as is usual in Lawrence's stories, it is not rational thought but rather primitive instinct that motivates the action of "The Prussian Officer."
Although the Prussian officer's sadistic treatment of the young man is a result of his repressed sexual desire for him, as in other Lawrence works of fiction in which homosexuality seems to play a role, sex is a metaphor for something deeper. As Aldous Huxley once wrote about Lawrence, his special gift was for "unknown modes of being." The significance of sexuality for Lawrence, suggested Huxley, was that in it "the immediate, non-mental knowledge of divine otherness is brought, so to speak, to a focus—a focus of darkness." Indeed, the most basic myth substratum of "The Prussian Officer" is the story of Paradise Lost, in which Satan, tormented by thought, yearns for the innocent and instinctive Adam; frustrated by the impossibility of regaining that lost innocence, however, he can only scorn it and try to destroy it.
As opposed to the officer, who is bound to the rules of the aristocracy and the military, the orderly is one who seems "never to have thought, only to have received life direct through his senses, and acted straight from instinct." It is this "blind instinctive sureness of movement of an unhampered young animal" that so irritates the officer. Realizing this, the orderly feels like "a wild thing caught," and his hatred in response to the officer's passion grows; as the officer seems to be going irritably insane, the youth becomes deeply frightened.
Whereas the first half of the story focuses on the consciousness of the officer, who tries not to admit the passion that has seized him, gradually the focus shifts to the orderly, as the captain begins to grow vague and unreal. The officer's passion makes the orderly feel similarly unreal, however. He has a sense of being "disembowelled, made empty, like an empty shell. He felt himself as nothing, a shadow creeping under the sunshine." More and more he feels in a "blackish dream," and all those around him seem to be "dream people."
This movement toward unreality in which the two characters become transformed by their very passion is a typical Lawrentian structural device by which conventional characters are transfigured into depersonalized representatives of states of mind. The orderly's murder of the captain is presented in unmistakable sexual terms. He leaps on the older man, pressing his knee against his chest and forcing the officer's head over a tree stump, "pressing, with all his heart behind in a passion of relief, the tension of his wrists exquisite with relief." Exulting in his "thrust," he shoves the officer's head back until there is a little "cluck" and a crunching sensation and heavy convulsions shake his body, horrifying the young soldier yet pleasing him too.
The murder completes the young man's alienation from the ordinary world: "He had gone out from everyday life into the unknown, and he could not, he even did not want to go back." As he wanders alone through the forest, the world becomes a ghostly shadow to him. His actual death seems an inevitable and even anticlimactic consequence of his complete distancing from the world.
As more than one critic has suggested, "The Prussian Officer" is about the "divided self," for the two central characters represent the split between fallen intellect and pre-Fall innocence, or between repressed consciousness and the instinctive unconscious. This basic tension between life as stiff and repressed and life as vital and dynamic can be seen in the final image of the story; the two men lie side by side in the mortuary—the officer frozen and rigid and the orderly looking as if at any moment he might rouse into life again.
—Charles E. May