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The “Night Sea Journey” in D.H. Lawrence’s The Trespasser

Marina Ragachewskaya


Lawrence’s fascination with the power of natural elements is noticeable practically in every text and particularly in his use of the mystical imagery of the sun, the moon and the sea. In his second novel, The Trespasser, he explores a romantic relationship which ends in tragedy. The semi-passionate and presumably adventurous part of the story is set on an island, surrounded by the overwhelming immensity of the sea that reflects back each subtle impulse of the lovers’ souls. However, the journey for pleasure Siegmund makes (“he gave himself to the breeze and to the sea, feeling like one of the ruddy sails”) turns into the journey that submerges him into the unconscious. This kind of journey C.G. Jung characterized as “the night sea journey” or “a kind of descensus ad inferos – a descent into Hades and a journey to the land of ghosts somewhere beyond this world, beyond consciousness, hence an immersion in the unconscious.”
The basic components of the external, physical journey metaphorically evoke the call, the crossing of the threshold, the obstacles, the immersion into the “underworld” (the unconscious “demons” haunting Siegmund), and the inability to go back renewed by the new knowledge. The image of the sea in this respect acts as the powerful and uncontrollable force, the unconscious itself (both collective and individual), thus portending the potential for renewal (rebirth) and failure (death), in equal measure.

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1This study of D.H. Lawrence’s novel The Trespasser (1912) focuses on its central image – the sea, in relation to the Jungian theory of the “night sea journey” archetype. This is a crucial point in Jung’s conceptualization of the unconscious, a metaphor that unites two types of imagery – the visual, or natural (the sea), and the kinetic. In mythological criticism, the sea generally stands for the unconscious. “The sea is the favorite symbol for the unconscious, the mother of all that lives” (Jung 9, 257), Jung writes. Connecting Lawrence’s rich marine imagery in The Trespasser, and the journey of self-discovery and self-denial of the central characters to Jung’s archetypal theory, I will argue that the novel represents an unconscious quest leading one either to the acceptance of what the self discovers, or to its denial and rejection. The rich metaphor of the sea as the unconscious in which the two protagonists swim reflects its double-sided nature. The resulting individuation (self-knowledge) or the failure to achieve it may depend, as the novel depicts them, on the ability and readiness to accept one’s darker nature (the Shadow) and the Anima or Animus in the unconscious self.

2Jungian analysis has found a place in Lawrence studies. Keith M. May considers the kinship between Lawrence and Jung to be “partly due to the period of social and philosophical history in which both men worked; that is, a period fundamentally characterized by the shocking discovery […] of the ‘dark’ side of man’s nature” (May 47). Daniel Schneider argues that “in reaction to modern literature, both Jung and Lawrence call for a new balance, a compensating emphasis on feeling; and both view the unconscious as being inherently compensatory” (Schneider 254). Lawrence did read Jung in translation, notably Psychology of the Unconscious (first published in German in 1912), the title of which appears as an intertextual reference in the title of Lawrence’s own essay Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921). Lawrence makes a rapid and polemical reference to Jung in his attack on psychological science: “Jung dodges from his university gown into a priest’s surplice till we don’t know where we are” (FUPU 19). In his letter to Mabel Dodge Luhan, he says: “Jung is very interesting, in his own sort of fat muddled mystical way. Although he may be an initiate and trice-sealed adept, he is soft somewhere, and I’ve no doubt you’d find it fairly easy to bring his heavy posterior with a bump down off his apple cart” (Letters 540). However, these sarcastic comments fail to conceal the concordances between Lawrence and Jung which have spurred a number of scholars’ research, such as Sandra Gilbert’s analysis of the Jungian-Lawrentian “Great Mother,” the chapter by May, and, remarkably, Samuel Einstein’s view of The Trespasser “as a portrait of the male condemned to ‘uroboric incest’ with the Magna Mater, who controls and destroys him because he lacks the strength to fight his way back up out of this ‘heart of darkness’ of the womb’” (quoted in Schneider 119).

3Coincidentally, the German edition of Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious and Lawrence’s The Trespasser were published the same year, 1912, which excludes the direct influence of the psychiatrist on the writer. Nevertheless, as a number of scholars observe (Schneider 254, John Horrocks 27), the interpretation of the unconscious developed by the two authors is strikingly similar.

4Lawrence’s fascination with the power of natural elements pervades practically all his works, resulting in an especially mystical imagery of the sun, the moon and the sea. These elements are also interwoven into the canvas of human feelings. They are presented in complex narrative structures and a psychologically charged texture, while suggesting various interpretations.

5In The Trespasser, which is his second novel, Lawrence explores a romantic relationship that ends up in tragedy. F.R. Leavis grouped it together with what he called “the lesser novels” and assessed its value in the following way: “The other early novel, The Trespasser, is also, it appears, autobiographically personal. It shows an unconventional power in the rendering of passion and emotion; the deadlock at Siegmund’s home has an oppressive reality; but, short as the book is, it is hard to read through, and cannot be said to contain any clear promise of a great novelist” (Leavis 20). Leavis was not alone in his assessment of the novel as minor. The Trespasser rarely attracts criticism.

6Schneider’s psychological reading of this text in 1984 centres on the novel’s symbolic quality as a prose poem, offering a discussion of the Schopenhauerian Will to live (Schneider 120). Gerald Doherty, in the 2009 Études Lawrenciennes 39, also attempts to define the novel’s place in the critical tradition: “Past discussions of The Trespasser have for the most part centered on three of those dimensions its special ambience solicits: its mythological and cultural resonances, its romantic ontologies, and its textual influences” (Doherty 88), referring to Evelyn Hinz (122-41), Michael Bell (27-34) and A.K. Atkins (7-26). His own approach, which also specifies the novel’s Nietzschean quality, offers “a submerged species discourse” (Doherty 90), while also pointing out that “The Trespasser is a dead-end novel – the exploration of sex is cul-de-sac – which neither protagonist recognizes as such, and from which they signally fail to find a way-out” (Doherty 91).

7The interpretation contained in this paper focuses less on the exploration of sex than on the exploration of self through sex and on “the sea of the unconscious.” This approach helps to make sense of what was earlier termed a “dead-end” novel that seemingly does not lead to a coherent resolution.

8The Trespasser is based on the experience of Helen Corke, a Croydon teacher: she had a love affair with a married musician, Herbert Macartney, who later committed suicide. In her book about Lawrence, she mentions this fact:

I try to face the position objectively. It may be that David’s feeling for me is quite other than the deep affection I have for him. The thought is disquieting, but I argue that his present reaction is induced by the writing of the Saga [The Saga of Siegmund as Lawrence initially entitled it – M.R.]. He is putting himself, imaginatively, in Η.Β.M.’s place; the conditions are both abnormal and temporary. I must not confuse the man with the artist. When this work is finished he will see me from another angle and in other lights. (Corke 10)

9Specifying the strong influence of her personality on the novel, Neil Roberts observed that Lawrence “based The Trespasser on Helen Corke’s retrospective diary of her tragic relationship with H. B. Macartney” (Roberts 13). So in this sense, it is “the work of both D.H. Lawrence and Helen Corke” (32).

10Approaching this early text using Jungian theory, it is impossible to either prove or disprove Jung’s assertion that a writer often unconsciously draws from the rich well of the shared collective unconscious. However, for literary studies, the truth of the Jungian hypothesis is secondary, while its artistic embodiment is what really matters.

11Little actually happens in the novel, which concerns only two main characters – the two lovers, Siegmund, a 39-year-old violinist, and Helena, a 26-year-old schoolteacher, who spend five days of their stealthy holiday on the Isle of Wight. Their escapade, which appears promising at first, undergoes a crisis, which adds to Siegmund’s misery as a husband whose marriage is “disastrous,” Lawrence explaining this disaster closer to the end of the book:

Rushing into wedlock as he had done, at the ripe age of seventeen, he had known nothing of his woman, nor she of him. When his mind and soul set to develop, as Beatrice could not sympathize with his interests, he naturally inclined away from her, so that now, after twenty years, he was almost a stranger to her. (T 122)

12Early in the novel, however, the author shows that Siegmund’s marriage has reached its critical point. For years, Siegmund “had suppressed his soul, in a kind of mechanical despair doing his duty and enduring the rest.” “Enticed from its bondage,” his soul seeks a new start. “Now he was going to break free altogether, to have at least a few days purely for his own joy. This, to a man of his integrity, meant a breaking of bonds, a severing of blood-ties, a sort of new birth” (T 13).

13Siegmund and Helena’s illicit holiday does not however answer Siegmund’s somewhat undefined yearnings: there is still another disappointment with Helena whose dreamlike idealism, aloofness, self-sufficiency and relative inner independence do not complete Siegmund, who appears to be missing that other part (Anima) in him: “Helena had rejected him. She gave herself to her fancies only. For some time she had confused Siegmund with her god. Yesterday she had cried to her ideal lover [or Animus – M.R.], and found only Siegmund. It was the spear in the side of his tortured self-respect” (T 122). Both of them appear to be looking for something in their partner that would complete them, render them whole. Helena cries for her ideal lover, while Siegmund “cries” for an ideal worshipper of his presumed “greatness.”

14Thus deadlocked, Siegmund can escape only through death. Perhaps this is Lawrence’s attempt to analyse the innermost motivation that lay behind H.B.M.’s actual suicide. Lawrence also identifies himself with Siegmund, thus performing an act of introspection. In terms of literary conventions, such a purely psychological type of narrative movement may be regarded as a kind of psychic journey – metaphorical, as well as geographical: “Amidst the journeying of oceans and clouds and the circling flight of heavy spheres, lost to sight in the sky, Siegmund and Helena, two grains of life in the vast movement, were travelling a moment side by side” (T 46).

15The possibility of viewing the novel as an archetypal journey, a quest of a specific kind – the night sea journey – springs to mind almost immediately at the novel’s beginning: “In the miles of morning sunshine, Siegmund’s shadows, his children, Beatrice, his sorrow, dissipated like mist, and he was elated as a young man setting forth to travel. When he had passed Portsmouth Town everything had vanished but the old gay world of romance” (T 20). This leads us to the discovery of resonances between the novel’s imagery and inferences and the Jungian theory of archetypes.

16The external, physical journey of the characters in The Trespasser metaphorically acts out the basic components of the Jungian quest archetype, including the “call” by way of Helena’s invitation to spend a holiday together, her paying for the trip: “She had proposed it; when he had withdrawn, she had insisted, refusing to allow him to take back his word, declaring that she should pay the cost. He permitted her at last” (T 116). To which we can add the complementary motif of the “crossing of the threshold” – “his quick, firm step hastening down the gravel path” (T 19), then the “obstacles” encountered in the shape of Siegmund’s children left behind, his wife’s suspicion and abuse, then the trains and stations. And finally, there is also the immersion into the “underworld” with the unconscious “demons” that haunt Siegmund when he is actually physically enjoying his holiday, and his inability to go back renewed by the knowledge which the journey is to have brought him.

17It is precisely this “demonic” side of the trip in the novel which directs us towards the “night sea journey,” one of Jung’s less explored concepts, “a kind of descensus ad inferos – a descent into Hades and a journey to the land of ghosts somewhere beyond the world, beyond consciousness, hence an immersion in the unconscious” (Jung 16, 326). The coining of the phrase, however, seems to belong to the German ethnologist and explorer of Africa Leo Frobenius (1873-1938), who collected myths about the sun god. The phrase “night sea journey” appears in his book The Age of the Sun God (1904). Isabelle Meier explains that “throughout the world, Frobenius found a similar repetitive pattern in these myths: in societies close to the sea, the sun god is devoured by a whale, and in landlocked areas by a dragon, monster, or wolf” (Meier 37). The sun god symbolizes the sun setting in the west and rising in the east. Frobenius writes that “by dividing the beast into [whose] body he has entered, the sun hero creates the earth from his lower body and the sky from his upper body” (quoted in Meier 37). There is one more important element in this myth: “In many versions the imprisoned hero is able to light a fire inside the beast, which causes him to be spit out. This is the night sea voyage of the sun god. After the ascent, renewal of the earth begins with the sunrise. The pattern that Frobenius derived from the various myths consists of several stages: “banishing, devouring, kindling the fire, and hatching” (Meier 37).

18Jung writes that the “[…] journey to the East (the “night sea journey”) with its attendant events symbolizes the effort to adapt to the conditions of the psychic inner world” (Jung 8, 63). In his work, Jung also speculates about a “hero” in the belly of a beast:

The complete swallowing up and disappearance of the hero in the belly of the dragon represents the complete withdrawal of interest from the outer world. The overcoming of the monster from within is the achievement of adaptation to the conditions of the inner world, and the emergence (“slipping out”) of the hero from the monster’s belly with the help of a bird, which happens at the moment of sunrise, symbolizes the recommencement of progression. (Jung 8, 63)

19A similar pattern develops in Lawrence’s novel: “Helena and Siegmund walked eastward bareheaded under the sunshine,” and then – “They were alone on the smooth hills to the east” (T 61). Their eastbound journey re-enacts a symbolic “withdrawal” from the outer world. This is especially true of Siegmund who “felt busy within him a strong activity which he could not help. Slowly the body of his past, the womb which had nourished him in one fashion for so many years, was casting him forth. He was trembling in all his being, though he knew not with what. All he could do now was to watch the lights go by, and to let the translation of himself continue” (T 13). What is here called “the translation of himself” leads to another ordeal in the night sea journey where the hero is mythologically swallowed by a dragon or sea monster. Adrian G.R. Scott comments that such “swallowing” can also take the form of “imprisonment or crucifixion, dismemberment or abduction, experiences traditionally weathered by sun gods and heroes: Gilgamesh, Osiris, Christ, Dante, Odysseus, Aeneas. In the language of the mystics, it is the dark night of the soul” (Scott 1). Clearly, Jung’s interpretations of such legends were symbolic, to be read “as illustrations of the regressive movement of energy in an outbreak of neurosis and its potential progression” (Scott 1).

20The same motif in The Trespasser reappears in several emotionally charged scenes. Early in the story, Siegmund “anticipates” the Shadow, an archetype which is necessary in self-discovery and self-knowledge: “When at last the train ran out into the full, luminous night, and Siegmund saw the meadows deep in moonlight, he quivered with a low anticipation. The elms, great grey shadows, seemed to loiter in their cloaks across the pale fields. He had not seen them so before. The world was changing” (T 14).

21Later, a piece of Siegmund’s rumination about the shadow swallowing the sun is a “mirror reflection” of the Shadow archetype, at the moment when he witnesses a near accident, fortunately avoided by a woman and her little son:

“Ah, dear Lord!” he was saying to himself. “How bright and whole the day is for them! If God had suddenly put His hand over the sun, and swallowed us up in a shadow, they could not have been more startled. That man, with his fine, white-flannelled limbs and his dark head, has no suspicion of the shadow that supports it all. Between the blueness of the sea and the sky he passes easy as a gull, close to the fine white seamew of his mate, amid red flowers of flags, and soft birds of ships, and slow-moving monsters of steamboats […]” (T 136)

22In this respect, the image of the sea acts as a powerful and uncontrollable force, the unconscious itself (both collective and individual), thus portending the potential for renewal (rebirth) and failure (death), in equal measure. Remarkably, both Siegmund and Helena undertake this journey into the “underworld,” into the “belly” of the sea. Lawrence chooses a circular framing plot structure to represent this journey: the novel begins at the time when almost a year has passed after Siegmund’s death and ends with the same moment. Chapters 1 and 31 create this circle and also indicate Helena’s framing story. Presumably, as Byrne’s presence shows, she will “go on,” as her lover asked her to do. Thus, Helena seems revived, renewed through the ordeal of her consciousness and the self-knowledge thus achieved: “‘Exactly a year today, Siegmund and I walked here – by the day, Thursday. We went through the larch-wood […]. ‘History repeats itself,’ he remarked” (T 212).

23The inner story is for the most part Sigmund’s night sea journey, in which the sea takes on a romantic and a metaphorical significance. The semi-passionate and presumably adventurous part of Siegmund and Helena’s romance is set on an island surrounded by the sea, that reflects back on each subtle impulse of the lovers’ souls. The sea is even a character, like one in romantic stories, which parallels, inspires, and boosts the life of human beings. At the same time, it is the embodiment of the dark unconscious from which Siegmund is to draw the transformative power for his consciousness: “‘Whatever I have or haven’t from now,’ he continued, ‘the darkness is a sort of mother, and the moon a sister, and the stars children, and sometimes the sea is a brother: and there’s a family in one house, you see’” (T 37).

24The immersion into this vast unconscious is symbolised by several instances of swimming alone in the sea. Siegmund takes a swim early on their holiday and is delighted “to feel the fresh, soft fingers of the wind touching him and wandering timidly over his nakedness” (T 40). He runs “laughing, over the sand to the sea,” plays a kind of “game” with it calling the sea “a fine partner.” During such a swim, Siegmund also “catches his thigh on a sharp, submerged point” and frowns “at the sudden cruelty of the sea” (ibid.). Initially intended as a journey for pleasure (“he gave himself to the breeze and to the sea, feeling like one of the ruddy sails” [T 20]), this journey submerges Siegmund into the unconscious. As Schneider comments, “In The Trespasser the world of sunlit forms, of individuals and change and motion and time, is an illusion of warmth and tenderness that Siegmund experiences as he blossoms in his love for Helena; but beneath this world is the cold unloving darkness of the sea, a world of matter indifferent to him and cruel” (Schneider 33).

25This cruelty and indifference may stand for the inevitable trial one has to undergo on the way to self-realisation. In “The Individual’s Understanding of Himself” (The Undiscovered Self), Jung emphasizes the necessity of self-understanding: “This problem arises whenever complex, individual situations have to be known and understood. It is the specific task of psychology to provide just this knowledge and understanding” (Jung 10, 273). Thus, Sigmund in his solo swim

[…] glanced at himself, at his handsome, white maturity. As he looked he felt the insidious creeping of blood down his thigh, which was marked with a long red slash. Siegmund watched the blood travel over the bright skin. It wound itself redly round the rise of his knee.
“That is I, that creeping red, and this whiteness I pride myself on is I, and my black hair, and my blue eyes are I. It is a weird thing to be a person. What makes me myself, among all these?” (T 41)

26Bleeding, and another time, scratching his body against the rock may reveal Sigmund’s very painful self-realisation.

27Helena’s experience is different. As she enjoys the warmth of the stones on the shore, feels the magic of the morning, “her sense of satisfaction [is] complete”: “‘This is very good,’ she said to herself. ‘This is eternally cool, and clean and fresh. It could never be spoiled by satiety’” (T 43). While Siegmund feels the sea to be his game partner, a separate creature, Helena observes how “The sea played by itself, intent on its own game. Its aloofness, its self-sufficiency, are its great charm. The sea does not give and take, like the land and the sky. It has no traffic with the world. It spends its passion upon itself. Helena was something like the sea, self-sufficient and careless of the rest” (T 43). She recognises the autonomy of this powerful element of nature and simultaneously unites herself with it.

28For Helena, the night sea journey turns into a ritual, which Jung describes as a “very beautiful observation of the human psyche. For there is an archetypal image in women of a lover in a remote, unknown land, a man coming over the seas who meets her once and then goes away again” (Jung 18, 159). Jung remarks that this motif is found in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea. In the former, the woman “has fallen in love with the actual image of him and knows him even before he arrives.” In the latter, she “has met him once before and is under the compulsion of always going to the sea to await his return. In that Babylonian rite this archetypal image is lived concretely in order to detach the woman from the parental images which are real archetypal images and therefore exceedingly powerful” (ibid.). roy ginette2023-05-23T14:55:00rgThe Trespasser is brought to mind when Jung evokes the Babylonian “rite of temple prostitution, in which girls of good families had to hand themselves over to a stranger visiting the temple, who presumably would never return, and had to spend a night with him” (ibid.). Such is Helena’s position, for upon their return to London, she is severed from her lover; she sings “bits of Isolde’s love, bits of Tristan’s anguish, to Siegmund” (T 194), while Siegmund leaves her to embrace his death.

29Lawrence makes it clear even earlier in the novel that the affair is doomed; the premonition of the tragic ending penetrates the narration. Death hovers constantly over Siegmund: it enters into his conscious thinking and intuition:

30Siegmund thought of the futility of death:

We are not long for music and laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think we have no portion in them after
We pass the gate.
“Why should I be turned out of the game?” he asked himself, rebelling.
He frowned, and answered: “Oh, Lord! – the old argument!”
But the thought of his own expunging from the picture was very bitter.
“Like the puff from the steamer’s funnel, I should be gone.” (T 113)

31The poem Sigmund is thinking of and actually misquotes is a famous poem by Ernest Dowson. Siegmund replaces “they” (the weeping and the laughter,/ Love and desire and hate) of the original text by “we,” thus closely projecting the poet’s general reflection about human transience onto his own condition.

32The question which remains open as to Siegmund’s and Helena’s night sea journeys is what sort of knowledge each of them obtains, and how this immersion in the unconscious contributes to the transformation of consciousness? “The lightning, like a bird that should have flown before the arm of day, moved on its nest in the boughs of darkness, raised itself, flickered its pale wings rapidly, then sank again, loath to fly. Siegmund watched it with wonder and delight” (183). It is evident that the failure of the “bird of the lightning” to rise together with the sun, after Siegmund has spent his last night at home, points ominously to the failure of renewal by means of self-knowledge. In contrast, almost a year later, “Helena laughed, with a sound of tears. In the tree overhead some bird began to sing, in spite of the rain, a broken evening song” (T 216). The two birds create contrasting imagery related to the two “travellers.”

33Lawrence dramatizes the night sea journey undertaken by these characters with the rich and complex symbolism of the sea, birds, shadows and other natural elements and objects. The journey serves as the test which is put to self-knowledge: it can reveal the deep-lying “demons” of self-destruction or it can be a stepping stone to revival and emotional rebirth.

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Marina Ragachewskaya, « The “Night Sea Journey” in D.H. Lawrence’s The Trespasser »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 55 | 2023, mis en ligne le 07 novembre 2023, consulté le 15 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Marina Ragachewskaya

Marina Ragachewskaya is a Professor at the World Literature department at Minsk State Linguistic University, Belarus. She has published widely on D.H. Lawrence, psychoanalytic literary studies and contemporary British writers (about 150 articles in English, Russian and Belarusian). She is the author of 3 books: Desire for Love: The Secret Longings of the Human Heart in D.H. Lawrence’s Works (CSP, 2012), Psychoanalysis in Fiction: David Herbert Lawrence – in Russian (Minsk, MSLU, 2013) and New Forms of Psychologism in the 20th-century British Novel – in Russian (Minsk, Novoye Znaniye, 2015). Besides, she has co-authored a student coursebook on philosophy (2016). In 2018, Dr. Ragachewskaya completed her Post-PHD habilitation thesis and was awarded the academic degree of Doctor of Philology (Habilitated).

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