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‘Seeing is (Not) Knowing’: Blindness, Knowledge and Alternate Sensory Modalities in D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Blind Man’

4 November 2022

Charlotte Makepeace, University of Leeds

In Fantasia of the Unconscious (1923), D.H. Lawrence displays a mistrust of sight as it ‘is the least sensual of all the senses’.[1] In this piece I will posit that Lawrence, in his short story ‘The Blind Man’ (1922), uses tropes of blindness to undermine concepts of epistemological sight and the metaphor ‘seeing is knowing’ by using alternate sensory modalities. ‘The Blind Man’, first published as a standalone short story in 1920 but published in the 1922 short story collection England, My England, is about Maurice Pervin, a soldier who was blinded in the First World War, and his wife, Isabel, who are visited by Isabel’s friend Bertie, an effeminate litterateur.[2]


‘Seeing is knowing’ is a problematic metaphor for narratives of blindness as it parallels blindness with ignorance and is a concept that can be traced all the way back to the Ancient Greeks. In the Ancient Greek language: ‘the word “to know” is a derivative of the word “to see”. To see is idein, to know is eidenai, that is, to have seen’.[3] More specifically, to ‘eidenai something’ is ‘to have seen (and thus to know) something’.[4] Here, sight is given superiority over the other senses because it enables knowledge. This ‘seeing is knowing’ trope is still prevalent today and has become part of our language as is evidenced by clever ideas being represented by lightbulbs. By extension, ‘seeing is knowing’ also suggests ‘not seeing is not knowing’ and, as Amy Vidali notes, a lack of light can be ‘articulated as always negative’.[5] For instance, a badly explained idea can be ‘unclear’ or ‘murky’ and if you are ‘blind to’ something you have completely failed to notice something.

Vidali does not believe that there is a ‘possibility of breaking the links between metaphor and disability’.[6] Rather she suggests a redeployment or ‘revisioning [of] language through disability’ rather than policing language and trying to exorcise all metaphors pertaining to physicality.[7] Rather she suggests we can diversify and use alternate sensory modalities by, for example, asking a child ‘to find the “scents” of previous course ideas while reading a new article, as an exciting alternative to asking them to “see” the main point’.[8]


From the outset of ‘The Blind Man’ Lawrence challenges the link between seeing and knowing because Isabel, Maurice’s sighted wife, uses her hearing to gain information: ‘Isabel Pervin was listening for two sounds — for the sound of wheels on the drive outside and for the noise of her husband’s footsteps in the hall’ (p.46). Similarly, sight does not give Isabel knowledge but is cast as misleading when Isabel cries ‘Ah! It seems late when darkness falls so early’; the lack of light leads Isabel to believe it is later than it is (p.51). Maurice, in contrast, can gain knowledge through not seeing since he can immediately sense his wife’s disquiet through touching her face, repeatedly asking ‘you’re all right, aren’t you?’, despite the ‘mask’ of composure ‘she wore over all her body’ (p.54, p.49). A mask suggests the visual as it obscures the face from sight, but it is implied that Maurice can ‘feel’ through this attempt at visual obscurity.

Significantly, Lawrence systematically replaces visual metaphor with a differently embodied or sensory counterpart and deprivileges epistemological sight. To me, this is an example of Vidali’s ‘revisioning’ of language and metaphor through the body or disability. Lawrence has Isabel ‘sound’ the approach and has Maurice ‘feel’ the mood. There is also the repeated implication of ‘scenting’ rather than seeing space as rooms are identified through strong olfactory description. Any room that has been occupied by Isabel is categorised by ‘a delicate, refined scent, very faintly spicy’ (p.49).

Maurice is shown not to see but to know because he can understand Isabel’s mood through touch. Maurice is not categorised by the ignorance of blindness but instead comes to knowledge in a different, more multisensory, way. Throughout the short story, we are told that Maurice accesses knowledge and moves through his surroundings using touch as he ‘feel[s] for the doors’ and moves ‘tentatively’ allowing the ‘careful, strong contact of his feet with the earth’ as if feeling the ground with his feet, to navigate safely through his world of darkness (p.52, p.53). The strongest image of such is when Maurice, Isabel and Bertie sit down to high tea. Lawrence writes: ‘Maurice was feeling, with curious little movements, almost like a cat kneading her bed, for his place, his knife and his fork, his napkin (p.56). We witness Maurice learning through touch as he catalogues the layout of the table and commits it to memory and accesses knowledge through a non-visual sensory modality.

In his own domain, Maurice can know and move in the dark in a way his sighted wife cannot. In the darkness, Isabel has a lack of knowledge because she ‘was unsure of her footing’ and despite ‘straining her eyes to see [Maurice]’ she ‘saw only darkness’ (p.52). Sight has failed Isabel here and this breeds uncertainty. There is an interesting interplay between certainty and uncertainty, knowledge and lack, when the couple return from the barn: ‘She was nervous. He walked erect, with face rather lifted’ (p.53). Maurice has such knowledge and mobility the power dynamic of blind and sighted person is reversed as he moves with freedom and expertly guides his sighted wife. It is significant that Isabel must take his arm as it reconfigures the traditional image of a blind person taking the arm of their sighted guide (p.53).

It must be noted however, Lawrence is not deprivileging sight and ‘revisioning’ metaphor through alternate sensory modalities as some form of disabled advocacy. Rather Lawrence valorises darkness and blindness as a means to a deeper, more intimate and instinctual mode of consciousness and knowledge beyond cataloguing epistemology. For Lawrence, sight was culturally associated with intellectual processes and the emptiness and sterility of such epistemological knowledge, as:

Sight is the least sensual of all the senses. And we strain ourselves to see, see, see – everything, everything through the eye, in one mode of objective curiosity. There is nothing inside us.[9]

This type of seeing or consciousness lacks feeling, it is objective rather than subjective, as one is collecting information as opposed to internalising and ‘feeling’ it. Ironically, sight does not allow for insight, or depth. Lawrence encapsulates the emptiness of unfeeling sight in his 1915 letter to Lady Cynthia Asquith: ‘If only we would shut our eyes: if only we were all struck blind, and things vanished from our sight: we should marvel that we had fought and lived for shallow, visionary, peripheral nothingnesses’.[10]

Here, and in ‘The Blind Man’, Lawrence valorises darkness and symbolic blindness as the site of an instinctual knowledge based on feeling and connection (with the universe, your inner self, your partner). Therefore, Lawrence chooses to use alternate sensory modalities because he believes only through blindness and lack of sight could one gain the knowledge ‘of our most elemental consciousness’.[11] Ultimately, for Lawrence, one needs to not see to truly know.

Image Credit: Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, Bursting Shell (1915), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported).


[1] D. H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious, ed. by Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 102–3.

[2] D.H. Lawrence, ‘The Blind Man’, in England, My England and Other Stories, ed. by Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 46–63. [Future references in text]

[3] Ugo Zilioli, ‘Seeing and Knowing in Greek Philosophy’, Variations, 2004.12 (2004), (p. 25).

[4] Zilioli, p. 26.

[5] Amy Vidali, ‘Seeing What We Know: Disability and Theories of Metaphor’, Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 4.1 (2010), (p. 41).

[6] Vidali, p. 47.

[7] Vidali, p. 42.

[8] Vidali, p. 47.

[9] Fantasia, pp. 102–3.

[10] D. H. Lawrence, The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, ed. by George Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), ii, p. 470.

[11] Fantasia, p. 179.


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