In “Second Best”, D.H. Lawrence uses the symbol of the mole as the basis for three separate metaphors for dilemmas in the lives of his characters. Each character shows differences in attitude and action towards the creatures, and these differences represent the psychological disparities between them that result in their difficulties in understanding and interacting with one another. Thus, the story shows us how the deeper roots of problems in our literal interactions can show themselves in the symbolic worlds we inhabit.
In the case of Anne’s character, her awkward attempt at capturing a mole symbolizes her difficulty with men at a point in her life when she is making an unsteady leap into womanhood. Adolescence has left her struggling with uncertainty as to whether she should view men as pests or objects of desire. Her changing attitudes towards the mole mirror her fluctuating view of men. She oscillates between a novel fascination with the mole that first leads her to cradle it, frustration at its desire to escape, anger at the “pesky” creature once it bites her, and finally, tragic attraction to its “beautiful skin” once she has killed it. These developments parallel the past, present and future of her relationship with Tom, which previously began with curious fascination, has progressed to frustration and anger now that he has rejected her, and will go on to end in heartache and yearning when she ultimately finds him out of reach and herself stuck playing “second best” to her sister. Frances, who still views Anne as an innocent tomboyish girl, does not recognize her sister’s new emotions, and as a result she is confused by their symbolic manifestations. She has an automatic expectation for Anne to take the symbolic action of killing the mole, because she has yet to gain an understanding of her developing concept of attraction. She expects her sister to see only the peskiness of the mole, just as she formerly saw only the negative qualities in men that made them seem “like big dogs to her”. When she goes on to dismiss her admiration of the dead mole, it symbolically shows that she is unable to take her desire for Tom seriously, and that when she goes on to pursue him it will be without realizing the pain and disappointment it will inevitably cause her sister.
Despite her lack of insight as to her sister’s feelings towards men, Frances is acutely aware of her own, hence the narrator’s comment that she “(suffers) a good deal” as a result of her romantic life. Her hesitation at killing moles is a result of a highly self-conscious kind of symbolism that she has created in order to address her own emotional issues. For her, killing a mole represents a letting go of the love she once had for Jimmy. She knows that if she undertakes this symbolic action, she will be entering a path towards emotional numbness that could lead to cold manipulation of other men as its backlash. She is aware of her power over men, as shown by her teasing of Tom and her coercing him towards cleaner speech. She is additionally aware of how easily she could fall into exploiting her allure in the name of spite against men. Thus, when she describes the flippancy in her voice upon commenting on the death of the first mole as “hateful to her”, she is really reacting to her diminishing discomfort at the idea of killing a mole herself, and the implications of such a symbolic action. She tries to work through her growing desensitization towards the idea of shedding heartache for numbness in the subtext-heavy discussion with Tom in which she finally asks, “would you like me to kill moles then?”. Essentially, she is asking him if he is willing to brave the possibility of cold manipulation by her as a bi-product of her emotional damage. After he gives his affirmative answer and she agrees to kill a mole, he feels “uneasy and triumphant and baffled”. His confusion arises because, for Tom, the killing of the mole represents Frances getting her hands dirty, and accepting a relationship with him, a man somewhat rougher than she is used to. Hence, he feels triumph at her decision. But he also suspects that Frances’ representation of what it means to kill a mole may carry darker implications than his own. Unfortunately, he can’t bridge the gap between his symbolism and hers to understand what these implications are, and he must proceed blind and unsure of himself.
Thus, the end of the story leaves us with a second dead mole and Frances poised to enter into a relationship with Tom that will numb her emotionally while harming both Tom and Anne. This tragic circumstance arises from her lack of understanding of Anne’s desires and Tom’s lack of understanding of her potential for coldness. Normally, we would hope that such a situation could be avoided, if only the characters could communicate better with one another. However, this story reminds us that sometimes direct communication can be futile, resulting only in people talking past one another due to disparities in their understanding that are inaccessible at the literal level. When such cases arise, we might learn from these characters’ mistakes by looking past the literal and instead tapping into the symbolic realm, where symptoms of discrepancies in meaning sometimes surface from the deepest levels.