Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence


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 details the often tumultuous relationship between the two.

When Lydia’s daughter from her first marriage, Anna 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 contains several intelligent, strong, multifaceted and complex female characters. The novel also champions fairly strong feminist themes. If what I have read is accurate concerning the later works, then at some point Lawrence’s thinking took a radically different turn.

The philosophy and themes expressed in this book are indeed radical. This work is paradoxically an attack on both modernity and convention. First, industrialization is portrayed as horrendous evil. Again and again, mines, modern buildings, railroads, canals, etc. are portrayed as blights upon the beauty and the goodness of nature and poison to the human psyche.  Group thinking is excoriated. War, militarism and patriotism are painted as unnatural and harmful to humanity. Democracy and capitalism are also dismissed as being inferior to a system dominated by a landed aristocracy. A rural agrarian society is shown to be ideal.

The attack upon convention is exemplified by Lawrence’s, through his characters, criticism of institutions such as marriage as well as the trend of professionals and tradesman taking on the identity of their title or trade. Individuals who reject society’s restrictions and categories and who retain their natural states of being and thinking are shown to reach true happiness. The book strongly expounds the idea that humans can only reach an ideal if we return to nature and our animal selves and reject oppressive and overbearing modern societies. Lawrence also expresses elitist tendencies as his intelligent and sensitive characters are always keeping themselves apart from the masses and often represented as being unconcerned regarding what outsiders think of them.

Of course, I find these philosophies to be too monolithic. Lawrence practices a way of thinking that I often describe as turning insights into dogma. The modern world has enormous pitfalls and contains terrible strains of evil, but Lawrence fails to see its attributes. However, I believe that Lawrence’s insights, while not universal, are very, very important. The Rainbow was first published in 1915. In what seems like an eerie prescience, Lawrence seems to anticipate the hyper organized societies of Hitler and Stalin, global wars, genocides and mass slaughters of human beings that raged throughout the Twentieth Century. These man made catastrophes were at least partially attributed to the technology, mindless group thinking, militarism and nationalism that Lawrence warned about in this work. In additional he also was a very early voice of caution in regards to the environmental consequences of industrialization that now poses a threat to humans as a species. Lawrence does not directly predict these horrors, but throughout the book there is a sense that something poisonous is building up in our souls and this planet and that there will be terrible consequences for humanity.

I also do personally relate to and agree with some, but not all, of what Lawrence has to say. I, too, strongly distrust nationalism and militarism. Though a firm supporter of democracy, I also share a wariness of the unthinking and fickle masses as well as popular opinion. I am also aghast, as Lawrence was, as to what industrialism has done and continues to do to this planet.


In my opinion Lawrence achieves artistic magnificence when he weaves these themes into a character that is one of the most aesthetically brilliant literary creations of all time. I was not originally going to write much on Ursula in this blog entry, as she is also featured in The Rainbow’s sequel, Women in Love, which I plan to begin shortly. However, I have decided that Ursula is such a dynamic and richly pained character that I must discuss her a bit here. Born of Will and Anna Brangwen, Ursula is anything but simplistic or clichĂ©d. One might expect her to start out as an innocent conformist. This is not the case. Early on she shows herself to be intelligent as well as independent. She fights society’s conventions and restrictions almost from the beginning. She is the first of the 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 fiancĂ©. 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.

As I alluded to above, I will begin reading the sequel to this book, Women in Love. Though I have heard that it is a superb novel, I almost wish that it did not exist. The Rainbow is such an esthetically satisfying work that it seems complete. Ursula’s final epiphany is so very perfect that I feel that all that needs to be said about her has been said. We shall see what the sequel brings.

22 comments:

Caroline said...

I have both this and the sequel. I used to be a huge D.H.Lawrence fan but always get weird reactions. I could never detect and traces of misogyny in his work I still don't know where that came from. I felt he was a free spirit in many of his vies. I read his letters and quite abit of others things. I even liked Lady chatterly, both versions and found the differences very interesting.
I really want to read this. Ursula sounds like a very interesting character.
He is one of those rare authors whose books and whose life seem interesting. thanks for reminding me.
I read him when I was quite young and can absolutely not remember his style at all.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Lawrence is definitely a rebel. However I think of true free spirits as being a un-judgmental, he is very judgmental here.

I read that his style is described as early modernist. In these books his sentences and paragraphs are often really long and run on. He will sometimes use the same word multiple times in a sentence. I think that he is trying to portray what I describe as "the stream of life" thing. This however is not overbearing like some other writers.

Guy Savage said...

I was going to ask if you'd read Women in Love but you answered my question in the post.

I LOATHED Lady C. Lover. I may be in the minority opinion here, but such is life. On the other hand, I have re-read Women in Love several times.

I should read this one too as I have a feeling I'd like it. Funnily enough I have a film about Lawrence coming up in my netflix queue.

Thanks, Brian

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I have not read Lady Chatterly's Lover, it seems that people either love or hate that one.

I actually started Women in Love a few weeks ago but when I realized that it was a sequel to this one I put it down. I really will be starting it, I just need to get through a couple of other books first.

I know that there have been several movies made based on Lawrence's books including this one, i have not seen any of them however.

argumentativeoldgit said...

Hello Brian, I read a lot of Lawrence when I was too young to take it in adequately, and reading through your post, I think I really need to revisit work. Quite apart from anything else, The Rainbow and Women in Love are big ambitious books with a scope almost megalomaniacally vast: I like that ... I like authors who aim so high. I also love the passion with which Lawrence invests his work. But at the same time, I don't always understand Lawrence: I can understand his horror of modernity and of industrialism, but feel that "returning to nature" is, as Lawrence himself must have known, an idealistic pipe dream; and if that is the only hope for human salvation, then humanity is doomed. Perhaps Lawrence knew that as well. But Lawrence goes further than that, I think: he presents forces within ourselves that, for want of a better word, we may refer to as "mystic": these forces come to the surface in passages such as the one where the pregnant Anna does that weird dance (I *am* remembering this correctly, aren't I?) And when he delves into such areas, I must admit he loses me. Perhaps my mind is too prosaic to follow Lawrence where he leads us.

But there is a magnificence about his greatest achievements. Right at the start of The Rainbow, we read: "But heaven and earth were teeming about them, and how should this cease?" And we know right away we are not reading an ordinary family saga. That sentence seems to place us in the middle of a Van Gogh canvas, where the entire world amd all that it contains appear living, sentient beings: "teeming" is precisely the right word. And then, in the magnificent closing passage, as Lawrence describes the triumph of the rainbow over the ugliness of human creations, we have a line striking in its Biblical simplicity: "And the rainbow stood upon the earth." Isn't that just magnificent? It is at times like this I get some inkling of the power of Lawrence's writing.

Lawrence was not always, admittedly, at his best (I agree with Guy about Lady Chatterley's Lover), but when he *was* at his best, he was magnificent. I still feel though that his concerns aren't really mine, and I still find it difficult to follow him into those mysterious areas of human experience into which he leads us.

I look forward to your thoughts on Wmen in Love.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himdari - I to very much love these authors who strive for these monumental heights.

Yes you remember the "weird dance" passage well, it is one of the most interesting of the book! What I think about the return to nature thing is that Lawrence is on to something but that he goes too far. As you point out he sees this return as an existential imperative that must be taken all the way. Instead I think if we went a part of the way, it will not save humanity, but it might help us be a little happier. I guess I believe in an extremely watered down version of what Lawrence's philosophies.

The passages that you quoted are incredible, Lawrence wrote such sweeping and grand prose, that reflected his sweeping and grand view of the universe.

Guy Savage said...

Brian: there's also a film with the obscenity trial for Lady C.s lover as as a backdrop. The film version of Women in Love isn't bad.

Brian Joseph said...

Though I have never scene them I believe that the movie versions of both The Rainbow as well as Women in Love were directed by the late Ken Russell. I usually like his work though it is at times a little too off the wall.

Ryan said...

This is where I admit that I have never read D.H. Lawrence. Oh, the shame of it all.

Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maria Behar said...

This is such a brilliant review! I love the way you write - your style is flowing and your sentences so polished! Also, your analysis of the book is thorough and precisely on target, as well as well-balanced.

One of the things I enjoy the most about your reviews is that you point out exactly what you liked and didn't like about the book. In this particular case, you've given us an excellent overview of what this book is all about, including your own views on Lawrence's complex philosophy.

This certainly sounds like a challenging, as well as rewarding, read! The one element I find uncomfortable is that Ursula has a female lover at one point. Aside from that, though, I think I would enjoy reading this novel, if only to find my own refutations to some of Lawrence's paradoxically contradictory views. For instance, his insistence on a return to nature, together with his horror at the effects of industrialism, bears investigating. I would say that this 'return' to nature was impossible even in Lawrence's own day. Once the process of industrialization is set in motion, it's pretty much unstoppable. Besides, human beings in their natural state can be even more vicious and brutal than they are in an industrialized society. It seems that Lawrence was influenced to some extent by Rousseau's ridiculously idealized 'noble savage'.

I've never read Lawrence. The only thing I know about him is that he was the first writer to use vulgar language, as well as graphic depictions of sex, in his novels. Those are also elements I am uncomfortable with. But perhaps, were I to read his work, I would find it far tamer than "Fifty Shades of Grey", to mention a recently notorious book.

Thanks to your detailed review, I think I might just take on this novel! It certainly promises to give me plenty of food for thought! Besides, from the excerpt you included, I can see that Lawrence's style will be a pleasure to read!

Thank you so much for such an excellent review!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - Do not feel bad about Lawrence. There are so many authors to read! It is impossible to cover them all. There are so many gaps in what i have read, some I may never get around to plugging!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria,

Thank you for your in depth and insightful comments!

Thanks also and again for your oh so kind words! I would just add that sometimes my commentary is not really comprehensive as I sometimes focus on aspects of a book that I found interesting and ignore some important points. Especially with this novel I could write blog after blog after blog discussing the many angles.

I totally agree that if taken as a whole Lawrence's philosophies are unrealistic and unworkable. In particular you are so very correct regarding the viciousness that humans often exhibit in their natural state. As I alluded to however, Lawrence makes some really important points and if we water down his admonitions a bit, I think that they can be helpful for both individuals and for humanity.

This novel was singled out at the time for profanity. I cannot speak for most of his other books, but there was no graphic description of sex or vulgar language here. At most there were a few passages where things were described in a subtle and round about ways. It is so funny how the perception of profanity has changed!

Maria Behar said...

I totally agree with your last statement! Nowadays, it seems that a LOT of newly-published books sprinkle the text with profanity. This is most likely due to D.H. Lawrence's influence, since he was the first one to do this sort of thing. Since you say there's no vulgar language in "The Rainbow", I might just try reading it, if only for the philosophical passages, although it sounds like the relationships between the verious characters will make for some fascinating reading, as well!

On the other hand, this might very well turn out to be "another ANNA KARENINA experience' for me...lol.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - I had read your commentary on Anna Karennia so let me kind of lay out the morality of the main characters in this book. Of course this is only my opinion and we could have points where you and I differ.

I believe that the worst thing here is Ursula's treatment of Skrebensky, which is torturous and sometimes cruel. In addition Ursula's farther comes close to infidelity, but does not actually go through it. The various couples lake often fight like cats and dogs, sometimes being insensitive and cruel to each other.

At least for me, that is the extent of problematical behavior.

If you do give it a read I would live to hear what you think!

Thanks agin for your great comments and observations.

Violet said...

I have a bit of a conflicted relationship with Lawrence. He based many of his characters and plots on real people and their lives, which was rather mean-spirited, I think, considering they were his friends and neighbours. I tend to go along with the idea that he was gay, and misogynistic in real life. He didn't treat women well at all. I'm glad you enjoyed The Rainbow, as it augers well for your future encounters with his books. It's interesting to read them alongside a biography and see just how much he "lifted" from people's real life stories. Nevertheless, he was an iconoclast and the world would be a different place had he not come along and challenged the prevailing morals of the day. A lot of British people got caught up by Fascist ideology, which I don't think should be held against them as they didn't have the benefit of hindsight. I have been completing a Lawrence marathon read for a while now, starting at the beginning and re-reading all his major novels. I wonder if they have morphed into something different since I last read them? It's amazing what a few years of maturity can do for a reader. :) I enjoyed your post; I like the way you dig deep inside books and don't just read them superficially so you can cross them off your list. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for your nice comments Violet.

I know such a limited amount about Lawrence's personal life other then a few little articles that I read here and there. I guess that many writers do lift real people for their characters. Phillip Roth not only does it, but practically admits to doing it in the novels that he does it in!

I will say that so much of the characterization in this book is internal that a lot of it must have been the product of Lawrence's imagination.

The misogyny thing is absolutely bewildering to me after Lawrence's creation of women of such depth and intelligence in this book.

Amy said...

Fantastic and in depth review! This is a book that I really wouldn't have picked up on my own, but it sounds like it's worth a read. Thanks for the review!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for your kind words Amy.

I might have shied away from this myself as in some ways it sounds a little soap operas like. However I heard that there were many philosophical aspects to it and that is what drew me towards reading it. I am glad that I did.

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vb said...

I guess I have missed many..gtreat review as always., You make me wish to be in your shoes while reading seeing through very vantage reaching the essence of it..And I know you are not a kind of person who expects acknowledgement but I cant help but to nominate you for One lovely blog award..I only wish I could nominate you for many more...Your reviews are very insightful and thought provoking... You can check http://booksformee.blogspot.in/2012/09/one-lovely-blogging-award.html..I hope you accept this....

Brian Joseph said...

Thank you so much VB! It really is so nice of you to do this! I am honored and I am touched! Of course I accept the award and will pass it on.

Thanks again!