“The Rainbow” by D. H. Lawrence

Some time ago, I wrote a post describing my reactions to The Rainbow when I was some half way through it. I finished the novel a few weeks ago, and frankly confess that I find it difficult to write about. But, for anyone interested, this is the best I could do to record my impressions of this very difficult and elusive, but ultimately rewarding, novel.

In the latter part of The Rainbow, the image of a widening circle assumes particular significance. That Lawrence should give such importance to that term – using it not once but twice as chapter heading – should perhaps cause us to ponder the significance he attached to it.

In one sense, this image of a widening circle seems obvious enough: the latter half of The Rainbow is, in effect, a bildungsroman, and, as the protagonist grows up, “the widening circle” is an apt term to describe the inevitable broadening of the protagonist’s horizons. The horizons are many: social, psychological, moral. However, this particular bildungsroman is but part of a larger structure, and if we consider what the “widening circle” may betoken in terms of this larger structure, we move, I think, beyond the conventions of the traditional bildungsroman.  For Ursula, the protagonist of the latter half of the novel, is of the third generation of characters depicted: in each of the two earlier generations, Lawrence had shown couples engaged in struggles of the spirit – first, Tom Brangwen with the Polish lady Lydia; and then, Anna Lensky, Lydia’s daughter from her first marriage, with Will. Now it is the turn of Ursula to open her consciousness to, and engage with, this dreadful but vital business of living. And her world is one broader than those the previous generations had inhabited: the circle widens not merely for the growing Ursula: it widens also from generation to generation.

With Tom and Lydia, after initial impasse, there had come an understanding. This understanding comes in a remarkable moment: Lydia takes her husband by surprise first of all by intuiting that he does not wish to be in her company; and then, by asking seriously and without rancour, as if she weren’t married to him at all, whether he wants another woman.

Suddenly, in a flash, he saw she might be lonely, isolated, unsure. She had seemed to him utterly certain, satisfied, absolute, excluding him. Could she need anything?

This new understanding that it was she, and not he, who was the more insecure, the more uncertain, the more frightened, opens a new stage in their relationship. And Anna, Lydia’s daughter and favourite of her adopted father, perceives this:

Anna’s soul was put at peace between them. She looked from one to the other, and she saw them established to her safety, and she was free. She played between the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud in confidence, having the assurance on her right hand and the assurance on her left. She was no longer called upon to uphold with her childish might the broken end of the arch. Her father and her mother now met to the span of the heavens, and she, the child, was free to play in the space beneath, between.

It is often debated whether fiction has ever depicted a happy marriage: perhaps commentators ought to consider the relationship that develops between Tom and Lydia, the consummation of their spirits celebrated under the arch of the rainbow, that ancient symbol of God’s covenant with mankind.

But for future generations, things are different: with each succeeding generation, the circle widens. Anna and Tom, almost from the start, find themselves locked in the most dreadful conflict. There have been novels before depicting marital conflict: indeed, given that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, novelists have found no end of rich material in this theme. But Lawrence, in his depiction of this difficult marriage takes us into new and, I think, hitherto uncharted regions. And Lawrence knew it. During the writing of The Rainbow, he wrote to Edward Garnett:

It’s all crude as yet … but I think it’s great – so new, so really a stratum deeper than I think anybody has ever gone in a novel.

It was a bold claim to make. Compared to drama or to poetry, the novel was still a relatively new form, but already its achievements were considerable: nineteenth century novels, especially those of England and France, had anatomised society and human consciousness to quite extraordinary depth, while Russian novels, appearing then in Constance Garnett’s translations, must have seemed to open up entire new vistas. And yet, Lawrence was confident that he was delving “a stratum deeper”: it’s an interesting image to employ. He was delving beyond the consciousness itself. And he knew it. He was depicting those forces that operate beneath our consciousness, those forces that are so very elusive and nebulous in their nature, the ebb and flow of which are so fleeting and so intangible as to seem scarcely intelligible. Indeed, the reader may choose to question the very existence of these subterraneous forces. But in Lawrence’s world, they exist: here, heaven and earth are teeming about us.

If Middlemarch is permeated with moral concerns, The Rainbow, in contrast, is more religious than moral in feel. Not, perhaps, religious in a conventional sense – although Lawrence has no compunction in using such words as “God” or “soul”; but religious in that it is aware of presences both in the heaven and the earth that is teeming about these characters, and also in their own selves. In the chapter entitled “The Cathedral”, Anna and Will, locked seemingly in a mortal combat the terms of which are never clear, even or perhaps especially to themselves, visit Lincoln Cathedral. Will, deeply attached emotionally to certain values of an ordered spirituality that is represented by the cathedral, is excited, and, indeed, moved. But Anna, realising that the cathedral and what it represents have a special significance for her husband, but without being able to specify precisely what that significance is, rebels precisely against those very values: all she takes delight in is a carved face, a “plump, sly, malicious little face carved in stone”, which she insists must have been the sculptor’s wife:

“You hate to think he put his wife in your cathedral, don’t you?” she mocked, with a tinkle of profane laughter. And she laughed with malicious triumph.

She had got free from the cathedral, she had even destroyed the passion he had. She was glad. He was bitterly angry. Strive as he would, he could not keep the cathedral wonderful to him. He was disillusioned. That which had been his absolute, containing all heaven and earth, was become to him as to her, a shapely heap of dead matter – but dead, dead.

The conflict between the two is terrible, and the language used to describe it is intense, extreme. Some readers may even find embarrassing language of such passionate intensity, and find it over-written; or they may recoil from such scenes as that in which the pregnant Anna dances naked in her room to her unseen gods; but for Lawrence, those dark regions beneath our everyday consciousness could not be depicted any other way. The conflict between Anna and Will, unlike that between Lydia and Tom of the previous generation, cannot be resolved: but eventually, they learn to live with that conflict remaining unresolved. As the previous generation passes away, Anna and Will produce children, become old. And though their conflict remains unresolved, its rawness diminishes, and they discover, possibly to their own surprise, a strange sort of respect for each other:

Anna was not publicly proud of him. But very soon she learned to be indifferent to public life. He was not what is called a manly man: he did not drink or smoke or arrogate importance. But he was her man, and his very indifference to all claims of manliness set her supreme in her own world with him. Physically, she loved him and he satisfied her. He went alone and subsidiary always. At first it had irritated her, the outer world existed so little to him. Looking at him with outside eyes, she was inclined to sneer at him. But her sneer changed to a sort of respect. She respected him, that he could serve her so simply and completely.

Not for them God’s covenant of the rainbow, but “a sort of respect” nonetheless. And that’s something. Soon, the narrative focus moves on to the third generation – to the growing consciousness of Ursula.

Lawrence is often accused of misogyny. I am generally not very interested in the writer’s biography, although, from what little I know of Lawrence the man, I doubt he ever held consistently the various views frequently ascribed to him. But the writing is all that matters, as it is, after all, all that is left of him; and I doubt I have read quite so sensitive rendering, even by female writers, of the awakening and the early development of a woman’s mind. There is one chapter in which Lawrence appears, for a while at least, to return to the concerns of a more traditional realist novel: in this chapter, Ursula, still herself a teenager, takes a step that women in previous generations had not even considered for themselves – she takes a job, teaching at the local state school. And in this job, she has to face the hostility not only of the children, but also of the rest of the staff, and, particularly, of the head teacher who has taken a dislike to her. Eventually, she establishes herself by thrashing a particularly recalcitrant boy – a boy who, she later learns, has a heart condition. She achieves a material victory by doing so, but is aware that somewhere underneath, something valuable has been lost. It is a wonderful chapter, and could have made a superb free-standing short story; but somehow, one can’t help feeling that this shift in focus, even for a single chapter, on to the surface of things rather than on the dark depths below, is, in the wider context, a little out of place.

But Lawrence soon returns to the “deeper stratum”: he is now depicting the third generation, and the circle is ever widening:

That which she was, positively, was dark and unrevealed, it could not come forth. It was like a seed buried in dry ash. This world in which she lived was like a circle lighted by a lamp. This lighted area, lit up by man’s completest consciousness, she thought was all the world: that here all was disclosed for ever. Yet all the time, within the darkness she had been aware of points of light, like the eyes of wild beasts, gleaming, penetrating, vanishing. And her soul had acknowledged in a great heave of terror only the outer darkness. This inner circle of light in which she lived and moved, wherein the trains rushed and the factories ground out their machine-produce and the plants and the animals worked by the light of science and knowledge, suddenly it seemed like the area under an arc-lamp, wherein the moths and children played in the security of blinding light, not even knowing there was any darkness, because they stayed in the light.

Ursula’s consciousness too is a widening circle, widening from the security of regions well-lit into the areas of darkness. And Lawrence, who, we know from Sons and Lovers, was a writer of prose of the highest order, here stretches the language, twists it into new shapes, bends it till it strains and stresses and approaches breaking point, in order to force it to express what it is not normally capable of expressing. Sometimes, it doesn’t work, but the attempt to express is as important as the expression itself. And the point, in any case, is not to pin something down, but, rather, to give a sense of something that cannot be pinned down, a sense of its ceaseless flow. Whatever it is, of course.

The final part of the novel deals with Ursula’s relationship with the young officer, Anton Skrebensky.  Ursula herself is unsure of a future with Anton: his powerful sense of will, his strictly empirical rationality, do not allow even for an acknowledgement of anything beyond the immediate circle of light. When she first rejects him, he, despite his manliness, weeps. But they come together again, and the climactic point of the novel is reached in a sexual encounter on the dunes in which the seemingly inexpressible is expressed in terms so vivid and startling as to defy paraphrase. It is in this encounter that Anton senses that Ursula’s consciousness has widened into circles of darkness that are beyond his ken: his conception of his very self is threatened, and he, who had wept when she had first rejected him, now retreats from her in fear. The first couple depicted in the novel, Tom and Lydia, had reached a harmony under an overarching rainbow; the second couple, Anna and Will, had been locked in conflict, but had reached, nonetheless, an accommodation; but with Ursula and Anton, the circle has widened to its utmost extent and has broken: there can be no future together for them.

The closing lines are magnificent in their visionary splendour. Ursula, now alone, sees the ugly little dwelling of miners scarring the earth, and the miners themselves, “their stiffened bodies … which seemed already enclosed in a coffin”, their eyes “the eyes of those who are buried alive”. But then:

… in the blowing clouds, she saw a band of faint iridescence colouring in faint colours a portion of the hill. And forgetting, startled, she looked for the hovering colour and saw a rainbow forming itself. In one place it gleamed fiercely, and, her heart anguished with hope, she sought the shadow of iris where the bow should be. Steadily the colour gathered, mysteriously, from nowhere, it took presence upon itself, there was a faint, vast rainbow. The arc bended and strengthened itself till it arched indomitable, making great architecture of light and colour and the space of heaven, its pedestals luminous in the corruption of new houses on the low hill, its arch the top of heaven.

Lawrence isn’t finished:

And the rainbow stood upon the earth.

There are certain things I find in books that, for reasons I cannot begin even to analyse, thrill. This is one of them. Were I a better critic than I often pretend to be, I’d be able to analyse why this seemingly simple line makes on me so powerful an impact: but I cannot. So let us leave it there.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brian Joseph on March 10, 2014 at 9:23 am

    This has become one of my favorite novels and I want to read it in about a year or so. I agree that this one is difficult to analyze as Lawrence’s ideas and words can be so elusive.

    There is just so much to be said about this book. Probably the thing that I most remember is Lawrence’s depiction of Ursula, which I thought was unique brilliant.

    Women in Love continues the narrative. I thought that was a great work but a little less compelling then was The Rainbow.


    • I have “Women in Love” planned for later, but I thought I needed a rest between the two novels.

      Lawrence I find particularly difficult to write about, because he is communicating what cannot normally be articulated in words. he stretches language virtually to breaking pint to do so, and, naturally, that sort of thing resists paraphrase.

      Possibly, his concerns aren’t really mine: the world he depicts is one that remains still somewhat alien to my sensibilities. But it is rewarding, I find, to have one’s sensibilities stretched, and one’s imaginative scope widened. And Lawrence, at his best at least, certainly achieves that.


      • I always feel that I’m at war against Lawrence when I read his books, that he’s pushing at me, taking swings at my head and my job is to endure it as long as I can. And I also feel that he’s very foreign, speaking an alien tongue or at least using a heavy dialect and a grammar and syntax whose rules are not mine. It’s a bracing experience, like living through a terrific storm, maybe.

        Thanks for writing this post. I haven’t got anything useful to say in reply, except that I’m really looking forward to reading The Rainbow soon.

        I will add, I guess, that I’m also unsure about criticism that Lawrence was a misogynist. Maybe he was, but certainly his renderings of women seem to me at least to be honest and sensitive and whole. He may not have liked women, but he saw them as real people and portrayed them with the love of a great artist for all humanity, with tremendous empathy no matter how his male characters saw them. Maybe too many readers identify Lawrence too strongly with his male protagonists?

      • I always feel that I’m at war against Lawrence when I read his books, that he’s pushing at me, taking swings at my head and my job is to endure it as long as I can.

        Yes, absolutely. These are books that challenge you to a fight. They dare you to see the world through a pair of eyes very different from your own. these are not by any stretch of the imagination comfortable books.

        I tend not to read authors’ biographies too much, so what Lawrence was like as a person, I don’t know that I am qualified to comment on. But Lawrence the author of The Rainbow was no misogynist. Far from it.

        …he saw [women] as real people and portrayed them with the love of a great artist for all humanity, with tremendous empathy no matter how his male characters saw them.

        Yes, agreed fully. His depiction of Ursula’s developing consciousness is a triumph of the novelist’s art.

  2. Bugger, and I thought you were going to do Kangaroo! I read The Rainbow years ago, when I was 17, and it altered the course of my life. I think now it may have filled me full of nonsense, but it’s not nonsense I would willingly give up.


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