‘Smile’ by D.H. Lawrence: Short Story Analysis
‘Smile’ is a realistic sensual, profane realistic, and modernist short story penned by the controversial English writer D.H. Lawrence also known as David Herbert Lawrence. Lawrence always challenged the conventional norms of the day and society with his body of work. He is one of the greatest fiction writers Britain has ever produced. In this short story titled ‘Smile’, Lawrence takes us on a roller coaster ride of emotions to a place where one is least likely to see emotions: a strict convent. The convent was the Blue Sisters Convent. The Little Company of Mary is a Roman Catholic religious institute of women (also referred to as the Blue Sisters) dedicated to caring for the suffering, the sick, and the dying. In this convent, the main protagonist, with three nuns and a corpse, brings out repressed emotions, dark desires of the flesh, and the dark life of self-immolation Matthew, the main character, goes through. ‘Smile’ is undoubtedly one of the finer pieces of D.H. Lawrence’s rich narrative skills with hidden symbolism in every emotion expressed in the text.
The title of this short story is ‘Smile’. It is a smile that Matthew, the main protagonist of this short story, tries to hide very unsuccessfully on the afternoon he arrives at the Blue Sister’s Convent in Italy. He arrives to see his wife or separated wife dead. Her name is Ophelia, and she was convalescing in the convent of the Blue Sisters. Matthew is on his way to the convent because he has been warned in a telegram that Ophelia’s condition was severely critical, in other words, that death was imminent. When Matthew sees the dead body of his wife, he begins to smile and laugh. He is then ashamed of what he is feeling, but the fact remains that he was indeed pleased that his wife was now dead. He was pleased and, unlike conventional dictates, was regaling in the fact that he was rid of his hot-tempered and headstrong wife Ophelia forever. It is just that a smile of delight is not what one would expect from a husband on seeing the dead body of his wife. Note that Matthew is otherwise a sage-like serious person who rarely laughs and certainly never smiles on ordinary occasions. It is Ophelia, when she was alive, who used to try to make him laugh and smile. But he hated it because of his overall serious demeanor. He feels in the room where his dead wife’s body lay that in death too, she was, as it were, trying to nudge his ribs to make him smile.
To Matthew, his wife was not someone he liked. The inside joke in the nudging of the spirit of the dead woman was that she was telling him to laugh and smile since now he was rid of her. Matthew is highly religious, believes in self-evaluation, and believes that he is full of imperfections. That is why:
- He was laughing and feeling like smiling on seeing the dead body of his wife.
- That is why his wife had left him thirteen times in a ten-year-marriage.
- That she convalesced alone while he was away from her when he should have been at her bedside nursing her.
He gets the idea that his laughter is a sin. In front of the three nuns, he intones the solemn ‘Mea Culpa’ in a snarl. He snarls as he says this because:
- He is not exactly genuinely repentant for his action.
- He was angry that his frivolous and highly irritating wife had made him smile even when she was dead.
- He was angry with the situation he had found himself in.
- He was angry with the three nuns in the room who watched his every move and judged him.
Coming to the topic of the three nuns. One was a pale young nun, the second a Mother Superior, and the third a Ligurian sister of color. The nuns themselves are both the judges of Matthew’s reaction to his dead wife’s body and repressed sexual women themselves. They are described as very sensual women by D. H. Lawrence. For his time in history, he was certainly going against the writing norms of his day; in other words, he was depicting nuns as passionate human beings. This is obvious with:
- The clasping of the pale nun’s hand by Matthew.
- The rustling of the voluptuous black robes or habits of the nuns.
- The smiles that blossom on the faces of all three nuns in different ways according to their nature.
- The pale nun’s desire to cry after she dared to smile and laugh at the smile of Matthew.
- Matthew’s desire to clasp the hands of the nun of color because her hands looked sensual and sexually attractive, like two birds mating together.
When Matthew smiles, the nuns loosen their tensed up selves at the moment and smile in turn. The pale nun smiles in pain as well as mischievousness, which she regrets later with tears. According to Lawrence, the Ligurian nun has a pagan smile indicative of the raw and untamed sexual energy of this cliched Italian or Corsica woman. The Mother Superior, who does most of the talking with Matthew, lowered her face, and the smile on her face grew bigger and bigger. We see the nuns letting their guard down, if only for a little while, in their lives of self-denial and chaste passivity.
When Matthew intones the ‘Mea Culpa’, the Mother Superior exclaims to Matthew in Italian the word Macche. Macche is an Italian word that means – ‘you must be joking’. The Mother Superior found Matthew undeserving of the martyrdom of self he was going through. However, seeing the dead face of his innocent, pretty, and headstrong wife, he seems relieved but a gloom right from Hades or the Greek underworld overpowers him. He was always a depressed personality; now he becomes worse. It seems when one reads the short-story titled ‘Smile’ that it was possible that for the rest of his life, Matthew would feel guilty about his wife’s death even though he was at the same time relieved by it. That is basic human nature, feeling a myriad of emotions at certain events in one’s life. In a rich Modernist manner, Lawrence beautifully brings out the psychology of the human mind when it encounters traumatic situations in life.
Notice that the nun of color was the quietest of the three nuns. She is a deep thinker and ponders the behavior of the people she meets and sees in the hospital. She probably was not fluent in English and so speaks in Italian. In fact, she only says one word throughout the whole short-story titled ‘Smile’, and that word is Gia, which in Italian means: God is Gracious. The pale sister is young and so harsher on herself and is not mature enough to control her emotions. The Mother Superior consoles her when the pale nun cannot control her laughter and soothingly tells her to weep. D. H. Lawrence shows here the oppressive nature of sexual norms in society and how they kill the individual mentally and emotionally. This is something very central to his writings and their boldness. However, his bold, sensual, unashamed, and frank descriptions and portrayal of his character’s controversial side made him a controversial writer of his time. The nuns’ smiles are also tenderly described by Lawrence. He mentions that the smiles blossomed on their faces like the blossoming of flowers.
There is a mention of a poem here in this short-story. It is a very moving verse from the poem ‘The Death-Bed’ by poet Thomas Hood who lived between 1798–1845. The verse spoke of the darkening of the rainy morning when a dear wife’s soul left the world to encounter dawn different from the one experienced in the world. Matthew recalls Thomas Hood’s poem for his wife in the form of guilt and melancholy but not exactly remorse. He feels remorse for not being able to control his ‘smile’. Unchristianly for a husband, he leaves his wife’s death bed and lingers in the corridor like a boy at school having something on his mind that was bothering him.
In the short story, the three nuns, on seeing Matthew leave, exclaim ‘poor thing’, all except the nun of color. It is unclear whom they were calling ‘poor thing’, which indicates that it could most possibly not have been meant for Ophelia but Matthew, who would live a sorrowful life of penance. They realize that he is a man who likes to run away from his responsibilities in the name of self-mortification and penance. He would rather mourn for his wife like a monk than be with her while alive or on her death bed.
In this short story, the spooky element is the smile that suddenly appears on Ophelia’s face, which the Mother Superior covers with a veil. Even in death, Ophelia was aware of her husband’s weaknesses and had managed in a sordid manner to make him laugh. This has given her everlasting peace, and so like a triumphant schoolgirl, she smiles from the grave, unnerving the reader of this short story titled ‘Smile’.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short-story by British writer D.H. Lawrence. I have several of his short story collections in my possession. I must fish them out of my office-cum-writing hut, which is stacked with more than 32,000 books. If you want to know more about my life in books and with books, you can check out my memoir titled Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai on my blog’s products page. I hope to read, review, and analyze more short stories and novels by D.H. Lawrence soon.
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Greeshma Biswal says
So aptly explained. The story is really intriguing and leaves us thinking on how humans hide their true feelings in the fear of being judged and humiliated. Thanks for this beautiful explanation.
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