A reading of an underrated short story
‘Second Best’, which was first published in 1914, is not among the front rank of D. H. Lawrence’s short stories. Yet its neglect remains puzzling. It is a disturbing and powerful story about growing up and coming to terms with life’s realities, although molophiles (that’s our coinage for fans of moles) may want to look away before reading our summary and analysis of the story. You can read ‘Second Best’ here.
‘Second Best’ is an easy enough story to summarise. Two sisters, Anne (14) and Frances (about 23), are playing in the grass, talking about Frances’ longstanding will-they-won’t-they courtship with Jimmy Barrass, who, we learn now lives in Liverpool and has become a Doctor of Chemistry. While the sisters are talking, they spot a mole in the grass. Anne picks it up, and when it bites her, she strikes it with her sister’s walking-cane, killing it. As the two sisters are walking home, they bump into Tom Smedley, a young man who is fond of Frances. They tell him about the mole they killed, and Tom tells Frances that moles are pests. Frances goes away and kills a mole, taking it to Tom as a gift. Tom is unsettled by this, but agrees to court Frances, and Frances resolves to settle for her ‘second-best’ choice, Tom, abandoning her hopes of marrying Jimmy.
How does he reveal the relationship between the two sisters? And what are we told about the personalities of the two characters? How does the narrative mode affect this – i.e. the fact that the story is told in the third person?
Note how he doesn’t tell us the relationship between the two characters immediately. We are left guessing. What relation is Anne to Frances? Look at the phrase ‘her beloved Frances’: we’d be forgiven for thinking that Anne is the older of the two, and that Anne is even, perhaps, Frances’ mother. Or, failing that, perhaps her best friend. Or her older sister. Then we learn that they are indeed sisters, but that in fact Frances is the older one. Not just a little older, either, but some nine years older. But note also that the narrator isn’t entirely sure: she is ‘about twenty-three’. Anne’s age is known precisely, but Frances’ age can only be estimated. In other words, this third-person narrator is not ‘omniscient’ – all-knowing – and lacks full and complete knowledge of the characters. (Interestingly, a few paragraphs later the narrator will observe that Anne ‘plays mother’ to Frances, who views such an idea as ‘a joke’.)
Yet in a couple of paragraphs Lawrence has told us a great deal. We know that Anne worships her older sister (‘her beloved Frances’), and that Frances is seen as having not only the brains but also the beauty in the family. What’s left for Anne, then? Frances is seen as the beautiful but also the clever daughter. Anne is merely a ‘body’, not even a person. Note, Lawrence says she ‘was a wise young body of fourteen’: she doesn’t have a body, she is a body, wise but yet not wise enough to be considered ‘the clever child of the family’. She’s fourteen, too: is this significant? She is not yet a woman, while her sister attained womanhood several years ago. Why such a long gap between them? Do they have other siblings whose ages fall somewhere between fourteen and ‘about twenty-three’? Or was Anne unplanned, an accident? We also learn that Frances is a bit unpredictable (‘whimsical, spasmodic’). Lawrence tells us all this in just the first two paragraphs of the story: he establishes the personalities of the two sisters and the relationship between them. He also suggests certain things without stating them, inviting us to ask questions. There is also a subtle undermining of expectations and convention: we might expect the older sister to be the ‘wise’ one, and the fourteen year-old to be the ‘whimsical’, fickle one. Indeed, Frances will very much turn out to be whimsical and fickle, her affection for the faraway Jimmy Barrass soon being forgotten when she bumps into Tom Smedley, who quickly becomes her new beau. She is even prepared to kill a mole for him, and to take it to him as a gift, after he insinuates that he would like her to kill them for him.
Think also about the way the title works with these opening paragraphs. Who or what is ‘second best’? We learn in the course of the story that it refers – at least principally, though not necessarily exclusively – to the two men whom Frances considers courting. She settles for Tom Smedley as ‘second best’ over her first choice, Jimmy Barrass. But at this stage, all we have are the two sisters and the knowledge that one is the brains and beauty of the family, so we could be forgiven for interpreting the title as a reference to Anne, who is considered ‘second best’ to her older, cleverer, and more beautiful sister.
Then ask yourself about the narrative mode. How might these opening paragraphs be different if the story was being told in the first person by Frances? Or, for that matter, by Anne? Even the third-person narration is curiously limited in this story, but it arguably is in all fiction. For instance, not only is the narrator not entirely sure of Frances’ age (‘about twenty-three’), but at the end of the story, when she presents Tom Smedley with the mole she’s killed for him, we are told he ‘looked frightened and upset’, which is not the same as telling us how he actually feels – it merely tells us that he seems to be frightened and upset.
In terms of the story itself, what are we to make of the juxtaposition of the killing of the mole (or rather two killings: Anne and then Frances both kill one) and Frances’ sudden change of heart about Tom Smedley? Does her decision to marry him and forget Jimmy Barrass suggest that the mole-killing signals the death of her innocence, and her coming of age – her realisation that the real world is not very pleasant and often it does not match our aspirations? We might say that her decision to approach Tom Smedley with the dead mole shows her attempt to take some control over her life, to exercise some agency. But even so, she is, for all that, settling for ‘second best’.
Continue your discover of D. H. Lawrence’s short stories with our analysis of his short story ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’.
Image: D. H. Lawrence aged 21, author unknown, Wikimedia Commons.