“Women in Love” by D. H. Lawrence

Note: I suppose I should preface this post with what is known as a “spoiler warning”, as it is impossible to discuss this novel even superficially without mentioning certain particulars of its plot, such as it is. However, this novel is not by any stretch of the imagination a plot-driven novel, and the question “what happens next” is not what keeps the reader reading. As such, any prior knowledge of what the plot offers does not, in my opinion, detract from the experience of the novel in any way, even for the first time reader. But if you haven’t yet read this novel, and are planning to, and would prefer not to know what happens next, it’s probably best to give this post a miss.

Towards the end of Women in Love, shortly before the narrative hurtles towards its catastrophic climax, Lawrence treats us to a scene of rare comedy. Gudrun and Gerald, on their way to an Alpine resort, are in a smart London café, the Pompadour, and at a nearby table sit some people they know from the arty, bohemian set. These people are laughing very loudly: they are much amused by the rather absurd figure of Rupert Birkin, who is absent from this scene, and who is a friend of Gerald’s, and, at this stage of the novel, the husband of Gudrun’s sister Ursula. Birkin, a thinly disguised portrait of Lawrence himself, feels things very passionately, and speaks his mind openly and frankly. And he speaks about things that matter to him, things that are, to him, of vital importance: love, mortality, sex, passion, our place in the universe, the future of humanity itself – in short, all those things one normally doesn’t talk about in polite society, except perhaps superficially. These people find Birkin’s po-faced earnestness dreadfully funny. One of them produces a letter Birkin has written, and, to everyone’s great amusement, starts to read it aloud. Gudrun, who has never herself been particularly close to Birkin, is nonetheless irritated, and offended on his behalf. Why does he write to these people? she asks herself. Why does he so expose his very soul to their superficial jeers? Eventually, she walks up to them, and asks if the letter is genuine. Oh yes, they tell her, perfectly genuine. “May I see?” Keen, perhaps, to share the joke with her, they hand her the letter, whereupon she politely thanks them, and calmly walks out of the café, letter in hand.

It is a surprising scene in many ways. For one, it displays a comic streak in Lawrence’s make-up that I, for one, had not suspected. But more intriguingly, I think, it indicates that Lawrence knew perfectly well how his work was likely to be received in many quarters, of the mockery and laughter his earnestness would invite. And, at that specific moment, I understood Gudrun. At other times in the novel, I found it difficult to enter her mind – to relate to her, to use current book-group parlance. But at that moment, I could very much relate to her: for Lawrence’s earnestness, his seriousness of purpose, his very intense perceptions of this world, whether one sympathises with them or not, are not things to be jeered at. Quite the opposite: in times such as ours when superficiality is so prized, these are things to be thankful for.

For this novel, like its predecessor The Rainbow, is unashamedly about serious matters. It is not surprising that Lawrence’s stock, which was so high back in the 60s and 70s, has now fallen: modern taste prefers its serious dough to be leavened with a bit of wit and humour and a lightness of touch, but Lawrence will have none of it. Even if it meant appearing ridiculous.

The four protagonists of this novel are all driven by ideas. They speak about these ideas openly to each other, baring their very souls in a manner many readers find disconcerting. Of course, it may be objected, people in real life don’t speak like this, but that seems to me a pointless criticism: people don’t speak to each other in Jamesian prose either, nor in Shakespearean blank verse, but that does not prevent us appreciating The Wings of the Dove or Othello.  Lawrence was not aiming for photographic realism, any more than Henry James or Shakespeare were. The realism he was aiming for was clearly of a different order, and, in order to get closer to it than I have previously managed, I had, I felt, to trust the author, to put behind me my modern impatience with high seriousness. Better at least to be Gudrun in the Pompadour than that arty bohemian set ridiculing that which they do not even make the attempt to understand.

But, it will be objected, much of what these characters say is meaningless – gibberish, even. Especially much of what Birkin says – and, he, after all, is a self-portrait, and hence, Lawrence’s mouthpiece. What’s he on about anyway? What exactly is Birkin trying to say? Even to ask such questions is, it seems to me, to misunderstand the nature of the book. For this is a novel, not a tract: it is a book not really about ideas, as such, but about people who are driven by ideas, and this, I think, is an important distinction. The ideas these people have are often inchoate and incoherent, and sometimes even preposterous: none of the characters here has a grand comprehensive message to impart to the world, and neither, I think, does Lawrence himself. But they are all searching, grasping, exploring different possibilities; trying desperately to articulate what they feel so intensely, to pin down that which cannot be pinned down in a world in which nothing seems solid; failing, trying again, failing better. They are not consistent: their thoughts ebb and flow depending on their state of being, whom they are with, and any number of other factors. And they come into conflict with each other – often bitter conflict. There is no lovers’ tiff in literature to compare with the ones Ursula has with Birkin:

‘This is a degrading exhibition,’ he said coolly.

‘Yes, degrading indeed,’ she said. ‘But more to me than to you.’

‘Since you choose to degrade yourself,’ he said. Again the flash came over her face, the yellow lights concentrated in her eyes.

You!‘ she cried. ‘You! You truth-lover! You purity-monger! It stinks, your truth and your purity. It stinks of the offal you feed on, you scavenger dog, you eater of corpses. You are foul, foul, and you must know it. Your purity, your candour, your goodness—yes, thank you, we’ve had some. What you are is a foul, deathly thing, obscene, that’s what you are, obscene and perverse. You, and love! You may well say, you don’t want love. No, you want yourself, and dirt, and death—that’s what you want. You are so perverse, so death-eating. And then—’

And even by the end, as those startling final lines make clear, the conflicts aren’t resolved. Resolving conflicts, presenting clear, reasoned arguments, conveying a coherent message – not only are these all beside the point, they are quite antithetical to the heart of the matter. For it is not really the ideas that matter: the novel is far, far more than the sum of its characters’ ideas, such as they are. What this novel depicts is people locked in these ideas, in conflict with them and with each other, struggling desperately to find something they know not what. It is a depiction of four very different people struggling to make some sort of sense of their lives.

Much of this had emerged also in The Rainbow, but Women in Love, we know almost from the first sentence, places us in a world which, though physically the same as the world presented earlier and featuring some of the same characters, inhabits a very different fictional landscape. The Rainbow had taken the form of a sort of family saga: not a traditional family saga, perhaps, but the links with tradition were still visible in the depiction of the majestic progress of generations succeeding and supplanting each other. But here, the break with tradition is more apparent. The novel opens with two sisters discussing marriage, and we could be in Middlemarch say; but these sisters seem already weary with the world; from the very start, they seem to have no illusions to lose:

“Don’t you find yourself getting bored?” she asked of her sister. “Don’t you find that things fail to materialize? Nothing materializes! Everything withers in the bud.”

“What withers in the bud?” asked Ursula.

“Oh, everything – oneself – things in general.” There was a pause, while each sister vaguely considered her fate.

What it takes Dorothea Brooke bitter experience to realise, these sisters seem already to know. But vaguely, only vaguely. Everything in this novel is in a state of flux: nothing can be pinned down for sure.

Soon, the men are introduced to complete the quartet: there’s Rupert Birkin, a school inspector; and Gerald Crich, eldest son of the family that owns the local coal mines. All these characters are on edge in their different ways, their nerves frayed.

Gerald is energetic and powerful, and manages the coal mine with a ruthless efficiency. And he is masterful: he is determined to master the world around him into usefulness, as he has mastered the coal-mines. When his horse is frightened by passing of a train, Gerald pits his will against the horse’s, forcing the creature to stand by the tracks despite its intense terror. (This episode of Gerald attempting to impose his will on the horse may remind the reader of Vronsky in Anna Karenina: for all their obvious differences, Tolstoy and Lawrence do cross paths at times in quite surprising ways.) As Ursula says, Gerald has “plenty of go”. But then, Gudrun asks ominously, “where does his go go to, what becomes of it?” As the novel progresses, this question resounds more insistently: Gerald has go, yes, but seems aware of a profound emptiness within himself. It is here his mastery stops: he is frightened even to look inside.

When he had been a boy, we are told, he had accidentally killed his brother with a gun he hadn’t realised was loaded. The sisters disagree about the import of this incident:

‘Perhaps there was an unconscious will behind it,’ said Ursula. ‘This playing at killing has some primitive desire for killing in it, don’t you think?’

‘Desire!’ said Gudrun, coldly, stiffening a little. ‘I can’t see that they were even playing at killing. I suppose one boy said to the other, “You look down the barrel while I pull the trigger, and see what happens.” It seems to me the purest form of accident.’

‘No,’ said Ursula. ‘I couldn’t pull the trigger of the emptiest gun in the world, not if some-one were looking down the barrel. One instinctively doesn’t do it—one can’t.’

Gudrun was silent for some moments, in sharp disagreement.

The incident is reported rather than depicted, and the reader has to decide which of the two sisters is nearer the truth – to what extent, indeed, Gerald may have had, or has still, the desire to kill.

He certainly desires Gudrun. Immediately following the death of his father, unable to make sense of the great mystery he has witnessed, his mind in turmoil and only half aware of what he is doing, he finds his way into the Brangwens’ family home at night, and presents himself in Gudrun’s bedroom. He does not know why he has come, why he has so risked being caught. “What do you want of me?” Gudrun asks, in a voice described as “estranged”.

“I came – because I must,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

She looked at him in doubt and wonder.

“I must ask,” she said.

“There is no answer,” he replied, with strange vacancy.

Gudrun takes pity on him, and they become lovers, but pity is hardly an adequate basis to satisfy the needs and desires of these people, needs and desires the nature of which they cannot even begin to articulate, even to themselves. And that “strange vacancy” within Gerald becomes ever more apparent: where, indeed, does all that go go to? The question resounds all the more strongly in the final section of the novel, set in an Alpine resort, where, surrounded on all sides by blank walls of icy whiteness, Gerald, now openly despised by Gudrun, finds that there really is nowhere for that go to go to: it can only turn in upon itself, and embrace death, the icy chill of the outside world reflecting the icy chill of his own inner emptiness.

As in Anna Karenina, the strand of this tragic couple is intertwined with a strand featuring a happier couple – Ursula Brangwen and Rupert Birkin; but, also as in Anna Karenina, happiness, if such it is, is a complex thing: it is not final, it is not absolute, for nothing here can be final or absolute: they are forever locked in conflict, Ursula disagreeing with and fighting bitterly virtually everything Birkin says, everything that is important to him. But this conflict does not imply unhappiness, or even incompatibility, for in this of all novels, people’s motives, the dark roots of their words and their actions, remain inscrutable and mysterious, and elude comprehension: these people don’t themselves understand why they say or act as they do. When questioned, they can only answer, as Gerald does to Gudrun, “there is no answer”. Birkin knows that the life he leads is hateful, and that there must be an alternative: he wants something, but does not know what. He is fumbling, feeling his way, shattering the placid reflection of the moon in the water only to see the broken fragments of that shattered reflection forever re-establishing themselves. He needs the opposition that Ursula presents. But he is aware, as indeed, are the other three of the quartet in their own way, that there is something irredeemably rotten about the life he lives, and the life everyone else lives, and, indeed, the very world he lives in: something else must at least be searched for, even if it is not found. Several times he muses on a world in which humans have ceased to be, and wonders if this will necessarily be a bad thing: won’t something better than humans replace us? Life won’t stop just because we have, after all. And even if nothing should replace us, why not leave the world to the birds? He finds this curiously comforting.

And yet he is not depressed, or in any way depressive. For all his dissatisfaction, he loves life too much. It is, one suspects, precisely because he loves life so much that he cannot endure its imperfections, its shortcomings – that he must always be searching for new ways of being. And in Ursula, too, as we know from those ecstatic closing chapters of The Rainbow, runs some mysterious vital force, that same force that in the earlier novel had so frightened Anton Skrebansky. And so the two remain at the end of the novel, together, happy (if we allow ourselves to use that word), but locked nonetheless with each other in an unending conflict.

At the end of the novel, Rupert weeps for the dead Gerald. They had brought his body back from the cold waste of snow and ice, curled up and frozen: they had to wait for the body to thaw before they could straighten him. And Rupert weeps.

“He should have loved me,” he said. “I offered him.”

It is not merely, or even perhaps primarily, Gerald’s death that Rupert laments, but that emptiness, that “strange vacancy” inside Gerald, that prevented him from accepting, let alone returning, Rupert’s offered love. Rupert contemplates the inert mass that had once been Gerald:

Birkin looked at the pale fingers, the inert mass. He remembered a dead stallion he had seen: a dead mass of maleness, repugnant. He remembered also the beautiful face of one whom he had loved, and who had died still having the faith to yield to the mystery. That dead face was beautiful, no one could call it cold, mute, material. No one could remember it without gaining faith in the mystery, without the soul’s warming with new, deep life-trust.

And Gerald! The denier! He left the heart cold, frozen, hardly able to beat. Gerald’s father had looked wistful, to break the heart: but not this last terrible look of cold, mute Matter. Birkin watched and watched.

Again, like Tolstoy, Lawrence had a fascination not only with death, but with also the physical nature of that great mystery, that ultimate loss of human consciousness, and that inexplicable transformation of a vital force into matter (here strikingly capitalised).

Birkin had on several occasions protested that it was not love that he wanted; or at least, that love was not enough. But he had loved Gerald, and Gerald had succumbed to the blankness that was death without having accepted it, without being capable even of accepting it. And it is this Birkin laments – this “strange vacancy” in Gerald, all that go that ultimately had nowhere else to go to.

No degree of familiarity could ever reduce this great mystery of death, and here, Lawrence presents it with a terror and a grandeur that belongs only to the greatest of tragic works. But this is not the end. In the very last page, Birkin tries to express to Ursula why he had wanted Gerald’s love: she is all that he craves for in a woman, he says, but he wanted a love with a man that would be equally powerful, equally important. We may or may not interpret this as homosexual love: it hardly matters. Ursula replies that what Birkin wants is unreasonable; that he cannot have such a love because it is impossible. “I do not believe that,” says Birkin, and on that fractious note this mighty novel ends.

***

Reading Lawrence is not easy, but I suppose one should expect it to be easy in the first place. As with any work of literature that is worth one’s attention, it attempts to express that which language is not really designed to express, and in the process, language is stretched to its limits, and it sometimes fractures. Lawrence is not afraid to take risks; he isn’t even afraid to be thought absurd. One may, as that arty set at the Pompadour café, find it all merely ridiculous – and, to judge from various comments I have seen on the net that pass as “reviews”, the Pompadour set are still very much with us. Well, one can’t dictate how readers should feel about any novel. I still find Lawrence extremely difficult, but on loosening my scepticism and my resistance, trusting him as an author, and going, as it were, with the flow, I found here a fearsome tragic magnificence, and a sense of some great and irreducible mystery. Lawrence may be troublesome, but he is worth the trouble.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Carl McLuhan on August 11, 2014 at 11:26 pm

    Himadri, thank you for such a thoughtful analysis of this novel. I discovered Women in Love in university and immediately fell in love with it.

    It struck me at the time that Lawrence was attempting to articulate something that was difficult at the time to express, that Birkin indeed had a homosexual inclination but he could never name it while Gerald was incapable of finding his way into it with him. If you haven’t had what is clearly an undeniable homosexual experience in life, then you can’t talk very clearly about it, except to say that it is both mysterious and enormous. Birkin’s relationship with Gudrun is similarly flawed in that Birkin cannot enjoy the heterosexual experience in itself, or at least society’s expectation of what a heterosexual experience should be. He always feels that heterosex forces one into a diminished state, if I recall correctly. Something inside him, perhaps his super sensitive perception of nature, wants to know why life in all its fullness can’t simply be experienced and enjoyed with any man or woman without losing its intensity.

    I also believe that Lawrence was interested in saying so much more than this, in truth. He hated the Pompadour set, as you say, because they were/are so far from “getting it,” as the contemporary jargon goes. Life is a mystery, in so many ways, but trying to find a clear path to follow alongside other human beings is the real struggle in existence, especially if you are sensitive to all life’s nuances and possibilities.

    This is what Lawrence is struggling so hard to talk about and why he remains one of those writers who continues to evoke a real sense of the mystery of existence.

    Reply

    • Hello Carl, and thank you for your lucid and illuminating comments.

      I wish, having read it, that i could go back and take out that bit about it not mattering whether or not Rupert’s attraction for Gerald was homosexual. Quite clearly, it is very important. I think I was trying not to pin anything down too closely to specifics, but of course, if you are too insistent on that score, you end up not being specific about anything at all. I frankly found this post very difficult to write: just about everything I tried to write about this novel seemed reductive.

      As for Gerald, I think everything forces him into a “reduced state”, as you put it. Nothing provides him with the fulfilment that he expects from it. At the start of the novel, he tells Rupert that he lives for his work, but he is lying – both to Rupert and to himself. he has organised the mine to be efficient, and is good at his job, but it doesn’t bring him he satisfaction, the fulfilment, that he craves.And also with Gudrun: there seems a void within him that nothing can fill, and he seems vaguely to recognise this. He is among the great tragic figures of fiction.

      Reply

  2. A very thoughtful –and thought-provoking–article.

    It took me several tries when I was younger to get into Lawrence, but when he finally ‘clicks’ with you it is worth the effort.

    I have to ask: what did you make of Ken Russell’s version? I’ll nail my colours to the mast right here and say that I just adored it. Then again, I’m a huge admirer of the director. In fact the only time he really irritated me was when he ruined an otherwise lovely film and inserted an additional and unnecessary scene into ‘The Rainbow’.

    On which note I’m off to read your review of THAT one!

    Reply

    • Hello Charley, and thank you for that.

      I first saw Ken Russell’s film when I was 16, and at that age, I liked any film that had sex and nudity in it.On subsequent viewings, there is much in that film i found myself liking. Uncle Ken is quite restrained by his standards, and actually follows the novel – at least, the events of the novel, and the dialogue – quite closely, It also looks very beautiful: the recreation of period is very impressive. Glenda Jackson and Alan Bates, superb actors both, really couldn’t be better. What for me lets the film down is the casting of Oliver Reed and of Jennie Linden as Gerald and Ursula respectively. Gerald is a very complex character, and Oliver Reed really did not, I think, have the ability to convey much of that complexity. And Jenny Linden seemed far too lightweight for the part: Gudrun comes over very much as the dominant figure, whereas in the novel, the two sisters are evenly matched in terms of personality, I thought.

      I found both this post, and the post on The Rainbow, very hard to write. I don’t call these “reviews”: it seems to me rather presumptuous to set out to “review” works of depth that I am frankly only beginning, I think, to understand. I am just setting down my personal impressions – and that only provisionally, as I am sure I’ll think differently about these works later!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  3. Posted by Brian Joseph on August 12, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    I loved this post Himadri.

    In regards to the difficulty in the language, I get the impression that with this book as well as the Rainbow that Lawrence was struggling so hard to express ideas that he thought were difficult to express using language. This is reflected in his odd sentence structure as well as in the many seemingly strange, symbolic conversations and interactions between the characters. It seems at times that Lawrence was torturing the words in order to make them say what he wanted.
    .

    Reply

  4. Thanks for that, Brian

    I do find Lawrence difficult. He is “not on my wavelength”, as they say, and I have to work very hard to try to see the world through his eyes. But i welcome that: it is only when you try to see the world through other eyes is your own vision broadened. There is little point, after all, going to literature mainly to have one’s own vision confirmed!

    Reply

  5. I remember reading in a biography of Lawrence that Gudrun in the Pomapdour is based on an actual incident, when Lawrence’s new book of poems was being read out and mocked in the Café Royal by a group of his supposed friends (Philip Heseltine being one, I think) and it was snatched up and carried off by Katherine Mansfield. So Lawrence had actual knowledge that his work was mocked. He was once asked why he put such trivial people in his novels, and his reply was along the lines that they act as a register of the first stages of a society’s decadence or disintegration. I’ll see if I can track down the quote (you may have noticed I enjoy doing this sort of thing!).

    I find Lawrence doesn’t often write comedy, but he’s not without a comic sense, and he even seems to mock his own earnestness in places, at least in some of his later work, where he really put a value on insouciance and spontaneity and a sense of fun in life. I recently read his later novel Kangaroo and in it he does at times poke fun at himself and his own peculiar character, of which he was fully aware. At one point, as he is talking to his wife (or rather, as the Lawrence-character is talking to the Frieda-character) she mocks him as he sitting on a little barrel by the fire:

    “There he is, on his throne! Sitting on his aristocratic principle!”

    I think you’re absolutely right that we have to attune ourselves to reading Lawrence, and that it is a different experience from what we might be used to, especially as he seems so often to be groping towards some deeper underlying experience of the world that is beyond rational consciousness. He does have his own definite ideas of course, expressed in various essays and discursive works, but these seem to be put to the test in his fiction, and their limitations and contradictions explored. As he comments in Kangaroo, ‘Life makes no absolute statement. It is all call and answer’. One aspect of Lawrence’s work that has always appealed to me is this awareness of and ability to represent contradictions and ambivalence, to dramatize the back and forth between a desire and its opposite, which often exist in a character at one and the same time. I think that’s why, as you comment, though the characters are all ideas-driven, they rarely seem like mere ideas on legs, walking filing cabinets, but still feel like real people.

    Reply

    • Hello Chris, and thanks for your characteristically perceptive comments. I am not currently at home, and only ave limited access to wi-fi (the post I put up just now I ad written offline last night). I’ll respond to you when I get back home some time next week.

      All the best for now, Himadri

      Reply

    • Hello Chris, and sorry about the late reply.

      I haven’t really ventured into later Lawrence yet. I read Lady Chatterley years ago, and it seemed to me a bit silly, to be honest. And The Plumed Serpent, as even an admirer such as FR Leavis put it, is “regrettable”. however, I don’t hold these works against DHL: given what he was trying to achieve, failures are inevitable. It’s the successes that matter, and the two Lawrence novels I have read so far his year are triumphs. I’ll have a go at Kangaroo, though and The Lost Girl. I also have a huge collection of his shorter fiction in the Everyman series, and I am keen tosink my teeth into that.

      I increasingly feel that the greatest of literature are all attempts to express in words certain things that cannot usually be expressed in words – things that words were not designed to express – where one is, as you put it, “groping towards some deeper underlying experience of the world that is beyond rational consciousness”. This is very apparent with Lawrence, but it can be apparent even in the works of writers with a greater concern for polish: the late novels of Henry James, for instance, where the author is constantly groping towards and hinting at certain matters that resist direct expression.

      When reading a novel by Lawrence, I get the feeling I am in the laboratory, as it where, where the author tries out different things; and where even failed experiments matter.

      One aspect of Lawrence’s work that has always appealed to me is this awareness of and ability to represent contradictions and ambivalence, to dramatize the back and forth between a desire and its opposite, which often exist in a character at one and the same time.

      Absolutely! And this is why it makes so little sense to judge Lawrence on the basis of the ideas put forward by the characters – even characters such as Birkin who are self-portraits. For nothing is fixed in these novels: everything is in a constant state of flux.

      I’m giving Lawrence a bit of a break right now, but i certainly want to return to his short stories and novellas.

      All the best for now, Himadri

      Reply

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