“A Fragment of Stained Glass” was one of the first short stories D. H. Lawrence ever wrote and went through a number of revisions before coming into its final form and being included in his collection The Prussian Officer and Other Stories. It is considered by most critics to be a feeble first effort by the fledgling author, and consequently it has been written about very little (Baim 323). Some, though, have recognized it as important because it contains the first glimmer of themes that would reverberate through the rest of Lawrence’s works.
“A Fragment of Stained Glass” is a story-within-a-story narrative where both stories are told in first person. The first story, often referred to as the “frame” for the primary story, is told by an unnamed narrator who is visiting the Vicar of Beauvale Abbey, Mr. Coburn. Coburn, described as an archaeologist, explains to the narrator that he is working on a “Bible of the English people—the Bible of their hearts—their exclamations in presence of the unknown” (Lawrence 188).
Coburn then shows the narrator a piece of yellowed parchment from the fifteenth century describing an encounter the monks had with a “devil” who attacked the stained glass window in their chapel one night. The monks were terrified, and when they came outside the next morning they found their statue toppled to the ground and a piece missing from the window. Since the piece that was missing came from just behind the cross that hung inside the chapel, the monks concluded that God drove the demon away (Lawrence 188).
Both the narrator and Coburn dismiss this interpretation of the events that occurred, and Coburn offers to give a different interpretation. He lowers the lights and moves into the darkness so that his voice seems to be coming from a faraway time. This is where the internal story begins.
The internal story is told from the point of view of a serf living in the fifteenth century. In a fit of rage, the serf kills one of his master’s horses. He is flogged for it, and as revenge sets fire to the stables, which in turn set fire to his master’s house. Running for his life through the woods, the serf comes to the home of his love, Martha, who agrees to run away with him. Traveling through the snow, they come upon the monastery. Believing that the stained glass window is some sort of fairy object, the serf climbs up a statue, and attempts to break a piece of the red glass off so they can use its powers. When the piece comes loose, he sees through the hole what he describes as, “white stunted angels, with sad faces lifted in fear” (Lawrence 194). The statue crumbles beneath him, and he and Martha continue further into the frozen forest. After lighting a fire, they study the fragment, both frightened and entranced by it. The serf becomes afraid of it, believing it to be a bloodstone that will doom them both to a hideous death. Martha, however, makes him keep it. In the morning, they wake to the sound of wolves around them.
At this point, the narrative abruptly ends. Coburn, as if suddenly changing his mind says, “Nay […] they lived happily ever after,” to which the narrator responds simply, “No” (Lawrence 196).
This abrupt ending is, I think, one of the main reasons this story gets ignored so much. It gives the story a sense of being unfinished. It is flowing smoothly, carrying the reader along, making one anxious to find out what happens next, then it just stops. The stop is jarring and uncomfortable. Perhaps that was Lawrence’s intention. In any case, it is an odd end to an intriguing story. For the most part, though, it is the interaction between the inner story and the frame of the story which intrigues critics the most.
The one thematic thread that runs through all of Lawrence’s works is the dichotomy between the dispassionate, intellectual surface self and the passionate, sensual inner self so many keep locked inside. Lawrence saw most of the people of his age as being trapped within the dispassionate surface self and needing to break free, to delve deep into their inner, passionate selves and, in so doing, become free. Many of Lawrence’s main characters either share this philosophy or are repulsed by it.
In this story, a reviewer named P.G. Baker sees the monks’ story as representing the passionate, superstitious side and the serf’s story as the more grounded one centering around struggle for survival in an uncaring world. He sees the same difference present between the unnamed narrator of the framing story and Coburn, in that Coburn wants the romantic, happy ending and the narrator doesn’t (318).
Joseph Baim, another reviewer, has a different perspective. He sees Coburn as someone who wants to move away from the passion exemplified by the monks’ tale and into a more rational interpretation of what happened, but the story he comes up with is one of “profane passion, no more logical, no less passionate, than the one he glosses” (324). Baim continues by pointing out that the two narratives—the monks’ and Coburn’s—are alike in tone. By dimming the lights and speaking from the shadows, Coburn “slips into the role of the spirit of England’s primitive past,” and, in doing so, “he achieves, if only for a moment, a connection with the passionate life that was mirrored more clearly in an earlier age” (324). In his story the peasant allows his rage to overpower him, both in killing the horse and burning his master’s property. The peasant and Martha are a passionate couple. And their fascination with the glass is filled with deep images like blood and fire. They believe they have a piece of something magical, something with deep power. There are few things more primitive and passionate than that.
I don’t think it’s that easy to qualify any of the characters so neatly. For being such a short story, the characters are remarkably three-dimensional. Moreover, trying to force the categories of passionate and dispassionate upon the characters is, in my opinion, more than a little reckless considering that this is one of Lawrence’s first stories and there is no way of knowing exactly when he came to his conclusions about the repressed lives the English people lead.
I think that this story, rather than reflecting defined categories of repressed and liberated, reflects people struggling with that dichotomy, waffling between the passionate and the commonplace. The peasant and Martha are stuck between their passionate, mystical understanding of the glass and their desperate need for survival. Coburn is caught between his love of and connection with mythology and his desire for rational explanations. The narrator is simply the observer, seeing the struggles each person and character wrestle with and, ultimately, perceiving the inevitable conclusion to the story.
Lindsay Berutti adds yet another perspective. She sees the two accounts as being Lawrence’s way of saying that “mysticism lies within the eyes of the beholder.” For her, the monks’ fear of the “devil” at the window and the serf’s seeing “angels” through the hole in the window reflect the same kind of mysticism.
For example, when the monks see someone near the Cross hanging on their window, they automatically assume that it is a devil trying to harm them or their beloved Cross. The monks want to believe that they are being saved from this devil and since they are in a state of prayer, their minds are already consumed with thoughts of heaven and hell. Thus, these non-worldly ideas decrease their rationality; they show this when they say, “But our dear Saint . . . came hastening down heaven to defend us” (188). Since the noise at the window comes from where the Cross is hanging, it is only natural for them to perceive the Cross, with whatever powers they believe it holds, to protect them in a time of danger. Unlike Baim’s interpretation, the stained glass does not contain the spirituality; the monks’ minds are what actually contain that magic. In the inner story, the same stained glass window reveals to the stableman a group of frightened angels rather than monks. The window only connects the two worlds; the stableman sees the angels because of his desperate need for faith while he and Martha struggle to survive in the snow. The stableman and Martha need something to help them to believe in themselves and in their safety from the dangers of the snow, wilderness, and anyone chasing them. Their perceived glimpse into the spiritual world provides them with this security (Berutti).
Both tales are mystical in nature, despite Coburn’s wanting his to be more rational.
Coburn started out wanting a simple, rational explanation for the monks’ story, but somewhere in the course of his story he became attached to the characters and, in true Lawrentian fashion, found his way into the passion and deep feeling he had kept suppressed. But when the story worked its way to an inevitable conclusion (the deaths of Martha and the serf), Coburn could not follow them into the passion of death (Baim 325). Coburn cannot stand the thought of his characters dying, and so abruptly shakes himself out of the passionate state he had followed those characters into. The narrator, however, is not so bound. He sees what Coburn will not: that the two characters must and will die because that is the only way the story can end.
Like most, if not all, D.H. Lawrence stories, “A Fragment of Stained Glass” is deep and thought provoking, welcoming a myriad of interpretations with open arms. It delves into the depths of human feeling and makes us question whether our sanitized way of feeling and doing things really is so much superior to those who live with raw emotion and passion. Even if this is merely a juvenile effort by a fledgling author, it is also a great example of why D.H. Lawrence is considered to be among the greatest authors of all time.
Baim, Joseph. "Past and Present in D.H. Lawrence's 'A Fragment of Stained Glass'." Studies in Short Fiction 8 (1971): 323-6.
Baker, P. G. "By the Help of Certain Notes: A Source for D.H. Lawrence's 'A Fragment of Stained Glass'." Studies in Short Fiction 17 (1980): 317-26.
Berutti, Lindsey. “Faith in the Eyes of the Beholder.” http://www.unc.edu/~thomast/lindjournal.html
Lawrence, D. H. The Complete Short Stories Vol. 1. New York: Viking, 1922. 187-
Millington, Peter. “‘An Enjoyable Christmas: A Prelude’ [Notes].”
This story has an interesting
history. In 1907, the then unpublished
Lawrence decided to enter a Christmas story contest the local paper was holding. There were
three categories (An Amusing Adventure, An Enjoyable Christmas, or A Legend), but authors
were restricted to submitting only one story to the competition. Lawrence, having written a story
for each category, called on two friends, Jessie Chambers and Louie Burrows, to help him cheat
that rule. Lawrence submitted the original version of “A Fragment of Stained Glass”, then called
“Ruby Glass”, in the Legend category because he felt it was the best. He then had his friends
submit his other two stories in their own handwriting. In the end, he did win the contest, but not
with the story he submitted under his own name. Instead, the paper awarded the first prize to
Jessie Chambers for the story “A Prelude to an Enjoyable Christmas.” Chambers gave Lawrence
the prize money, but she could not avoid getting credit for the story. Interestingly, even though it
was well known that Lawrence was the real author, “A Prelude” was never published under his