The Daughter-in-Law

Coal miners’ wives, England, circa 1912.

  • Play title: The Daughter-in-Law.  
  • Author: D. H. Lawrence.
  • Written: 1913
  • Page count: 111.


The Daughter-in-Law is one of D. H. Lawrence’s early plays and one which was never published or performed in his lifetime. The play’s setting is a mining community in the English East Midlands. Lawrence depicts the lives of Mrs. Gascoigne and her two adult sons with the only other major character being Minnie Hetherington who marries into the family. The focus of the play is the relationship between Luther Gascoigne and his domineering mother and how this overshadows his marriage to Minnie. The major events of the play cover both the public and private spheres, like a miners’ strike as well as a pregnancy out of wedlock. All the scenes are played out in kitchens, either Mrs. Gascoigne’s or Minnie’s. Indeed, Lawrence’s play fits the definition of a British kitchen-sink drama, but his work predates the movement by approximately 40 years. The play is written in the style of naturalism and several characters speak in midlands dialect. In a letter to his literary adviser, Lawrence described The Daughter-in-Law as “neither a comedy nor a tragedy – just ordinary.” Lawrence is best known as a novelist and this play bears a strong thematic resemblance to his famous work, Sons and Lovers.

Ways to access the text: reading.

The full text of The Daughter-in-Law is available to read online via Project Gutenberg Australia. A second possibility is the Open Library which holds several copies but most are part of anthologies so one should search under – D. H. Lawrence plays.

There is no audiobook version of the play to my knowledge.

If you would like help in conjuring up the atmosphere of the play then please watch the short theatre promo for the play on YouTube, entitled, “D.H. Lawrence’s The Daughter-In-Law – Library Theatre Company.”

Why read The Daughter-in-Law?

English regional dialect.

Lawrence writes the dialogue of several of the main characters in the Nottinghamshire dialect. This was originally an obstacle to staging the play and also serves to frustrate a reader unfamiliar with English texts written mostly in dialect. While difficult, the language quickly becomes familiar to a persistent reader. But why should a reader initially trudge through a text that many people would consider obscure in any case? The primary answer is that Mrs. Gascoigne’s use of Nottinghamshire dialect is an essential part of her character, it reveals a woman whose rhetoric is richly expressive, full of wonderful turns of phrase and witticisms. Her speech, and also that of her sons, obviously represents their working-class roots and Lawrence refused to simplify or sanitize such speech for the middle-class theatre audiences of his time. The use of dialect versus standard English also serves to differentiate Mrs. Gascoigne from the younger, more educated woman, Minnie. However, standard versus regional speech does not automatically correspond to a hierarchy of power, or intelligence, or success. Lawrence depicts several formidable women whose speech signals their backgrounds and individual characters. Without dialectical speech, this play would seem inauthentic but that is a realization that one makes only after reading it. Though unfamiliar territory, a reader who comes to grips with the written dialect in the play will be rewarded by what he/she discovers in the play.

Family dynamics.

The title of Lawrence’s play lays focus on the inevitable changes in a closely knit family caused by marriage. A key question in the work is if the young man involved is ready for marriage. Just like in his novel Sons and Lovers, Lawrence takes a close look at the lasting consequences on men’s lives when they have been raised by strong and charismatic yet domineering woman. Mrs. Gascoigne’s husband died in a mining accident leaving her sole parent to six sons, with just Luther and Joe still living at home at the play’s opening. When Luther marries Minnie then the family is forced to adapt to the changes. Lawrence excels in depicting a complex set of family relationships: mother with son/s, newlyweds with one another, mother-in-law with daughter-in-law, and single brother with sister-in-law. The playwright explores how a son may ostensibly rebel against his mother yet remain securely under her thumb, and why a newlywed woman must not become subservient to her husband’s mother especially when that woman is used to exercising her influence. Crucially, Lawrence shows instances where compromise is vital and the consequences when there is no such compromise. The ending of Lawrence’s play is somewhat ambiguous, and one is left wondering if a domineering mother has simply been replaced by a domineering wife, or have the central characters demonstrably evolved and matured? At the core of the play is Lawrence’s contemplation of the theme of power, who gets to wield power and who must alternately resign power in the context of a family dynamic.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

Independence from Mother.


The Daughter-in-Law is a naturalistic play which gives a detailed account of the Gascoignes, a mining family in Nottinghamshire, England. Many readers have noticed that the theme of a mother and son relationship in this particular play echoes Lawrence’s novel, Sons and Lovers, which was in fact written just before the play. D. H. Lawrence also wrote Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious which were originally published in 1921 and 1922, respectively. These non-fiction works tackle such topics as human consciousness, childhood development, and parental love. Lawrence dismisses many of Sigmund Freud’s theories on the unconscious yet largely agrees with the famous psychologist on the significance of sex and parental influence. What is relevant to readers of Lawrence’s novels and plays, is the obvious interest the author had in the human mind and how, as he wrote, “the goal of life is the coming to perfection of each single individual” (55). In The Daughter-in-Law, the crux of the problem is how a son is to gain independence from his mother. As Lawrence tackled the topic of motherly love in both fiction and non-fiction works, these combined perspectives may be used as an obvious access point for any reader to gain a true grasp of authorial intent. The Daughter-in-Law shows how a family dynamic can somehow go wrong and it is the unravelling of the origin of the flaw that is both fascinating and arduous. With the aid of Lawrence’s non-fiction writings along with insights garnered from other writers of the time on psychology such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, one may pinpoint the cause of the problem. It is interesting that Lawrence’s own ponderings on psychology came ten years after the play. As he states:

“The novels and poems come unwatched out of one’s pen. And then the absolute need which one has for some sort of satisfactory mental attitude towards oneself and things in general makes one try to abstract some definite conclusions from one’s experiences as a writer and as a man” (Lawrence 71).

It is significant that Lawrence looked back at his own works as the raw material from which one could later draw conclusions, much like a psychologist would discuss a patient’s life to discover key experiences and their meanings. Lawrence was clearly preoccupied by the theme of motherly love and gave shape to his ideas in dramatic form. He approached the topic of motherly love with the aim of portraying its effects within a real-life situation. It is relevant to note that Lawrence had a particularly close relationship with his own mother, Lydia, who incidentally was an educated woman who married a miner. In Lawrence’s non-fiction works on the unconscious, he comes to conclusions on why particular familial relationships have specific outcomes. This essay will utilize quotes from the play, The Daughter-in-Law, and additional material from Lawrence and other writers to clearly set out the core points and interpretative conclusions one can credibly make about the Gascoigne family dynamic. It is hoped that the interpretation will not stray from the message Lawrence was aiming to communicate in his depiction of the poor mining family. The structure of the essay is that the main characters of Mrs. Gascoigne, Luther, Minnie, and Joe will be discussed individually at some length, before concluding with a brief general overview of the play’s key points. 

Mrs. Gascoigne.

D.H. Lawrence depicts Mrs. Gascoigne as a powerful figure at the centre of the play. In his work, Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence goes into some detail about the relationships between mothers and sons. He quotes a line from the poet William Ross Wallace that epitomizes a mother’s power, “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” (170). Given Lawrence’s obvious interest in psychology, we may approach the play from the aspect of mother and son interactions and influences. An analysis of Mrs. Gascoigne may be supported by Lawrence’s own writings on psychology, as well as references to works by Carl Jung. At the outset, it must be admitted that the analysis will look at Mrs. Gascoigne’s influence solely in her role as a mother, as the one who shapes her sons and ultimately impedes on their adult relationships with women. Yet, this is how Mrs. Gascoigne’s character is highlighted in the play, as the woman who is blamed for Luther’s faults by Minnie and indeed by Joe too for his own problems. A key question is what lies at the root of Mrs. Gascoigne’s personality, why she acts as she does? She is clearly an assertive and domineering woman, but she exhibits these traits most clearly in her primary role as a mother. If one refers to Carl Jung who wrote on the “mother archetype” (82) then one finds a description of women who suffer from “hypertrophy of the maternal instinct” (87). Jung explains this term as follows:

“The exaggeration of the feminine side means an intensification of all female instincts, above all the maternal instinct. The negative aspect is seen in the woman whose only goal is childbirth. To her the husband is obviously of secondary importance; he is first and foremost the instrument of procreation, and she regards him merely as an object to be looked after, along with children, poor relations, cats, dogs, and household furniture. Even her own personality is of secondary importance; she often remains entirely unconscious of it, for her life is lived in and through others, in more or less complete identification with all the objects of her care. First she gives birth to the children, and from then on she clings to them, for without them she has no existence whatsoever” (87).

This description clearly matches one’s impression of Mrs. Gascoigne. She is the mother of six sons and prides herself on how she has provided a stable home for them even after her husband died in a mining accident many years ago. She is apparently selfless, kept busy with household chores and guiding as best she can her two sons who still live at home. When this older woman gives advice to Minnie about men, she makes an observation that corresponds with Jung’s classification of such women as obsessive carers who treat adult men in much the same manner as children. Mrs. Gascoigne advises Minnie that:

“Children they are, these men, but, my word, they’re revengeful children. Children men is a’ the days o’ their lives. But they’re master of us women when their dander’s up, an’ they pay us back double an’ treble — they do — an’ you mun allers expect it.” 

This quote from Mrs. Gascoigne proves complex when investigated fully. She presents herself as one in eternal servitude to her menfolk, which crucially means that she is also the eventual target of their tantrums. Indeed, it is as if her life has no purpose outside of caring for her menfolk which requires her to play a supporting role rather than the person at the forefront. However, Mrs. Gascoigne is also clearly infantilizing the men, viewing them as eternal, unruly children. As such, her advice to Minnie rings false because it comes from such an assertive, controlling woman. Jung reveals the emotional price attached to such intense mother and son relationships, explaining that the bond is almost poisonous.

“Women of this type, though continually ‘living for others,’ are, as a matter of fact, unable to make any real sacrifice. Driven by ruthless will to power and a fanatical insistence on their own maternal rights, they often succeed in annihilating not only their own personality but also the personal lives of their children” (Jung 88).

It may seem strange that Lawrence, a man who had an unusually strong bond with his own mother and also came from a working-class coal mining district, should so blatantly critique a character like Mrs. Gascoigne. The playwright’s depiction of Mrs. Gascoigne strongly resembles Jung’s psychological profile of such women who have a “ruthless will to power.” It seems clear that Lawrence wishes to dismantle a seemingly invincible woman through an exposition of her faults and thus reveal to the audience the problems of such women’s influence over their sons. The writer is critiquing mother-love, and he shows that it is not always benign. In Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence looks at the initial causes of distortions in mother and son relationships. He argues that a woman who is unhappy or unsatisfied in her marriage, “throws herself into a last great love for her son, a final and fatal devotion, that which would have been the richness and strength of her husband and is poison to her boy” (201). In this way, Lawrence is confronting the toxic side of motherly devotion which Jung, focusing on the archetypes of the unconscious mind, describes as follows:

“On the negative side the mother archetype may connote anything secret, hidden, dark; the abyss, the world of the dead, anything that devours, seduces, and poisons, that is terrifying and inescapable like fate” (82).

Fortunately, Lawrence does not make Mrs. Gascoigne into a caricature of the old, domineering crone. Instead, he reveals the hundred and one ways that her influence, manifestations of her core personality type, have injured her two sons who still live with her at the play’s opening. In this way, the play is a valuable insight into a common family dynamic clearly based on the Oedipal complex. The play is at once a realistic portrayal of an individual coal mining family and also a crucial insight into the psychology of the situation. What Lawrence does is reveal a more objective view of mother love, showing that it is not always a wholly positive influence. Jung summarizes the stereotype of mother love which indeed forms an almost god given truth in our minds which must be tackled.

“The positive aspect of the first type of complex, namely the overdevelopment of the maternal instinct, is identical with that well-known image of the mother which has been glorified in all ages and all tongues. This is the mother-love which is one of the most moving and unforgettable memories of our lives, the mysterious root of all growth and change; the love that means homecoming, shelter, and the long silence from which everything begins and in which everything ends” (Jung 92).

In The Daughter-in-Law, the playwright gives free reign to dissenting voices, most obviously Minnie’s but also Joe’s, to slowly challenge the ideal of mother love. While such a challenge may seem outdated to present day readers, Lawrence was tackling this issue in 1913 and also within the context of a working-class family where many would view other issues as more significant. Mrs. Gascoigne lies at the heart of a cause-and-effect dilemma and one which makes readers slightly uncomfortable because the primary carer is also the person excoriated as the source of all problems! It is initially through her oldest son’s perceived faults that we begin to view Mrs. Gascoigne in a different light.

Luther Gascoigne.

One of Luther Gascoigne’s most prominent traits is his lack of expressiveness. A reader relies heavily on the descriptions, often harsh critiques, that others apply to Luther. It is of interest that Lawrence chooses to portray the miner in such a way, emphasizing his character’s submissive nature. Luther’s lack of assertiveness is one of his core weaknesses and his taciturn and passive character make him difficult to assess because he reveals so little. Like with Mrs. Gascoigne, it is best to investigate what possible reasons lie behind Luther’s character traits. Lawrence, Jung, and Freud all write about the topic of mother and son relationships, and each has a distinctive approach, but all three tend to agree that when a parent forms too close a bond with their child before puberty then it often leads to lifelong problems. We know that Mrs. Gascoigne’s husband died leaving her as sole parent, and we also know how Minnie criticizes Mrs. Gascoigne for all of Luther’s faults, but is it legitimate to lay the blame on the elderly mother? One may take quotes from all three writers, Lawrence, Jung, and Freud, to discern the problems of what Lawrence himself calls “the bond of adult love” (196) that sometimes forms between mother and son.

  1. “It is a sort of incest. It is a dynamic spiritual incest, more dangerous than sensual incest, because it is more intangible and less instinctively repugnant” (Lawrence 196).
  2. “For the son, the anima is hidden in the dominating power of the mother, and sometimes she leaves him with a sentimental attachment that lasts throughout life and seriously impairs the fate of the adult” (Jung 29).
  3. “Of course, too much parental tenderness becomes harmful because it accelerates the sexual maturity, and also because it ‘spoils’ the child and makes it unfit to temporarily renounce love or be satisfied with a smaller amount of love in later life” (Freud 97).

A summation of these views leaves one with the figure of a domineering mother who engages in a form of bonding with her son/s that may be classified as “spiritual incest,” and which potentially leads to relationship problems in adult life. Luther does exhibit the character traits of a boy who has an indulgent mother and as Lawrence writes, “then the child will be all gentle, all tender and tender-radiant, always enfolded with gentleness and forbearance, always shielded from grossness or pain or roughness” (112). It is evident that Luther has not learned to assert himself, to defend himself, or to express himself in an adult fashion. It is obviously difficult to objectively critique the mother love exhibited in a family setting, but we do witness Luther’s problems as an adult. Through a series of observations, we may come to view Luther’s problems as indeed sourced in his childhood and caused by his overbearing mother.

It is possible to classify Luther’s shortcomings under three headings: career, assertiveness, and marriage. Luther is a 31-year-old miner but as his mother tells Joe, “there’s Luther nowt b’r a day man yet” signifying his lack of career progress. Minnie similarly criticizes her husband when he says he is going on strike by adding her sarcastic question, “and will this strike make a butty of you?” Minnie says that other men progress because they have some “go in them” but that he’s satisfied with a low-level job because, “that’s what your mother did for you — mardin’ you up till you were all mard-soft.” This criticism links to Luther’s lack of assertiveness in all areas of his life as assessed by those closest to him. For example, Joe comments derogatorily on Luther’s lack of enthusiasm when courting Minnie, saying “I reckon he niver showed the spunk of a sprat-herring to ‘er [Minnie].” Later, when Minnie sees her husband covered in coal dust, black-face, she says, “you don’t look nearly such a tame rabbit, in your pit-dirt.” Luther’s brother and wife have unflattering perceptions of him as a man with no drive and tame like a pet. It is true that Luther is always the docile party, both in his marriage and with his mother. Not only does Luther take his mother’s advice that he is too young for marriage at 22, but he leaves it to his fiancé, Minnie, to propose to him in the end. When Luther tries to defend himself to Minnie saying that he proposed twice previously, she retorts, “axed me! It was like asking me to pull out a tooth for you.” It is noteworthy that once Luther is married to Minnie, he complains about his marriage to Joe and to Mrs. Purdy, and he even expresses regret at marrying Minnie, but he never admits this to his mother. With his wife, Luther always adopts a passive or passive-aggressive attitude even when she threatens to leave him over the Bertha affair when he just responds, “I non care what ter does. If ter leaves me.” His marriage is not a success, and he cannot confess this to the one person who warned him against marrying Minnie, namely his mother, the most important influence in his life. It is ironic that the woman responsible for many of Luther’s faults and by extension, for his marriage problems, seems to have been right about his misguided choice of partner. However, one must appreciate that for Mrs. Gascoigne, losing her sons to marriage is the equivalent of losing a part of herself and for that reason she devalues such a union, advising that, “marriage is like a mouse-trap, for either man or woman. You’ve soon come to th’ end o’ th’ cheese.” It is difficult not to view Luther’s shortcomings as the result of a mother who never wishes to see her son gain independence, who metaphorically clipped his wings so that he would be unable to ever leave her.

The crux of Luther’s difficulties falls under the heading of manhood. Ideas of manhood and masculinity have changed significantly since Lawrence wrote the play in 1913. However, in terms of Lawrence’s own writings, Luther is an unusually passive character and seems to have adopted the passive role in his marriage formerly seen as the female role. Lawrence had clear views that men should be masculine, and women feminine, and he stated that, “a child is born with one sex only, and remains always single in his sex. There is no intermingling, only a great change of roles is possible. But man in the female role is still male” (174). Therefore, in Lawrence’s portrayal of Luther, he is signalling a fault as he would have understood it. The clearest indications that Luther is not acting in an assertive, manly fashion are his passive acceptance of Minnie’s marriage proposal and later, his equally passive acceptance that she may leave the marriage if she wishes. Marriage signifies a new stage in a person’s adult life so entering or leaving such a union as a disempowered figure, almost a bystander, is clearly a sign of a problem. Minnie also constantly chastises and belittles Luther in the marriage, telling him that he “talk[s] like a fool,” is “lazy” and is a “coward.” However, the main insult is when Minnie tells Luther that, “no, you’re not a man” and this derogatory remark is explained by the comment, “it’s your mother’s doing. She mollycoddled and marded you till you weren’t a man — and now — I have to pay for it.” When Minnie learns that Luther has impregnated Bertha Purdy, she dismisses the girl as a mere simpleton and asserts that it is probably not even his child, that Bertha just chose him to accept the responsibility because he is “so soft” and that he would be flattered by the idea of his male prowess. Yet, Luther never retaliates in word or action even though he does clearly get angry at times. When Luther complains to Joe about Minnie, we glimpse how another man would deal with the situation because Joe says, “by the Lord, she’d cop it if I had ‘er.” The marriage is lopsided in regard to who has power and control. Lawrence warns that, “with wife or husband, you should never swallow your bile. It makes you go all wrong inside” (280). Overall, Lawrence depicts a man who has not matured sufficiently to cope with the challenges of adult life. In traditional terms, he has not become a man. Yet, if Luther is indeed such a weak, unambitious character, then why does someone like Minnie choose to marry him?

Minnie Hetherington.

Minnie is the daughter-in-law referred to in the play’s title. Her importance may be gauged by the level of imposition felt by her new family, the Gascoignes. Minnie has obvious advantages like education and a career, but she also has a strong personality. She comes from the same town as the Gascoignes, but she is considered supercilious by locals. Mrs. Purdy describes Minnie as “haughty” and in somewhat more colourful language adds that she’s “a stuck-up piece o’ goods as ever trod.” A more objective assessment might be that Minnie is a proud young woman. She has worked as a nursery governess for several years in Manchester prior to marrying Luther and she noticeably speaks standard English rather than local dialect. More importantly, Minnie is an independent woman not only due to her career but also due to a small inheritance of one hundred pounds from her late uncle and some other savings of her own. When she is first introduced in the play, the description of her is, “a tall, good-looking young woman.” While Minnie’s poise and refined speech may seem arrogant to those in the mining town, she is clearly an intelligent and attractive young woman. This contrasts sharply with the assertion first made by Mrs. Gascoigne that Minnie settled for Luther because she could not find a better man, saying, “an’ when she fun as nob’dy was for sale but our Luther, she says, “Well, I’ll take it.” The key question of why Minnie married the unambitious and taciturn Luther becomes almost a refrain in the play.

The young couple’s courting history is long and complicated. Mrs. Gascoigne reveals that Luther proposed to Minnie when he was twenty-two years old, but Minnie declined his offer, pursuing her career instead. Mrs. Gascoigne has been consistently against the match, initially because Luther was too young, and later paradoxically because Minnie had waited too long and apparently just could not get herself “a town johnny, a Bertie-Willie an’ a yard o’ cuffs.” When Luther reveals the news of Bertha’s pregnancy to Minnie, she angrily responds, “so — this was what I waited for you for!” The statement indicates that Minnie was always the pursuer in the relationship and the proof is that her final marriage proposal made via letter to Luther was the successful one. The doubts about Minnie’s true motivation for getting married are not only based on Mrs. Gascoigne’s scurrilous assertions that Minnie settled for Luther. Indeed, during a previous argument with Luther, Minnie criticizes Luther’s work ethic along with his half-hearted marriage proposals until an exasperated Luther legitimately asks why she did marry him, and her sharp response is – “because I could get nobody better.” However, one must ask if such a statement is credible? Admittedly, one suspects that Minnie must in fact have subdued her pride, not only to marry a man who showed little enthusiasm for the match, but because she also had to propose to him to finalize the match. Then when Luther reveals he got Bertha Purdy pregnant, Minnie does not automatically threaten to leave him as one might expect, but only broaches the topic of separation due to Luther’s total apathy. Minnie wanted the marriage and intends to stay in the marriage, but Luther’s passivity is a constant problem. Minnie’s assertions that she could do no better than him seem little more than antagonistic remarks to hurl against her docile husband. Yet, one must question the marriage further to reveal its allure for Minnie or if indeed she had not better option.

While Minnie and Luther’s marriage is strained, there is certainly mutual sexual attraction. This partially explains Minnie’s bond with Luther. Let us not forget that Minnie has worked in Manchester and is friends with educated men like her former employer, Mr. Westlake, the man who assists her in choosing the three art prints she later buys. She has her own occupation as a governess and may return to her work if she chooses. She is noticeably different because she speaks in standard English rather than the dialect of her hometown and region. One would suspect that such a woman would gravitate towards a more refined man than a manual labourer. Luther is certainly not an obvious match for her because he is an uneducated coal miner with little or no ambition. Minnie obviously chooses Luther, and their sexual chemistry is key to this choice. In Act One, scene two, we witness how the couple exchange compliments at home and how Minnie is fascinated by Luther in all his dirt and coal dust when he returns from the mine. She notes how red his lips are in his blackened face, and then Luther adds a description of himself as though he inhabits Minnie’s thoughts – “it ma’es you look like a nigger, i’ your pit-dirt — th’ whites o’ your eyes!” Luther’s description conjures up the old stereotype of black men and sexual prowess, clearly prompted by Minnie’s focus on the redness of Luther’s lips and whiteness of his teeth, “it’s your mouth — it looks so red and bright, in your black face.” Minnie is seemingly aroused by her husband’s appearance as she adds the piquant remark that “it’s almost like having a stranger.” Luther’s identity as a hard-working coal miner is read by Minnie as a sign of true masculinity, and for a moment, he is not the “tame rabbit” she has begun to label him. Many writers of the era, Lawrence included, noted the physical beauty of miner’s bodies which was a result of their hard physical work. It is important to note that sexual attraction plays a key role in the bond between the newlyweds especially since they are not an obvious match in other respects. One could view Minnie’s constant haranguing of Luther as an attempt to ignite a more obvious masculine response in him, to arouse a more formidable character with whom she can spar.

Minnie knows Luther for at least nine years before marrying him. One presumes that she could have married a middle-class gentleman, or even a different coal miner, given that she is young, intelligent, and good looking. Mrs. Gascoigne’s speculation that Minnie settled for Luther does not withstand much scrutiny. However, sexual attraction alone does not seem a sufficient reason for waiting so long for Luther, especially given his lacklustre responses during courtship. Then, once the couple are married, Minnie’s expectations of Luther contrast sharply with her knowledge of him over the many years. This begs the question – what does Minnie want of Luther? When Minnie argues with Mrs. Gascoigne over Luther’s shortcomings, Minnie states, “I’ll have a man, or nothing, I will.” Minnie holds Mrs. Gascoigne responsible for Luther’s faults, saying:

“It was your fault. You held him, and persuaded him that what he wanted was you. You kept him, like a child, you even gave him what money he wanted, like a child. He never roughed it — he never faced out anything. You did all that for him.”

To understand such a charge, we may return to what Lawrence wrote about parents who establish too close a bond with their children, “you have got your child as sure as if you had woven its flesh again with your own. You have done what it is vicious for any parent to do: you have established between your child and yourself the bond of adult love” (196). Lawrence goes on to explain the detrimental consequences for such children’s later adult relationships, writing that, “you will not easily get a man to believe that his carnal love for the woman he has made his wife is as high a love as that he felt for his mother or sister. The cream is licked off from life before the boy or the girl is twenty” (205). Minnie recognizes the ill effects of Luther’s over intoxication with mother love. Minnie tells of how Mrs. Gascoigne bossed Luther, made decisions for him, and made him overly dependent on her. Of course, Mrs. Gascoigne defends her son out of love but also because by defending him she also defends herself. Mrs. Gascoigne tells Minnie that, “I canna see as you’re so badly off. You’ve got a husband as doesn’t drink, as waits on you hand and foot, as gives you a free hand in everything. It’s you as doesn’t know when you’re well off, madam.” In fact, both women know Luther’s character quite well and what Mrs. Gascoigne says is not contradicted by Minnie. The issue here is fundamentally about control because Minnie complains, “how is a woman ever to have a husband, when the men all belong to their mothers? It’s wrong.” At the conclusion of the play, Minnie is in conversation again with Mrs. Gascoigne, and she says “don’t keep him [Luther] from me. It leaves me so — with nothing — not even trouble.” Minnie seeks to break the incredibly strong bond between Mrs. Gascoigne and her son, but she makes the request of the person she understands holds the power, the power over Luther that Minnie herself desires. Lawrence writes very insightfully on the crucial difference between the submissive love a mother may give within a family versus the love a married woman expects in her marriage.

“No woman will give to a stranger that which she gives to her son, her father, or her brother: that beautiful and glamorous submission which is truly the wife- submission. To a stranger, a husband, a woman insists on being queen, goddess, mistress, the positive, the adored, the first and foremost and the one and only. This she will not ask from her near blood-kin. Of her blood-kin, there is always one she will love devotedly” (Lawrence 205).

This interpretation of the potency of mother love as understood in the context of Lawrence’s play leads one to a grave conclusion. It appears that Minnie enters verbal combat with Mrs. Gascoigne with the chief aim of gaining full control of Luther. This does not discount the sexual chemistry between Minnie and Luther, and one must indeed acknowledge their long courtship. However, it is implausible that Minnie does not know what kind of man Luther is, and therefore she has indeed chosen him precisely for the good points that his mother makes about his character. The thorn in Minnie’s side is Luther’s attachment to his mother and therefore the resulting split in his loyalties, namely between family and marriage. It is evident that Luther’s character will not change now regardless of his adult relationship with his mother so one suspects that many of Minnie’s major criticisms of her husband will be repeated to infinity. Through Minnie’s negotiations with Mrs. Gascoigne, she is signalling that she is indeed replacing the older woman in Luther’s affections and thus one domineering woman is replaced by her younger rival. What Minnie sees in Luther is someone who will abdicate his power to her, just as he did with his mother, and so the cycle continues. This is a somewhat unromantic reading of the situation but seems to follow the message of Lawrence’s play which is a caution against close family relationships of the mother and son variety. Why Luther chooses a woman with Minnie’s personality is not a puzzle – she is an image of his own mother to which he is unconsciously drawn.

Joe Gascoigne.

Joe Gascoigne is one of the most compelling figures in Lawrence’s play. Joe is Mrs. Gascoigne’s youngest son, aged approximately 26 years old and of handsome appearance. In comparison to the passive, even apathetic Luther, the younger brother Joe is assertive, ambitious, and seems unaffected by the negative aspects of motherly love. This young miner has plans to emigrate to Australia and is considered somewhat of a ladies’ man. However, Lawrence shows that even though families may contain individuals of contrasting character, an overbearing mother will still unavoidably shape her children. Carl Jung writes that, “the effects of the mother-complex differ according to whether it appears in a son or a daughter” (85) and he notes that one of the effects on sons is the emergence of what he labels “Don Juanism” (85) where the son “unconsciously seeks his mother in every woman he meets” (85). Freud asserts a similar theory that sons seek replacements for their mothers in romantic relationships, writing that, “it is not without good reason that the suckling of the child at its mother’s breast has become a model for every amour. The object-finding is really a re-finding” (95). Luther confirms that Joe is promiscuous when he recalls his own lack of sexual activity but says, “our Joe wor more that way than me.” Even though Joe may be quite sexually active, he is also apparently discerning in his choice of women. The evidence of this comes when Minnie berates Luther about Bertha Purdy, the so called “sawney” or simpleton. Minnie observes that Joe would never settle for such a woman. This statement of Minnie’s confirms that Joe prefers intelligent and articulate women, women like his own mother who are redoubtable. However, “Don Juanism” is not the only indication of Joe’s bond with his mother. In the opening scene of the play, we witness Mrs. Gascoigne cutting Joe’s dinner meat and spoon feeding her adult son. One could feebly excuse this act given that Joe’s right arm is in a sling, but it is noteworthy that Mrs. Gascoigne initiates the role play and it is not the result of a request from Joe. Lawrence is depicting a case of infantilization and the playwright underscores the relevance of the scene with Mrs. Gascoigne’s joke that, “it’s a rum un as I should start ha’in’ babies again, an’ feedin’ ’em wi’ spoon-meat.” The scene perfectly encapsulates the relationship between mother and son, especially when Mrs. Gascoigne proceeds to quiz Joe on his attempts to secure accident pay and then critiques, albeit jokingly, his actions and negotiating skills. There is clearly an unusually close bond between Joe and his mother.

Lawrence makes Joe a distinctive character in several respects, but one key point is that Joe is painfully aware of his unhealthy link with his own mother. This is not revealed until Minnie is arguing with Mrs. Gascoigne, and remarks that, “your elder sons you let go, and they are husbands. But your young sons you’ve kept.” As the topic is Mrs. Gascoigne’s control over her sons then Joe is naturally brought into the discussion with Minnie commenting that he is not fit to get married. Surprisingly, Joe agrees with Minnie’s criticism of him. Joe exhibits true insight into his predicament as he understands it, addressing his mother as follows:

“Tha knows I couldna leave thee, Mother — tha knows I couldna. An’ me, a young man, belongs to thy owd age. An’ there’s nowheer for me to go, Mother. For tha’rt gettin’ nearer to death an’ yet I canna leave thee to go my own road. An’ I wish, yi, often, as I wor dead.”

It is a striking confession from a man who seems a well-rounded adult. One may comfortably presume for much of the play that Joe is a quite capable and soon to be independent young man. However, by finally stripping away Joe’s façade of confidence, Lawrence is drawing attention to the ill effects of what is most easily classified as the Oedipal complex. Additionally, Lawrence makes Joe the truth-teller of the play and the fact that the young man has a good insight into his own flaws means that he may be treated by the reader as an objective voice in the play.

Joe is instrumental in bringing the plot of The Daughter-in-Law to its resolution. One may view this young man’s influence under three key headings, namely, information, argumentation, and confrontation. Information becomes a weapon in the play as proven by Mrs. Gascoigne’s desire to use the news of Bertha’s pregnancy to punish Minnie. Mrs. Gascoigne commands that, “Mrs. Purdy, give it her [Minnie]. It’ll take her down a peg or two, and, my sirs, she wants it, my sirs, she needs it!” Yet, Mrs. Gascoigne is regularly deprived of information by her secretive sons signalling their fear of her. Only Joe has an overview of all that is truly happening in the family. He holds three crucial pieces of information which he shares with his mother but only at a strategic moment when revelations are necessary for his own aims. These revelations are, firstly, that Luther and Minnie already have marital problems prior to Bertha’s news, secondly, the contents of Luther’s letter in reply to Minnie’s marriage proposal, and thirdly, the confirmation by Joe of Mrs. Purdy’s story about Luther and Bertha’s affair. The information is not provided to win favour with his mother but instead to create a solid and convincing counterargument to Mrs. Gascoigne’s. It is Mrs. Gascoigne’s intent to orchestrate a scene where Minnie is confronted with the news of Luther’s unfaithfulness based on her sole argument that Minnie deserves this fate because she made Luther wait too long before marrying him. Mrs. Gascoigne’s attempts to use Mrs. Purdy’s daughter’s misfortune to punish Minnie is clearly unjust in Joe’s view.

Mrs. Gascoigne’s chief argument relies on timelines, primarily the inordinate waiting period before the young couple’s marriage. Luther’s mother cleverly absolves herself of responsibility for her son’s errors, saying, “my son’s my son till he takes him a wife,” an’ no longer.” But the timeline tells a different truth because the couple are married just six weeks, Minnie’s proposal was three months ago, but Bertha is four months pregnant. Luther was still a single man and living with his mother when he had a tryst with Bertha Purdy. Since Joe disagrees with his mother’s argument, he uses information, including some comments derogatory to Luther, as a means of convincing Mrs. Purdy not to follow his mother’s advice. He criticizes Luther instead of Minnie for the slow marriage because his brother “slormed” meaning that his courtship lacked vigour. Joe goes on to name the gang of friends who frequented “Th’ Ram” bar and says, “Jim Horrocks is ter blame fer couplin’ ‘er [Bertha] onter our Luther, an’ him an’ her’s ter blame for the rest. I dunno how you can lay it on Minnie.” Joe also quite reasonably asserts that Luther had no way of knowing that Bertha would actually fall pregnant. In short, Joe tries to avert disaster by convincing Mrs. Purdy that the whole sorry affair is the result of Luther’s lackadaisical character, a bad crowd, and bad luck. Minnie is the innocent party in Joe’s presentation. It is a robust argument which tackles each aspect of his mother’s rhetoric. Additionally, Joe actively seeks a solution to the problem by suggesting a payment to Mrs. Purdy’s daughter, negotiating the appropriate sum, offering to pay it himself, and always emphasizing the importance of secrecy to Mrs. Purdy. In fact, Joe solves the problem except for one major obstacle – Mrs. Gascoigne controls both her sons’ savings and refuses to release the money to Joe, even though it is his own money.

Even though Joe appears beholden to his mother, he is not afraid to contradict and even confront her at times. Mrs. Gascoigne becomes increasingly exasperated with Joe’s contradictory stance to hers in regard to Minnie’s responsibility and she attempts to silence her son using her power as matriarch, saying – “what has thee ter say, I should like to know? Fed an’ clothed an’ coddled, tha art, an’ not a thing tha lacks.” It is manipulative for a mother to use her son’s dependency as a coercive tool especially when the last thing she wishes is for him to become independent. Despite Joe’s best efforts, Mrs. Purdy does finally agree to Mrs. Gascoigne’s plan, but Joe never gives up arguing his point that Minnie should not be told of Bertha’s pregnancy. Mrs. Gascoigne’s annoyance is obvious, and she chides Joe, saying, “I could fetch thee a wipe ower th’ face, I could!” As Joe’s initial plan has failed, he cleverly goes to Luther’s house the following day with the intention of making Minnie so angry, by breaking her crockery, that she exits the house before Mrs. Purdy arrives. In this scene, Joe is shown to outmanoeuvre Minnie for her own good, then he breaks the news of Bertha to Luther as well as school his brother on the agreement to make with Mrs. Purdy. In short, Joe succeeds in dismantling his mother’s plan. It is only because of Luther’s drunken revelation that Minnie finds out about Bertha’s pregnancy, not because of any flaw in Joe’s meticulous planning. The key turning point of the play involves a final confrontation that eventually secures a lasting peace in the family. The scene is set when Joe acts upon Luther’s suggestion that a woman may be hired to do the housework instead of Minnie who has apparently abandoned her husband. Joe’s departure from the house to arrange the services of “Lizzie Charley” infuriates not only his mother but Minnie too. In a clever comparison, Joe says Luther may hire someone to do his housework just as the mine bosses hire “blacklegs” to do the miners’ work. The metaphor of a strike breaker works well in the domestic debacle. Mrs. Gascoigne is advised by Joe not to play the role of blackleg i.e. not interfere in the young couple’s marriage, and also, Minnie’s home labour is covertly given a monetary value. In regard to Mrs. Gascoigne, Joe is effectively telling her that she needs to stop interfering in Luther’s married life which is a long overdue rebuke. For Minnie, the effect of the insult is quite different because by placing a monetary value on the household duties of a wife, Joe cleverly deflates Minnie’s exaggerated sense of her own importance by coldly showing her that she can be replaced easily and at a meagre cost. As soon as Lizzie Charley has been advised that her services are not needed, Minnie instantly re-assumes her domestic role, suggesting, “we’ll have some tea, should we?” and unusually refers to Mrs. Gascoigne as “mother” while engaging her in polite conversation. Joe, who is just an ordinary miner, is shown to be exceptionally cunning because he manipulates the situation to force a result that finally sets everything in its proper place.


Lawrence’s play provides an engaging critique of mother love in the context of a poor, mining family. The playwright portrays two quite different men who have one thing in common, an unhealthy attachment to their mother. The story that Lawrence presents to his readers is a variation on an old theme of mother and son relationships. Carl Jung writes of the potency of the mother and son relationship as follows:

It is very telling that Mrs. Gascoigne compares her role as carer of her sons with that of a new wife who will replace her. She says of Minnie’s relationship with Luther, “let her make him as good a wife as I made him a mother! The comment seems innocuous until later when Luther is drunkenly arguing with Minnie and he says, “‘er wor nice wi’ me, which is a thing tha’s niver bin” which Minnie misinterprets as a reference to his mother and responds, “you only want your mother to rock you to sleep.” However, the woman Luther is referring to is the woman he got pregnant, Bertha Purdy. In the context of the play, Minnie’s presumption that Luther is speaking of his mother when he is actually speaking of his lover helps emphasize the incestuous nature of the too close mother and son bond. As already discussed, it is common for sons of domineering women to seek a partner who reflects their mother. As Lawrence himself states, one is not referring to sexual relations between mother and son but an unusually close sympathetic bond which is gravely harmful. Also, Mrs. Gascoigne’s view that she is being replaced leads to a heightened defensiveness of the bond she has with her adult sons, a bond that is even more insidious since it has existed since their births. When Minnie argues with Mrs. Gascoigne over her control of Luther, the older woman retorts to Minnie, “you talk like a jealous woman” which also signals that both women are vying for Luther’s love.

While Luther turns out to be a taciturn, introverted character who leaves his mother only to live with a woman who is equally assertive and domineering, Joe is quite different. In Joe, Lawrence presents us with a handsome, intelligent, resourceful, masculine figure but one whose life ambitions are spanceled by his bond with his mother. While one may more easily dismiss Luther as a failure, Joe’s example demands that a reader look more closely at the influence of the often-unquestioned love of the mother figure. If the play has a single message, then it is how a man’s whole life may be overshadowed by a type of motherly love that acts as a poison rather than nourishment.

The ending of the play is sometimes read as a depiction of a family at peace, bought at the price of compromise. Mrs. Gascoigne and Minnie certainly appear to have reached a truce but both women have accepted certain realities as opposed to any show of generous compromise. In fact, there is little true evidence of characters compromising or transforming. One possible exception is the men’s action against the mine bosses in the closing scenes. Joe is the instigator of the attack, saying, “but we non goin’ ter ha’e it, are we, Luther, these ‘ere blacklegs goin’ down interferin’.” Then, both men go out at night to thwart the blacklegs in the mining district and as Luther says when he returns home, all bloodied, “we stopped them blacklegs — leastways.” As such, Joe, and more surprisingly, Luther, give an eventual show of traditional masculine bravery. This may indeed be interpreted as a transformation of Luther given that he has been repeatedly accused by his wife of not being a real man. Lawrence had very traditional views on male and female roles in marriage and he believed a good marriage was only possible if the man has a clear goal in life outside of the home. As Luther and Joe go out to stop strike breakers with the ultimate goal of improving miners’ wages and conditions then they are enacting their political beliefs as normal working men. Lawrence believed that a man should not look to his wife as the major interest in life, writing that:

“No man ever had a wife unless he served a great predominant purpose. Otherwise, he has a lover, a mistress. No matter how much she may be married to him, unless his days have a living purpose, constructive or destructive, but a purpose beyond her and all she stands for; unless his days have this purpose, and his soul is really committed to his purpose, she will not be a wife, she will be only a mistress and he will be her lover” (283).

As Mrs. Gascoigne is the one who originally unmanned her sons then she is not the one to rectify the problem. Luther’s “predominant purpose” as Lawrence calls it becomes the welfare of the mining workers for whom he fights. Yet, this awakening of masculinity is clearly prompted by his younger brother Joe who suggests the action. We also witness Minnie’s actions where she seeks to force a change in Luther’s character. Minnie deliberately transforms her cash savings into material objects, an engagement ring and three art prints, on the pretence that it puts her in “the same boat as other men’s wives now.” Her goal is to make a man of Luther, to force him to provide for her and her ultimatum is professed in front of all the family – “if he can provide, he must, and if he can’t, he must tell me so, and I’ll go back into service, and not be a burden to him.” Mrs. Gascoigne astutely reads Minnie’s act as being “high and mighty” and chastises Minnie regarding Luther’s feelings, “tha doesna care how he takes it.” There is clearly a demand being made of Luther to change.

The play closes with an image of Luther, wounded after the attack on the blacklegs, and in tears due to the emotional strain of the previous days. He is held in his wife’s arms and she has just said, “trust yourself to me. Let me have you now for my own.” In the other household, Joe goes home and his mother follows him to take care of him, knowing that he will never leave her. In both houses, a man’s life is ruled by a more assertive, domineering individual, be it wife or mother. In regard to characters transforming or compromising, the only character who is really asked to change is Luther, the most docile and accommodating of all the characters in the play. As such, Lawrence’s depiction of mother love is of something quite malign and oppressive but also practically invisible until one looks at the long-term repercussions as evidenced by Luther’s marriage. The price to be paid by both sons, as evidenced in The Daughter-in-Law, is freedom.

Works Cited.

Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, David De Angelis, 2018.

Jung, C. J. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. The Collected Works of C. J. Jung Volume 9, Part 1, edited by Sir Herbert Read, Princeton University Press, 1980.

Lawrence, D. H. Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious, Dover Publications, 2005.

Lawrence, D. H. The Daughter-in-Law. Complete Works of D. H. Lawrence, Delphi Classics, 2015, pp. 8653-8764.

The Vortex

Lilian Braithwaite & Noel Coward, stars of The Vortex.

  • Play title: The Vortex     
  • Author: Noel Coward  
  • Published: 1924  
  • Page count: 106  


Noel Coward’s, The Vortex, is a period melodrama that was first published in 1924. Many of Coward’s later plays are more famous but this first major hit was decidedly risqué in its day. The play tells the story of the Lancaster household, with Florence, the narcissistic matriarch, and Nicky, her musically talented but confused son. Florence Lancaster dates a string of young, male admirers and that causes scandal due to her married status. In this work, Coward captures the lifestyles of rich, selfish, vain people who attend the theatre and opera, have multiple residences, drink cocktails in the afternoon and are driven in chauffeured cars. The dramatic events of the play revolve around Nicky’s recent engagement to a girl called Bunty and how this clashes with his mother’s current relationship with her beau named Tom. The themes of the play include drug abuse, parental responsibility, and homosexuality.   

Ways to access the text: reading/listening. 

Coward’s play is available online via the Internet Archive under the title “The Vortex : Noel Coward.” 

However, if you would prefer to listen to an audiobook version then one is available on YouTube. The title of the audiobook is “Vortex – Noel Coward – BBC Saturday Night Theatre” and the running time is 1hr and 29mins. 

Why read/listen to The Vortex? 

1920’s melodrama.  

While melodrama is a term that may be used derogatorily, it also captures the sensational pop of champagne corks and the zing of catty one-liners! Coward’s play evokes a bygone era of upper-class, English privilege, and the author fills each scene with exaggerated characters and thinly veiled taboo subjects. If you like cut-glass accents and witty repartee, then this is the play for you. Admittedly, the play has aged but this may be viewed in a positive light because the world that Coward describes is almost alien to a modern reader and therefore more entrancing. As an example of Coward’s wit, the character “Pawnie” is introduced with the innuendo laden title of “an elderly maiden gentleman.” Pawnie gives embodiment to the overweening vanity and male effeminacy that are core topics in the play. It is possible to encapsulate the overall tone of the play in Pawnie’s succinct description of Nicky – “he’s divinely selfish; all amusing people are.” Coward explores a world of artifice that is shown to be unsustainable because in the end the truth shatters everything in a most dramatic manner.   

A neglectful mother.  

Florence Lancaster is not the maternal type. She is almost fifty but still feels quite young and is considered attractive by men half her age whom she often dates. In modern terms, one would say that she is a liberated woman. However, in the era of 1920’s England her behaviour is considered scandalous and invites gossip. Coward depicts a woman who is unfaithful to her husband but more importantly in terms of the play’s plot, neglectful of her son Nicky. Coward lays the blame for everything that goes wrong on Florence, as explored in the final scene. It is made clear to the reader that Florence does not conform to the socially approved gender role of caring, affectionate mother and she also fails morally. What is interesting for a reader is the masterful way that Coward constructs the entire final scene, which depicts a confrontation between mother and son, without naming the one thing that is the core of the problem. This was probably due to censorship issues and/or the moral sensitivities of the time. However, the constant side-stepping and refusal to name what Florence is really being accused of due to her neglect is quite fascinating.  

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.  

A young man’s habit.  

Nicky Lancaster is a drug addict. We first receive hints that something is amiss from his jittery manner and later there is an actual admission. However, Coward gives the character, Nicky, several masks in the play and the identity that is revealed is often not exactly what we expect. To begin, one may look at two of Nicky’s overlapping masks, the neurotic and the drug addict. As Nicky is depicted from the start as slightly neurotic in temperament, the idea of him using cocaine or any other hard drug is not immediately evident. For example, the introductory description of Nicky to the reader is as a man who “is tall and pale, with thin, nervous hands.” Then later in the same scene just after Nicky describes himself as “hectic and nervy” he overreacts to a comment made by Bunty with an unexpected, angry outburst, saying, “shut up – shut up.” Also, when he plays the wind-up gramophone for his family and friends, he invariably “plays the records too fast.” Even though these are substantial hints at a subtext, it is not until his friend, Helen, takes a “divine little box” from his pocket when searching for a match that the secret is outed, at least to her. Although not named, the drug is most likely cocaine. In a later private discussion, Helen confronts Nicky by saying, “I should give up drugs if I were you.” Apparently, Nicky’s habit had not gone unnoticed because Helen had suspected for some time. Yet, the salient point here is that the signs need to be read correctly in order to identify the underlying issue. Nicky defends himself against Helen’s warnings, saying, “I only take just the tiniest little bit, once in a blue moon.” The topic is effectively dropped until the final scene when Nicky confesses to this mother by way of showing her the “small gold box” which Florence first understands as drugs, and then she promptly throws it out of the window. By proving that not even a mother may know, Coward shows how one problem can easily camouflage another and this is a motif in the play. 

In terms of a sensational twist to the story, then yes, the idea of a young musician returning from Paris with a cocaine habit, especially in the 1920’s, is indeed shocking. Yet, the revelation does not contribute to the plot in any significant manner except to explain the young man’s pallid looks and generally overwrought demeanor. Drug addiction does not explain why Nicky’s engagement ends abruptly nor does it explain his confrontation with his mother. One need only look to the specific dialogues in the play to confirm these points. An astute reader may indeed have guessed that Nicky uses drugs from the early clues in the text but then how should one address the more frequent clues that indicate that Nicky is gay. After all, this is a topic that is never broached. Therefore, one needs to consider what taboos Noel Coward could discuss in his work and which needed to remain unspoken. Coward is obviously substituting the taboo that he could tentatively speak of, namely drugs, and leaves Nicky’s homosexuality as an inferred truth. This strange substitution of one taboo for another within the plot leads to an imbalance, an incongruity in the story unless one deciphers Coward’s full meaning. It is also necessary to digress here and state that what is blatantly clear to a modern audience may have been much more obscure for a 1920’s audience. It is crucial for Nicky to make some big revelation in the story, to be truthful about himself, if he is to expect his mother to confess her mistakes. It was probably impossible for Coward, both from a censorship aspect and a commercial viewpoint, to have a play’s central character out himself as homosexual in the 1920’s. Therefore, drug addiction is used to mimic the shocking confession that is indeed required to bring the narrative to its crisis moment. It is one theatrical mask that obscures another, the confessed drug addict versus the hidden homosexual. The commonality between drug users and homosexuals, in the moralistic terms of the early 20th century, would have been licentiousness, selfishness, and eventual ruin.  As such, it is a fitting ruse employed by the playwright.

The evidence of Nicky’s homosexuality, like his drug use, is based on shrewd observation. There are numerous early clues such as Nicky’s good friend, John Bagot, to whom he reads his mother’s letters. This act of sharing displays a level of intimacy between the men. The surname Bagot is also strongly indicative of a derogatory term for gay men which was indeed spelled with one g in America in the 1920’s, a time when Coward himself had visited New York. Noel Coward was a gay man so is more likely to have been familiar with slang terms for the gay community. Though it may seem strange to think that Coward would slyly allude to such a term, it would have been a clever in-joke for fellow gay men in the audience. However, it is the dialogue between Tom and Bunty that is the strongest indication that people perceive Nicky as gay. For example, Tom is not aware of the romantic relationship between Nicky and Bunty when he first arrives at the Lancaster household. Therefore, when Bunty monopolizes Tom in conversation and Nicky unexpectedly storms out, which Bunty explains as jealousy, then Tom misconstrues the situation, saying, “why … is he …?” The inference here is that Nicky is attracted to Tom and therefore a homosexual, confirmed by Tom’s further innuendo by referring to Nicky as “that type” and “that sort of chap” with the closing comment of “you know – up in the air – effeminate.” It is precisely at this moment that Bunty laughs and says, “I’ve just realized something” which is apparently that her fiancé is a gay man. When Bunty finally breaks off the relationship with Nicky she says, “you’re not in love with me, really – you couldn’t be!” Nicky admits that he is not facing up to things properly, but homosexuality is never actually named.  

Noel Coward, as playwright and gay man, had an unenviable challenge in writing The Vortex. In this play he must commit a form of subterfuge using language in order to explain the problems of gay life. For example, he cannot use any explicit term to denote Nicky’s homosexuality and yet the playwright’s aim is clearly to convey to readers the kind of entrapment that gay men felt. Nicky is unable to face the truth of his sexuality when confronted by his fiancé, and he is even unable to fully admit it to himself because one presumes that he would have married Bunty had she not ended the relationship. If one accepts that Coward uses subterfuge then one example of how he does get the message out is via psychological projection. For example, when Nicky is arguing with his mother about her lovers and he says, “it was something you couldn’t help, wasn’t it – something that’s always been the same in you since you were quite, quite young -?” Nicky is evidently referring to himself here and his own sexuality. In the next line, Nicky says, “I’m nothing – I’ve grown up all wrong.” Such an admission from Nicky underscores that Coward’s play is more than just melodrama, it is a play that struggles to express something that could not legitimately be said publicly at that time. The play depicts Nicky’s utter confusion and self-hatred yet the playwright himself was barred from expressing a plain truth in 1920’s England, the truth that Nicky is gay.  

When the play was written, drug taking and homosexual practices were both seen as habitual acts. As such, Nicky’s ruination in either case would have been perceived as his own choice. Yet, there is a distinct difference in how these two ‘habits’ would have been penalized. The English law covering drugs was the “Dangerous Drugs Act 1920” which continued to treat addiction as a medical problem. On the other hand, the law that covered homosexual practices, namely the “Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885,” meant gay men could face imprisonment for up to two years. This law became known as the “Blackmailer’s Charter” because it put gay men in such a vulnerable position. In the context of the play, Nicky is supported by Helen and later by his mother when he reveals his drug habit. It is not clear how either of these women would react if he had said he was a homosexual. This does not mean they do not suspect or even know it – the problem is the public admission and the unavoidable repercussions. Also, drug use is a habit that is curable in medical terms, homosexuality is evidently not. Coward masks Nicky’s homosexuality and depicts him instead as a drug addict yet the truth of the play is reached by paying attention to the playwright’s constant use of ellipses and the language of innuendo. These literal gaps and constant hints are what the truth must be constructed from given the restrictions of the era. Ultimately, it is an admission that actually counts, and Nicky can only safely admit to using drugs but never to the bigger taboo. Coward will not and possibly cannot name the young man’s true habit because it is sexual and therefore guarantees ruin. One can reasonably assert that the playwright’s own career would also have been seriously tainted or ended had his play been more explicit. Few plays deliver a message so clearly yet simultaneously say nothing at all.   

Hamlet’s mother.  

Noel Coward’s play has a climactic final scene where an angry son confronts his mother about her sexual conduct. For many readers, this scene will appear oddly familiar and that is due to the remarkable similarity to a scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the young prince confronts his mother, Queen Gertrude. Both scenes are defined by anger that tilts towards outright rage. Nicky says to his mother, “I’m straining every nerve to keep myself under control … if you lie to me and try to evade me any more – I won’t be answerable for what might happen.” Similarly, Hamlet tells Queen Gertrude, “Sit you down; you shall not budge; / You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you” and the vehemence of his orders make her fear that he will murder her. What is striking about both scenes is the moral disgust of a son at his mother’s sexual liaisons. In both cases the sons look for and finally gain promises regarding future behaviour from their respective mothers. Queen Gertrude is made to feel shame over her hasty marriage to old King Hamlet’s inferior brother, Claudius, and she promises to keep Hamlet’s secret (that he is not mad but very sane and cunning). In Coward’s play, Nicky commands that his mother will not “have any more lovers … you’re going to be my mother for once” and Florence finally submits, saying, “yes, yes – I’ll try.” While the two scenes are quite similar, an added connection may be made with reference to Sigmund Freud. It was Freud who diagnosed Hamlet’s Oedipal complex in his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, which reveals the young prince’s desire to sleep with his mother. When one considers Coward’s play, it is also a young man’s sexual urges that are in question, in this case, Nicky’s. The allusion that Coward makes by recreating the scene from Hamlet has the purpose of exposing what Florence is really being accused of, and that it relates directly to her son’s sexuality.  

One may quibble about Coward’s use of such an iconic scene from a great play to make a point in a melodramatic work. Yet, the playwright does bring the scene securely into the 20th century. There is a cocaine addicted son, apparently homosexual, threatening his mother in her bedroom late at night on the same day that his fiancé breaks up with him. In the case of Hamlet, Freud explains the prince’s prurient thoughts, for example how his mother lays “in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,” as evidence of his sexual desire for his mother, and his jealousy of her current lover, King Claudius. However, we have yet to explain Nicky’s sexual dilemma from clues in the similarities between the two scenes. The crucial question in The Vortex, comes when Florence asks Nicky, “what are you accusing me of having done?” and his strange answer is “can’t you see yet! … look at me.” The implication is that Nicky’s ‘problem’ is clear for all to see. This suggests that Nicky cannot hide his sexuality and there is evidence to support this as Tom and then Bunty seem to conclude that he is not the marrying type as well as accusations of being effeminate. The scene between Nicky and his mother is well crafted by Coward because it is rich in content. For example, if Nicky’s sexuality can be ‘read’ then surely his mother would have noticed. After all, she is close friends with Pawnie who is depicted as an elderly homosexual. It seems that Florence has indeed noticed because when Nicky declares that he has “a slight confession to make” then her response is firstly to gauge the gravity of it by repeating “confession?” but then swiftly says, “go away – go away.” Florence may not want to hear what she already knows. Nicky’s problem, as has already been established, cannot be named so drug use suffices as the confession. The informative parallel with the Shakespearean scene may be understood as follows – Hamlet obsesses over his mother’s sex life and chastises her, but the secret of the scene is that he is sexually attracted to his mother whereas Nicky obsesses over his mother’s sex life and chastises her, but the secret of the scene is that he is homosexual and seeks the very reason for his sexuality. In both Shakespeare’s and Coward’s separate scenes, a young man is being forced to confront a quite taboo element of his own sexuality and in each case his mother somehow holds the key to the problem.  

As Sigmund Freud diagnosed Hamlet’s Oedipal complex then it seems apt to consult the psychologist’s writings once again regarding Nicky. It is true that Freud’s work is outdated to some degree, especially regarding homosexuality, however, it offers an important guide to academic discussions on sexuality around the time Coward wrote The Vortex. In “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” (1905), Freud makes some helpful observations, for example, he clearly links neuroticism with homosexual feelings. The link between Nicky’s neurotic personality and drugs has already been explored, so it is of interest that Nicky’s neuroticism also hints at his sexuality. Therefore, a characteristic of Nicky’s that is discussed in the play, and is most evident in the climactic scene, is a clue to the sexual subtext. Freud also notes that, “inverts [homosexuals] go through in their childhood a phase of very intense but short-lived fixation on the woman (usually on the mother) and after overcoming it they identify themselves with the woman and take themselves as the sexual object.” If one looks at Nicky’s idealization of his mother then it can indeed be traced back to childhood, like the memory he recounts to Bunty, “I can remember her when I was quite small, coming up to say goodnight to me, looking too perfectly radiant for words.” The intense argument between Nicky and his mother shows that he no longer idealizes her but he once did and Freud’s theory refers to the important formative years and the crystallization of a sexual orientation. The fight between mother and son highlights one particular aspect of Nicky’s sexuality. We are told how Nicky finally realizes that the gossip about his mother has always been true and he even witnesses her make a “vulgar disgusting scene” when Tom breaks off the relationship. Nicky, like Hamlet, has been obsessing about his mother’s sexual relations. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that Coward depicts Tom and Nicky as the same age because consequently Florence becomes Nicky’s rival in love when it comes to the attentions of another male. This links back to Tom’s initial impression of Nicky and the suggestion of sexual jealousy. Just as Hamlet is envious of Claudius’s sexual relations with his mother, Nicky seems to be jealous of his mother’s sexual relations with the “athletic” and masculine Tom.  

To explain Nicky’s impulses, one may look to Freud’s book, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. Freud writes of homosexuals, “the typical process … is that a few years after the termination of puberty the young man, who until this time has been strongly fixated to his mother, turns in his course, identifies himself with his mother, and looks about for love-objects in whom he can re-discover himself and whom he wishes to love as his mother loved him.” This point about identification with the mother is peculiar to Coward’s scene between Nicky and Florence so is missing from Hamlet and Gertrude’s scene. Nicky truly seems to feel that he and his mother are exceptionally alike, and not only does he supply excuses for some of her behaviours, like saying, “you’ve wanted love always – passionate love, because you were made like that – it’s not our fault” but these words obviously reflect his own character too. The key quote in the play is when Nicky says of himself and his mother, “we swirl about in a vortex of beastliness,” and that their only chance is to accept the truth. However, the truth that Nicky seeks is not a truth that he can express himself and the closest we get to naming his sexual ‘problem’ is by way of its apparent causes, namely his mother’s neglect of her parental duties, her shallow vanity, and her endless string of affairs. In the coded speak of 1920’s England, Nicky is blaming his mother for his homosexuality which at the time meant his ruin. Indeed, there is an air of impending doom and disgrace when Nicky references his own father and says, “I’m nothing for him to look forward to – but I might have been if it hadn’t been for you [Florence].” Looking forward suggests a career, marriage, and children, but old Mr. Lancaster will not see any of these because his son is gay. 

The play ends at the conclusion of the dramatic bedroom scene. The resolution that has been agreed is that Florence will try to fulfil her, up until now neglected, role of mother. Like Hamlet who was furious at his mother because of his own unspeakable sexual urges, Nicky’s fight with his mother is equally characterized by obvious sexual repression, the inability to accept or even name the true source of the anger. One may draw another parallel and say that like Queen Gertrude who promises to keep Hamlet’s secret, Florence also understands her son’s secret and co-operates for that reason. Coward’s play is an early example of the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate on same-sex attraction and the playwright’s emphasis on ‘nurture’ is clear and indeed supported at that time by such an eminent psychologist as Freud. The play is a snapshot of English society in a quite different era and is interesting for that very reason. The parallels between Hamlet and The Vortex have been explored to reveal the fascinating subtext that Coward creates.  

Works Cited.  

Coward, Noel. The Vortex. Ernest Benn Limited, 1924.  

Freud, Sigmund. Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. Collier Books, 1963.  

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. 3rd ed., Seven Treasures Publications, 2008. 

Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, David De Angelis, 2018.  

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Penguin Books, 2005. 

Teff, H. “Drugs and the Law: The Development of Control.” The Modern Law Review, vol. 35, no. 3, 1972, pp. 225-241. 

Oedipus Rex

Oedipus and the Sphinx.

  • Play title: Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King.  
  • Author: Sophocles 
  • Written/first performed: around 430 BC.  
  • Page count: 95 


Oedipus Rex tells the ancient tale of King Oedipus of Thebes. At the beginning of the play, the city is ravaged by a strange plague and a group of citizens ask the help of their King who previously saved the city from the horrors of the Sphinx. Oedipus, hoping to end his people’s misery, seeks the advice of the oracle in Delphi who reveals that the unsolved murder of the former king, Laius, is the true cause of the plague. The murderer must be cast out and then the city will be returned to health. By tirelessly seeking out the original murderer, Oedipus unknowingly reveals that he is actually at the heart of his city’s troubles. The intricately detailed plot of the play reveals how Oedipus’ childhood in Corinth with his parents, King Polybus and Queen Merope, is connected to his new life in Thebes with Queen Jocasta, widow of the former king, Laius. The primary themes of the play are personal identity, prophecy, and fate.  

Ways to access the text: reading. 

The text of the play is freely available online but please note that there are many different translations from the original ancient Greek. For example, on Project Gutenberg, one can find a translation in rhyming verse by Gilbert Murray under the title, “Oedipus King of Thebes.” Gutenberg also has a translation in blank verse by F. Storr under the title, “Oedipus the King.”  

I chose an online PDF file of “Oedipus the King” translated by Robert Fagles, available by searching “ Oedipus Rex.” This is a scanned copy of a printed text and is easy to read from the screen. None of the sources listed above have footnotes and they are not essential for reading.  

Why read Oedipus Rex? 

The Oedipus complex

By using the myth of Oedipus as an example, Dr. Sigmund Freud revealed a dark truth within all of us. In 1899, Sigmund Freud’s book The Interpretation of Dreams was published, and the world was introduced to the Oedipus complex. The section of the book where Freud refers to Oedipus is entitled “Dreams of the Death of Beloved Persons.” Firstly, Freud explains that such a dream when accompanied by distressing feelings actually reveals our hidden wish for the person’s death! However, the wish is not necessarily a present wish and may date from the past. When such dreams concern our parents, we are most likely to dream of the death of a parent of the same sex, for example, a son dreams of his father’s death. The explanation provided by Freud links directly to the fact that a child’s sexuality begins to develop relatively early. In general, children are spoiled or indulged by the parent of the opposite sex (mommy’s little soldier) and thus the parent of the same sex becomes what Freud calls an “obnoxious rival” (316) for such affections, as well as being the disciplinarian more often than not. As children do not understand death, they easily wish it on those who deprive them of their desires. In this example, the boy would wish his father’s death. Whether one accepts this theory or scoffs at it, Freud asserts that it is a normal phase of childhood development.  

Freud explains the continuing potency of the myth of Oedipus by the link to infantile psychology, basically it is something that affects us all. He also compares Oedipus’ tortuous road to the truth as analogous to the process of psychoanalysis (Freud 321). In short, Oedipus enacts as an adult a wish that most of us secretly harbour as children and therein lies the true terror of this play. This summary is relevant to the reader, despite any opinions about Freud’s theories, primarily because it enhances one’s understanding of the play. Freud’s theory will surely echo in the reader’s mind when Queen Jocasta says to Oedipus, “many a man before you, in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed.”

The domino effect.  

The events that are of main concern to King Oedipus are predominantly in the past and therefore irreversible. Oedipus is like an investigator who slowly uncovers details about his own origins and these discoveries shed quite a different light on the circumstances in which he currently lives. When one considers how each individual event seems to determine the subsequent event then the final pattern revealed is best described as the result of a domino effect. However, this makes the plot of Sophocles’ play seem simple which it certainly is not. What is of interest to the reader is the explanation that one applies to the apparent domino effect – is it fate or chance? When past events are lined up neatly and therefore have the appearance of a pattern, does this mean that a pattern truly exists? And what of Oedipus’ personal character, surely the kind of man he is determines what he does, he is surely not just a puppet of the Greek gods. As Henry James once said, “what is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” (Abrams 224). What appears to be a domino effect of horrible choices and actions is the glue that holds a reader’s attention and makes the play an absorbing read.  

Post-reading discussion/interpretation. 

Does Oedipus deserve such punishment?  

What crimes does Oedipus knowingly commit that warrant his total destruction at the play’s end? He openly admits that “the blackest things a man can do, I have done them all.” He is referring to being his “father’s murderer” and his “mother’s husband.” Yet, he committed these outrages against his parents without any knowledge that they were in fact his parents. Additionally, while murder is obviously a crime regardless of biological relationship, the killing of King Laius is not uncomplicated because it begins as a roadside scuffle that tragically escalates.   

To understand the situation clearly, it is best to begin by scrutinizing the four separate prophecies listed in the play as they outline the taboo acts, indeed, criminal acts that Oedipus carries out. Firstly, Creon is sent to the oracle to discover the cause of the Theban plague and Apollo’s response is that old King Laius’ killer has not yet been brought to justice. Secondly, Tiresias the seer, is asked to assist and he astonishes Oedipus by saying, “you are the murderer you hunt.” Thirdly, Queen Jocasta reveals to Oedipus what the oracle once prophesied for King Laius, that “doom would strike him down at the hands of a son.” And finally, there is the prediction the oracle made to the youthful Oedipus causing him to flee his home in Corinth, “you are fated to couple with your mother [and] kill your father.” However, if one considers these events from Oedipus’ perspective then the following points are all true: King Laius had been killed long before Oedipus ever came to Thebes, Tiresias’ visions seem like nothing more than utter treachery to Oedipus, Jocasta’s example of the prophecy about Laius is told as evidence that such prophecies are actually unreliable, and finally, Oedipus fled his homeland precisely because he wished to spare his parents, King Polybus and Queen Merope. Of course, this is the saga from Oedipus’ perspective and not the audience’s who know the truth of who is who. But it is important to underline that all Oedipus’ actions were carried out in ignorance of the true facts.   

So, how do we legitimately allocate blame if we are to use criteria separate from Oedipus’ own retrospective feelings of shame? There are certainly actions that Oedipus takes in the course of his life which may explain how he has displeased the gods and earned his punishments. The Greek gods were notoriously capricious, fickle, and unjust, but condemning a man to realize his faults only in the aftermath rests uneasily with any reader. Thus, one must search a little deeper. The most apparent transgression of Oedipus’ is his hubris which forms a direct challenge to the authority of the gods. When the distressed Theban citizens seek salvation from the plague, Oedipus says, “you pray to the gods? Let me grant your prayers.” This statement creates a binary split between Oedipus’ power and the separate power of the gods and implies they are equal. Kings Laius and Creon, the men whose reigns precede and follow Oedipus’, are men who pay respect to the oracle and heed the advice of the gods, working in tandem with, not opposition to them. In stark contrast, Oedipus seeks to openly discredit the oracle’s messages which are guidance directly from Apollo. Then there is the separate issue of Oedipus’ rage. When he met King Laius and the entourage on the road, one man tried to shoulder Oedipus aside with the result that Oedipus “killed them all – every mother’s son!” This volcanic temper is exposed on two further occasions, when he condemns Creon to death thinking he is a traitor (without evidence) and when he bursts into Queen Jocasta’s bed chamber wielding a sword, presumably intent on murdering her after finding out the truth of their biological tie. Regicide obviously offends the gods as the plague is the result of Laius’ unsolved murder, and Oedipus continues to show utter disregard for the royal family because Creon is a former (and future) king and Jocasta is a queen. Yet, it is never openly stated in the play precisely why the gods punish Oedipus, but Tiresias does say of Oedipus’ fate that “Apollo … will take some pains to work this out.” In the end, Oedipus says that Apollo, “ordained my agonies.”  

Many commentators write that Oedipus’ downfall is sealed by the murder of King Laius at the crossroads, a location symbolic of making a conscious choice, and therefore his actions have justifiable consequences. This interpretation corresponds with the plague sent by the gods and offers one of the most logical standpoints. There is also a frequently made argument that by sending Creon to the oracle, Oedipus begins to unravel his own past, leading to his eventual downfall. At the story’s core, it is knowledge of what he has done based on his blood ties to Laius and Jocasta that destroys his life, a life that would otherwise be deemed noble. When the final revelation comes, Oedipus says “oh god, all come true, all burst to light.” For all that, there is still another tantalizing explanation as to why Oedipus must suffer and it is an explanation that covers several generations of the family and not just Oedipus, and that explanation is a curse.   

If one accepts a curse as the explanation, then the most salient question is who is cursed? Surely, King Laius is cursed as he is to be murdered at the hands of his own son and Oedipus is then simply the implement rather than the true victim. The first of the four prophecies, in ‘real time’ rather than the order of revelation in the plot, is when the oracle told King Laius that his own son would murder him. The most probable explanation for the curse on Laius comes from Greek mythology but is absent from the text of Oedipus Rex. The myth is that King Laius kidnapped and raped a young man named Chrysippus, son of the King of Pisa (Gantz 488-492). Then Chrysippus, out of shame for what had happened him, committed suicide. As such, Laius may have brought a curse from the gods on his own house. Oedipus is the 2nd generation cursed; he is destined to commit the notorious murder of his own father. Oedipus also unwittingly curses himself when promising to catch Laius’ killer, saying, “my curse on the murderer … let that man drag out his life in agony.” Tiresias identifies Oedipus as a harbinger of evil, saying, “you are the curse, the corruption of the land!” It is interesting that when Oedipus begins to suspect that he is the killer of Laius, he says, “I think I’ve just called down a dreadful curse upon myself.” This statement reveals that the curse has different effects for the various people involved, for example, Laius’s cursed destiny was to be murdered, but for Oedipus, the curse is to have taboo information revealed which leads to his self-annihilation. One could also argue that the gods keep the curse alive by linking the city’s new plague to Laius’ murder because this reopens the investigation of an old crime. The 3rd and final generation who are burdened with this curse are Oedipus’ two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Oedipus predicts that the girls are doomed to remain unmarried and childless as no one will dare “shoulder the curse” that weighs upon their family. By focusing on the curse, one becomes more sympathetic to Oedipus, seeing him as a victim of something far greater than he is, a cruel punishment from the gods that takes three generations to run its full course.       

In conclusion, it seems impossible to say that Oedipus deserves the punishment he experiences. This is of course part of Sophocles’ plan so that the audience will have a strong emotional response to the events depicted. Luckily, the play can support many re-readings and variously nuanced interpretations.      

Captain of the ship.  

Sophocles introduces the image of a ship in the opening scene of the play. This occurs when one of the priests pleading for Oedipus’ guidance, describes the condition of their city as follows, “our ship pitches wildly, cannot lift her head / from the depths, the red waves of death … / Thebes is dying.” While it is certainly a striking metaphor, the city compared to a ship in a storm, it also seems a mismatch because Thebes is an inland city, not a seaport and therefore these are not seafaring people. Yes, the “red waves of death” are apt for describing a deadly plague but what if we further interrogate the metaphor. Is Oedipus as captain of a ship a good or fitting comparison? The short answer is no for two distinct reasons. Firstly, Oedipus is noteworthy foremost for his intellect as displayed in his defeat of the Sphinx by solving the riddle. His leadership is not linked to sea conquests which would be a learned skill rather than an intellectual gift. Secondly, when Oedipus debates with Tiresias, the blind seer, it is Oedipus himself who is said to be truly blind, “blind to the corruption of [his] life” and a leader described as blind is evidently not a suitable ship’s captain. Nonetheless, the description of Oedipus captaining his ship to a safe harbour recurs in the play many times, and for good reason. The image is rich in connotations – from strangers in strange lands to homecomings and safety. It reminds one that Oedipus was far away and has returned home, but the snag is that he does not know it. In ancient Greece, a cursed person was considered to carry a form of contagion. The safe harbour of home has become polluted precisely because the ship’s captain does not know he is home. The city is ill due to the pollution brought on by the arrival of the cursed individual, Oedipus. When Oedipus urges his citizens to expose the former king’s killer, he also uses a nautical metaphor, “drive the corruption from the land, don’t harbor it any longer.” Therefore, the use of the ship metaphor turns out to be appropriate as it links the plague to the returning traveller. 

Indeed, there are many facets to the metaphor used by Sophocles, showing that a comparison that initially appears a mismatch is ultimately very appropriate to describe Oedipus’s dilemma. One key aspect of the story which the metaphor encapsulates is the ambiguous identity of Oedipus who is both stranger and native son. It is this dichotomy that leads to the eventual re-interpretation of Oedipus’ sexual relations with Queen Jocasta. When Tiresias is denouncing Oedipus, he says Oedipus’ marriage was indeed, “the lusty voyage home to the fatal harbor!” This reminds one of Dr. Freud because the welcoming arms of a loving mother for her child are transformed into something quite perverse – the sexually charged embrace between a mother and her adult son. Whether the ship returns to a fatal or safe harbour relies on our understanding of Oedipus’s double identity, son or stranger, yet he is neither one thing nor the other but has an unnatural, in-between identity. The Chorus make the point about sexual impropriety even more explicitly, singing, “the same wide harbor served you, son and father both, son and father came to rest in the same bridal chamber.” When Queen Jocasta herself realizes the true identity of Oedipus, she also uses a nautical reference in her coded warning, “you’re doomed – may you never fathom who you are!” Just as in Freud’s process of psychoanalysis, one must plumb the depths to fathom who they truly are, their true identity. Oedipus’s voyage of discovery is widely accepted to be a discovery of his own identity.  

Yet, the metaphor is still not fully exhausted by the previously noted references to contagion and Oedipus’ double identity of native/stranger.  When Oedipus has been ruined by the fate ordained on him by the gods and by his own resulting self-disfigurement, Sophocles uses the image of the ship once again to give expression to the psychological state of the play’s tragic hero. Blind now, Oedipus feels like his ship is sinking, “dark, horror of darkness / my darkness, drowning, swirling around me / crashing wave on wave – unspeakable, irresistible / headwind, fatal harbor.” This also connects to his fear of re-meeting his biological mother and father in the Underworld, “how could I look my father in the eyes / when I go down to death.” The image of a sinking ship captures the psychological hell that Oedipus is currently experiencing and also the final destination of hell where he dreads meeting the two figures he fears above all others, his biological parents.    

Sophocles’ opening image of the ship is eloquently sustained right through the work. The playwright has managed to wring from a single metaphor a host of meanings that help to explain, elaborately and poetically, the plight of King Oedipus’ city, his dual identity as stranger and native son, his incestuous relationship with his mother, and his final psychological state. The image of a lone hero captaining his ship home has rarely held such a rich cargo of meanings. 

Works Cited.

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Earl McPeek, 1999.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by James Strachey, Basic Books, 2010.

Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, 1984.