Silver Spoon to Devil's Fork: Diana Trilling and the Sexual Ethics of Mr Noon

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Author: Peter Balbert
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2000
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,914 words

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[(essay date Summer 1998) In the following essay, Balbert argues against Trilling's interpretation of D. H. Lawrence's Mr Noon.]

"Is not the marriage bed a fiery battlefield as well as a perfect communion, both simultaneously."

Diana Trilling's prominent, severe attack in The New York Times Book Review on the ethics of D. H. Lawrence and the ethos of Mr Noon requires a response. Trilling's pioneering criticism on Lawrence in the 1940s and 1950s is well-known and often helpful; through the years--although not recently--she has written several intelligent and largely sympathetic assessments of both the novelist and his work. In her 1984 review of Mr Noon, she correctly asserts that "for anyone interested in the derivation and interpretation of Lawrence's sexual doctrine, it is mandatory reading" (24). Why then does Mr Noon provoke such a hostile reaction in her that she concludes the essay with the specter of self-deceiving D. H. Lawrence also misleading generations of readers and critics about his true feelings on marriage, infidelity, and sexual license?

In brief, she argues that in the newly published Part II of Mr Noon, primarily because of both the depiction of Gilbert Noon's permissive answer to the news of Johanna's affair with Stanley, and the consistent evidence of Johanna's inveterate promiscuity so tolerantly and exuberantly dramatized in the novel, Trilling angrily concludes that the seminal celebration in his other works of marriage, monogamy, and sexual responsibility must now be read as a species of hypocrisy and pretense by an uncloseted, decadent novelist. She regards Mr Noon as the emergence of Lawrence's dirty little secret, as the startling disclosure of his concealed libertinism--as the smoking gun, in effect, that he manages to camouflage with a veneer of puritanism throughout his career. Further, Trilling confidently deduces that such marital infidelity "was a condition on which Lawrence built his marriage," and thus--for here is the radical assertion of her unrelenting logic--everything else that Lawrence wrote must now be reinterpreted as an attempt "to deceive us that he wrote from within the boundaries of monogamous marriage"; she concludes by arguing that such hypocrisy by Lawrence "must shadow ... our view of him as among the bolder of our modern authors" (25). So Trilling considers Mr Noon as a form of pernicious high disclosure--indeed, she sees it as nothing less than a revealing showdown at noon that leaves us with the corpse of established Lawrencean dialectic.

I propose to respond to Trilling in three ways. First, I shall isolate a provocative pattern of metaphors in this novel, a virtual "utensil erotica" of various spoon and fork references that integrate the two parts of Mr Noon and ultimately suggest a nurturant and quintessentially Lawrencean doctrine of marriage and sex that Trilling misses in the heat of her indictment of apostasy. Second, I shall glance at the confrontation scene between Gilbert and Johanna concerning her night with Stanley; my attempt here will be to place that episode within the brilliantly developed pattern of the seven preceding arguments between Gilbert...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100031881