Female mate-guarding in Lawrence's "Wintry Peacock": an evolutionary perspective.
Saunders, Judith P.
Pub Date:
Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139
Date: Fall, 2012 Source Volume: 39 Source Issue: 4

Accession Number:
Full Text:
D. H. Lawrence's 1921 story "Wintry Peacock" presents a vivid example of female mate-guarding behavior, along with the male counter-strategies it provokes. Employing an elaborate yet subtle allusion to a tale from classical mythology, Lawrence underlines the archetypal--and, indirectly, the Adaptationist--significance of the male-female conflict he depicts. The allusion explains the otherwise puzzling presence of the title peacock, moreover, a non-human character who serves as a magnet for the fierce emotions of the battling husband and wife. Conflict between the sexes is inevitable, the story indicates: men and women are caught up in a contest neither sex can win definitively. Evolutionary theory helps to identify the causes of this conflict, which is rooted in innate biological differences. Deeply ingrained in evolved adaptations, male and female behavioral tactics are bound to collide, creating mutual frustration. Instead of demanding sympathy for either the male or female point of view, Lawrence's story encourages readers to view the vicissitudes of intersexual competition with detachment.

According to evolutionary biologists, mate-guarding behavior represents an adaptive response to a significant threat to fitness fueled by the powerful emotion of jealousy, (Buss 2000, 5, 10). In this essay I argue that D. H. Lawrence's 1921 story, "Wintry Peacock," offers an example of such female mate-guarding in the context of a classic love triangle of wife, husband, mistress. The story details the motives of all three characters: the wife who tries to limit her husband's philandering; the husband who resists curtailment of his sexual liberty; the mistress who attempts to divert her lover's long-term commitment toward herself and her child. Lawrence's story is particularly interesting because it points toward a much older version of the human situation it depicts, alluding subtly but unmistakably to a well-known tale from classical mythology. With the Olympian struggles between two of the most powerful figures in the Greco-Roman panoply of gods serving as implied backdrop, Lawrence effectively intensifies the male-female conflict that provides the stuff of his plot. And by aligning his tale with the realm of myth--which to Lawrence signifies "a profound psychic reality, a truth about the nature of human beings" (Whelan 1988, 12)--he encourages readers to understand male and female sexual strategies in terms of what evolutionary biologists see as a universal human nature.

Human cultural history offers abundant illustration of mate-guarding, along with the sexual jealousy that precipitates it: individuals of both sexes attempt to protect their reproductive interests by preventing rivals from gaining intimate access to their partners (Buss 2000, 4, 10, 27, 50). Because men have resorted to notoriously harsh measures, from sequestration to foot binding, male mate-guarding efforts historically have garnered more attention than women's. The subtler cruelties perpetrated by fictional characters intent upon retaining exclusive access to their mates likewise tend to highlight outrageous acts perpetrated by men. Sir Willoughby Patterne's autocratic attempts to assert intellectual, spiritual, and moral ownership of his fiancee in Meredith's The Egoist, like Edward Casaubon's determination to control his wife's mating choices from beyond the grave in Eliot's Middlemarch, testify to the power of adaptive impulses to shape behavior even in the most genteel social environments. Clearly men have much to lose if they fail to guard their mates adequately: the threat of cuckoldry, with attendant losses in direct fitness and in misplaced paternal investment, helps to explain why human males resort to coercive, sometimes brutal, means to ensure exclusive fidelity in their female partners (Buss 2000, 34-35).

Women face a different but nonetheless significant threat from sexual rivals: although they run no risk of mistaken parental investment, they stand to lose reproductively crucial resources. If a man begins channeling material and emotional resources to another woman and her children, his primary mate and her children will have to make do with less. Depending upon environmental conditions, such reduced male parental investment can threaten the wellbeing or even the survival of offspring from the original union (Buss 2000, 4, 34-35). Social opportunities and the status of both mother and children are apt to decline when the primary provider strays, and the betrayed wife's perceived mate value typically will be reduced. Just as a cuckolded man tends to become an object of ridicule and suffer reputational damage, a betrayed woman is likely to incur social costs (Buss 2000, 40). Arguably, it pays women as well as men to take precautions against actual or potential rivals, and exercise of vigilance is "the first line of defense" (Buss 2000, 42). Physically and legally, women rarely have been in position to guard their mates as thoroughly, or as cruelly, as have men: harem-style imprisonment and bodily mutilation do not form part of the female behavioral repertoire. In place of physical intervention, women generally choose indirect tactics (Campbell 2002, 257). Employing techniques such as spying, snooping, or interrogation, and ever alert to signs of faltering commitment, they erect psychological barriers to cheating. The successful machinations of female characters, from Yseult of the White Hands in Beroul's The Romance of Tristan to May Archer in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, illustrate women's capacity to fend off rivals and restrain their partners' adulterous impulses.

In "Wintry Peacock" Lawrence depicts the efforts of a jealous wife to obtain information about her husband's infidelity and, by making him aware of her watchful oversight, to restrict his extramarital activity. Married for six years and the only son of aging parents, the "devil-may-care" Alfred Goyte has left the family farm for considerable stretches of his married life, serving abroad in the military and also working as a chauffer in France "for a long time" (Lawrence 1990, 86, 8o). These voluntary absences have offered him opportunities for short-term involvement with other women, opportunities he evidently has seized; his wife asserts the belief that he has pursued women "behind [her} back" for years (80). As the story begins, Alfred is expected home to recuperate from a leg wound. Just before his arrival, his wife intercepts a letter for him written by a Belgian girl who names Alfred as the father of her new-born child, "the fruit of our perfect love" (79). Everything in the letter is calculated to redirect Alfred's mating investment toward her and her baby. She assures him, not very subtly, that he is the father of the boy she has named for him, telling him that "little Alfred" bears a remarkable resemblance to "his English father." She also declares her own exclusive commitment ("I think of you always, always"), emphasizing her desire that they be "united in holy family love" as soon as possible. She insists that his paternal investment is necessary for the child's survival: "if you do not come back to me soon, I shall die, and our child will die." Finally, she threatens to make an appearance: "I can come to you, come to England with our child" (79).

Maggie Goyte uses her knowledge of this letter to gain ascendancy over her straying husband and discourage future misbehavior on his part. She informs him that his sexual peccadilloes have not escaped her notice, and she unleashes punitive anger, instigating "a bit of a to-do" (Lawrence 1990, 87). Alfred has succeeded in courting and perhaps impregnating a short-term partner, but his wife is poised to undermine his satisfaction in this act of infidelity by exacting psychological payment--making "a peck o' trouble," as her father-in-law puts it (87). Her "ominous ... bearing" indicates her displeasure and presages ongoing marital discord; with solid evidence of his betrayal in hand, she has become "th' monkey on 'is back"(87). Alfred responds to his wife's accusatory stance with perceptible discomfort: uneasy in his own home, he keeps loitering silently "in the doorway" and then disappearing, only to return and depart again (87,88). Clearly he feels thwarted. His wife has discovered his affair and has initiated unpleasant counter-moves: she withholds her affection and she upsets his domestic tranquility. Worse still, her detection of this affair means that she will be even more vigilant hereafter, thereby limiting his freedom to engage in extramarital romances in future. He chafes at the strategic interference her heightened mate-guarding behavior represents. Her suspicious watchfulness, energized by tangible proof of his untrustworthiness, hinders his ability to exercise the mixed sexual strategy that according to David Buss is often favored by men--that is, to augment his primary relationship with a variety of transient, low-investment sexual encounters (2000, 36-39, 51).

The story ends in a stalemate, with neither husband nor wife obtaining full satisfaction. Maggie has frustrated her husband, at least temporarily, but the measures she invokes have not induced Alfred to express either regret or renewed devotion. His chief emotion is anger rather than remorse, and he is determined not to submit to the demands of the wife he terms "a little devil" (Lawrence 1990, 90). Maggie, for her part, shows no sign of forgiving his transgression or abating her campaign of domestic harassment. In sum, each continues to place obstacles in the way of the other's preferred sexual strategy. Alfred wants extramarital sexual freedom, but Maggie is determined to exercise oversight and punish any signs of disloyalty. She herself wants exclusive commitment, but her husband is determined to elude her watchfulness and enjoy the benefits of short-term liaisons while retaining marital privileges. Neither will yield to the strategic advantage of the other, and neither is able to override the other's preferences completely.

Information concerning the current reproductive situations of the main characters reinforces the picture of a standoff in the competition between male and female strategies. Even after six years of marriage, Alfred and Maggie are childless. Readers do not know whether Alfred's many and lengthy absences from home are the chief cause of the couple's childlessness or, rather, a reaction to it. In my view, it is plausible to think that a man in a barren marriage would have all the more reason to seek reproductive opportunities elsewhere. Maggie is described as "young" and "handsome," however, and the couple's reproductive potential may not yet have been fairly tested (Lawrence 1990, 77, 85). Taking steps to retain her husband and channel his sexual energy toward herself, Maggie clearly has no plans to abandon the marriage in favor of other reproductive options. Alfred similarly indicates no intention of deserting Maggie for the writer of the letter, a course of action that might make sense if he had given up on the possibility of siring children by his wife. He acknowledges that the girl's baby "might" be his even as he cynically dismisses it as "a plant." He presents Elise as a sexually unreserved girl, with "plenty" of "practice," who is angling for a provider (90). Readers have no way of knowing whether his characterization of her is fair, although the letter itself, with its "trite" and "facile" phrasing, may be interpreted as indirect evidence that she is no naive dupe (78). Alfred confronts the issue of paternal accountability with some discomfort ("uneasily"), but he reassures himself that since his wife has confiscated Elise's letter he can legitimately claim that he "never got" it; thus he justifies ignoring his mistress's pleas for assistance (90). Because she states at the end of her missive that she has "some money" to undertake a journey to England to find him, he may with reason conclude that her expressions of neediness are exaggerated (79). Alfred decides to let this baby take its chances, trusting that "poor little Elise" can muster resources to rear a child that may or not be his (90).

With the information Lawrence provides, readers can infer from the characters' actions the unconscious fitness calculations guiding their behavioral choices. Elise decides it is in her best interest to induce some man to make a paternal investment in her baby: this is what her letter to Alfred is intended to accomplish. Alfred concludes that his interests are best served by refusing to make that investment, leaving his possible offspring to its mother's care. Instead of deflecting resources toward an infant that may not share his genes and probably will survive without his assistance, Alfred decides to continue what contemporary Darwinian biologists call a 'mixed reproductive strategy.' That is, he will retain his wife, to whom he commits most of his resources, but keep on pursuing short-term encounters. Maggie determines that her interests are best served by retention of her long-term mate; hence she acts to render short-term defection as difficult and painful for him as possible.

Lawrence underlines the force of the emotions acting here as "evolution's executioners" (Wright 1994, 88) by means of an extended allusion to classical mythology. No Greek or Roman names are mentioned: readers must discern the allusion without the help of overt clues. The chief pointer Lawrence provides comes in the form of a non-human character, one who plays a seemingly inexplicable part in the story. Woven into this small tale of a philandering husband and his jealous wife, readers find oddly plentiful references to the wife's pet peacock, Joey. This "affectionate bird" displays conspicuous loyalty to Maggie and generally is to be found at her side, indoors and out: "he loves [her]" (Lawrence 1990, 89). Married patrilocally and living permanently on her in-laws' farm ("I've no home of my own now"), Maggie has brought Joey with her into the marriage: he is, in effect, what remains of her "people" (80). When the narrator translates Elise's letter, Joey is on hand, a non-human witness to its contents; in fact, Maggie's sarcastic comments about Alfred's probable perfidy are interrupted periodically by loving asides directed toward "Joey, dear, dee-urr, Joey!" (81). When Alfred returns home, he displays unaccountable hostility toward Joey. Secretly he takes "a shot at him," driving the bird out into the deep snow of a winter storm (91). Only chance rescue by the narrator, on whose property the peacock has taken refuge, saves him from freezing to death overnight. The revived Joey is returned home the next day, to Maggie's delight and relief: "she gathered him up, and put her lips to his beak" (85).

Conversation between the narrator and Maggie's father-in-law indicates that Alfred has driven off the bird as part of the quarrel precipitated by the intercepted letter. A later exchange between Alfred and the narrator further links Alfred's persecution of the bird to his resentment of his wife's jealous interference. He interrupts a tirade against his wife's "spite" to berate his neighbor for rescuing the peacock: "Why didn't you wring that b--peacock's neck--that b--Joey?" he demands (Lawrence 1990, 90). Puzzled, as are readers, by Alfred's seemingly unfounded ill will, the narrator asks why on earth he should have harmed the bird. "I hate the brute," Alfred declares (90). Instead of returning to the main topics of discussion--his importunate mistress and jealous wife--he ends the conversation with a murderous threat directed gratuitously, as it seems, toward his wife's pet: "I'll do that blasted Joey in--"(91).

All this byplay with the peacock, including his nearly fatal misadventure, occupies a considerable portion of the short narrative. Alfred's murderous antagonism toward the creature, even more than Maggie's unusual attachment to him, demands explanation. Why is the bird in the story at all? What has Alfred's dislike of him got to do with the problems of double duplicity and failed commitment in which he is embroiled? Regarded on a literal level, the bird appears incapable of evoking the intense response readers are asked to accept as psychologically plausible. Lawrence expects his audience to consider possible symbolic associations with the peacock, evidently, and to recall the myth of Jupiter and Io. Recounted memorably by Ovid in Book I of the Metamorphoses, this story of male philandering and female jealousy presents a situation similar in essence to that in Lawrence's twentieth-century tale.

Attempting to hide his short-term affair with the beautiful nymph Io from his ever-suspicious wife, Juno, Jupiter first raises a concealing bank of clouds and, when that fails to fool his wife, he transforms his mistress into a heifer. Juno is not deceived by this ruse, and she demands that Jupiter hand over the attractive beast to her as a token of his husbandly affection. To prevent Jupiter from gaining access to his erstwhile mistress, she then arranges for Io to be guarded day and night. She employs the many-eyed Argus in this task, a creature whose hundred eyes never all close at once. Juno achieves double satisfaction from the situation she has engineered, exacting vengeance upon her rival (isolating her and compelling her to live the life of an animal) at the same time that she frustrates her husband's extramarital desires. Eventually Jupiter sends Mercury to slay Argus and thus permit Io to escape. Grieved and enraged by the death of her faithful guard, Juno collects the eyes of Argus and "set[s] them on the feathers of her bird [the peacock}, filling his tail with star-like jewels" (Ovid 1977, 53). This bit of information deflects attention briefly away from Ovid's main plotline in order to offer a small origin tale, explaining how the peacock acquired the eye-like embellishments on its tail feathers. In addition to beautifying the bird, moreover, these markings convey meaning: they serve as a perpetual reminder, commentators note, that "jealous wives have many eyes" (Glenn 1986, 14).

Once readers recollect the Jupiter-Juno-Io love triangle, the significance of Maggie Goyte's pet peacock becomes clear. An Argus-like character, Joey devotes himself to Maggie; he embodies a loyal vigilance enlisted on her behalf. Alfred's impassioned hatred of his wife's pet, seemingly so unmotivated when considered literally, makes good symbolic sense. The husband's urge to kill his wife's peacock communicates, indirectly, his determination to free himself from her relentless observation; it clearly fits Buss's description of "action designed to eliminate or reduce [a] source of strategic interference" (Buss 2000, 39). Maggie's seemingly excessive affection for Joey likewise assumes larger significance when examined in light of the relationship between Juno and Argus: her attachment to him expresses her resolution to keep watch over her husband and defend her marriage from would-be poachers. Other details in Lawrence's tale subtly strengthen the links between a rural Englishwoman and the queen of the gods--who, as patroness of marriage looks out for women's interests in matrimony. Like Juno, Maggie exhibits "a jealous disposition"; and like the intractable goddess, she is "prone to quarrels, self-willed, vengeful, proud, even on occasion deceitful." Repeatedly the narrator characterizes Maggie as "witch-like" (six iterations in the space of a very few pages). Investing her with uncanny, possibly threatening, power, the analogy demonstrably is purposeful: Bruce Steele notes that in revising his manuscript for publication, Lawrence "heightens the witch-like characteristics of Maggie Goyte" (1990, xxix). Tellingly, her eerie qualities are particularly evident when she interacts with the faithful peacock--who plays the part of her "familiar," as F B. Pinion observes (1979, 233). In her relief at receiving him back from his near-fatal adventure, she appears "more witch-like than ever" (Lawrence 1990, 85). Lawrence deliberately associates the betrayed wife with supernatural female forces, hinting that Maggie's ability to thwart her husband is more than mortal--or may appear so to masculine sensibilities, at any rate. Finally, when Maggie is said to address Joey in "an odd, saturnine caressive voice" (80), the unusual choice of adjective may remind readers that Ovid, like Virgil, refers to Juno on occasion as "Saturnia," i.e., daughter of Saturn. Indeed, Ovid uses this name in the very scene in which the goddess decorates her peacock's tail with "star-like" eyes (Ovid 1977, 53).

While Maggie plays the role of Juno, taking steps to foil a rival and to restrain her husband's wandering, Alfred imitates Jupiter's behavior. He is intent upon extramarital sexual conquests, and he vents murderous hatred toward the peacock who represents the hyper-vigilant Argus. Recent research in evolutionary psychology confirms human responsiveness to watching eyes, and to symbolic representations of them. In one experiment, subjects made more generous decisions in a computer game when the screen displayed eyespots. Other researchers ascertained that employees were more likely to provide payment for coffee, even in the absence of witnesses, if pictures of eyes decorated the money box (Haley and Fessler 2005; Bateson, Nettle and Roberts 2006). Such experiments show people behaving as if the visual organs themselves possessed the ability to monitor, judge, and punish. This so-called "eyes effect" helps to explain the discomfort and resentment Alfred Goyte experiences in the presence of his wife's symbolically eye-bespangled peacock. Instead of adjusting his behavior to conform to expectations (in this case, expectations for marital fidelity), he attempts to eliminate the observer or, rather, the idea of observation. We might recall other literary works in which eyes, or figures of eyes, exercise a psychologically powerful influence: the vulture eye that attracts a madman's homicidal rage in Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" springs immediately to mind. Unlike Jupiter, Alfred does not succeed in killing his many-eyed antagonist, at least, not within the boundaries of the narrative. The story ends with his vow to "do that blasted Joey in," signaling ongoing hostilities between husband and wife (Lawrence 1990, 393). The tempestuous marriage of Jupiter and Juno evidently serves as a pattern for that of the Goytes.

Focusing an otherwise realistically conceived narrative on Joey, a non-human character whose function can be fully understood only in light of symbolism deriving from classical mythology, Lawrence presents readers with a deliberately crafted dissonance in order to increase the emotional impact of his tale and universalize its theme. I would argue that the fervent emotions directed toward Joey--the husband's hatred and the wife's love--highlight the evolutionarily critical goals at stake. In the effort to maximize individual fitness, each spouse attempts to interfere with the other's sexual strategies. It is a fierce and bitter contest, ending, like that between Jupiter and Juno, in a draw: she curbs but cannot quell his womanizing; he resists but cannot defeat her vigilant intervention. Comparing his rural English characters to the king and queen of the Roman gods, Lawrence defines the conflict between Alfred and Maggie as archetypal, the product of innate propensities: it illustrates the ancient and inevitable competition between the sexes. Throughout the body of his work, as readers familiar with his essays and critical studies will recall, Lawrence typically frames male-female antagonism in terms of universal, cosmic opposition: "it is as if life were a double cycle, of men and of women, facing opposite ways, traveling opposite ways" (Lawrence 1985, 60. From a Darwinian perspective, I would suggest, this competition is inevitable because it is deeply ingrained in evolved adaptations. The peacock assumes a larger-than-life function in this particular story, emphasizing the intensity of the selection pressures each sex exerts on the other in the ongoing arms-race between male guile and female vigilance (Buss 2000, 42-47).

Lawrence underscores the equilibrium between male and female strategic efforts by utilizing an outsider as first-person narrator. Throughout the story, this unnamed individual maintains emotional distance from the husband-wife conflict he witnesses. Quite new to the rural part of England in which the story is set, he is approached by Maggie Goyte to translate Elise's letter from French into English. His response to her request is ambiguous. Disturbed by the idea of conspiring with a wife against her husband in this fashion ("reading a man's private correspondence"), he agrees to act as translator but invents a more harmless version of the facts (Lawrence 1990, 78): he tells Maggie that Elise's mother has given birth to a baby, named Alfred because Lance-Corporal Goyte has been "so good" to the family (80-81). Even as he transmits incorrect information, however, he allows Maggie to infer the truth. To her opening remark that this must be a love letter because "there's too many Alfreds' in it," for instance, he dryly responds: "one too many" (79). He contradicts her firmly at first when she accurately divines the state of affairs ("it's her own (baby} right enough--and his") but drops the fiction of a "darling little brother" abruptly when Maggie conjures up the vision of Alfred diverting precious wartime resources (the weekly food packages she faithfully has sent him) to another woman: "he fed that gurrl on my parcels--I know he did" (81). She imagines Alfred adding insult to injury by joking with his mistress about his wife's "loving" correspondence: "I'll bet they laughed together over my letters." "Nay," the narrator answers; "He'd burn your letters for fear they'd give him away" (83). This comment is more than a hint; it constitutes an admission that Elise's letter fully supports Maggie's suspicions. Throughout this curious exchange, the narrator preserves loyalty neither to the rightful recipient of the letter, the straying husband, nor toward the betrayed wife who has taken possession of it. He offers the wife a falsified 'translation' yet permits her to guess the facts he refuses to convey straightforwardly.

The narrator plays a similarly disingenuous role with the husband, who later confronts him about the purloined correspondence. Maggie has destroyed the document but "evidently ... taunted him" with its contents (Lawrence 1990, 89). Alfred seeks to learn, first, what Elise has written and, second, what exactly the narrator, in his role as translator, has conveyed to Maggie. Again the narrator is less than forthright. He begins by averring that Maggie "doesn't know herself what was in it," since he has told her "the baby belonged to the old mother--that it was brother to your girl, who was writing to you as a friend of the family" (89). He expresses solidarity with Alfred's short-term adventuring, "grinning" with him over Elise's attempt to extract paternal commitment. The two share a moment of sarcasm at Elise's expense as Alfred affirms his intention to disavow responsibility: "Good luck to her,' he said. 'Best of luck,' said I" (80. The narrator voices agreement with Alfred's assessment of Elise as a sexually experienced and conniving girl. He also offers implicit support for Alfred's "amused" reaction to the idea that his wife has been fed misinformation (91).

Projecting masculine empathy with Alfred's duplicitous behavior to wife and mistress, the narrator nevertheless withholds the crucial fact that he has allowed Maggie Goyte to infer the substance of Elise's letter. Ending the conversation, he runs off "shouting with laughter," which Alfred likely interprets as further proof of the narrator's complicity with male sexual strategies (Lawrence 1990, 91). To readers, however, it appears more probable that he is laughing over his success in hoodwinking Alfred. Since the husband imagines his wife to be more ignorant about his extramarital activities than she actually is, she holds a card that she may play to advantage in the ongoing "contest" between them (89). By helping Maggie to this small advantage, the narrator acts to preserve the balance of power between the contestants, thus prolonging the competition. In his earlier rescue of Maggie's peacock from Alfred's persecution, he played a similar role as deus ex machina, acting as an equalizing agent in the ongoing battle between male and female forces. It is the contest itself, not the individuals caught up in it, that inspires malicious laughter in Lawrence's narrator. Having pretended loyalty to wife and husband by turns, he enjoys misleading both; clearly he is entertained by the results of his dissembling. Maintaining distance from the two central characters, he effectively prevents readers from developing empathy with either. Ordinarily readers might be inclined to identify with a betrayed wife; Alfred's dishonesty with women, like his brutal behavior with Joey, no doubt earns disapprobation. At the same time, however, Maggie's "sinister" and "witch-like" qualities, including her peculiar intimacy with her pet bird, serve to hold readers at arm's length (87).

The derisive laughter concluding the story appears to be directed toward husband and wife or, rather, toward the fundamental and irresolvable conflict between them. The narrator plays the role of a Puck-like mischief-maker, who comprehends and mocks both male and female points of view, rejoicing in the eternal folie a deux. Standing off to the side to observe the workings of evolved adaptations, and noting that marital bliss is not their primary function, he assumes an attitude of ironic detachment. He views the human condition, I suggest, from a perspective largely congruent with that of an evolutionary biologist; that is, he discerns patterns in human behavior and understands individual instances in the context of larger paradigms. He furthermore declines to idealize his findings: the male-female strife he observes was not shaped by any "recipe for happiness" (Dawkins 1995, 131). In place of a biologist's dispassion, however, he manifests a distinct tendency to ridicule the strategic battling that characterizes human mating activity. Like its narrator, the story's implied author greets the vicissitudes of intersexual competition with sardonic amusement. Readers are invited to share this view and, consequently, to resist empathetic identification with any of the story's characters.

The compatibility of Lawrence's treatment of male-female conflict in "Wintry Peacock" with current thinking in the field of evolutionary psychology is not the result of auctorial intention. Despite his familiarity with the writings of Darwin, Spencer, and Huxley, ably recapitulated by Ronald Granofsky and Roger Ebbatson, Lawrence repudiated core evolutionary doctrines and expressed hostility toward Darwinism. (2) Sifting through the sometimes confusing evidence of Lawrence's ambivalence toward the evolutionary thinking of his day, Granofsky locates Lawrence's principal debt to Darwin in his chosen "narrative strategy" and structure (2003,7, I7). (3) Because he regards a work of art as parallel in its workings to the world of nature, Lawrence tends to pit one set of ideas against another "to see which would survive the competition"; the author functions "as a force of natural selection" (2003, 7, 23). This interpretation of the Darwinian threads in Lawrence's aesthetic choices helps to explain the even-handed indifference with which male and female protagonists in "Wintry Peacock" are portrayed. Individually, they cannot overcome their innate drives and proclivities; as a couple, no moral or philosophical efforts will enable them to surmount the gender-based self-interest that divides them. Their relationship is immutably antagonistic.

The one character who escapes the dismissive irony wielded summarily by the story's narrator and implied author is Joey the peacock, who wins more reader interest and sympathy than do any of the humans around him. Even now, during the bird's annual molting season, the narrator "admire[sl" his physical appearance (Lawrence 1990, 77). With his "speckled back" and "dark-blue neck," he is "elegant," his "prancing movements graceful" (80, 87). What differentiates him from the other peacocks at Tible is his devotion to Maggie Goyte. His affection is concentrated exclusively on her; he manifests no desire to interact with anyone else. Even on the occasion of his near-fatal adventure he maintains his independence of spirit, refusing to respond either abjectly or eagerly to his rescuers; instead he "recoills1 inside himself inexplicably" (84). As the object of Alfred's cruelty, he becomes a focus of concern and suspense. Will he succumb to the elements? Will his sufferings end in death? The detailed description of his struggles in the snow serves both to excite sympathy for Joey and encourage negative judgment against Alfred, the cause of the bird's sufferings. Once returned home, Joey shows no fear of the man who has shot at him, which further elevates his stature. Certainly his loyalty remains more steadfast than any exhibited by the humans surrounding him. His pronounced aloofness to all but Maggie tends to make him a somewhat eerie figure, however, even "sinister," underlining his essential otherness (85). He is both nonhuman (an animal) and superhuman (a representation of mythic power). For all his admirable qualities, he remains an alien being, "curious" and out of place in this English landscape (77): "I had always wondered why they had peacocks in Tible," is the narrator's opening statement in the manuscript version of the story (quoted in Steele 1990, 241). In his symbolic role as an agent of supernatural protection, Joey assumes an impersonal identity that resists sentimentalized responses. In my reading, by representing the hyper-vigilance of a suspicious wife, he is the embodiment of a successful female mate-retention strategy. The potency of that strategy is manifest in the bird's single-minded dedication and unshakable persistence.

A small but nagging point of confusion may be created by the season in which Lawrence has chosen to set the action of his story. Peacocks molt in autumn, losing their splendidly marked tail-feathers; hence the Argus-eyes of Maggie Goyte's Joey currently are not in evidence. When he first sees the peacocks, the narrator notes that "their tails were gone" (Lawrence 1990, 77). Janice Hubard Harris, one of the few readers to comment on the story at any length, has seized on this seasonal detail as evidence that Joey's loyalty cannot prevail, that the wife is bound to lose the power struggle between herself and her husband. Joey's feathers have not been "clipped," however, as Harris implies (1984,149). His tail is merely undergoing its annual process of renewal. It does not seem plausible to conclude that Maggie's tendency to monitor her husband's behavior is in a weakened state, for the story shows her enjoying a moment of notable success in her role as watcher: she has obtained an incriminating letter and is holding it over her husband's head. Her success in provoking and frustrating him is crucial to the story's plot. Alfred reacts to the bird, moreover, as if the "eyes effect" of its distinctive markings were fully operational, and his aggressive counter-action is ineffectual: the bullet he shoots at Joey does not meet its mark. His action places the bird in peril, to be sure, but Joey is rescued and makes a quick recovery. He is back in place at Maggie's side, "crouching by her" and assuming his guardian-like role, in the space of twenty-four hours (Lawrence 1990, 88). Although the story ends with Alfred vowing to rid himself of the bird, and he clearly has the means to accomplish his purpose, readers cannot know whether or when he will manage to do so.

The principal reason for setting the story in winter may well be to enhance readers' concern for Joey's fate. In a warmer season he would not have been in such peril and very likely could have made his way home quite easily on his own. The more he suffers, the more readers will focus on his welfare--and the more harshly they are apt to judge Alfred's cruelty. Joey is a "wintry peacock" not in any sense of diminishment, as Harris asserts (1984,149), but in the sense of being able to triumph even in adverse circumstances. He is a survivor, and the female watchfulness he embodies similarly endures. The meaning of his Argus-eyed markings is, after all, symbolic; that meaning evidently remains in force no matter what the literal condition of his feathers happens to be.

Overshadowed, for the most part, by the longer works of fiction in his oeuvre, Lawrence's short stories have generated "only a handful of books" in comparison with "dozens" addressing the novels and novellas (Coroneos and Tate 2001, 103). "Wintry Peacock," in particular, has elicited little critical comment, perhaps because its subtly rendered allusion to Greek myth is so easy to overlook. (4) Typically it has been viewed as slight or problematic, a tale with "no pretension to philosophy or to anything other than painting an exact picture of people and things" (Delavenay 1972, 437). (5) Familiarity with the Jupiter-Io story and, in particular, recognition of Joey's role as watchful guardian, clearly is essential to proper appreciation of structure, theme, and tone in the narrative. My speculation is that Lawrence assumes an audience equipped to discover this central allusion on the basis of cryptic hints, not considering that subsequent generations of readers might be coming to the story from a changed cultural context, one in which classical mythology occupies a far less prominent place.

Readers with a wide-ranging background in Lawrence's writing will encounter in "Wintry Peacock" characteristic concerns, methods, and devices, among them the use of an animal as central symbol, the invocation of mythological significance, and the emphasis on male-female conflict. (6) Here tightly interwoven, these elements achieve a mutually reinforcing impact. Drawing on Greek myth to frame its central symbol, the story is compact and self-contained; the male-female conflict defining its plot assumes an aura of ancient inevitability. The action presents a variation on a proposition found repeatedly in Lawrence's early fiction, namely, that "women, desiring to possess the men they love, constitute a threat to masculine independence" (Tenenbaum 1986, 190. Through the figure of Joey, Argus-eyed defender of women's interests, Lawrence associates female mate-guarding tactics with mythic forces. At the same time, moreover, he calls attention to the vigorous, even violent, male counterplotting triggered by a wife's efforts to monitor her husband's extramarital mating activities. Pitted irrevocably against one another, male and female strategies maintain a seesawing equilibrium, creating a history of frustrated energy and thwarted purpose; the figure of the peacock functions as the fulcrum, a vivid locus of contention. Lawrence's aim is to portray the strength and universality of mutually antagonistic behavioral adaptations, not to offer moral justification for them. Withholding sympathy from both male and female characters in his story, he presents intersexual competition with a disengagement akin to that of a biosocial observer. As Ebbatson points out, "Whe image of nature as battleground is at the heart of mutability theory in The Origin of Species," and this image, he argues, is "recast in Lawrence's narratives." Hence, "Lawrence's men and women interact in a quasi-Darwinian way" (1987, 90). Similarly, I argue that the participants in the love triangle of "Wintry Peacock" are engaged in what Dawkins terms an "uncoordinated scramble for selfish gain," each character intent upon maximizing individual fitness (1995, 120. Discouraging both ethical judgment and emotional investment on the part of readers, Lawrence insists that ironic amusement is the only possible response to the human predicament he depicts.


(1.) The Reader's Encyclopedia, s.v. "Juno" (Benet 1965, 534). Intriguingly, Lawrence's story makes pointed reference to cattle on the Goyte farm, although these beasts certainly are not intended to represent 1o; "happy, frisky" and "a little impudent," these "young cattle" in no way reflect her wretched transformation (1990, 77). In Ovid's tale, Jo is presented as an innocent victim, caught between Jupiter's lust and Juno's jealousy; in Lawrence's story, Alfred Goyte's mistress does not play a comparable role. An offstage character whose voice is heard only in her letter, Elise remains a less important and less sympathetic character than Io. Because Lawrence's focus remains firmly directed toward the husband-wife conflict, Elise's plight is less significant in itself than as a precipitating cause of marital strife. The presence of the cattle in his story nevertheless seems calculated to reinforce the framing allusion, if only to jog readers' memories--reminding them of a tale of adultery in which a peacock and a cow figure prominently.

(2.) Ebbatson argues, for instance, that "Lawrence's entire imaginative strategy may be read as an endeavor to redeem and preserve the mysteries of human character from the causation of science" (1982, xx).

(3.) Discussing the aesthetic implications of Darwin's ideas in the larger framework of late-nineteenth-century novels, Ebbatson likewise argues that "the structure" of this genre "altered radically in response to the Darwinian revolution." Process replaces resolution: "Darwin, in his brilliant demolition of the idea of fixed species, unveiled a world in which essence is replaced by becoming" (1982, xiii).

(4.) Investigating Joey's symbolic function from other perspectives, i.e., without reference to Io and Argus, readers have put forward highly divergent theories. Harris, for example, regards the peacock as a figure of "defeated masculinity" (1984, 149). Widmer, in contrast, perceives him as a representation of "destructive woman" (1962, 111-112). Joey also has been discussed in terms of bird symbols Lawrence employs elsewhere, as in The White Peacock: see Moore (1969, 175) and Widmer (1962, 111-112).

(5.) Harris concurs, remarking that "the tale is not about ... anyone in particular ... it is anecdotal, expressive of a time, place, mood" (1984, 148). In a similar vein, Widmer complains that "the peacock does not provide a satisfactory image" (1962, 111).

(6.) All three of these topics have generated copious critical comment, far too much to list or summarize here; only a few starting points may be mentioned. Lawrence's use of animal imagery and symbolism is discussed usefully, for instance, by Doherty (2009), Howe (2002), and Widmer (1962). Vickery (1959) offers a helpful overview of Lawrence's cross-cultural familiarity with mythology, recapitulating his employment of materials from Semitic, Greek, Egyptian, Scandinavian, Asian, and South American sources and examining his indebtedness to The Golden Bough. Whelan (1988) provides information concerning Lawrence's grounding in the Greco-Roman tradition in particular, also investigating his interest in the theoretical basis of myth. Lawrence's depictions of women and of male-female relationships have stimulated lengthy examination and impassioned debate, some readers finding chiefly misogynist hostility and others identifying sympathetic, or even feminist, elements in his characterizations. To sample a range of critical responses, see the following: Ben-Ephraim (1981), Dix (1980), Draper (1988), Hardy (1986), Harrison (2000), Holbrook (1992), Lerner (1986), Milne (2001), Ruderman (1984), Simpson (1982), and Tenenbaum (1986).


Bateson, Melissa, Daniel Nettle and Gilbert Roberts. zoo6. "Cues of Being Watched Enhance Cooperation in a Real-world Setting." Biology Letters 2: 412-414.

Ben-Ephraim, Gavriel. 1981. The Moon's Dominion: Narrative Dichotomy and Female Dominance in Lawrence's Earlier Novels. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Benet, Williams Rose, ed. 1965. The Reader's Encyclopedia. New York: Crowell.

Buss, David M. zoo o. The Dangerous Passion: Why .7ealousy is as Necessary as Love and Sex. New York: Free Press/Simon and Schuster.

Campbell, Anne. 2002. A Mind of her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Coroneos, Con, and Trudi Tate. 2001. "Lawrence's Tales." In The Cambridge Companion to D. H. Lawrence, edited by Anne Fernihough, 103-118. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cowan, James C. 1990. D. H. Lawrence and the Trembling Balance. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Dawkins, Richard. 1995. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. New York: HarperCollins.

Delavenay, Emil. 1972. D.11. Lawrence: the Man and His Work, the Formative rears: 184-1919. Translated by Katherine M. Delavenay. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dix, Carol. 1980. D. H. Lawrence and Women. Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield.

Doherty, Gerald. 2009. "Women in Love: Sacrifice, Sadism, and the Discourse of Species." In Windows to the Sun: D. II. Lawrence's "Thought-Adventure," edited by Earl Ingersoll and Virginia Hyde, 69-98. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Draper, R. P. 1988. "The Defeat of Feminism: D. H. Lawrence's The Fox and 'The Woman Who Rode Away." In Critical Essays on D. II. Lawrence, edited by Dennis Jackson and Fleda Brown Jackson. Boston: G. K. Hall.

Ebbatson, Roger. 1987. "A Spark Beneath the Wheel: Lawrence and Evolutionary Thought." In Lawrence: New Studies, edited by Christopher Heywood, 90-103 New York: St. Martin's.

--1982. The Evolutionary Sefi Hardy, Forster, Lawrence. New York: Barnes and Noble.

Gayley, Charles Mills. 1983. The Classic Myths in English Literature. Boston: Ginn.

Glenn, Edgar M. 1986. The Metamorphoses: Ovid's Roman Games. Lanham: University Press of America.

Granofsky, Ronald. 2003. D. H. Lawrence and Survivak Darwinism in the Fiction of The Transitional Period. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.

Haley, Kevin J. and Daniel M. T. Fessler. 2005. "Nobody's Watching? Subtle Cues Affect Generosity in an Anonymous Economic Game." Evolution and Human Behavior 26.3: 245-256.

Hardy, Barbara. 1986. "Women in D. Lawrence's Works." In D. H. Lawrence: Modern Critical Views, edited by Harold Bloom, 133-146. New York: Chelsea House.

Harris, Janice Hubard. 1984. The Short Fiction of D. H. Lawrence. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Harrison, William M. z000. "Thinking Like a Chicken--But not a Porcupine: Lawrence, Feminism, and Animal Rights." Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 10. 4: 349-370.

Holbrook, David. 1992. Where D. H. Lawrence Was Wrong About Woman. Lewisberg: Bucknell University Press/Associated University Presses.

Howe, Andrew. 2002. "Beastly Desire: Human/Animal Interactions in Lawrence's Women in Love." Papers on Language and Literature 38.4: 429-441.

Lawrence, D. H. 1985. "Study of Thomas Hardy." In Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays: D.H. Lawrence, edited by Bruce Steele, 3-133. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

--1990. "Wintry Peacock." In "England, My England" and Other Stories, edited by Bruce Steele, 77-91. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lerner, Laurence. 1986. "Lawrence and the Feminists." In D.H. Lawrence: Centenary Essays, edited by Mara Kalnins, 69-87. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press.

Milne, Drew. 2001. "Lawrence and the Politics of Sexual Politics." In The Cambridge Companion to D.H. Lawrence, edited by Anne Fernihough, 197-905. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Moore, Harry T. 1969. D. H. Lawrence: The Man and His Works. Toronto: Forum House.

Ovid. 1977. Metamorphoses: Books I-VII. Translated by Frank Justus Miller. Edited by G. P. Goold. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pinion, F. B. 1979. A D H. Lawrence Companion: Life, Thought, and Works. New York: Harper and Row.

Ruderman, Judith. 1984. D. H. Lawrence and the Devouring Mother: The Search for a Patriarchal Ideal of Leadership. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Simpson, Hilary. 1982. D. H. Lawrence and Feminism. London: Croom Helm.

Steele, Bruce. 1990. "Introduction." In "England, My England" and Other Stories, by D.H. Lawrence, xxiv-li. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

--1990. "Explanatory Notes: 'Wintry Peacock!" In "England, My England" and Other Stories," by D.H. Lawrence, 240-244. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tenenbaum, Elizabeth Brody. 1986. "The Problematic Self." In D.H. Lawrence: Modern Critical Views, edited by Harold Bloom, 195-199. New York: Chelsea House.

Vickery, John B. 1959. "Myth and Ritual in the Shorter Fiction of D. H. Lawrence." Modern Fiction Studies 5.1: 65-82.

Whelan, P. T. 1988. D. H. Lawrence: Myth and Metaphysics in "The Rainbow" and "Women in Love." Ann Arbor: University Michigan Research Press.

Widmer, Kingsley. 1962. The Art of Perversity: D. H. Lawrence's Shorter Fiction. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Wright, Robert. 1994. The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Lift. New York: Vintage.


Print ISSN 0093-3139 E-ISSN 1542-4286

[c] West Chester University 2012

JUDITH P. SAUNDERS is Professor of English at Marist College in New York state. She has published Darwinian analyses of works by Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sherwood Anderson, Zora Neale Hurston, and others. She is the author of Reading Edith Wharton through a Darwinian Lens: Evolutionary Biological Issues in Her Fiction (2009).
Gale Copyright:
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.