[(essay date 1990) In the following essay, McDowell discusses how Captain Hepburn and Hannele from “The Captain’s Doll” (1917) reaffirm their individual identities through a mutual connection with each other, noting Lawrence’s use of symbolism and emphasis on the power of nature. ]
As Jane Nelson suggests in the preceding essay, Lawrence developed challenging ideas about sexual relationships after the Great War. These ideas, with their social and political ramifications, can be disturbing and strident: they represent sincere but potentially violent assertions of Lawrence’s self. Lawrence expounds these values in discursive works, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921), Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922), and Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), to mention the most important. These books extend the concepts formulated in his earlier nonfiction, Study of Thomas Hardy, “The Crown,” “The Reality of Peace,” and in the great novels before 1920. A fear of woman as predator and an insistence on man as the spiritual leader in intimate relationships are, however, new—or newly emphasized—concepts developed in the nonfiction and dramatized in the fiction of the early 1920s, especially in the novellas “The Ladybird”, “The Captain’s Doll”, “The Fox”, “St. Mawr”, and the long short story “The Princess”.
The psychic and intellectual dislocations engendered by the Great War animated both the nonfiction and the fiction of Lawrence’s leadership phase from about 1919 to 1925, and he felt compelled to counteract his own disillusionment and the sterile life of the age—in short, to become a prophet to a generation torn from its moorings in tradition. In D. H. Lawrence: The Artist as Psychologist (1984), Daniel J. Schneider formulates the crisis that underlies the anxieties and frustrations so vividly projected in Lawrence’s work during these years: “how can man achieve health and wholeness in a world that denies the unconscious sources of his behavior?” (8). The hero and heroine of “The Captain’s Doll” do achieve health and wholeness, but the odds have been against them, and they have had to make difficult choices. They both become responsive to the unconscious elements in their psyches and thus recognize the primacy of instinct.
Although acknowledging “The Captain’s Doll” as a notable accomplishment, critics have discussed it less than the other novellas. F. R. Leavis has written more extensively on “The Captain’s Doll” than any other critic (D. H. Lawrence 242-78; Thought 92-121), and his magisterial treatment of it may have deflected further discussion. In his view Captain Alexander Hepburn is the self-sufficient protagonist whose very presence spiritually reorients his mistress, Hannele (the Countess Johanna zu Rassentlow). The Captain is, granted, her guide and mentor, and she is his intelligent and malleable disciple; but this interpretation diminishes her stature. Graham Hough (177-79) and J. I. M. Stewart (571-77) regard the tale similarly. More recent critics interpret the novella variously. Gerald Doherty stresses Hannele’s limitations, unduly in my view, but defines with much penetration the role of comic conventions in undercutting the characters. W. R. Martin emphasizes, as I do, Hannele’s intellectual stature, whereas Sandra Gilbert, skeptical of the Captain’s authority, sees him...