Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence

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!


Caroline said...

I'm really loking forward to read this and the earlier one The Rainbow. I think, like you, I disagree with some of this views but still find it engaging to read about them and I think for once he is one of those authors who doesn't only write about things but experimented in real life as well and applied a lot of what he wrote about to his own life.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I agree about Lawrence living his life in a way that attempted to match his philosophies. For instance his anti — war views essentially drove him out of the UK.

Harvee said...

One day I hope to get back to reading the classics such as these novels. Your comments have piqued my interest.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I've never read any D H Lawrence although I've heard a lot about his writing. You succinctly outlined the philosophies in his book.

I've just finished reading a book by George Orwell. Like Lawrence, he tries to make sense of life, describes what he perceives as failed "road maps" and then discourses on his "solution" is.

I won't go into detail here (you'll have to read my review:)) but Orwell seems to arrive at the opposite conclusion as Lawrence.
If I understand right, Lawrence believes the solution or meaning of our existence relies on "self".
Orwell is a firm believer that state-directed mandates will provide a successful society.
Thanks for reviewing this book.

Anonymous said...

I know I should re-read Lawrence, but have been putting it off. I admire Lawrence for his seriousness of purpose (great literature should, I think, address great themes) and, frequently, for his poetic intensity. but quite frequently, his prose style can be irritating (at least, I find it so); and also quite frequently, his concerns appear not to be mine. Of course, one shouldn't read novels merely because one agrees with them, and neither is a novel bad because one doesn't agree with it: great books can and should challenge and provoke. I know all this, but something holds me back nonetheless I find Lawrence's presence very uncomfortable , for some reason. This is not a criticism, of course, and isn't intended as such; but it does explain why I have been putting off re-reading him. But I really should tackle these two novels again: when I read them, i was neither old enough nor mature enough to take them in adequately. Your post on "Women in Love" is most illuminating.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Glad to hear that! There is so much great literature out there, it really keeps me excited about literature.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I cannot wait to read your commentary on Orwell. I believe that for the most part that early on he leaned to the far left but moved away from that later on. I plan myself to put up commentary on Nineteen - Eighty - Four soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himadri - Thanks for the good word. When it comes to many of his philosophical paths, I agree that Lawrence goes in directions that it is difficult to relate to. However, as I just love ideas I really like him.

On the dangers of mechanization, industrialization, and massive state power, while I think that Lawrence oversimplifies his case and sometimes draws the wrong conclusions I find that my interest in history, government and society is stoked by Lawrence's musings.

Amritorupa (@Rivers I have Known) said...

Hi Brian!
I read Lawrence in college, Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley's Lover. I remember not being too enamoured, so I never went back. Your review makes me feel I should give Lawrence another try. Very well analysed review!

Guy Savage said...

I can't stand Lady C's Lover, but this novel, Women in Love is a great favourite that I've reread several times. I can see why you'd like it. I also like Sons and Lovers. One of these days I should get around to his minor novels...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Amritorupa - I think that Lawrence is a writer who many people do not like so much when they are very young. I do not think that I would have liked him when I was in collage. I would love to hear what you think if you give him a try.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Though I have not read it I mostly herd bad things about Lady Chatterley's Lover. I read Sons and Lovers awhile back and somewhat liked it. I should give it another try as I think that I understand Lawrence a little better these days.

Tom Cunliffe said...

I used to enjoy Lawrences's books but not so much these days. Alas, this is one I've not read but I'm sure it should be on my literary bucket list somewhere. So many books, so little time! Great review anyway which provided me with a useful overview of the book.

Have a wonderful Christmas and thanks for your visits to my blog over the last year

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - Thanks for stopping by.

The amount of books that I want to read and the limited time that I can put into the endeavor is overwhelming!

Have a Merry Christmas!

Ryan said...

This is a great review... thanks a lot!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Ryan!

LMR said...

This novel has a heartbreaking finale! Gerald in the snow, something breaking up in his soul, so subdued and perfect!

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Miguel - The ending was really sad.

I really need to see the movie version, I have heard that the end happens in the Sahara, I suppose that this connects Gerald with the "African" mindset that is not apparent in the novel.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, another book I want to read.

I've only tried Lady Chatterley's Lover and wasn't blown away by it (although the film version by Pascale Ferran is excellent)
So I've never tried him again but your review sure make me want to read this one.

PS: I often read your reviews, even if I don't often comment. I usually read them on my phone and commenting on Blogspot from there is just...difficult.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - I have heard from many that Lady Chatterley's Lover was superb. These two books I found to be superb.

Blogspot commenting is not the best. Violet recamended Disqus but I have been a little afraid to switch over. I think that I really should take the plunge.

Violet said...

I'm a big Lawrence fan. He shook up the literary world and hung out with one of my big crushes, Katherine Mansfield. :) He was such a talented and fascinating man, although he did get himself into trouble by writing thinly disguised portraits of real people into his books. He had an interesting life, but it was way too short. TB killed off so many of the Great writers and artists. I hope to re-read his novels one of these days.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I have not yet read Katherine Mansfield but I really need to get to her.

Lawrence did lead a fascinating life. I think that a lot of writers get themselves into trouble by including "real" people in their fictions. Phillip Roth has written much about that subject.