Wrought with images of death, love, desire and life, D.M. Thomas novel, The White Hotel, takes readers on an unexpected historical tour of one of the worlds most horrifying events. Narrated in the first and third person, as well as with an omniscient narrator, Thomas begins in the middle of the story momentarily causing confusion on the readers part. Thereafter the story continues at the beginning and gives us an ending that is not an ending but a new beginning for the main character, Lisa Erdman. Each chapter is almost its own entity but many parallels and symbols can be seen in each, linking them into a cohesive story and a web swelling with meaning and dire premonitions of an inevitable future. Lisas poem and prose, Don Giovanni (Chapter 1) and The Gastein Journal (Chapter 2) gives clues and alludes specifically to the chapter entitled The Sleeping Carriage (Chapter 5) where the horrific reality of Babi Yar and the Holocaust are plainly laid down for the reader. Lisas own life experiences and fears are also justified in Chapter 5 and the events that lead up to her death in Babi Yar. The last parallel that I will explore is the one present between Chapters 1 and 2 and The Camp (Chapter 6) where a readers belief must be suspended and life restores all those that died in the preceding chapters.
Finally, I will put Lisa on the couch (much like Freud did in Chapter 3, Frau Anna G.) and explore a variety of psychoanalytic theories and defense mechanisms and see how the character of Lisa applies to them and how she has exhibited them throughout the novel.
Parallels and Symbolism
The metaphysical qualities that Lisa possesses does not become apparent until Freuds letter in which he tells her, It is clear that you are especially sensitive (196) and when the events of Babi Yar occur in Chapter 5. Numerous parallels occur, that only a few can be presented henceforth. Chapters 1 and 2, in which Lisas poetic nature surfaces, alludes and directly parallels the events leading up and occurring at Babi Yar. Just as the fire consumed a portion of the White Hotel, a fire consumed the center of the city where Lisa and Kolya lived in Chapter 5. In the latter fire, an old man brought about the comment that the Germans could be blaming the “Yids” for that fire. This can also be a parallel with the fire in the White Hotel. Lisa’s passion and sexual excess could be to blame for the fire that blazed within the hotel: “I could not stop myself I was in flames/from the first spreading of my thighs” (15). Her heightened sexual excitement incited such a ferocious outburst of passion that the hotel itself burst into flames. The monstrous quantity of murdered individuals and the evil that the Germans had brought was preceded by a fire that attempted to cleanse the city of such evil, but unfortunately failed. The White Hotel fire can also be compared to the burning of these massacred corpses. Just as passion is an emotion of fire, so is hate. Hatred prompted the Germans to set fire to the corpses to allow for more executions to continue.
“She stumbled over a root, picked herself up and ran on blindly” (31). With this first sentence, Lisa gives us the impression of being hunted with the intention of being killed in Chapter 2. The idea of the soldiers idly smoking while she imagined herself turning into a tree and giving up the search parallels her fight for escape in Chapter 5 from Babi Yar. She makes numerous attempts to escape, including showing her Ukrainian passport, but unlike in Chapter 2, Lisa could not escape. “A German finished his coffee and strolled to a machine gun” (247). Her imagining of the nonchalance of the hunting soldiers is recalled again with the nonchalance of the German firing squad. The appearance of the little boy in both instances occurred, but just as the boy faded away in Chapter 2, he was killed in Chapter five and Lisa survived in both, “a part of her went on living with these survivors”(250).
A final parallel between Chapters 2, 3 and 5 that I will make is that of the violence and sex present in both scenes. Both the violence and the sex intermingle. While lying broken and half dead, Lisa was raped with a bayonet as if being ravaged on the outside was not enough and her insides had to be ravaged. A few verses in Lisa’s poem give the illusion of ravaging and impalement in her sexual relationship with the soldier: “that night he almost burst my cunt apart” (18), “your son impaled me” (19). This illusion of violence and sex can also be seen in her dream on page 20: “I was impaled/upon a swordfish.” The latter instances foreshadowed the violence and cruelty, as well as the pain that could be suffered when sex intermingles with violence in Chapter 5.
Some of the parallels that are obviously linked to her experience and which manifest itself in Chapter 5 is that of the pain present in her left breast and ovary. The stomp delivered by the looting soldier to her breast and pelvis finally made clear these pains which were inexplicable. Also her breathlessness, which sometimes made it difficult for her to speak, can be seen as a symbol for the forced silence she had to endure at the bottom of Babi Yar: “she uttered no sound” (248). Freud in Chapter 3 alluded that this could have been a symptom of what had occurred when she was fifteen (94), but this can also be seen as a foreshadowing of her forced silence in attempt to survive.
Chapters 2 and 3 also provide symbols and parallels for Chapter 6 where Lisa and others were resurrected. In both Freud is represented but not really addressed by Lisa. She does not recognize him in the White Hotel as the priest, but she does recognize him in the Camp and she does realize that he was also the priest in her poem and prose: “she suddenly realized that the old, drying-out priest in her journal had been Freud” (260). The soldier is also in both and had a disregard to her “bleeding” (her menstruation cycle). In the camp the soldier “did not mind that she was bleeding” (261), just as the soldier at the White Hotel “was not upset” when she “told her lover the bad news” (45). Her rape, which assuredly also made her bleed, did not take away from her sexuality and her womanhood. This affirmation by the soldier that it was alright even with the blood, restored Lisa as a woman regardless of the horrific sex act which could have easily de-feminized and de-sexed her. The soldier’s rape and de-humanizing attempt in the act of an abnormal and painful sex/violence act was defeated since the soldiers provided an affirmation that it was okay despite the blood that she had shed. She was still a woman in their eyes.
One final parallel that can be made between the chapters is that of motherhood and nurturing. In both sections, Lisa breastfeeds and is breastfed. Breastfeeding is a nurturing and comforting act that a mother provides for her child. This established the safe haven of the Camp and allies Lisa to her mother in their womanhood and motherhood. In both sections Lisa is indisputably a mother, while in her real life she could not fathom having children, and only became a step-mother late in her life and not of her own choosing. Also, as Freud notes in Chapter 3, “the child sucking at the maternal breast has become the prototype of every relation of love” (116) we see this motherhood and love relationship not only in Chapters 2 and 3, but also in Chapter 6.
“On the couch”
A variety of psychoanalytic theories can be applied to Lisa Erdman as her life story flows from page to page in the novel. One that even Freud touched upon in Chapter 3 in his case study of Lisa was that of homosexuality. Freud believed that Lisa was a lesbian (”she had so completely buried the knowledge of her homosexuality”) (136), but he was wrong in his diagnoses and misplaced his suspicions onto Lisa. In actuality, it was Lisa’s aunt who was more suspected as a lesbian. Lisa’s mother in Chapter 6 recognized this when she discussed with Lisa the affair that she had with her brother-in-law (268).
Transference can also be seen on Lisa’s behalf when she inserted Freud’s son, a soldier named Morton, as her lover, who that was also a soldier, in Chapters 2 and 3. Having never met him, she saw his picture on Freud’s desk and Freud made it clear in his case study discussion that she had never met him (114). Freud felt that this transference of putting Morton in her writings encouraged her to stay on and continue to be analyzed by him (117). Freud fails to explain why this would be so unless he felt that she wanted to explore the reasons of this transference. Freud does not provide a reason for the transference, either. What could be deduced is that just as she wished to bind Freud to her closer and she wished to make love to him but since she could not, his son was the closest to it. Earlier breastfeeding was discussed as a way to bring someone closer. Since Lisa could not make love to Freud, she did the next best thing and breastfed him. Later in the novel, we see this burgeoning love for Freud as her letters attempt to bring him closer to her and she wonders just how close Freud would like to be with her (198).
Lisa for many years repressed the images of her mother involved in a sexual liaison with her uncle. Her mind fogged the image of her mother in a very sexual atmosphere with her uncle and replaced it with her aunt. She did not want to know that it was her mother could have committed adultery and especially that her aunt knew and was even involved in it.
One final psychoanalytic defense mechanism that Lisa was engaging was that of projection. In her writings, Lisa projected personal charactsteristics and was able to relate to the retired prostitute. Although it was not fully projected since she did not deny that she saw herself as the retired prostitute. While with Freud, she admitted that her “unruly thoughts” made her feel the connection with the retired prostitute (119).
The Talking Cure: Literary Representation of Psychoanalysis
During class discussion, we were able to read an exerpt (the chronology of events) of the above named book. One thing that was discussed was the illicit affair had by Lisa’s mother and uncle and how her father did not know. I disagree with this point since in Chapter 6 Lisa’s mother admits to Lisa that her father did know about the affair: “He knew, but it was never mentioned” (268). This helps to release Lisa’s mother from some of the guilt, since there was no deception involved because both spouses knew what was occuring.
D.M. Thomas has created a novel filled with interweaving images that can be seen from its beginning pages to the end. Most instances can be compared to a variety of other situations that occured in Lisa’s life and that has occurred in a historical context. Her symptoms and experiences display certain psychoanalytic theories that she dissected with the fictional Freud, even though his analysis were sometimes wrong. The fervent passion, the macabre deaths and the hopeful ending make for an enriching story that recalls a dark time in history and a hopeful ending (or beginning) for Lisa.