‘Second Best’ by D.H. Lawrence

Second Best by D.H. Lawrence, 1914

The magic trick:

Drawing multiple meanings and themes out of a very odd metaphor

Just another romantic short story based around dead moles. Ho-hum.

It’s strange, and I must confess I don’t know exactly what it means that sisters, Anne and Frances, each kill moles one day and the deaths lead directly to an engagement between Frances and Tom the neighbor boy.

There is the interesting contrast created by the girls taking violent agency against creatures in a world where they seem to be otherwise forced into passivity. There is the possibility that Frances has been forced to reckon with the cruelness of reality – lose the man of your dreams, kill a mole. There is the odd character of Anne, the younger sister left to cheerlead for her older sister’s interests rather than take any of her own.

I’m not sure. Maybe it’s all of that and probably more. But just the fact that a very short text involving romance and dead moles could prompt so much potential analysis is a testament of the story’s strength.

And that’s quite a trick on Lawrence’s part.

The selection:

She dropped him to the floor. Dazed, the blind creature fumbled round. Frances felt like shrieking. She expected him to dart away in a flash, like a mouse, and there he remained groping; she wanted to cry to him to be gone. Anne, in a sudden decision of wrath, caught up her sister’s walking-cane. With one blow the mole was dead. Frances was startled and shocked. One moment the little wretch was fussing in the heat, and the next it lay like a little bag, inert and black–not a struggle, scarce a quiver.

“It is dead!” Frances said breathlessly. Anne took her finger from her mouth, looked at the tiny pinpricks, and said:

“Yes, he is, and I’m glad. They’re vicious little nuisances, moles are.”

With which her wrath vanished. She picked up the dead animal.

“Hasn’t it got a beautiful skin,” she mused, stroking the fur with her forefinger, then with her cheek.

“Mind,” said Frances sharply. “You’ll have the blood on your skirt!”

One ruby drop of blood hung on the small snout, ready to fall. Anne shook it off on to some harebells. Frances suddenly became calm; in that moment, grown-up.

“I suppose they have to be killed,” she said, and a certain rather dreary indifference succeeded to her grief. The twinkling crab-apples, the glitter of brilliant willows now seemed to her trifling, scarcely worth the notice. Something had died in her, so that things lost their poignancy. She was calm, indifference overlying her quiet sadness. Rising, she walked down to the brook course.


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