“Gradually the officer had become aware of his servant’s young, vigorous, unconscious presence about him. He could not get away from the sense of the youth’s person, while he was in attendance. It was like a warm flame upon the older man’s tense, rigid body, that had become almost unliving, fixed. There was something so free and self-contained about him, and something in the young fellow’s movement, that made the officer aware of him. And this irritated the Prussian.”
D. H. Lawrence was born England in 1885 and is today hailed as one of the most influential Modernist writers of the 20th century. His most well-known works include Woman in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He earned his teaching certificate from University College, Nottingham, but left his teaching post in 1912 after a serious bout of illness to dedicate himself to writing full time. He eloped to Germany with Frieda Weekley, only to return to England shortly before the outbreak of World War I. After the war, the couple took up travelling, throughout Europe and as far as New Mexico, never to live in England again. Lawrence’s health had continued to deteriorate after his first serious bout of illness in 1912, and he eventually passed away in 1930 in the south of France. Lawrence suffered intense prosecution during his career as a writer: his works were often seen as pornographic and unseemly, but post-mortem he has been hailed as some of the most innovative and experimentally influential writers the 20th century saw.
The Prussian Officer was a part of a collection of short stories, entitled The Prussian Officer and Other Stories, published in 1914. The plot explores the relationship of a captain in the army and his orderly. The captain, a single man of respectable birth, has wasted his youth gambling, and his only prospects remain in the military. The young orderly who serves him is a strong, vivacious youth who is in a relationship with a girl from the local area. The captain develops “feelings” for the young orderly- whether these feelings are of pure rage or simply repressed sexual tension are not made explicitly clear- and he prevents the orderly from leaving his side in the evenings to meet up with his sweetheart. The captain eventually breaks, unable to repress or process his emotions for the orderly any longer, and physically abuses the orderly, kicking him until he is left with huge, painful bruises all over his legs, rendering him unable to walk properly and in horrible pain. While the group of soldiers are in the forest, prepping manoeuvres, the orderly finds himself alone with the captain and takes the opportunity to exact his revenge, holding the captain down and snapping his neck. Afterwards, in a daze at what he’s done, and possibly delusional from the pain of his injuries, the orderly wanders in the forest until he collapses from dehydration, and then dies in the hospital. The two corpses of the orderly and the captain are lain next to each, silent in death, as the story draws to a finish.
As a preface, I am aware that a great number of critics have marked D.H. Lawrence’s work as incredibly problematic in its treatment of sexualities and gendered relationships- if you’re interested in reading such criticism, Sexual Politics, by Kate Millet, is a wonderful work to have a look at! However, I will be considering The Prussian Officer in its singularity when considering the male homosexual tensions which lie within it. The Prussian Officer deals with a number of different thematic issues; above all, however, I believe it seeks to explore the complexity of male sexuality and the inherent repression of male emotion and sentiment that is inflicted on the male sex by society. The rage that the captain feels towards the orderly seems to be an embodiment of some form of repressed desire or lust for the orderly, and I would argue that this lust is something that the orderly feels in reciprocity for the captain. Their desire for each other seems to only be actualized through the immense, unjustified hatred they feel for each other. The sexual passion of the relationship is ultimately unrealized, due to the same-sex nature, the difference in rank, difference in skin colour, etc, and can only find release through their “acceptably male” physical abuse of each other. The only way for a man to show a desire for another man is through the physical domination of the other’s body, for no form of emotional sentiment can possibly be allowed to enter the realm of male sexuality.
This story (perhaps unintentionally), speaks to certain issues that feminism attempts to account for today. The repression of male emotion and male weakness that society has strewn onto the male sex has extremely damaging consequences. Men are not allowed to show emotion, to appear weak, and to desire another man is seen as a relinquishing of one’s inherent masculinity- of course, this notion does make a certain sense in the way gender is constructed to exist as a binary opposition. By repressing the males ability to express that inherently human emotion of lust and desire for another human being, the repression finds an outlet in rage and hatred, as it does in The Prussian Officer.
I personally find D.H. Lawrence to be an incredibly apt writer, and I particularly enjoy his short stories, although I would also highly recommend The Rainbow. If you’re looking for a good collection of his short stories, this is a wonderfully inclusive edition.