On Lawrence’s classic short story about the war between the sexes
‘Tickets, Please’ was first published in 1918, while the First World War was still raging. But D. H. Lawrence’s short story of love, sex, betrayal, and vengeance is set on the home front rather than the western front, and centres on the battle of the sexes rather than the horrific conflict in northern France and Belgium. You can read ‘Tickets, Please’ here.
In summary, ‘Tickets, Please’ is a story about a man who works on the trams of Nottingham during the First World War. John Thomas – his very name is slang for the ‘male member’, or penis – is a cock of the walk, a jack the lad, a man who thinks he has it all. Curiously, though, this is 1918 and he’s not ‘at the front’: he’s not fighting in the war. Why? Lawrence doesn’t tell us, but it raises interesting questions. Does this cast a shadow over his ‘manliness’?
Well, it certainly doesn’t stop him from attracting the attention of Annie, one of the girls working on the trams with him. They go out together to the funfair, where Lawrence loads every innocent detail with Freudian suggestion: their ride on the horses of the carousel hints at the unspoken sexual desire between them, as the dashing John Thomas rides a horse named Black Bess (Dick Turpin’s horse, of course; also, ‘dicks’ again).
After their date at the fairground, though, Annie discovers that John Thomas has been ‘walking out’ with many of the other girls working on the trams, and the women collectively plot their revenge. Ambushing John Thomas in one of the trams one night after work, they exact a ritual humiliation on him, beating him and taunting him, tearing his clothes from him. As John Thomas lies on the ground, beaten, bleeding, and robbed of his power, the women straighten their uniforms and leave him, bearing ‘flushed, stupefied faces’ as they leave.
‘Tickets, Please’ appears to make a comment on the changing attitudes to gender roles during the First World War. The women are working, and use their collective power to take action against the man who has wronged them. John Thomas offers a more complex take on masculinity than might at first be apparent from his crude name. Yes, he’s ‘cocky’ in more ways than one, but in the context of the war and conscription we have to ask why he isn’t away fighting like a ‘real man’ (as understood by the majority at the time). And the women, when they take action against John Thomas in their violent act of retribution, resemble the Furies from Greek mythology: hell hath no fury, as the misquotation has it, like a woman scorned.
The climax of the story, which sees the attack on John Thomas, frames the women as wild animals, like a pack of wolves attacking their prey. Here, the usual male hunter in search of his (female?) quarry is reversed:
He went forward, rather vaguely. She had taken off her belt, and swinging it, she fetched him a sharp blow over the head with the buckle end. He sprang and seized her. But immediately the other girls rushed upon him, pulling and tearing and beating him. Their blood was now thoroughly up. He was their sport now. They were going to have their own back, out of him. Strange, wild creatures, they hung on him and rushed at him to bear him down. His tunic was torn right up the back, Nora had hold at the back of his collar, and was actually strangling him. Luckily the button burst.
This hovers unsteadily between a desire to discipline the wayward John Thomas and teach him a lesson (the removal of the belt recalling a father of days gone by administering corporal punishment to a child) and an animalistic, even sexual delight in the thought of inflicting pain. Lawrence’s work is alive to such sadism:
He struggled in a wild frenzy of fury and terror, almost mad terror. His tunic was simply torn off his back, his shirt-sleeves were torn away, his arms were naked. The girls rushed at him, clenched their hands on him and pulled at him: or they rushed at him and pushed him, butted him with all their might: or they struck him wild blows. He ducked and cringed and struck sideways. They became more intense.
This ritual undressing of John Thomas, leaving him ‘naked’, is followed by a barrage of short, powerful active verbs: rushed, clenched, pulled, rushed, pushed, butted, struck. This wild and frenzied attack leaves John Thomas bleeding, in what is perhaps intended as a mirroring of the act of deflowering – and certainly the implication is that this is the first time he has ever been on the receiving end of such treatment, just as it’s the first time these women have ever realised they had the potential for such violence lurking within them.
Something, and not just Annie’s belt, has been unleashed. Shortly after the attack, as the women regain their breath, we are told that Annie spoke with a ‘terrifying lust in her voice’: not just blood-lust or battle-lust, perhaps, but sexual desire too. She’s had a taste of power, and the sexual thrill it can bring with it.
What we are to make of all this, and how Lawrence would have us analyse such behaviour and such thoughts, is open to interpretation. On the one hand, there is something satisfying about seeing John Thomas called out for his cheap and dishonest behaviour, although one might ask whether the punishment doesn’t outweigh the crime. What does a man need to do to justify a physical attack of this kind? Does more lurk behind the attack than a mere desire for vengeance? Suggestively, just after Lawrence tells us that Annie’s voice was filled with lust, he tells us that one of the other women, Polly, ‘was ceasing to laugh, and giving long-drawn Oh-h-hs and sighs as she came to herself.’ This sounds like more than just someone recovering their breath after a bit of excitement (and what sort of excitement, we might ask). Lawrence, who was deeply interested in Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious, seems here, as elsewhere in his fiction, to tap into the deep-seated and potentially shocking and unpleasant aspects of human nature, those dark impulses which bypass human reason and rationality. ‘Tickets, Please’ ends with the women leaving John Thomas behind, as if they have formed a sorority and, owing to their new-found sense of political collectivism and ability to work for a living, realised they don’t need men any more. But what happens the next day as they return to work on the trams, we are left to conjecture for ourselves.