Tom Brangwen is the first of his family to fall into narcissistic patterns. The generations previous to Tom that Lawrence describes are far more content than those who will come after: “There was a look in the eyes of the Brangwens as if they were expecting something unknown, about which they were eager . . . So the Brangwens came and went without fear of necessity, working hard because of the life that was in them, not for want of money” (Lawrence 9). Tom’s mother, however, is not content with her family’s lot in life, and she pressures her boys to go to school. Tom, along with his older brother Alfred, are both sent to school with their mother’s hopes pinned to them. Although Alfred does fairly well in school, he does not go very far in life and remains angry and frustrated about his work throughout his life. Tom, on the other hand, does not take very well to school. Young Tom is quite distraught over his failures, but only continues to go because his mother wishes it. He desperately wants to make his mother happy to the point where “If he could have been what he liked, he would have been that which his mother fondly but deucedly hoped he was. He would have been clever, and capable of being a gentleman” (Lawrence 17).
Very early on, then, we see Tom struggling to conform to an idea that another wants for him. He makes “a violent struggle against his physical inability to study” and fears that “his mind simply did not work . . . . He had not the power to controvert even the most stupid argument so that he was forced to admit things that he did not in the least believe. And having admitted them, he did not know whether he believed them or not; he rather thought he did” (17). His inability to reach the potential that his mother thinks he has irreparably damages Tom’s sense of self-worth. In his first and strongest childhood friendship with a “warm, clever boy” (19), Tom imagines himself the “server” in their relationship because he “never felt equal with his friend, because the other’s mind outpaced his own” (19). This need to please another and to fulfill their expectations and wants—despite the fact that the acts performed to do so are emotionally painful—becomes a pattern for later Brangwens, particularly Anna, Tom’s stepdaughter, and Ursula, his granddaughter.
This pattern fits Otto Kernberg’s descriptions of narcissism. Cold parental figures that encourage an idea of “specialness” in their children can produce a narcissistic child (Kernberg 265). This concept of “specialness” arouses in the child an “ideal self” which Kernberg defines as “the fantasies and self images of power, wealth, omniscience, and beauty which compensated the small child for the experience of severe oral frustration, rage, and envy” (265). Kernberg also explains that the child develops an “ideal object” derived from “the fantasy of an ever-giving, ever-loving and accepting parent in contrast to the child’s experience in reality” (265). Tom is the first of his family to struggle with this issue due to his mother’s need to foist greatness onto her sons, and thus Tom, because of his inability to conform to his mother’s desires, spends his childhood and young adulthood searching for a mother figure who will give him the acceptance and love that he was denied.
When Tom loses his virginity to a prostitute, he has difficulty understanding how to connect sexually or romantically with women. He cannot process his attraction because “For him, there was until that time only one kind of woman—his mother and his sister” (Lawrence 20). Yet, paradoxically, Tom does associate the women he is sexually attracted to with his mother, mainly in his deep-seated fears of being despised and rejected: “there was a slight sense of shame before the prostitute, fear that she would despise him for his inefficiency; there was a cold distaste for her, and a fear of her” (20). As Tom attempts to find a “nice girl,” he is met with a similar problem: he cannot bear to think of the girls in a sexual manner, believing it to diminish them in some capacity that he owes to his “instinctive regard for women” (23).
As Gavriel Ben-Ephraim puts it, “Molded by women, Tom lacks confident maleness, let alone assertive sexuality. The over influence of women in his formation leads to a deficiency not only of manhood but of being. Tom relies on women for his ‘stability’. . .” (134). Despite his difficulties in connecting sexually or romantically with women, Tom still desperately wants a wife. He seems to believe marriage to be the solution to his feelings of loneliness and despair: “He wanted something to get hold of, to pull himself out. But there was nothing” (Lawrence 26). As Tom continues to fail to find such a woman to “get a hold of,” he throws himself into drink. Alcohol provides Tom with “this kindled state of oneness with all the world . . . obliterating his individuality that which it depended on his manhood to preserve and develop” (28). Only by getting extremely drunk and literally losing himself can he find peace. For Tom, then, peace is loss of self, and to find peace in the form of a woman, Tom must also be able to lose himself in her. This desire is paradoxical in that while Tom desires to lose himself in another, he also greatly fears this self-annihilation.
When Tom first lays eyes on Lydia, he sees her as this marvelous, curious creature who exists in a world not his own: “He felt as if he were walking again in a far world, not Cossethay, a far world, the reality . . . He moved within the knowledge of her, in the world that was beyond reality” (29). Yet Tom still feels a connection to Lydia, a “feeling that they had exchanged recognition . . . a curious certainty about her, as if she were destined to him” (29, 32). A large part of Tom’s attraction to Lydia can be attributed to her “foreignness.” As Schapiro notes, Tom finds Lydia’s “impenetrable otherness” to be a restorative force, reassuring him of his own sense of reality (80). Lydia’s remote self-containment makes Tom feel that there is structure to his own person, and so he pursues her romantically in order to hold fast to that feeling: “He must admit that he was only fragmentary, something incomplete and subject . . . he sat small and submissive to the greater ordering . . . . He was nothing. But with her, he would be real” (Lawrence 40).
These feelings of unreality are quite common in narcissistic persons, and the feeling is prevalent within the Brangwen line. Both Kernburg and Kohut acknowledge this attribute. Kernberg describes “a marked incapacity to perceive oneself . . . as a total human being” (316), much as Tom articulates about himself above. Tom embodies Kohut’s “Tragic Man,” a condition in which one is unable to “experience him/herself as center of initiative and suffers from despair, shame, boredom, complains of feeling empty, depressed, and at times, unreal. There is a constant fear of boundary loss, of potential fragmentation; Tragic Man expends his energy in keeping intact and protected what little sense of self he has” (Narcissism and the Text 1). Tom needs a distinct Other to ground him in his own sense of being. He desires a merging of sorts, a way to remain connected to this Other to counteract the sense of emptiness and unreality. Since he has lost his mother to death and his sister to marriage, he seeks to make Lydia his new anchor.
Tom’s relationship with Lydia indeed resembles the idealizing narcissistic transference that Kohut describes:
. . . the state in which, after being exposed to the disturbance of the psychological equilibrium of primary narcissism, the psyche saves a part of the lost experience of global narcissistic perfection by assigning it to an archaic, rudimentary (transitional) self-object, the idealized parent imago. Since all bliss and power now reside in the idealized object, the child feels empty and powerless when he is separated from it and he attempts, therefore, to maintain a continuous union with it. (Kohut 37)
Because Tom’s primary narcissism has been disturbed by his having been “let down” by his mother, he transfers his need for idealized “recognition” to Lydia, making her the idealized self-object on which he depends. However, Lydia is not content to have this sort of relationship with Tom. She herself was once dangerously dependent on her late husband, and it took losing him and having to struggle on her own to realize her own personal strength. She does not wish to be in an idealized or a co-dependent relationship with Tom, but rather to have a secure partnership of equals.
Tom’s feelings regarding Lydia’s separateness from him oscillate between contentedness and despair. Sometimes Tom uses Lydia’s separateness to reassure himself of his own separate being, such as when they lie together and Tom “[lifts] her with his breathing . . . . He did not interfere with her . . . . The strange inviolable completeness of the two of them made him feel as sure and as stable as God” (Lawrence 46). Other times, however, Tom frets over the fact that “They were such strangers, they must forever be such strangers” (48). In these instances, Tom despairs over never truly being able to know or understand Lydia’s emotions, history, and culture. Sometimes, however, this despair turns to enraptured devotion: “a sort of worship, holding her aloof from his physical desire, self-thwarting” (55). Tom sees Lydia not as she is in these instances but rather as an ideal to be worshipped, and in his worship, he expects to in some way gain a piece of her: He “knew she was his woman, he knew her essence, that it was his to possess” (58), but he never truly can possess her, which is his main frustration.
During Lydia’s first pregnancy with one of Tom’s children, she turns significantly away from Tom, leaving him hurt and angry. Lydia does not attempt to coddle or reassure him during this time, but rather focuses on their unborn child. While “sometimes his anger broke on her,” Lydia fights back (61). A similar dynamic is seen in the second generation of Brangwens, but Tom and Lydia have a far different result. As the birth of their child draws near, Lydia is overcome with memories of her late children and husband. Rather than be angry that she is remembering people outside of his knowledge, as he had in the past, Tom accepts that “he must stand back, leave her alone . . . . This is sacred to her, and he must not violate her with his comfort” (63). The fact that Lawrence has Tom come to this realization on the same page that Tom admits to feeling “like a broken arch” but has “remained himself . . . saved himself from crashing down into nothingness, from being squandered into fragments, by sheer tension” is significant (63). Here we see Tom’s ability to accept his own and Lydia’s separateness through Lydia’s “rejection” of him. Later, when Lydia lies in childbirth, crying in pain, Tom acknowledges and accepts that the pain is not his own, but separate unto Lydia. He also acknowledges and accepts the emotional pain of Lydia’s young daughter, Anna, who is tired, frightened, and craving her mother’s company. Tom not only acknowledges Anna’s pain, but he successfully soothes her, marking the beginning of a strong bond with the child. These are crucial steps for Tom in working through his narcissism, but he could not have come to these realizations without Lydia’s help.
According to Kohut, the only way to treat narcissism-based transference issues is for the analyst in the role of the idealized self-object to allow the patient (analysand) to keep that connection and then work toward the repair of that broken bond.
If the child experiences the traumatic loss of the idealized object . . . or a traumatic (severe and sudden, or not phase-appropriate) disappointment in it, then optimal internalization does not take place. The child does not acquire the needed internal structure, his psyche remains fixated on an archaic self-object, and the personality will . . . be dependent on certain objects in what seems to be an intense form of object hunger. (45)
Through a series of gradual disappointments, the analyst enables the patient to come to accept an imperfect reality and imperfect self. The analysand comes to terms with the idealized self-object’s lack of perfection and his or her own subsequent feelings of inadequacy.
This is what Lawrence dramatizes with Tom in relation to Lydia’s rejections. Tom is able to acknowledge Lydia’s separateness from him as a person and is forced to learn to cope in her absence. When Tom sees that he hasn’t fallen apart without her, he becomes more stable. However, Tom is not fully “cured” of his narcissism; Lawrence instead gives us a realistic depiction of psychological struggle. This struggle is repeated by nearly all of the characters of the novel. In doing this, Lawrence reflects how real people toe the line between maturity and dysfunction, progress and regression. Thus despite his advances here, Tom, too, will falter in the continuation of the novel.
After Lydia’s self-imposed, pregnancy-based isolation ends, she and Tom start to make love again, which rekindles Tom’s desire to fully possess her. During Lydia’s pregnancy with her and Tom’s second child, she pushes him away again, which leads to his frustration once more. Lydia confronts Tom with his selfish, childish need to have all of her attention all of the time. She accuses him of not realizing her as a person: “You came to me as if it was for nothing, as if I was nothing there. When Paul came to me, I was something to him—a woman, I was. To you I am nothing” (89). Tom responds that Lydia’s attitude towards him equally makes him feel as if he were nothing. This marks the beginning of an understanding between Lydia and Tom, where they both begin to recognize each other as people and work to keep the other happy. Ben-Ephraim suggests that in Tom and Lydia’s subsequent sexual encounters, Lydia is trying to bolster Tom’s confidence and sense of masculinity, attempting to wean him off of his need for her: “She amplifies him by showing him his own male power. This is not an artificial bolstering, but the realization of Tom’s potential” (139). Ben-Ephraim explains that “Lydia stubbornly refuses to allow Tom to bow, in awe, before her femaleness. She demands that they enter the darkness as equals, that he maintain self-possession, for only the man who has himself can lose himself in something greater” (139). Lydia is forcing Tom to stand on his own two feet and rely on her less by “[leading] Tom to the vivid insight that the satisfying, regenerating relation to the greater beyond depends on first acknowledging the beyond in the other person . . . both are temporarily and fruitfully obliterated” (140).
Ben-Ephraim argues, however, that Lydia’s attempts are in vain and that Tom never truly grows as a separate person, that “he continues to blur the distinction between himself and the people close to him. . . not only in relation to Lydia but toward their daughter, Anna” (141). I must disagree with Ben-Ephraim on the grounds that Tom’s early relationship with Anna indicates his ability to view others as individuals who exist in relation to him, not as a part of him. Tom’s relationship with Anna is not purely one of narcissistic transference. Tom does not see Anna only as an extension of himself, nor does he set impossible ideals for her. This is not to say that their father-daughter relationship is entirely healthy, as we shall see, but it certainly isn’t a wholly narcissistic one, as Tom is devoted to improving Anna’s separate life and happiness.
In fact, Tom’s first major interaction with Anna, while Lydia is in labor, best demonstrates Tom’s acceptance of this fact. In the scene, a frightened Anna is crying for her mother and refuses to cooperate with Tilly the maid’s attempts to dress her for bed. Tom is himself tired and frustrated, but rather than demand Anna’s silence, he instead opts to allow her to cry: “Let the mother cry in labour, let the child cry in resistance, since they would do so. Why should he fight against it, why resist? Let it be, if it were so. Let them be as they were, if they insisted” (Lawrence 74). In trying to calm Anna, Tom takes her to the barn and holds her while he feeds the animals. Standing in the “softly-illuminated stillness and calmness of the barn” (75), Tom feeds the animals in a slow and calming rhythm until Anna relaxes and falls asleep. Schapiro compares the barn setting to the womb: “The characters are enveloped in a rhythmic, warm and secure space, a place of animal satiation and mindless, bodily contentment” (83). Schapiro argues that in placing Tom in this womb-like environment after he has been shown to accept Lydia’s separateness from himself, Lawrence demonstrates Tom’s own identification with maternal nurturing qualities: “[He] discovers the maternal within himself and assumes the role of tender, soothing nurturer” (83). This is what makes this scene so poignant and telling of Tom’s progress; for the first time in his life, Tom is the provider of comfort rather than the needy child clamoring for it. He gives this comfort not out of personal need but rather to soothe a troubled child. The scene also marks the beginning of Tom’s lifelong devotion to his daughter.
At the start of “The Girlhood of Anna Lensky,” we are told that “Tom Brangwen never loved his own son as he loved his step-child Anna” (78). At this point in the novel, Lydia and Tom are struggling to recognize one another as individuals, and so Tom “[forms] another centre of love in her child, Anna. Gradually a part of his stream of life was diverted to the child, relieving the main flood to his wife” (79). While this might seem to imply that Tom forms a narcissistic attachment to the child, this is not the case. While Tom enjoys and values his time with his stepdaughter, he does not feed on it in the manner of a narcissistic parent. Instead, he dedicates himself to her pleasure. He sings to her, plays with her, and takes her on trips into town. This does not mean that Tom is a perfect parent—he does make significant mistakes in his parenting. One such mistake, which will be examined further later, occurs on Tom and Anna’s outings. When a townsperson asks Tom if Anna is his child, Tom responds, “It belongs to my Missis” (83). At this point in their relationship, Anna has begun to attach herself to Tom in the way that she formerly was attached to her mother, and Anna’s perception of Tom’s denial of their connection deeply irritates her and reminds her of her “alienation” (83) from him. However, Tom’s attachment to Anna is one of genuine love and desire for her welfare, rather than merely narcissistic need.
Tom wants only the best for Anna, believing that “If she chose to be royal, royal she shall be. He stood between her and the world” (96). Tom sees it as his personal duty to see to Anna’s happiness. This is why Tom becomes so angry after a teenaged Anna announces her engagement to her step cousin, Will Brangwen. Tom can see through Will’s thin veneer as a civilized and decent man. He can see that Will is not an appropriate match for his daughter and thus he is resistant. This causes Anna to lose her temper and angrily declare that Tom isn’t her real father, and thus he has no real control over whom she marries. This shatters the fragile self-image that Tom has spent nearly twenty years cultivating. He begins to doubt the validity of his life’s work and is shocked to find himself old enough to have a married daughter.
This is where I agree with Ben-Ephraim’s assertion that Tom ultimately fails to develop “a precise, definite sense of self” (141). From this point on in the novel, Tom is “plagued by a continuing sense of vulnerability” (141). He reverts back to the feelings of unreality that he experienced as a youth, previous to his breakthroughs with Lydia. He exhibits what Kernberg describes as the narcissist’s “inability to come to terms with old age, to accept the fact that a younger generation now possesses many of the previously cherished gratifications of beauty, wealth, power and, particularly, creativity” (312).
Even Tom’s death assumes narcissistic qualities. Tom returns home drunk to the Marsh during a storm that heavily floods the farm. Tom’s drunkenness here is intentional. From the beginning of the novel we remember that drinking was Tom’s way of coping with his feelings of unreality in his pre-Lydia world. The loss of his sense of self following Anna’s engagement has thrown Tom back into this unreality, and thus he has taken up his old comfort. In this state, Tom wanders down a flooded path to attempt to find the source of the flood, slips and falls. Lawrence describes Tom’s drowning: “He fought in a black horror of suffocation, fighting, wrestling, but always borne down, borne inevitably down. Still he wrestled and fought to get himself free, in the unutterable struggle of suffocation, but he always fell again, deeper” (229). The language that Lawrence uses here for Tom’s death is similar to language used to describe Tom’s feelings of unreality and his fears of a fusing self-annihilation earlier in the novel. Later, Lawrence uses this same flood imagery to describe Will Brangwen’s narcissistic character. Ben-Ephraim explains Lawrence’s use of water imagery for these two characters: it “produces a consistent association between that element and the male tendency toward disintegration . . . water seems to indicate both the man who fails to distinguish himself from this [natural, primitive] power and the power itself in its annihilating dimension” (142). In other words, the water not only serves as a metaphor for the unreality experienced by Tom (and later Will), but also for his own masculine power that he fails to realize and properly wield.
Thus imagery of Tom’s death exemplifies his lack of an autonomous self. Despite his progress as displayed in his relationships with Lydia and Anna, Tom’s death signifies his ultimate inability to transcend the narcissistic state. While Tom shows moments of acceptance of the separateness of self and others, ultimately he is unable to move beyond a narcissistic fantasy of merging. The merging and self-annihilation that Tom experiences in the flood is freeing and euphoric, but equally terrifying and destructive. Tom is not the last of the Brangwens to succumb to a narcissistic state. As previously discussed, these patterns of behavior repeat throughout the generations, and the second generation of Brangwens is by no means exempt from Tom’s struggles.