By Irini Sala and Konstantina Sampani[presented at a student workshop in the context of the module “Modernist Fiction” taught at the English Department of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens]
Post-WWI Franco-German wastelands. On a train ride to Baden-Baden, Katherine calls into question her marriage with her current husband, Philip Farquhar, as she indulges in reminiscence of her first husband, Alan Anstruther, whom she tragically lost in the war. However, Alan’s presence is not confined in Katherine’s memory, but lingers as a vengeful apparition threatening to harm her reality. Alan escorts her in dark cathedrals, menacing alleys and gothic hotel rooms, becoming increasingly violent and intrusive, giving Philip the strike of death at the dénouement of the story.
In “The Border Line” (1928), D. H. Lawrence explores the heterotopic nature of hotels as spaces that bring together opposing forces; as readers we are caught up in the blurry seams between the natural and the supernatural, masculinity and femininity, reality and illusion. In the present essay we aim to explore how these spaces of ambiguity and collision affect the relationships between the characters, as well as the characters and their surroundings in the post-WWI period of futility and disorientation.
The concept of mobility and spatial transcending is firstly introduced in Katherine’s train journey through the “flat, grey, wintry, landscapes” of postwar France and Germany, a journey that depicts on a literal level the crossing of borders, and which facilitates the metaphysical transcending taking place in the hotels in Strasbourg and Baden-Baden respectively later on in the story. Katherine’s gradual emotional deterioration is reflected in the greyness of the barren lands, the national grey zones which run past her and which parallel her life flashing before her eyes. Katherine’s gradual emotional deterioration is reflected in the greyness of the barren lands, the national grey zones which rush past her and which parallel her life flashing before her eyes.
Arriving in Strasburg, Katherine is confronted with a fearsome image of the city she once loved altered by the war, and she is stunned by the nearly metaphysical presence of the imposing gothic cathedral, where Alan makes his first appearance. Even though the hotel in Strasburg is only briefly mentioned in the story, the simultaneous introduction of the hotel as a setting and the ghostly presence of Alan lends credence to the argument that the hotel is a space of liminality. As Emma Short, through the use of ideas by Henri Lefebvre, suggests, “Space itself decides what actions can and cannot take place within it” (134). In other words, it is the hotel which allows for the metaphysical turn of events, and consequently, for action to unfold. It is the closed space that makes possible this psychic flânerie. In her gloomy hotel room overlooking the cathedral and in the dim streets of Strasburg, Alan is Katherine’s guiding force. Unwilling to “rupture the spell of his presence”, she lets the apparition take her hand and lead the way (597).
The second hotel of the story in Baden-Baden is host to the major climactic moment of the story; Philip’s murder by Alan’s ghost. The gothic elements of the hotel facilitate the metaphysical aspects of the story, creating a unique, menacing ambience that foreshadows the events that will unfold. Alan’s apparition gains power in this setting and becomes an increasingly omnipotent force, transforming from a ghost only visible to Katherine to a haunting figure that visits Philip’s dreams and eventually gives him the strike of death and kills him in his bedroom. According to Short, “the hotel bedroom possesses an inherent transience and impermanence” (172), which clears the way for Alan’s intervention to take place without leaving any traces. Here we bear witness more clearly than ever to the crossing of metaphysical borders, moving from realism to the imaginary, from the tangible to the intangible. However, these forces do not exist as contradictions in this hotel space; instead borders blend to create a threshold where everything is possible and where characters transcend spatial dimensions.
Gender is omnipresent in “The Border Line”. The way it informs the narrative is pivotal in terms of plot and most definitely so in relation to the dynamics shaping the relationships between the three central characters. Gender politics are immediately connected to the author’s views and overall value system, his “recipe for vital sexual relations”, which could be called a “culturally conservative one” (Miracky 43). That “recipe” constitutes a major component in Lawrentian thinking as well as an ideological and moral basis for the author’s literary expression, especially as far as critique and symbolism are concerned. Lawrence himself has claimed the following: “You may hide in professionalism or honor or aesthetics […], but still gender will find you” (qtd. in Berlatsky 2013). In the same vein, the narrator in “The Border Line” maintains that “[b]eyond all race is the problem of man and woman” (593). It would be meaningful at this point to look into how and why the confines of a hotel room serve as the defining space, where the gender dynamics prevalent among the characters are expressed in their most explosive form, bringing the story to its dramatic climax.
D. H. Lawrence’s conservative outlook towards gender structures and roles becomes explicitly rendered through the strongly connotative comparing and contrasting between Alan, the man displaying “bony, dauntless, overbearing masculinity”, and Philip as the husband with “feminine” qualities; the “stand-up mannikin”, who shall “pass and perish” (601). Katherine is for the most part portrayed through the lens of the man (or the men) courting her, being, thus, constantly “locate[d] within a specific male plot of appropriation” (Doherty 290): “She realized that it was the one enduring thing a woman can have, the intangible soft flood of contentment that carries her along at the side of the man she is married to. It is her perfection and her highest attainment” (597). However, the reader is encouraged to approach gender in Lawrence’s work as a literary vehicle for the “bigger questions”, which the author intends to foreground, “rather than the gender struggle” itself (Yao 207). This does not mean that Lawrence is in reality “remote from this business of male and female” (594); the gender dynamics prevalent in the story, however, do appear to bear a symbolic load alluding to the “literary aims” (Miracky 29) which Lawrence wishes to contemplate. In this process, the hotel as the spatial component facilitating the unfolding events (and therefore Lawrence’s literary vision) plays a tremendous role in the equation. In her work, “Between Modernity and Nostalgia: The Meanings of Death in Hotels”, Ulrike Zitzlsperger views hotel deaths as a “vehicle to highlight the workings of modern society” (473), which “open up a disconcerting space for nostalgia in criticisms of the contemporary, modern world” (468). D.H. Lawrence criticizes the literature of his time as “emasculating and feminizing” (Miracky 43), and denounces “modern civilization” as “anti-life” (Yao 200). James Miracky adds to the above that Lawrence “dismisses authors and readers of sentimental fiction as participants in a ‘spurious’ and ‘corrupt’ emotional life which is as ‘mechanical and deadening to the psyche’ as the more concrete forces of industrialization” (Lawrence qtd. in Miracky 43). One can witness here almost tangibly how gendered language dominates Lawrence’s line of criticism and perhaps notice symbolic correlations. For instance, Alan’s apparition could be seen as the ghost of old ideals and imperatives that are looked back to nostalgically, or else of literature before it became (in Lawrence’s opinion) effeminate and corrupted by sentimentality (represented by Philip). Returning to Zitzlsperger’s interpretation of death in the hotel, it is observable that this turn of events in the story represents Lawrence’s resistance to modernity and the shifts that accompany it in literature. The hotel room in “The Border Line” becomes indeed that “disconcerting space for nostalgia”, whereby Lawrence could be said to place himself momentarily in Katherine’s emotional limbo state in the “passionate struggle between contraries” (Hayles 27). Being forced to reluctantly interact with his present circumstances, while clinging to the phantom of the past, Lawrence takes advantage of the transience, the “impermanence” (Short 135) as well as the “symbolic structure” (Zitzlsperger 466) of the hotel bedroom; the murder of Phillip gives, thus, Lawrence a sense of intellectual self-realization in his critique, again symbolically, “throwing an elusive ‘modernity’ into relief” (Zitzlsperger 468).
Berlatsky, Noah. “Why D. H. Lawrence, Misogynist Male Author, Has Lots of Female Fans.” The Atlantic, 8 May 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/05/why-dh-lawrence-misogynist-male-author-has-lots-of-female-fans/275680/>.
Doherty, Gerald. “The Art of Appropriation: The Rhetoric of Sexuality in D. H. Lawrence.” Style, vol. 30, no. 2, 1996, pp. 289-308. JSTOR. Accessed 29 Dec. 2022.
Hayles, N. Katherine. “EVASION: The Field of the Unconscious in D. H. Lawrence.” The Cosmic Web: Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century, Cornell University Press, 1984, pp. 85–110. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt207g6gx.7. Accessed 29 Dec. 2022.
Lawrence, D. H. “The Border Line.” 1928. The Complete Short Stories. Penguin, 1977. Archive.org
Miracky, James J. “Regen(d)Erating the Modernist Novel: Literary Realism vs. the Language of the Body in D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.” The D.H. Lawrence Review, vol. 31, no. 1, 2002, pp. 29–50. JSTOR. Accessed 13 Dec. 2022.
Short, Emma. Mobility and the Hotel in Modern Literature: Passing through. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Yao, Sijia. “Female Desire: Defiant Text and Intercultural Context in Works by D. H. Lawrence and Eileen Chang.” Rocky Mountain Review, vol. 71, no. 2, 2017, pp. 195–212. JSTOR. Accessed 6 Jan. 2023.
Zitzlsperger, Ulrike. “Between Modernity and Nostalgia: The Meanings of Death in Hotels.” Forum for Modern Language Studies, vol. 55, no. 4, 2019, pp. 466–478.
Featured top image from: Der Himmel über Berlin, directed by Wim Wenders (1987)
Irini Sala is a final-year undergraduate student in the Department of English Language and Literature of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Her main academic interests revolve around embodiment in literature and literary criticism through the lens of gender studies, philosophy and psychoanalysis. Besides her studies, she geeks over photography and music records.
Konstantina Sampani is a final-year undergraduate student of English Language and Literature at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Her academic interests include Modernist Literature, Food Culture (meaning she consumes ungodly amounts of pizza), and Theatre Studies.