‘Too depressing for words’: The failure of communication in ‘The Thimble’ and ‘Two Tuppeny Ones, Please’

1st September 2020

Rebecca Loxton, University of Nottingham

D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Thimble’ and Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Two Tuppenny Ones, Please’, both first published in 1917 in The Seven Arts and New Age respectively, explore the effects of war on civilian life. ‘The Thimble’ presents a woman’s experience of waiting for the return of her wounded husband, Mr Hepburn, from the front, while ‘Two Tuppeny Ones, Please’ is a dramatic dialogue between a ‘Lady’ and her ‘Friend’ during a shared bus-ride. The presence of the war in the civilian setting infiltrates the characters’ dialogue in both stories, and ultimately reveals the failure of language to encapsulate the reality of war trauma. By interrogating language in such a way, Lawrence and Mansfield explore  civilians’ and soldiers’ desires to breach the gulf dividing them, yet the very process of trying to express the trauma of the war through language is rather more unsettling than comforting.

Mansfield’s story interrogates the failure of dialogue to communicate meaningfully.    The garrulous protagonist identified only as the Lady uses phatic dialogue tags (‘you know’) and imprecise evocations to refer to the front (he’s back again’).[1] Vaguely portentous locutions such as ‘mercifully spared…so far’ in reference to an acquaintance, Teddy, allude to the horror of the front.[2] Here the ordered symbolism of language falls apart as the character attempts to impose order on the chaotic. This impression is compounded by the disjointed syntax and mid-sentence pause in the Lady’s hesitant observation that: ‘Teddy is such a sport, I really don’t see how …Too dreadfulisn’t it!’[3]

The friend’s responses to the Lady’s quotidian chatter, scattered as it is with oblique references to the horror of war, are all represented by ellipses. At face value, these ellipses imply a dialogue, yet Mansfield renders the friend effectively silent; the only appropriate responses to the Lady’s words, it seems, lie beyond semantics. Anne Besnault-Levita suggests that this theatrical ‘representation of voice and use of direct discourse […] transforms the reader into a listening audience’.[4] However, in an ironic subversion of the performative form of the dramatic dialogue, Mansfield’s typographical choices provide only blanks for the reader (or silence for the ‘audience’), with only the punctuation as a guide to tone. It is worth noting here that the text has always been published as a short story since its first appearance in the weekly magazine New Age and does not appear to ever have been intended to be performed; nonetheless it is believed that Mansfield’s ‘actual experience and engagement with performance’ led her to use stylistic techniques reminiscent of a play-text.[5] By using a form which foregrounds the use of voice, Mansfield is commenting on the inability of civilian language  to express the war’s suffering. Her linguistic play illustrates Dominic Head’s observation that the formal innovation typical of modernism became ‘content itself’, an interrogation of form being the story itself rather than a vehicle for that story.[6]

Of the Lady’s dialogue, William Herbert New writes that ‘The vagueness, the contradictions, the cliché: all indicate an aesthetic as well as a moral barrenness.’[7] However, the bareness of the form in its lack of guiding third-person narrative voice leaves room for another interpretation of this character’s speech, which reveals as much about the inadequacy of language as it does about the character herself. The pain caused by the war is described as ‘heartrending’; the adjective neatly packages suffering and is too ordered and symbolic to be capable of representing war.[8] The adjective hides the reality it is attempting to describe, the reality of suffering necessarily limited by an existing civilian vocabulary. The Lady’s references to Teddy going ‘“over the top” every day’ brings to mind a recurring theatre performance as if war is made up of stage-managed manoeuvres, which helpfully minimises the civilian perception of suffering.[9] The stock phrase ‘too depressing for words’ obliquely acknowledges the limitations of language to encapsulate the suffering that Mansfield approaches here; it is more than merely a ‘satire of upper-class callousness’, as in Alice Kelly’s reading.[10]

Failures of communication are also noticeable in the more traditional narrative form of Lawrence’s story. Helen Wussow notes that the inadequacy of language to convey the suffering of war is embodied by Mr Hepburn’s facial war wound: he has not just psychological but also physical difficulty narrating his experiences. Wussow observes: ‘Hepburn’s smashed jaw is indicative of what Lawrence saw as the difficulties of communication between men and women during the war.’[11] In ‘The Thimble’, the circularity and repetitiveness of the dialogue between Mr and Mrs Hepburn at the end of the story suggests that meaningful, ordered communication, when confronted with the chaos of war, becomes almost impossible. They both repeat words such as ‘treasure-trove’, ‘helpless’, and ‘dead’, and Mr Hepburn’s ‘disintegrating’ communication is ‘a disfigurement of speech’.[12] There is also an ‘inert silence’ which Mrs Hepburn fears may never end.[13] Silence, or the typographical intimation of silence, infiltrates both texts, along with desperate attempts to fill those silences. In ‘The Thimble’, Mrs Hepburn’s attempts to learn of her husband’s suffering are met with the arch response that he feels ‘pretty bad, as you can imagine.’[14] As in ‘Two Tuppenny Ones, Please’, the vague response indicates the difficulty inherent in communicating the lived experience of war.

Similarly, Mrs Hepburn’s use of jaunty slang (‘So they were both laid by’) to refer at once to her bout of illness and her husband’s traumatic injuries under shellfire captures the inelasticity inherent in language available to civilians when they attempt to vocalise empathy with military experience.[15] These examples support Fiona Becket’s pertinent observation, in her discussion of the language of the body in Lawrence, that: ‘It is one of the chief paradoxes of Lawrence’s writing that he labours to cast the non-verbal into language.’[16] Mr Hepburn’s suffering – representative by extension of a more collective trauma – cannot be made verbal. By the end of the story, however, the couple appear reunited after their halting exchange: ‘he stretched forward and touched her hand […] And the touch lay still, completed there’.[17] It is this attempt to communicate, rather than the success or failure of these attempts, which provides the protagonists with comfort. Lawrence was very interested in touch, a non-verbal form of communication (which he also explored in relation to the First World War in his 1922 short story ‘The Blind Man’). It is ultimately moving away from language towards the body that reunites the couple in ‘The Thimble’.

Lawrence and Mansfield’s desire to demonstrate the limits of language is part of the wider modernist project of attempting to make sense of a world which appeared to have lost all meaning, and to find a new way of representing the modern consciousness. In these two texts, the relative lack of interiority means the protagonists struggle to communicate with each other, but are also denied direct representation of their thoughts which would have allowed the reader more access to their emotional depths. As an illustrative contrast, two of the characters in Virignia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), the shell-shocked Septimus and his bewildered wife Rezia, fail to communicate meaningfully with each other, but the free indirect discourse provides the reader with a clear view into their psychology: ‘I can’t stand it any longer, she was saying, having left Septimus, who wasn’t Septimus any longer.’[18]

‘The Thimble’ and ‘Two Tuppeny Ones, Please’ explore the inability of dialogue to impose order on chaos within a nation struggling to come to terms with war and suffering. The protagonists can be seen as archetypes representing the country at large, the texts an interrogation of how civilians and soldiers might come together again after the war. Claire Drewery notes of modernist writing that ‘language functions as a linking mechanism – a metaphorical bridge – between ordered and random worlds’.[19] This observation is scrambled when related to ‘The Thimble’ and ‘Two Tuppeny Ones, Please’. In both of these stories, the protagonists are devoid in some way of words or meaningful speech; characters attempt, but fail, to use language to build that ‘metaphorical bridge’ and connect the relatively ordered civilian world with the chaotic front lines.


[1] Katherine Mansfield, ’Two Tuppenny Ones, Please’ (1917) (The Katherine Mansfield Society, n.d.) <http://www.katherinemansfieldsociety.org> [accessed 7 June 2020] p. 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Anne Besnault-Levita, ‘“—Ah, what is it? — that I heard”: Voice and Affect in Katherine Mansfield’s Short Fictions’, in Katherine Mansfield and Literary Modernism, ed. by Gerri Kimber, Susan Reid, and Janet Wilson (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), pp. 89-100 (p. 92).

[5] Nicola Saker, ‘The Performative Katherine Mansfield’ (unpublished Master of Arts thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2017), p. 2.

[6] Dominic Head, The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 22.

[7] William Herbert New, Reading Mansfield and Metaphors of Form (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 1999), p. 88.

[8] Mansfield, p. 2.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.; Alice Kelly, ‘Mansfield Mobilised: Katherine Mansfield, the Great War and Military Discourse’, Modernist Cultures, 12:1 (2017), pp. 78-97 (p. 94).

[11] Helen Wussow, The Nightmare of History: The Fictions of Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence (London: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1998), p. 88.

[12] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Thimble’, in The Mortal Coil and Other Stories, ed. by Keith Sagar (Middlesex: Penguin, 1971), pp. 196-209 (p. 204; pp. 207-8; p. 209; p. 205; p. 204).

[13] Lawrence, p. 205.

[14] Lawrence, p. 206.

[15] Lawrence, p. 197.

[16] Fiona Becket, ‘Lawrence and psychoanalysis’, in The Cambridge Companion to D. H. Lawrence, ed. by Anne Fernihough (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 217-234 (p. 223).

[17] Lawrence, p. 209.

[18] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2003),  p. 49.

[19] Claire Drewery, Modernist Short Fiction by Women: The Liminal in Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair and Virginia Woolf (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2011), p. 85.

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