The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence is a big, brilliant novel that can be described as many things. First, it is a family saga covering three generations of the Brangwen clan. Next, it is a tale of romances as well as domestic strife centering upon the members of each of the generations. This is also a novel of astonishing thematic and philosophical complexity. There are a vast number of intellectual threads developed here. Scores and scores of pages are devoted to philosophical and psychological musings. Lawrence seems to be developing a “Theory of Everything” in this book that encompasses humankind, the universe and God. Finally, the story is filled with incredibly nuanced and complex characters.
The book opens in the middle of the nineteenth century. Tom Brangwen, a young English farmer, meets, courts and eventually marries Polish widow Lydia Lensky. The first third of the The Rainbow
Lensky, comes of age, she in turn falls in love and marries Tom’s nephew, Will Brangwen. This next generation also experiences a stormy relationship during the early years of marriage.
Anna and Will’s youngest daughter Ursula Brangwen is the focus of the last third of the book. Ursula becomes involved in several relationships including one with another woman as well as another with young army officer Anton Skrebensky. I am in awe of Lawrence for what he has done with the character of Ursula, as I will elaborate on.
This summary sounds relatively simple. However, in the process of mapping out these relationships, Lawrence covers a great deal of ground. First, he describes the enormous passion and equally enormous strife that characterizes all of the romances and marriages. Lawrence devotes pages and pages to these internal battles as well as to detailed analysis of them. He devotes a huge number of words toward analyzing the psychology of these men and women, and even more verbiage digs into the philosophy behind both the relationships and the universe at large. There are so many directions taken here that I would not be exaggerating by saying that I could put up one blog post a week for at least a year dedicated to this book. Lawrence explores human connections, the duality inherent in the universe, the battle for dominance in relationships, varying metaphysical views of God and the Universe, the effects of modernity upon the human soul, the difference between intellectualism and practical happiness, the psychology of sex, and on and on and on!
The characters are complex and multifaceted. Strangely, at times they seem almost more complex than real people! Most possess a lot of admirable traits as well as dark sides to their personas that complement what seems to be a theme of universal dualism throughout the book.
While I stayed away from reading any criticism or analysis of this book up until now, I did read a bit about Lawrence’s personal beliefs and philosophies. I found expressions of many of these ideas in this novel. However, I was surprised to learn that in his later writings many claim that Lawrence trended toward a pro fascist opinion. I found that set of beliefs to be uncharacteristic of this novel. Furthermore, many contend that Lawrence’s later works have misogynistic tendencies. This is shocking as The Rainbow
. I was not originally going to write much on Ursula in this blog entry, as she is also featured in The RainbowWomen in LoveBrangwen,Brangwen women to lose her virginity before marriage and at one point takes on a female lover. She bristles at the restrictions that she suffers in a man’s world and sets out to enhance her education and build a career. Interestingly she loves Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”, a play that contains another incredibly dynamic and freethinking woman, Rosalind.
But Ursula struggles with herself as well as with society. For a time she works as a teacher under terribly oppressive and constraining conditions, surrounded by petty, mean and small-minded people. Though she attempts to keep her ties to nature, her true self and her soul intact, she feels the situation changing her,
“Yet gradually she felt the invincible iron closing upon her. The sun was being blocked out. Often when she went out at playtime and saw a luminous blue sky with changing clouds, it seemed just a fantasy, like a piece of painted scenery. Her heart was so black and tangled in the teaching, her personal self was shut in prison, abolished, she was subjugate to a bad, destructive will. How then could the sky be shining? There was no sky, there was no luminous atmosphere of out-of-doors. Only the inside of the school was real—hard, concrete, real and vicious. “
To Lawrence, modern society is the destroyer of souls.
Ursula goes through several epiphanies, believing that she has broken through into a being not affected by the petty and malevolence of the world, only to find herself being pulled into old habits again. She is constantly attempting to fight the insidious effects of industrialism, institutions and conventions upon herself.
She takes Anton Skrebensky, a lover and eventual fiancé. Lawrence is so very nuanced here. He is no villain, as some writers would have portrayed such a character. Though somewhat shallow, he is very sympathetic, he is kind, gentle and passionately in love with Ursula. However he is a man of the modern world and a danger to Ursula’s soul. He believes in democracy, patriotism and sacrifice in the name of national causes. He states simply,
"I belong to the nation and must do my duty by the nation."
Ursula’s behavior toward her betrothed is horrendous. She is both passionately in love with him, yet feels the need to escape him and what he represents. She vacillates between intense passion and rejection and literally tortures Skrebensky with the hot and cold behavior.
Ursula eventually comes to what seems be enlightenment. She breaks all mental and spiritual ties with the corrupt and pernicious aspects of humanity and society. She completely realizes her natural and animalistic self. Lawrence often describes these tendencies in Anna as dark and associates them with moonlight. This path to human renewal is a dark one. She becomes what for Lawrence is an ideal human being and there is a suggestion that she will lead the way for others. Both Ursula and her mother, Anna, see this perfect life and path for humanity as being symbolized by a rainbow, hence the title of the book.
Ursula is certainly a superb literary creation. Though I do not agree exactly where Lawrence has gone with her as well as where he has arrived at with his ideology, this novel is a brilliant achievement.