Women in Love is D. H. Lawrence’s sequel to The Rainbow. My commentary on The Rainbow is here. Set in the early years of the twentieth century, this novel begins a few years after the events of The Rainbow. The plot primarily concerns Ursula Brangwen’s affair and eventual marriage to Rupert Birkin, as well as her sister Gudrun’s affair with wealthy industrialist Gerald Crich. Like its predecessor, this work is packed with philosophical meanderings on the meaning of life, the Universe and human relationships. Once again there is so much to this book in terms of philosophies, characterizations and writing style of which I could easily devote scores and scores of pages to discussion.
Basically, the novel analyzes the relationships between all four main characters. In doing so it expands upon Lawrence’s grand theory of humanity. Ursula, having undergone a major epiphany in the previous book, and Birkin, who seems to be philosophizing many of Lawrence’s own ideas, have, in the author’s eyes, reached an ideal. They are mostly unaffected by the opinions of other social conventions, etc. They are very much in touch with nature, their true selves, and their own inner beings. Gudrun is an artist who is self confident and very much associated with what, at the time, was chic modernity. Though not portrayed as a monster, Gerold is the driven and willful owner of a mining empire.
Birkin sums up what seems to be Lawrence’s worldview around the middle of the book. Humanity’s history as well as its future seems to have been, and be headed down three potential paths. First there is the cold and mechanistic will of the European man. This tendency is bringing the world into destructive industrialism and modernity. Gerald is the representation of this aspect,
“Birkin thought of Gerald. He was one of these strange white wonderful demons from the north, fulfilled in the destructive frost mystery. And was he fated to pass away in this knowledge, this one process of frost-knowledge, death by perfect cold? Was he a messenger, an omen of the universal dissolution into whiteness and snow?”
Lawrence contrasts this with the drive towards the sensual and artistic. The text connects this tendency with dark and primal urges and with feminine sexuality. This is also a path of discovery and Lawrence references it in connection with Eve’s discovery of knowledge when she ate the apple. Lawrence shows a tendency towards stereotypical, but not hateful, thought by tying these drives with the people of Africa. The author does show a degree of respect for those who take this road however. Birken again ponders,
“He realised that there were great mysteries to be unsealed, sensual, mindless, dreadful mysteries, far beyond the phallic cult. How far, in their inverted culture, had these West Africans gone beyond phallic knowledge? Very, very far. Birkin recalled again the female figure: the elongated, long, long body, the curious unexpected heavy buttocks, the long, imprisoned neck, the face with tiny features like a beetle's. This was far beyond any phallic knowledge, sensual subtle realities far beyond the scope of phallic investigation.”
Gudrun, as well as a Loerke, a German sculptor that she befriends and flirts with, seem to embody the above tendencies.
Birkin eventually concludes that there is a better alternative to both of the above paths.
“There was the other way, the remaining way.”
There are multiple references in the text to the fact that this third path is so revolutionary and beyond what mankind has realized in the past that it is not expressible in words. Lawrence spends much of the book attempting to paint a picture of this alternative. It is a seemingly contradictory combination of never surrendering one’s individuality to another person or to society. At the same time, the individual finds a way to completely touch one’s core self with the core self of another person or persons without actually surrendering any bit of the self. Of course, the individual very much remains attached to the natural world.
All relations, with one exception, depicted in both books seem to involve a struggle for dominance between couples and other pairs of people. One or both members of the relationships eventually cede part or all of their identity to the other member. The one couple that avoids this struggle is Ursula and Birkin. These two idealized people seem to reach a state beyond that of traditional love where their inner beings touch. In another way, their relationship is less than a traditional marriage as they avoid the power struggle and thus do not surrender any of themselves to each other.
This is work of extreme philosophical complexity. In an attempt at getting at some of the basic meanings here, the above is a somewhat of an oversimplification as to what goes on in this book.
Of course in its totality Lawrence’s worldview is too contrived and farfetched for me to accept. However his ruminations are fascinating and he reveals a lot of useful and important insights. At one point, Gudrun and Loerke even predict how industrialism and militarism would one day become a threat to the existence of the human race.
The characters are also intricately and realistically drawn. They are extremely complex. There are no cartoon- like villains here. Even Gerald, who represents society’s headlong dangerous and poisonous rush into industrialism and modernity, is portrayed with sympathy and nuance.
I loved both of these books. Perhaps The Rainbow was a little more compelling as the portrait and transformation of Ursula in that work was magnificent. Nothing in Women in Love really compares to aesthetic beatify of that depiction. One should really read these two novels in order as they are, both in story and theme, sequential.
For those who are interested in fictional works that center on relationships, deep characters and philosophic meditations on the meaning of it all, these two novels are must reads!